Fish Bones

February 23, 2010

Gillian Sze

DC Books, 2009

Gillian Sze’s debut collection, Fish Bones, is an eclectic salon of modern ekphrastic poems, ranging from pastoral elegies to the vivid erotic encounter. This collection has garnered a slew of critical praise (it was shortlisted for the QWF McAuslan First Book Prize), yet it remains a rather uneven arrangement of poems, containing those that startle with their aphoristic beauty, along with some cringe-worthy love poems one wishes had been left under a bed in a fuzzy pink diary.

As readers, we take each of Sze’s poems, each moment, and either refuse or accept. Heedless of the outcome, we are grateful for the ride, for the glimpses into the lives she imagines, for the occasional divined flash of brilliance.

Sze’s shortcomings are evident in the several hackneyed poems dotted throughout Fish Bones which, when encountered, leave the reader a bit discouraged. One such example is the very stale I’ll Make the Drinks Tonight:

We were born together a thousand times

when the music from your antique gramophone

crackled over our limbs

Additionally, Sze could benefit from reconsidering her method of titling poems. The Last Time I Saw You; She Has a Lovely Face; Alone on the Other Side of the World. Really? Consider how  a poem like The Kiss, with its succinct and violent imagery, is made altogether commonplace by this uninventive title.

Thankfully, there are enough gems tucked in these pages to keep the reader’s attention. These include the whimsical The Jailer’s Daughter, the pensive and melancholy Forget-Me-Not, and an inventive reinterpretation of a classic Wallace Stevens number.

It is difficult to comment on Fish Bones as a whole; there is no unifying thread carrying  from one poem to the next. Imagine a museum curator assembling  the Botticellis, the Constables, and the Nan Goldin photographs in a single room. As is true of a stroll through an art gallery, some pieces will arrest us for their boldness or honesty, while others we pass by without much of a second thought. If anything, Fish Bones is about forcing ourselves to recognize the imperative of imaginative and careful observation, regardless of whether or not these insights are altogether unique. The final lines of the title poem, Playing Fish Bones, are quite apt here:

The span between refusal and acceptance

shrinks in an instant,

differs only by a fraction.

Certainly, Sze has acuity for describing visual details, and it is this skill which holds the otherwise disparate poems together. Fish Bones is at its best when most attuned to the pictorial nature of ekphrasis, keeping in the realm of the visual. The moments of emotional intimacy too often feel contrived, veering towards melodrama. A poem like The Jailer’s Daughter, a sophisticated, whimsical, yet simple portrait of a woman’s shape and movement (inspired by, one might guess, something along the lines of a Miro painting), has much more impact than the TV-movie feel of Animal Tracks, a meditation on siblings bonding over illness. Ultimately, the best poems in the collection are those which imbue the visual experience with the same curiosity as something felt, those poems which are sensuous before they are sentimental. Reviewed by Michael Lake.


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live in the lost

February 22, 2010

Six Minute Vanitas, Emily Shanahan

Emily Shanahan & Corina Kennedy

Liminal, fragmented, disconnected. Live in the lost sandwiches existence between the past and the present, alluding to a cultivated nostalgia that is made intelligent by distance. As a whole, the exhibition questions what it is to be present, complete, missing.

From the classical references in Shanahan’s study, to the avant-garde perdu in Kennedy’s 77 Yoko Ono Hair Pieces, the work moves through a non-linear timeline and carries into each era a notion of the fractured; many of the pieces fail to be complete in the traditional sense, and although selected pieces appear to form clusters in time, there is no overarching progression to define the experience. What then begins to appear is a hint of time – more specifically the “past” – as both here and gone, minus the measurement of how far gone, and how exactly here. The paradoxical imperative, live in the lost, becomes increasingly attainable; as the live (adjective) locates itself within that which has slipped away, it pulls the whole brouhaha within mind’s reach. And yet, the lost here is not exclusively temporal.

As one examines individual pieces, the pattern becomes prominent. Things are missing here. Limbs, faces, life – even Yoko Ono. The art, then, becomes a study of what constitutes a whole; and the question of whether life is carried on in the severed appendages teases the viewer.

