Shell Game: Marina Roy & Natasha McHardy
Wil Aballe Art Projects opened in January of this year and this young gallerist is already impressing us with his thoughtful programming, covetable editions (the Aurel Schmidt print he launched has already sold out), and sheer enthusiasm. Aballe’s gallery is also his modestly-sized studio apartment so he lives with the work he shows. His latest venture features the work of Vancouver-based artists Marina Roy and Natasha McHardy who have collaborated since 2003 – in one memorable video, the duo took on the guise of deranged housewives enacting a cooking performance, very much in the spirit of Martha Rosler’s influential Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975. In their current show, Shell Game, Roy and McHardy present distinct bodies of work but they marry well together displaying a common surreal sensibility and scale that complement one another and are effectively installed in Aballe’s multi-purpose space.
Shell Game combines fourteen works by McHardy and Roy and focuses on small-scale works on paper and vellum. McHardy presents drawings and collages employing simplified forms and a folk aesthetic. Her cartoon-like, otherworldly drawing Drive In features a large movie screen set against a twinkly night sky; the film is just at the iconic moment of lovers drawing in towards one another, moments away from a kiss. Strangely, the screen is set up directly behind a swimming pool, surrounded by cacti and a palm tree. McHardy’s collages also involve drawing – their saturated hues are rendered by the artist’s hand to evoke particular colours and textures. Her collages float in their frames depicting eerily empty spaces that recall stages or sets, created from triangle, dome and trapezoid shapes, abstractions combined to form loose representations of strange and simple architecture. The way the spaces are constructed denies traditional perspective, adding to the deliberately child-like and fantastical quality of the imagery. It isn’t quite accurate to say the sets McHardy depicts are devoid of representation: pool ladders allude to alternative worlds beyond the frame, palm trees and cacti recur suggesting an exotic and distant locale, two strange anthropomorphic golden forms appear to peer into vitrine – are they animate or inanimate? A silhouette of a figure with rabbit ears pops up in two works – is this a benevolent or sinister character? These forms and figures which are recurrent in her practice all add to the mystery of McHardy’s creations, and render them much more complex than their craft-collage appearance would imply. The theatrical setting evokes the idea of looking and viewing and that’s certainly what McHardy’s works demand.
Roy also relies on an archive of forms that she recycles. In Rebus (Kings & Creatures) and Rebus (Piggyback), the characters evoke those that have populated her bizarre animated videos as well as recalling previous paintings on glass we have seen. The translucent paper is filled with a floating panoply of strange creatures, both animal and human, including floating faces, skulls and bats, a row of men sleeping in the fetal position, a lion and pig’s head. The range of imagery is diverse and seems nonsensical, breaking down any taxonomic hierarchies and also including inanimate objects and food such as a lollipop, ice cream cone and slice of pie. The combination of these figures and things is simultaneously disorienting and extremely evocative. The result is a surreal, dream-like world, one which is endlessly fascinating, offering a multiplicity of interpretations and possible narratives, as if Roy has presented characters in a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, just waiting to enact a story of your imagining, perhaps on McHardy’s unoccupied stage sets. While rendered in a deliberately cartoonish and naïve style, some of the imagery is dark (a two-headed sheep, a child being spanked, a figure gagged and bound being swarmed by bees) and some of it is sexual, a kinky surprise when you take a closer look at the candy-coloured pictures. Roy successfully subverts your initial expectations. Another pairing of her paintings involves brightly coloured organs and body parts, glowing in volcanic shades of pink, orange, yellow and flesh tone; beside it is an abstracted group of red, pink and grey dots, row up on row, which take on a strangely anthropomorphic quality recalling spot of blood or test swabs, each sample slightly different than the next.
The title of the show, Shell Game, refers to the old street con in which the mark tries to determine which walnut shell covers the pea. Alluding to this trickery, the artists ask the viewer to consider the idea of visual deception, suggesting that their audience should be aware of the symbolic power of images. This is hinted at subtly and just like a shell game, only the astute observer will avoid simply being seduced by these playful and deliberately unassuming images.