July 17 to September 18, 2021
Holding a line in your hand presents the work of five Canadian women painters from different cultural backgrounds, at different stages in their careers, and based at opposite ends of the country. Their work contains divergent methodologies, but also strong affinities. The exhibition includes artwork abundant in colour, line, and texture, embedded with and unencumbered by ideas. The focus on a small group of female painters offers a renewed perspective on an historically male-dominated domain and reflects today’s growing number of female artists working in the medium. Exploring and expropriating the idea of the painting in a myriad of ways, these artists share an expanded approach to painting. Holding a line in your hand speaks to a resurgence of painting in Canada and an active dialogue around historical precedents and contemporary approaches.
Works in the exhibition by Azadeh Elmizadeh, Colleen Heslin, Russna Kaur, Lyse Lemieux, and Rajni Perera include large-scale dyed canvases and site-specific wall paintings, experimental works on fabric and rope, as well as painted objects. Many of the works integrate textiles as part of a conversation about their everyday use, formal possibilities, and historically gendered associations. Other works interweave cultural tradition and storytelling, including the futurities of science fiction. The title of the exhibition – Holding a line in your hand – borrows a phrase from the way Lyse Lemieux has described her artistic process, which, for all the artists in the exhibition, implicates the body. Figures appear in much of the work, both through representation and abstraction, offering a bodily presence.
Having attended art school in the 1970s, Lyse Lemieux’s practice reflects a honed approach and the lived experience of painting’s evolving insignificance and resurgence. Her interdisciplinary practice has focused strongly on drawing, and includes sculpture, painting, and installation. Most recently her work includes numerous public art projects, reflecting an implicit tension between the support and dominance that built spaces offer. Fabric wall hangings in this exhibition appear like soft suspended buildings. These works, largely assembled from men’s tartan and plaid shirt collars and cuffs, play off the ever-present line in Lemieux’s paintings and the undercurrent of a gendered bodily presence in her work. Through considerations of process and materiality, Lemieux’s explorations probe the space between abstraction and representation as they relate to the human figure. The motif of the black tunic she wore as a girl in Catholic school appears repeatedly in her work, each line working through memory. Her awareness of working as a woman artist is never directly addressed but is embedded within each work and is part of a relational conversation between works. Revealed in her statement, “I need to hold the line in my hand.” Lemieux’s visual language is graphic, motivated by line, bodily gesture, and optical effect.
Azadeh Elmizadeh is a recent Masters of Fine Arts graduate from Guelph University, Guelph, ON, and before that she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Ontario College of Art & Design University, Toronto, ON. Elmizadeh’s large-scale paintings incorporate the subtly of abstract colour fields with figuration, where a narrative appears as if through an atmospheric haze of lush colour. Often figures are shown doing acts of care, like gardening. Drawing on her Iranian heritage, many of Elmizadeh’s works incorporate Sufi cosmology and conventions of Persian miniature painting. Found in private, illustrated books, Persian miniatures emerged as a predominant genre in the Islamic art of the 13th century, through to the 16th century. In her ethereal painting Circling Around, Elmizadeh captures the whirling movement of figures dancing, referencing the dancing dervishes in the work of early 16th-century miniature painter Kamal al-Din Bihzad. Bihzad was known for the unique inclusion of empty space in his illustrations, which allowed the subjects of the painting to occupy more prominence in the composition. Unlike the detailed illustrative renderings in these miniatures, however, Elmizadeh’s paintings are to scale with the human body, consuming in their presence and enigmatic in their subject matter.
Rajni Perera’s work is conceivably the most figurative of all the works in the exhibition, yet her figures are not clearly identifiable. Born in Sri Lanka and now based in Toronto, ON, Perera explores issues of hybridity, futurity, ancestry, immigrant identity, monsters, and dream worlds through multi-media installations. These themes come together in what Perera calls, “a newly objectified realm of mythical symbioses.” Through her dynamic and colourful visual language a subversive aesthetic also works to reclaim power, particularly female agency. Perera’s dancer series, included in this exhibition, emerged in 2018 from an exploration of the aesthetic of science fiction and an interest in body dynamics. Jewellery design motifs and abstraction fuse into celestial silhouettes that appear to be swaying or dancing. Painted sculptural objects accompany the dancers as if props for a performance or tools for galactic exploration. These figures metaphorically extend from the frame and come alive in a site-specific painting made directly on the Gallery’s wall. Adapted from a similar wall painting made for the exhibition Migrating the Margins at the Art Gallery of York University, Toronto, ON, these larger-than-life, vividly coloured, and intertwined hybrid figures speak to Perera’s immigrant experience of otherness in Canada, inhabiting an otherworldly fantastical space.
