Thursday, 8 December 2016

Elizabeth Buset at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery: Swine

This little piggy went to market,
This little piggy stayed home,
This little piggy had roast beef
This little piggy had none,
And this little piggy cried wee wee wee all the way to the Thunder Bay Art Gallery by way of the slaughterhouse to be featured in uncompromising detail in Elizabeth Buset’s solo show, Swine. 
     The bulk of this show, comprised of installation pieces with an audio element are five large oil paintings that are amazing displays of technical craftsmanship, detail, and commitment to a ongoing worthwhile political and social statement. 
     The size of the paintings, the size of the pig heads and amount of detail create a sense of awe, which you may find combines with a sense of unease. You can admire these paintings for their detail and accuracy, the use of colour, and the amazing ability of paint to mimic skin. Which is why Buset’s use of paint dissolve the surface of the paintings into reality. A painting done using other techniques, such as thick, broad colourful brush strokes would be attractive, but then the painting becomes more about technique and less about the subject. 
    High realism, although most often cold and lacking obvious dynamism has the benefit of being both admired for the workmanship while allowing the viewer to be fully engulfed, with access to the subject in glorious and gory detail in a way that no photographer could ever capture, especially on such a grand scale. Various kinds of paint, manipulated subtly by the human hand can have effects that are otherworldly. 
    While we feel sorry for the pigs and for liking the paintings despite the carnage, we also wonder at the startling contrasts that Buset has supplied for us to contemplate. The human tokens that the pigs wear are colourful and associated to activities we do for fun, creating a sort of dialogue between the pigs’ heads and the tokens. The tokens insult the respect we should have for the poor pig who gave up its life for our consumption, while the activities associated with the tokens are put into question. 
     Like a serial killer from a cop show who plays with our perceptions of what is right and wrong, Buset plays with the associations we have with popular culture. The Batman mask or Minnie Mouse bow are supposed to be fun, but placed on a dead pig’s head the fun becomes a bit of a horror show calling into question the purpose of the imagery. For Buset, that purpose is to make us think, to reflect on the kind of destruction that comes from blindly buying into a culture of mass production. 
     Buset rightly points out that it is our consumption that is destroying our planet. So hopefully, that sense of unease you feel may stay with you when you next feel the urge to consume. 
     The work Collective Guilt, which takes up a huge space along one wall is of many pig masks ordered from Shanghai. Without strings to fix the mask to a person’s head you might first wonder if the pigs’ faces were torn from their bodies. Combined in this way on the wall the faces engulf you and stare at you. You might feel guilt. You might wonder how many pigs you’ve consumed in your lifetime. Pigs are, after all, as intelligent as monkeys, smarter than dogs. Here there is a moral issue with what and how much you eat. However, the message is not only that little animal lives are being destroyed by our consumption, it is also that our lives are being whittled away piece by piece by our insatiable North American need for happy little plastic products and the ideologies associated with them supplied to us by corporations and governments who don't always have our best interests at heart. 
     So it’s wonderful to see Buset take up the very real and contemporary cause that conflict with North America’s blind run to make money as represented by Trump’s America. Buset states, “I am very satisfied with this exhibition. Everything from its creation, to display, to the conversations it has started has made every hour painting worth it.” 
    And there were a lot of hours involved. “Swine took three years, or around four thousand hours to complete. That is a lot of time to be alone in the studio. To fill the time I listen to audiobooks and podcasts, many of which were about socio-poetical ideas and observations. Creating this series was a form of research and self-education. It clarified my identity and purpose as a political artist.” 
    “I was first introduced to large scale painting during my HBFA. Painting students were asked to recreate a famous painting and I chose a work by the American Realist, Philip Pearlstein. Through that exercise I realized the physical and psychological impact of scale in art.” 
     This is Buset’s third solo show, with two previous shows held at the Definitely Superior Art Gallery. “In comparison to my other solo exhibitions I believe SWINE is my most mature and fully realized series…. Swine is unique because it is the first time I have included installation elements, printmaking and interactive art stations to help augment my content and educate my audiences.”
  Duncan Weller is a writer and illustrator of adult fiction and children's books. You can find them here.

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