Monica Canilao: Born from Ruins
Subliminal Projects, Los Angeles
June 7 – July 5, 2014
By LYLE ZIMSKIND, JUN. 2014
Life and death, bondage and freedom, nature and civilization all intimately commingle in Born From Ruins, Oakland-based artist Monica Canilao’s debut Los Angeles solo exhibition at Subliminal Projects. Although each of the gallery’s four rooms exudes a different thematic vibe, the whole space feels like the decorated private quarters of an untethered wanderer who’s come back with trunkloads of cultural artifacts from an extended journey into uncharted psycho-geographic territory.
Many of the works in this show, including two-dimensional wall pieces, arrange found and practical items that Canilao had rescued from disposal into spiritually potent collages. The wall-sized pink quilt dominating the gallery’s entry area, for instance, displays various elements that the artist discovered in her adopted alternate home city of Detroit and elsewhere in her travels, such as animal pelts, blankets, brass bookends and antique photographic parlor portraits. “When using recycled materials,” Canilao suggests, “everything built is made up of things in a phase of decay. Old abandoned spaces and the things they contain have left traces of other people’s lives and thus also hold ghost memories.” Hand-built wooden frames flanking the quilt on either side display even more unconventional items like bird wings and discarded stockings.
The walls of a long corridor inside the Subliminal Projects gallery are packed with additional collages, including a series of 24 compact, mixed-material individual bird images that seem to parody traditional decorative nature prints, along with several Native American-themed images. (Some materials from the exhibition will later be transferred to the Navajo Nations Reservation in Arizona and incorporated into permanent structures being built there as part of the Painted Desert Project).
Arguably the centerpiece of Born From Ruins is a set of six large digital photographs printed onto wood, all depicting the centuries-old Japanese erotic bondage art of Shibari. In each of these pictures, a ritual participant is bound in tightly knotted ropes and (with one exception) suspended aloft in a striking body pose. The Shibari ceremony, according to Canilao, is an act of mystifying self-empowerment, and her photos of the practice convey a strong other-worldly nobility. (A live demonstration performed at the exhibition opening, we have to say, looked more painful.)
Canilao herself identifies the eight-foot-tall “crystal coffin,” or “tomb,” in the gallery’s back room as the exhibition’s representative work. “[I went] through a dark time last year that involved both heartbreak and death,” she discloses, “so in turn the focus of my show is the essence of death, loss, change and then rebirth from ruin, [together with] recurring themes of ceremony, magic, sensuality, vulnerability, and strength.”
If Born From Ruins offers a look at the expansive personal mythology that Canilao is elaborating with each new installation she creates, this monumental tomb may serve as the essential repository of memories both painful and inspiring which allows her life and work to continue moving forward.
Lyle Zimskind writes about arts and culture for Los Angeles magazine and LAist.com and has contributed to the LA Review of Books, New York Newsday and KCET Artbound. He is also a former Managing Editor of the Czech Republic edition of Esquire magazine.