Shanahan especially investigates this theme. Many of her classical inspired paintings feature statuesque figures and sculptural renditions from which key parts have been removed. Crumbled and eroded by time; or broken off by the artist? Both possibilities are entertained as one moves through the analogous representation of representation. Within this dialogue, an exploration of horror and darkness begins to emerge. The duo Head of Alexander and Head of Athena flatten and wash out once corporeal sculptures. The result: eerie and vacant glimpses into celebrated mythology. The disembodiment, then, becomes symbolic rather than incidental.

On another level, Nyx, Seer, Cupid #4 and Cupid #5 introduce a philosophical exploration of the void. Rich with dark, glossy strokes, this group of paintings pushes meaning forward from obscurity. Seer mirrors the disfiguring fear of Munch’s The Scream with blurred intentionality. Put into context by the surrounding theme of time, it gains a sickening sense of anxiety in the face of death. Paired together on a single wall, Cupid #4 and Cupid #5 enter into a charged exchange: the limbless #4 appears to emerge from a swirl of black, the headless #5 to retract into one.

Independently of these pieces, the video installation Six Minute Vanitas invites spectators to strap on headphones, turn their backs to the gallery, and meditate on death and the nature of transience. Contrary to the traditional stasis of the genre, Shanahan’s version employs technology, light play, sound and, delightfully, the human breath, to engage with the symbolism of the featured objects. A cow skull is framed by flickering candles – which are later extinguished – and adorned with plastic flowers. The limited life of the candles, imitated life of the flowers, and intimated life of the skull posits a modern eloquence in the execution of the vanitas, which is furthered by the chosen medium. And while the six minute clip suggests brevity and constraints, its cycling ad infinitum captures transience perhaps more accurately than the original model.

If Shanahan is concerned with enabling discourse between the classical and contemporary, Kennedy reconfigures the iconic. An interest in the fragmented is present alongside an investment in the effects of repetition, both acutely addressed in the aforementioned 77 Yoko Ono Hair Pieces. The sprawling arrangement is comprised of 77 black and white paintings on identical blocks of wood, forming a seemingly random pattern, the result of which is a rather arresting checkerboard portrait of that very famous hair. Individually, the pieces vary in texture, ratio, and complexity. Some are simple – nearly entirely black or white, unintriguing in their monotony. Others are complex to the point of creating optical illusions, poetic in their rendition. Together they challenge identity and the absolute, playing with the multiplicity that constitutes the individual and, cleverly, hair.

On a distant wall, AHair APart teases the memory of the hair pieces. Separate from the others, yet similar in style, this one stands a hair apart, so to speak, and yet, without the reference suggested by the previous work, entirely different, unidentifiable, mysterious. Barely resembling hair, upon closer inspection, the painting yields a humorous clue: the sweeping black is separated by what, in the hair world, is known universally as a part.

Kennedy’s paintings often take on a haunting quality that remains like an imprint upon the eye. From the first work encountered – a soft, wallpaper inspired vase whose flowers blur and bleed into the background – to the bizarre The Ambassador Inn – the exhibition literature offers another clue, and the answer it seems, is also in the wallpaper – color is muted, shaded, and layered, often having an otherworldly effect. Often the allusions in her work must be deciphered, at othertimes they seem private.

Glazed Girl is set apart from the other pieces by its ethereal eeriness and penetrating skill. At once zombie and flower child, the subject is rendered in wispy and hazy colors: across her belly stretches a gauziness that is suggestive of a womb into which we may peer, and flowers imprint a halo behind flowing hair that frames a hauntingly vacant face. In a collection of work that shows Kennedy’s skilled hand, Glazed Girl is exciting because it clearly pierces an entirely other level. This is the kind of coveted early work that will one day appear in a retrospective and garner marvel at its concentrated innocence and sophistication. Marianne Perron, 2010.


Warren G. Flowers Art Gallery, Dawson College, 4001 de Maisonneuve Ouest, through February 27.

Glazed Girl, Corina Kennedy