Mary Anne Barkhouse
Both artists, Mary Anne Barkhouse and Anna Williams spoke with me at the close of 2015 of a hunger to apply themselves to sculptural work that is on a more intimate scale than the outdoor public commissions that had taken them over in the previous few years. In a coincidence I could not overlook, each artist independently mentioned a desire to work with the other. The result, a body of work created in dialogue, is a new departure for each. The resonance between the two artists hovers over the animal image as entwined in the human imaginary.
Time spent with the artists yields wide-ranging and illuminating stories about animals. Mary Anne can't get down to work because she's busy rescuing butterflies, certain generations of which travel vast distances.... Anna has just saved a baby chipmunk cornered by her dogs, reviving it with honey and milk. Hospitality and courtesy rather than custom and order prove strong drives in these artists' lives and work. These are story-telling beads with historical reach that fashion together one's sense of situation in the world, one's worldview and one's sense of self governance.
The animal as concept, however, is not looked to as an answer or new rule of law for either artist. In her new Aerie series, Mary Anne works with fledgling predatory birds as protagonists, the animal intimately inhabits human dwelling places, specifically the body's resting spots. They sit as qualified members at the table, or nestle in bedding, with the luxury of self-abandonment, producing a salutary effect of estrangement. The focus is on "issues of survival strategies from a personal as well as communal vantage point. Using materials evocative of strength, value and vulnerability combined with objects alluding to utility and domestic circumstance, I endeavour to develop a narrative on coming through fire, so to speak, to arrive at a place of healing and reparation." (MAB). Through the friction of familiarity with the placements and positions we are allotted for our own bodies, we feel the (im)pertinence of disembodied rulings that issue from the metaphorical head to the body politic (disembodied most notably to the point of command by tweets!)
Anna's works operate at the crux of our recognized mythologies--ancient greek (Diana's Stole, Leda and the Swan), biblical (Eve's Rib), scientific (Remedy) and the domestic (Gust, Leaden, Sanctuary)--and her drive to release new narrative potential from these familiar domains. From the monumental weight of the heroic mode of the goddesses' stances to the haptic swirl of memory produced by the suspended oak leaves of Gust to the bittersweet signal of herbal-medicinal plants dedicated to depression and other 'women's ailments' in Remedy, each twists afresh the threads of beauty and decay, strength and loss, strife and surcease.
In Leaden, a year measured in paces, Anna's morning ritual walk yields bird nests from the thickets along Ottawa’s waterways. Seeking to cast each nest in lead, the artist was given a remarkable cache of discarded lead collars of fence posts from Parliament Hill. Notions of preservation, sanctuary and home are thus set into broader spheres of concern as if each nest were to float out into the socio-political ocean from its local riverside birth.
Across the space, Mary Anne's young Thunderbird tucks in to tea with Kolus, his younger brother and Owl at a makeshift children's play table. The air between the artists' works is positively disrupted. Mary Anne's fledglings are ungainly and vulnerable in their awkward stage of emergence, seated on mismatched cast-off chairs with lichen and moss patterns growing on them. The young birds of prey play, mimicking and assuming adult behaviour in the direly consequential game of Tea Party. Play is the outer limit of the socializing battleground where acts of liberation or wild invention are capped, turned and redirected. The Aerie series emerges from Mary Anne's response to a photograph taken of her Mother at a residential school with fellow students. A rare image that was taken not formally but by a fellow student, it staged a different set of relations within the frame.
Play encompasses both the mimetic as here in High Tea with Thunderbird, with its exacting overseer, Etiquette, but also the agonistic.Red Rover, the large-scale Wolves vs Poodles work, sets a "hypothetical confrontation... in which the wild and the domestic are positioned on a map depicting the path of the proposed pipeline from Alberta to coastal BC." Its sentinels, the pink poodle and dark wolf of 99.96% greet us from a position of dominance and surveillance: we are the vulnerable, the ones positioned to respond and not command. The title, 99.96% refers to the fact that there is less than 0.04% genetic difference between wolves and the tamed dog. Startling data, but according to our experience the difference is an unbreachable nuance. Children's games instruct life experience:Red Roverempowers the individual within the group to make tactical decisions and switch allegiances, and a failed attempt to win through suffuses the little heart with temporary shame but no lasting dishonour; new allegiances are struck, and previously unimaginable shifts in attitude learned.
The title Beneath the Tame hints at subversion or revelation. The tame has already been tamed. And yet, life lived and observed, remembered and considered empowers these artists to burrow in, under, below, beneath. Beneath, a preposition, not a noun, is a close extension that doesn't supplant the banner of the current noun, rule or system with another but engages it otherwise. Experience shared by the hospitable joining of forces such as the congregation of the many under pink Pussyhat ears, among other kinds of ears both furry and bald we meet in this exhibition, helps us usher in, strategically, tactically and otherwise, e.e.cummings' "the gay great happening illimitably earth."
Lisa A. Pai