By RHYS EDWARDS, June 2023
In its own varied decrepitudes, subjugations, and failures, the commercial imaginary posits the human body as problematically corpulent. This is an inconvenience for anyone who happens to claim a body in our virtualized era, and even more so for those whose bodies are gendered, racialized, and colonized. For healthcare authorities and police forces, the body has all the more formed the locus of state scrutiny in recent years; in the Southern United States, for example, ever-more hysterical discourses surrounding gender continue to expose the interconnectedness between the perceived legibility of bodies and the efficacy of judicial statehood. For three artists exhibiting in Vancouver's East side, however, the indeterminacy of the body is precisely the prism through which the figure comes to abide within its own beautiful grounding.
In Le cirque des mémoires, at Afternoon Projects, Caro Deschênes exhibited a striking series of oil paintings. Unified by an oil slick colour scheme, dislocated bodies resided upon chairs, collapsed onto plates, or floated across ethereal landscapes that traverse the inner and outer realm. Internal organs posit with seeming iliac crests, sacra, and cocyx, set beneath searing cavities that open up onto distant blue skies. Writ large in rich browns and chartreuse vapour, each of Deschênes' subjects is impossible to situate—but in their pluralism, they are totally splendid, relaxed in their dislocation.
Perhaps most striking is the sense in which Deschênes seems to pursue a kind of luxurious certitude in each of their works—though highly painterly, each motif and gesture glides alongside its companions. The brushwork is refined, sensual. In some areas, surface layers seem to have been stripped down or sanded away, or, inversely, the paint has been dry-brushed onto exposed canvas—but whereas for other painters this strategy works to produce visual noise or compositional dissonance, here the effect is one of calculated translucency. Light seems to burst through, bathing the array of figures in golden splendour. Deschênes' paint has a kind of logic unto itself, forming smooth, somnambulent rivers that cascade upwards. In their figural dissimulation, their work calls up reminiscences of Francis Bacon at his most perverse—but whereas the latter found the body and its itinerant trappings to be repugnant, Deschênes celebrates the body that cannot be contained by form.
Nearby, at Catriona Jeffries, Brenda Draney's Unfinished Business sees the artist conjure up more figures who find themselves partitioned within paint. But here, the paint disclosed bodily impotence—a failure to situate oneself within space. In new, large oil paintings such as Trio, Chrome, and Split Pea, disassociated figures—caught up in an unpleasant-seeming an all-male orgy, sat awkwardly upon a motorcycle in some kind of interior space, or failing to close a blender properly, respectively—bemoan their own lassitude. They have been doomed, possibly, to repeat themselves, like the absurd cartoon protagonists of Peter Wächtler's animations. In their sketchy characterizations of failed domestic chores or unfulfilled masculine pleasure, Draney's paintings belie an inconsolable embarassment of forms. Raw anatomy is reduced to limp function—the body is an anxious, broken service tool.
But in the adjacent space, a series of older, delicate watercolours present a totally different vision. Miniature caricatures of more figures stand by themselves, lost admidst the whiteness of the paper. Though diminutive, in their loneliness there is elevation, a breathing outward that Draney's oils are comparatively reticent to allow. One particular painting, Kneel, presents a tangerine-hued figure lovingly rendered in a single, curvaceous wash, with scarce anatomical detail dropped in wet-in-wet. In a way, it is as if Draney's watercolours are a redemption. In their grotesque fixities and neurotic predispossesions, her oils represent the absurdity of attempting to reconcile the specifics of history with the intangibility of personal experience. By contrast, the watercolours revel in their irresolution. Solid versus liquid, opaque versus transparent.
At Wil Aballe Art Projects, Karice Mitchell exhibited her found and edited images of Black pornographic subjects. In their original magazine context, such figures are emblematic of the peculiar logic of racialized spectacle, wherein the abjected figure accrues erotic value in the gaze of the white oppressor by dint of the spectator's own projected lack. Here, Mitchell stages a simple, but powerful intervention into the gaze—by cropping, dividing, and magnifying her source subjects, Black skin and Black beauty do not comport to a racialized whole, but instead manifest in the form of magnificent, individuated fragments. Skins cells, wrinkles, and pubic hair are not the shameful indices of misbegotten, fetishized desire, so much as a testament to the reality of the woman pictured.
Perhaps in an ironic echo of Fanon's famous adage about the dividedness of the Black subject, in works such as Untitled Diptych (Woman in Pink Bikini) an over-air-brushed, gleaming centrefold is literally divided in two; Mitchell denies the viewer the punctum of the photograph, and the subject dissipates into collage. In their disassociation, Mitchell's women accrue agency in the face of the gaze, rejecting the racialized whole. And yet, Mitchell's interventions are not unbeautiful. She is careful, still, to isolate and enhance the aestheticization of each woman, in all of her adornment and posture. Gleaming necklaces and earrings, now the rote dressings of pornographic culture, are here re-claimed as traces of the subject's own pleasure and drive towards self-representation. They are possessed wholly by their wearer—in their shining opulence, they deny the voyeur their indulgence.
Deschênes, Draney, and Mitchell occupy highly different positions, but within their overtures towards dissolution they find a common grounding. Their figures inverse the logic of an era which finds the figure increasingly policed, scrutinized, instrumentalized; they conceive of a freedom that transcends social form. The bodily fragment becomes the axle around which subjecthood reconstitutes itself—necessarily incomplete, warped beyond comprehension, perverse, but all the more resplendent thereby. WM
Rhys Edwards is an artist, writer, and curator. His writing has appeared in Canadian Art, The Capilano Review, C Magazine, and BC Studies. He graduated with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of British Columbia in 2014, and he lives and works in Vancouver, BC, on unceded Coast Salish territories.view all articles from this author