Be[e]ing & Seeing: Compounding Visions

The current exhibition on display on the main floor of the Riverbrink Art Museum is not its usual art historical discourse: Charmaine Lurch offers a number of works from her ongoing practice, in both three dimensional and ‘flat’ media. She “is a sculptor, painter and installation artist who creates work that imagines inside and outside of history, involves quiet moments of joy, and draws our attention to human-environmental relationalities. an inherent sense of movement resides in the pieces. Lurch maps belonging and representation in space and place, outside of normative racial scripts.” Compounding Vision, which encompasses three rooms in the Riverbrink, flowing from one to another with works that encourage you to move between and back and forth, is on display until the first of February, 2020. This incorporates several bodies of work. The official gallery statement is that “Charmaine Lurch interrogates complex histories of humans and the environment. This exhibition presents the artist’s recent work exploring borders and boundaries, in painting, photography, sculpture and installation.”

If you’re familiar with the Riverbrink, it’s a ‘domestic’ space, so Lurch’s exhibition lives in several rooms that, with their architecture and smaller features, still strongly allude to a ‘living’ space. Several of her paintings – with wire entwined and piercing the canvas – hang in a room with a fireplace, and challenge this ‘atmosphere.’ Travellers, for example, with its dark blues and silhouetted figures, accentuated by the small ‘rivets’ of wire that then web outwards (like arteries, or ‘drawing’ in thin metal), offers subtleties of tone that are a contrast to the beige room. The grouping of four figures, facing each other in a conversational circle are as bound by the implied conversation happening between them, in the scene Lurch offers, as they are by the ‘strings’ that bind them together.

This mixed media work is more ‘physical’ than the photographs that are in the longer room which is the ‘main’ space of Compounding Vision (which are larger, more detailed ‘close ups’ of the image in the fist room, which may be familiar to you from the exhibition invitation image). Untitled (which are archival prints on acrylic) span the full wall of this room, with large images of wire (in rich blacks and some visceral dark reds and bright rust coloured ‘copper’) formed into bodily shapes: sometimes hands, sometimes torsos. Their stark white backgrounds serve the delicate – drawn in wire, captured in a photograph – nature of the sculpture Lurch ‘documents’ here.

There’s a formal connection between Travellers and the Untitled series and several smaller paintings on display, that are darker in colour and construction. Hand of Sycorax and Foot of Sycorax are horizontal works, like dark ‘strips’ on a wall where the aforementioned hand and foot rest upon the picture plane, and extend beyond the canvas edge in their sculptural succinctness. Lurch offers us enough to define the forms, very smartly, and this minimalism is like a gesture drawing in wire, lovely in form and allusion. Installed side by side, slightly higher than ‘normal’ (perhaps to enhance their visual power, perhaps in response to the wainscotting of the wall – this was a domestic space, like a small salon, when Samuel Weir lived here long ago), these may be my favourite pieces in Compounding Vision.

A motif here – in title, across diverse pieces – is the term ‘sycorax’. Allow me to offer this bit of background: Sycorax “is an unseen character in William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (1611). She is a vicious and powerful witch and the mother of Caliban, one of the few native inhabitants of the island on which Prospero, the hero of the play, is stranded. According to the backstory provided by the play, Sycorax, while pregnant with Caliban, was banished from her home in Algiers to the island on which the play takes place. Memories of Sycorax, who dies several years before the main action of the play begins, define several of the relationships in the play. Relying on his filial connection to Sycorax, Caliban claims ownership of the island…Postcolonialist writers and critics see Sycorax as giving voice to peoples, particularly women, recovering from the effects of colonisation.” The emphasis there is mine, and that last point is the relevant one for engaging with Charmaine Lurch’s images that cite Sycorax in Compounding Vision. In an immediate manner, having Lurch artistically ‘occupy’ the often art historical ‘traditional’ ‘heritage’ site of the Riverbrink, as a Canadian artist who has often contributed to exhibitions and conversations such as Here We Are: Black Contemporary Canadian Art (ROM) or We’re Here, From Here: Contemporary Canadian Black Art (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) or Every. Now. Then: Framing Nationhood (AGO) , evoking Sycorax, is truly an ‘interrogation [of] complex histories of humans and the environment.’ Consider that here in Niagara with Dick’s Creek, named after Richard Pierpoint, who was taken in the slave trade from his native Senegal, and fought for both his freedom and as a Loyalist, in Niagara. But remember that this is either not known widely or not part of the official history, and you begin to see an element of Caliban as something other than just metaphor, in Canadian ‘history.’

In this respect, the ‘there / not there’ silhouettes in her paintings, the subtlety – perhaps the invisibility, or the manner in which the negative space in the photographs is more prevalent than the ‘wire’ and ‘metal’ of the figures – suggests someone easily ignored, or denied, by an uncaring, dismissive eye. Caliban is labelled a ‘savage’, in The Tempest. But many readings consider his anger to be appropriate, that of the ‘outsider’ who sees things as they truly are, in reality. His most famous line is about the only profit of having been taught language is that he now can swear: but oh so many things are oh so deserving of being damned, especially when others deny or ignore them….

Compounding Vision is also, in some ways, a sampling of Lurch’s wider practice: but there is inter-connectivity in her various series, and her ‘Bees’ dominate the largest room, installed in the middle, running the length of the space, and you can walk around them for full appreciation of their construction. This might seem a very separate work from ‘Sycorax’, but isn’t, at all.

Lurch’s words: ‘There are 200 species of native bees in Toronto. Working and moving around us daily, these creatures are mostly invisible, and hyper-visible when unwanted or deemed out of place. The movements of the bees act as a lens by which to view the space in between these polarities as active and productive. This series of oversized wire bee sculptures and wire relief on canvas, is a project materialized through science and art using metaphor to explore themes of Black subjectivity and re-imagined futures. It is about the act of seeing and un-seeing, and the choices therein. This dichotomy reflects how we meet and respond to racialized subjects in everyday encounters, and can be seen in the interplay of light on the works and the shadows they cast. The sculptures…evoke a virtual invisibility and present a nuanced conversation on how black subjects are seen and understood in space and place, past present and future.’ Going further, the manner in which the ‘Bees’ are installed also implies an idea of ‘exotica’, something to be observed at a remove. It’s reminiscent of the late Indigenous performance artist Jame Luna saying how many ‘galleries’ install ‘traditional’ ‘Indian art’ as though it’s an artifact, suggesting these cultures and people are ‘of the past’, not now. Consider that, the next time you’re attending an event and a land dedication is spoken, especially the assertion that many groups, such as the Haudenosaunee here, are alive and well and as ‘real’ – perhaps moreso, to many – than any vestige of ‘British Empire.’

Compounding Vision is the most ‘contemporary’ exhibit I’ve experienced at the Riverbrink Art Museum, but positioning this work here is also a response, in some ways, to the usual historical and artistic aesthetic on display there. Riverbrink could be called a ‘heritage’ site, with all the positive and negative baggage that brings with such contested narratives and terms. Upstairs, for example, was a past selection of works from Weir’s collection, which birthed the RAM, titled Picturing Indians, which might do a better job of examining whether a people make their own images, of themselves and their world, or others make and name them, instead. As Indigenous artist David Neel has observed, if you don’t do it yourself, others will be eager to do that for you.

Charmaine Lurch’s solo exhibition Compounding Vision, curated by Riverbrink Director / Curator Debra Antoncic,is at the Riverbrink Art Museum until February 1st, 2020. The RAM is located at 116 Queen Street, in the village of Queenston, in Niagara-on-the-Lake. All images are courtesy the RAM or The SoundSTC.