[re]making her [stories]: Carolyn Wren

The retrospective exhibition Carolyn Wren: Task at Hand at Rodman Hall Art Centre is overwhelming. This is the latest – and considering Brock University’s plans to shutter Rodman and relocate the collection, perhaps the last, though those plans seem to be now derailed – curatorial collaboration with an artist by Acting Director and Chief Curator Marcie Bronson. I use ‘collaboration’ here as past projects, such as Amy Friend or Donna Akrey, have been uniquely responsive to the architectural history of Rodman (several spaces are as they were when it was Thomas Rodman Merritt’s house, with fireplaces and cornices).

Filling all gallery spaces, the most recent work in the show A Room of One’s Own (hand embroidery on canvas, 2018-19), which spills and flows in the Hansen Gallery, is a metaphor for the entire endeavour, both in its excess and density.

There’s work reaching back to 2002. The majority is astounding in its formal and technical labour (one work, Dwell, is so large a hand printed lino-cut on linen that Wren spoke of needing to ‘invent a technique’ in ‘nontraditional printmaking’ to create this flowing, richly detailed ‘map’ of Niagara. Dwell spills off the table and onto the floor, ebbing towards the viewer).

On repeated visits, I’ve often confined my attention to one installation: the approach favoured by ‘slow art day’ enthusiasts, of singular and focused interaction with fewer works more attentively is a good approach to the sheer breadth of Task at Hand. A space like Longing (4 channel video installation), is an environment you want to contemplate, with the gauzy, soft silence washing over you. Once, in this separate room, I was there when all four projections (each a window, with gauzy translucent curtains, subtly shifting in the ‘breeze’) winked out, simultaneously, before looping again. This small delicacy makes this one of my favourite spaces in Task. Yet, the formal allure of each individual ‘chapter’ of Wren’s retrospective is impressive, so I reserve the right to change my mind on future visits.

Certain ideas act as touchstones: the same way that though the ideas and intent of Wren’s work are firmly grounded in a conceptual framework, that I found myself thinking of the late Bob Boyer (who, like Wren, was also a teacher, and – again, like Wren – was an educator and mentor to many artists within their communities) and his definition of Art as a ‘well made and meaningful object.’

Before I delve further, let’s consider the statement: For over twenty years, St. Catharines-based artist Carolyn Wren has explored the relationship between identity and place. Known for her large-scale drawings and relief prints that poetically conflate landscapes and the human body, during the last decade she has turned her attention to the written narratives that have shaped her worldview. By transcribing texts such as Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Virginia Woolf’s iconic feminist essay A Room of One’s Own, Wren manifests personal and cultural terrain in monumental physical forms. The structure and labour of Wren’s method is the thread that binds her work; be it hand carving, printing, writing, or embroidering, Wren finds meditation in the repetitive tasks of life.

The War Map Dress Trilogy dominates the back larger, very open gallery with three female figures towering over any visitors, with the lack of heads or hands seeming to not dehumanize them so much as shift attention to their garments. These are shimmering white Dupont silk with hand printed lino-cuts of maps that were sent to Canadian families during World War II, to help them ‘track’ their loved ones in Europe. The toy planes suspended from above are more impressive as shadows on the walls behind the ‘women’, and the monumental nature of the mannequins allows for their dresses to expand out further and longer, onto the floor around them, like soft pools with dark, rich lines that mix pattern and name. Wren spoke, at her accompanying artist talk, about how she’s informed by both ‘the language of mapping and the language of patterns.’ Trilogy also offers ‘history on the body.’ (I was reminded of Atwood’s The Penelopiad: “From the distant cave where the threads of men’s lives are spun, Then measured, and then cut short by the Three Fatal Sisters, intent on their gruesome handicrafts, And the lives of women also are twisted into the strand.”)

A massive wall work to the left of Trilogy, rendered on fragile and almost translucent patterns also evokes with aesthetic enticement. Thick rich blacks and subtle, light-as-a-feather traces coalesce into a larger rough landscape. Butterick 3577 (2006, lino-cut on mulberry paper, and citing the once ubiquitously common sewing patterns in the title) isn’t initially recognizable as landscape: this ‘ambiguity blurs the meaning as the grain lines of the pattern are read as directional lines of the map’ (Bronson).

One needs never ask, in any of Wren’s artworks, where these landscapes originate. References, either visually or by name, illustrate that place and identity may ‘define’ her practice, but the former is consistent while the latter shifts. Her history in Niagara stretches back decade. Part of her legacy is manifest in the numerous artists taught by Wren who’ve exhibited regionally or nationally, even in Rodman Hall, over the past year.

There’s a synchronicity in the volume of her past students here to the number of people who volunteered, much to her surprise, to assist with the intimidating ‘task’ of hand-stitching the 320 foot long scroll for A Room of One’s Own. ‘Handwritten in cursive’, with identical panels, Wren’s visual transcribing of Woolf’s text bursts tongue-like from a wall in the Hansen Gallery. Winding, looping and twisting, it even ‘climbs’ up the fireplace, before terminating near the Hansen entrance. “Impossible to read, the embroidered words give a sense of the meaning and labour involved.” (Bronson)

In many ways, Room is the defining artwork of Task At Hand; but all the pieces are linked by a web of intent and idea. Room in its intensity of execution, resonates back to two other works in the show (one less impressive than the other). The Sisyphus Project is the least successful work in Task at Hand, not due to a lack of concept or formal completion, but because the video is simply not as aesthetically powerful as even Territories, the simple framed lino-cuts near it. But the performance documented by Wren in Project is exhausting, to watch, to consider her acting it out, and that it has no ‘reason.’ Less problematically – or to be blunt, more aesthetically enrapturing – is the other work that Room visually cites, titled Passages.

Passages (2017) has a room of its own too: a hushed, yet crowded, space. Wren spoke of the choices of texts she’s reinterpreted, or realized visually, when she and Bronson had a public dialogue about Wren’s work and history. Several of these were obvious, such as Janson’s homogeneous art historical tome, or the Bible, with its mistranslations and misquotations and historical and contemporary misuse via citation. But for Passages, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were the ‘source’ texts, and the white room, with the hanging vellum and light cursive script on the many layers of descending scrolls is both inviting and bracing, as you can only walk around the ‘tome’ of suspended ‘words.’ Passages is ‘based on seeing rather than reading’.(Bronson)

But Passages – perhaps due to the serene (if somewhat funerary) white-on-white-on-white stillness, made me contemplate other re-tellings (or perhaps rewordings is more apt, with Wren’s art).

Task at Hand could be seen as one large installation, that acts as a biography in art for Carolyn Wren: where you chose to stand and ‘read’ or interpret can shift with repeated visits, and depending what you prioritized, like shuffling chapters in a diary. As with War Bride Trilogy, I find myself thinking of Atwood’s The Pelenopiad, with its dark humour and blithe assertions of how sometimes the texts are not what truly happened, and in writing is truth and travail: “Now that all the others have run out of air, it’s time for me to do a little story-making. I owe it to myself.”

Carolyn Wren: Task at Hand is on display at Rodman Hall Art Centre until August 11th, 2019. Images in this article are either courtesy The Sound, or Rodman Hall, with several by Sandy Fairbairn.