April 18 – June 8, 2019
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, June 2019
“Here is a moment of extravagant beauty: I drink it liquid from the shells of my hands and almost all of it runs sparkling through my fingers: but beauty is like that, it is a fraction of a second, quickness of a flash and then immediately it escapes.”
– Clarice Lispector, A Breath of Life 
The latest in a long line of exemplary exhibitions at this gallery includes the works of three artists who are resolutely pushing the boundaries of contemporary art from craft-based practices into the realm of the intra-psychic exotic and beyond. Luanne Martineau, Anne Low and Olga Abeleva offer self-questioning artefacts that demonstrate a high level of formal invention in felted wool, woven fibre, and painting on canvas.
Luanne Martineau is a maverick whose felted wool sculpture is nothing short of revelatory - and, frankly, captivating. Like pungent pelts or domestic taxidermies, her dimensional wall-mounted works possess an unusual gravity that question Modernist orthodoxies while remaining artefactually arresting and strange. Using traditional craft techniques and materials to eminently experimental ends, and hyper-cathecting the tactual, as it were, she seeks to subvert, interrogate and change the condition of being here.
Martineau’s work is a highly sophisticated, sometimes rude intervention. The artist works with obsolete manufacturing technologies for fabricating textiles and uses an antiquated knitting machine to produce her cutting-edge work. Her creations here are knowingly louche, referential and anthropomorphized. It’s no surprise that she admires Philip Guston for his famous late period pirouette from late Modernism into the realm of the cartoon and critique. Her hybrid felted wool sculptures mark a collision between Moderrnist ideals and a craft aesthetic in which the latter is shown to be synonymous with the former, save for an enhanced spirit of criticality as refreshing as it is overdue. She mixes and matches cultural references with flagrant and scandalous abandon, cunning and satiric gravitas. From her avatars Linda Benglis, Eva Hesse and Hannah Hoch to Philip Guston and Robert Crumb, she has learned much, but there are no closed quotation marks here. Her work exists without any enervating echoes.
Her Fall Carcade (hand needle-felted and hand dyed wool, linen, synthetic thread, acrylic paint, archival adhesive, archival ink, 47 x 27 x 3”, 2019) – one of her best recent works, I think -- is a tripartite piece in which she works her felt with industry and finesse to concoct a prairie blanket on a hanger, a grotesque optic, recognizably still human, and lastly a dinner plate with sliced carrots and green beans. All the elements compete for hegemony, with the optic as overseer. Commissure, Carol (hand needle-felted and hand dyed wool, linen, synthetic thread, acrylic paint, archival adhesive, archival ink, 43 x48 x 1 ½”2019) is composed of three triangular forms. Commissure marks the place where two objects abut or are joined. The term is used especially in the fields of anatomy and biology and pre-eminently refers to the brain's commissures, the fibre tracts that connect the two cerebral hemispheres. Two of the rectangles form an hourglass-shape that itself attaches to the work’s third triangular component through a sort of resilient umbilical cord. Martineau’s alternately banal and baroque litany of everyday things recalls the empty wine bottles and cobwebs that litter Guston’s still-evocative paintings of the latter-day wasteland. Martineau anthropomorphises all her felt work hands-on and heads-up, pulling meaning from fugitive references to the everyday while also suggesting we have entered the Twilight Zone.
Weaving is at the epicentre of Low’s art and women workers could be found on the medieval construction site (Found materials, hand forged iron, hand dyed and woven wool, walnut, silver, 104 x 30 x 24 inches, 2016-2017) is one of her strongest works to date. Beyond the material, it probes subjectivity as the fundament and problematic aim of her aesthetic.
The hand-dyed and hand-woven wool cloth is but a shell or skin for a journey to the interior. The inside of Women Workers could be found on the medieval construction site is festooned with what might be likened to ex-votos but here far removed from their Catholic roots. It reads as sanctuary, and suggests a healing, meditative and private edge. Rather than fragments shored up against her ruins, her constituent elements are worked into a subtle cartography of the lived, found, once treasured, now sourced material for sculpture. The objects scavenged from the artist’s own studio are like bright lures that lead us within the fibre enclosure (or confessional) so that an inventory can taken of the items pinned on the inside of the inside of the draped fibre. They seem, on the one hand, unremarkable items and, on the other, highly charged bric-a-brac the emotional register or temperature of which amplifies the piece as a whole.
Olga Abeleva is a wily scavenger of a painter who takes risks. She draws upon old family photos and other sources that she bends to her will, shaping provocative cosmologies with brio. Her work invokes 1980s figurative painting but with a decidedly theatrical edge that reminds one of but easily surpasses the work of Francesco Clemente.
My friend Clarice (Oil on canvas, 36 x 41”, 2019) depicts Brazilian novelist and short story writer Clarice Lispector. Lispector, like Abeleva (and Martineau and Low) mines psychological complexity to achieve edgy and outré dramatic effects. This work seems to draw upon Lispector”s private life. She is depicted fast asleep while another figure applies her red lipstick. Lispector’s imaginative wherewithal is counterpoised with the daily regimen of makeup, and the flames nearing the edge of Lispector’s bed suggest a wider conflagration is imminent. The hectic conflation of flames and makeup regimen somehow reach a state of adequation as though the artist is telling us that the outward tweaked appearance of her painted subject is in no wise contradicted by her inward state.
Clarice Lispector herself once said: “So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I shall go on writing.”  This happily segues with the work of the three artists exhibited here: they all have questions to ask and there is little doubt that they will go on working as long as definitive answers continue to elude them. The curtained booth or vestibule, the surreal theatrical canvasses, the compacted felts: all these expressions of the imagination dovetail in Women’s Work with admirable delicacy and precision. Each of the artists offer flashes of extravagant beauty in works that celebrate praxis, reveal tiered interior meanings -- and hold the enduring promise of epiphany. WM
1. Clarice Lispector, A Breath of Life, trans. Johnny Lorenz, ed. Benjamin Moser (New York: New Directions, 2012)
2. Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star, trans. Benjamin Moser (New York: New Directions, 2011)
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James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.