Russna Kaur was born in Toronto, ON, and is now based in Vancouver, BC, where she received a Masters in Fine Arts from Emily Carr University of Art + Design in 2019 and where she is now a faculty member. Kaur’s work in the exhibition begins on the exterior banner outside the Gallery. Her interest in the mechanics and materiality of painting is evident in large-scale works comprised of multiple panels that often change composition depending on the context. Stretching beyond the frame and modified to fit corners formed by the gallery walls, Kaur’s work is responsive to the built environment and to the way we read paintings. Kaur’s large compositions are developed through digital sketches and a rigorous exploration of colour, line, and texture, incorporating collaged material and revealing rough moments of imperfection within the composition. Through detailed attention to the surface materiality, Kaur presents a tension between representation and abstraction in her work and shares an awareness of the art historical weight of these approaches to painting. Kaur uses this surface to address complex personal and cultural narratives that evoke the cultural significance of colour within her Punjabi community where she has described colour “as a marker of energy and joy, but also as a mask for intergenerational trauma.” Like Lemieux’s work, line is an important tool that Kaur uses to make her paintings visually cohesive. Line also acts metaphorically in her work as a common thread that connects the fragments of personal narrative, holding it together.
Colleen Heslin’s work similarly considers art history and social histories, integrating an awareness of gender and labour into abstraction. Having graduated with a Masters in Fine Arts from Concordia University, Montréal, PQ, in 2014 after receiving her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Emily Carr University of Art + Design in 2003, and working as a professional artist and arts worker in cities throughout Canada for years, Heslin is now based in rural BC, where her studio practice is more in tune with and dictated by the seasons. In a new body of work presented for the first time in this exhibition, Heslin’s abstraction draws on spiritual meditation paintings from 17th century Hindu Tantras in Rajasthan, India, 19th century Amish quilt designs, along with 1960s Minimalism. Using a sparse colour palette and repeated shapes and lines, Heslin describes these paintings as “mapping energy through colour and form.” Containing only the essential information and vibrating with line and colour, Heslin’s meditations encompass the vital energy necessary for life, evoking natural phenomenon, including the light of the sun, the glow of the moon, and the cycles of a day and a season. Seemingly simple, the sheer scale of each work in relation to the body and the optical effects of line and colour extend these meditative vibrations to the viewer’s experience.
Steeped in centuries-old, academic traditions, painting has long been revered as the highest art form. As artists have pushed up against tradition over the past one hundred and fifty years, the objective of a painting, what comprises a new painting movement, and what is considered a masterpiece worthy of the canon has shifted dramatically. Painting in Canada today defies singular definition and can be understood through expanded practices that contribute to a broader dialogue about art. Artists working in this medium acknowledge and push against painting’s history, integrate personal narrative, cultural tradition, and formal convention, along with experimental strategies. Through Holding a line in your hand, these five leading women artists convey a diverse view of painting today while sharing the expansive possibilities of this long-venerated medium.
Russna Kaur Burnt away in layers of clouds they fall slowly… suspended in air, free as a gift, 2021 acrylic, oil, pastel, crayon, felt and found wood on velvet, silk, canvas and wood panel 365.7 x 259 cm
The letters written to Modahl in response to her question are intended to provide an outlet for the writer, some of whom chose to write anonymously, some not. Modahl then transformed the words into a long letter-form artwork of gestural writing overlaid and abstracted in ink across a continuous scroll of paper. Viewers are invited to enter the gallery and walk beneath and beside, and look over the words through a shared experience.
Amy Modahl is based in Salmon Arm, BC. Her practice includes painting, drawing, stop-motion animation, and performance. Modahl has exhibited her work in solo and group exhibitions including at the Kelowna Art Gallery, Kelowna, BC; the Alternator Centre, Kelowna, BC; Wallace Galleries, Calgary, AB; Stride Gallery, Calgary, AB; Vernon Public Art Gallery, Vernon, BC; and Soo Visual Art Center, Minneapolis, MN. She has an Interdisciplinary Masters of Fine Art in Visual Art from the University of British Columbia, Okanagan campus, Kelowna, BC; a Masters in Applied Linguistics from Northern Arizona University; and a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art, Art History, and Spanish from St. Cloud State in Minnesota.
Amy Modahl How have you been?, 2021 ink, varnish, graphite, and oil stick on transfer roll paper, 91 x 1829 cm. Photo: Garnet Dirksen
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