Eerie Environments: Lorène Bourgeois

Now that the university schedule is back in session, the VISA Gallery is offering exhibitions of work by both students and instructors, and sometimes outside that dynamic. The exhibition currently on display in the first floor gallery of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts (by an instructor at the school) offers a continuing look at visual artists in this community.

There is something unsettling, but enticing about this exhibition, Large Drawings, by Lorène Bourgeois. The white rectangle of the gallery space is filled with monochromatic drawings that are monumental in scale (especially in the “portrait” works, as the majority of these figures are on either empty white blankness or emerging from voids) and that also, upon closer examination, display a crosshatched, grid-like texture within Bourgeois’ marks and forms.

There are no titles on the wall, so the images act in a more cinematic manner, interrelating with each other. Blitz Child II seems to have been sent to the corner for misbehaving, and We All Breeze The Same Air is interpolated as a diptych, as the tubing of the gas masks is connected by the viewer in our minds, as the literal drawings run off the paper itself. La Perruque (translated as the Wig) is surely as performative as the elaborate clothing in Closed Eyes (which could be said to greet you, as you enter the space, in the small alcove at the front, but the man’s head, wreathed, nearly strangled, in an elaborate Elizabethan collar of ruffles and folds, seems asleep, or exhausted at our presence). The massive white blow that rests atop the head of girl-child a little further into the space (she meets our gaze with amused defiance, a petulance that is as sharp as her nose) is echoed in the older woman, at the end of the left gallery wall, whose elaborate wig and costume seem as absurd as her gaze is unflinching (appropriately titled Forteresse – fortress, in English).

Bourgeois’ words: “I am interested in the social and utilitarian functions of clothes, but also in the way garments frame or envelop the body, and the way they disclose or conceal the human form. I find clothing can endow its wearer with a social identity, but also contain the body and head in ways that may be restraining, demeaning, or even absurd.”

When visiting the show, the idea of the uncanny came up in conversation: that which is strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way. Several works presented by Bourgeois possess an eerie quality. The eyes and brow of Perruque seem too close together, as he glares angrily at us; other eyes, such as is in Swim Cap, seem to slip the hyper realism Bourgeois has employed elsewhere, appearing vacant and almost inhuman. The martial, military references (the WW II blitz of London, the gas masks, the helmet in Tin Hat – though blitz invokes the Nazi bombing of London, the gas masks of Breeze and the nature of the “hat” in Tin Hat alternately evoke WW I garb and paraphernalia…the war to end all wars, hmmm? I’d rather cite Orwell’s idea of the never ending war, with subsequent chapters…) amid images of children, like Infant or Cocked Hat (though the latter stretches between, with the baby wearing a “hat” that plays at Napoleon, and war.

As well, the only non-humans depicted here by Bourgeois, in Chain of Pigs, could be assumed to be a number of docile, sleeping piglets, cuddled together: Pigs is also unique in that it has a spot in the middle of a long wall, giving it a prime spot in the tableaux the artist has arranged. But the military symbolism that Bourgeois employs seems to affront such a “peaceful” reading: so whether the pigs are dead, or only sleeping, and whether they have commonality with the Blitz children, as survivors, or are an allusion to the slaughter of the innocent (as though “sleeping” as if gassed), is a question that hangs in the room.

Returning to the words of the artist: “The garments I observe are inanimate and yet they also allude to the vulnerability of humans. And animals — a group we define as other and yet belong to — remind us of the immediacy of life and its fleeting nature. I am interested in creating drawings reflecting not only the unique physical appearances of my subjects (human or animal), but also their dignity and the singular gravity they seem to project.”

“There are connections between clothing and animals, and between states of dress and nakedness, which to my mind extend beyond the formal.”

Lorène Bourgeois teaches drawing at Brock (the discipline and strength of her Large Drawings, all black conté  on paper, attests to her skill in this medium) , and lives and works in Toronto: this exhibition is on display until November 18th.

Images are courtesy the artist’s site, and are Blitz Child II, and Forteresse, respectively.