Sunday, 18 November 2012

Sentiment in Visual Art

The Dress: A show of work by Barbara Sprague
September 14 to  October 28 at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery

Despite the solemn appearance of Barbara Sprague’s work at a distance, your eyes will get some exercise sliding around the sinuous web of cloth, bone and branches when you are pulled in to explore her personal museum. Memories, drawings from photos, and other references are set in an odd world that has a literal edge marked with tiny “holes.” 

The holes mark boundaries for an ambitious use of the drawings that are semi-functional, unexpected, and inspiring. Each drawing is destined to become a piece of a dress so the images are cut short making for odd and distracting shapes. The drawings beg to be explored, which can be done either in the drawings themselves, or where they have been transferred – the dress. Sprague’s feature work is the dress imprinted with the images of the drawings, connected at the “holes.” The skeleton, whose parts appear in the drawings, are sections of a whole connected when the pieces join forces to make for a very bizarre and intriguing ensemble. 

Sprague’s modernist attempt to comment on “the word ‘bride’ and its meaning as a form of tying lace-making…” isn’t fully revealed or dealt with. It’s up to the viewer to think on it. However, it is a starting point from which Sprague most obviously leaps into a stream-of-consciousness method of drawing and exploration of the museum of her mind. It might look like a self-absorbed personal trip for Sprague, but anyone viewing the work should be forgiven if they see beyond the world of Sprague and into a netherworld, a world that looks remarkably like one you might find in a picture book by Maurice Sendak.  

Much of modern art makes an effort to “comment on” something. Pick a subject – memory, loss, fear, primal emotions, shape, violence – the list is endless, but often the treatment is cold and unnerving where the subject could be better dealt with in an essay rather than in a gallery. And sadly, the “comment on” principal stems from artists’ need to be taken more seriously because thinking about art is apparently more important than the pleasure of appreciating good drawing, beauty, and the sentimental, qualities these days that seem to signify a an absence of serious thought. 

So the curator at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Nadia Kurd, has organized a wonderful, brave and successful display of works that reveal how visual art succeeds and fails at presenting the sentimental. 

Barbara Sprague’s show presents the most successful and individual use of sentiment. There is a dark side, intimated by the use of the skeleton and a metal plate screwed into her forehead in a self-portrait, but this combined with the beauty, technique, and imagination that is cleverly hooked to her theme win the day. It is an uplifting show whereas “Immigrant,” a show of Rosemary Sloot’s work, submerges well-crafted paintings under the weight of “modernism,” with superimposed handwritten scrawls, and black and white images mixed with colour images. The feeling is too much of a physical museum, and not enough of a personal one.

Compare this show to the mixed use of sentiment in the group show “The Way I Remember It . . .” where Allen Sapp’s clearly sentimental work, nearly devoid of modernist “marks” are refreshingly clear despite some trouble with technique. There’s a sense of freedom that comes with being honest and direct about where our memories and history once lived. 

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