I cut my teeth (sometimes literally, on people) as an arts writer on the Prairies, where the #karaokemodernists will ‘argue’ that painting reached its apex in terms of post painterly, or hard edged, abstraction, invoking the name of Greenberg (whom they’ve never actually read) with reverence. This is as foolish – and dangerously ignorant – as trying to say that ideas like surrealism have a ‘best before’ date: this is a moronic idea I stepped in, recently, like dog feces, from someone who makes the mistake of reading ‘manifestos.’ (Who in their right mind reads André Derain when Frida Kahlo so aptly described him as the worst of the ‘art bitches of Paris’ that nearly drove her to give up and sell vegetables in the market, instead of painting?). To try to limit creation – and painting – is inherently the act of a closed mind (regrettably, not closed enough, as such pedants feel the need to ‘share’, like the effluvia from an overflowing toilet…). Portraiture is not a closed structure: it’s an idea, if you will, just as realism has been described as an attitude more than an act, in art making. It’s been pronounced ‘dead’ so many times that it’s either a Lazarus, or – more likely – it’s something that can be reinvigorated and remade by artists, in ways acknowledging what has gone before, building upon it, or sometimes doing something you may never have considered. Like Styrofoam: that white, stiff – can you hear the squeaky, vile, teeth gritting noise it makes when you snap it? Surely evocative, and in the works of Kim Odine Van Stygeren, it’s one aspect of her unique – sometimes quite funny, sometimes quite disturbing – portraits in her solo exhibition at Queenston Mile Vineyard.
Yes, I did have some wine while visiting the exhibition. This has no, ahem, bearing on my review of these uncanny pieces. Trust me: if I’d said I’d abstained, then you’d know not to trust your intrepid #artcriticfromhell. Let us proceed.
First, a bit of background. Kim Odine Van Stygeren is a ‘mixed media artist, contemporary fine painter, craftswoman, and designer, working in oil, acrylic, metals, and 3d structures. For more than thirty years Kim has been a professional artist in a variety of media, focusing for decades on contemporary portraiture….Dedicated to giving back to the community she has called home for 25 years, Kim has focused on arts and culture in Niagara since 2010 [through] granting bodies, adjudicating and most recently as Cultural Program Assistant for the City of Niagara Falls. This is her first solo show in over a decade.’
Her works are both large and small, in the winery space, and one ‘greets’ you as you enter: just as the rough ‘found’ components are a defining aspect of her work, there are other ‘found’ and ‘artistic’ motifs. Eyes, as in the horizontal that is immediately to your right as you enter, recur here. The first piece, just inside, is like many of the works on display, an exercise in contrasts: an exquisitely rendered eye, so realistic that you’ll be unsettled and perhaps periodically look over to see ‘it’ following you around the room, emerges from a rough cardboard surface, still bearing a black logo from its former ‘life.’ Flat rectangles break across the surface, and a painterly smudge of green sits ‘behind’ the solitary, searching eye.
A piece nearby – also with solely a ‘left’ (our left, the painting’s ‘right’) eye – is more abstracted, or perhaps the abstracted, appropriated elements are taking over the composition. A white rectangle (also ribbed cardboard, with a green logo from its ‘former’ usage) has a circular gap, with a black bar ‘behind’; it’s like a bargain bin Malevich, a Suprematist composition done with trash, and that in its construction transcends its humble origins. Less esoterically, it also reads as a bandage, as though Van Stygeren’s portrait is looking at us, wounded, half blinded, but unflinchingly. Wide, long splotches of green and blue frame the composition.
Another – a bright blue eye, again rendered with a delicacy and detail that belies the cardboard box logo that breaks its edge, like a sty in an eye, making you a bit nervous as anything ‘entering’ an eye might – also combines formal geometric elements (intentional, with the ‘sty’, or a blue – as bright as the eye – ‘block’ on the right, or just already ‘there’, in the clear packing tape along, and creeping inwards from, the edges of the picture). The eye is on a rectangular block, more tall than wide, that pushes out from the surface. This isn’t the only piece here that straddles sculpture and painting, as several works employ the natural shape and forms of the boxes that Van Stygeren uses.
What may be my favourite piece here, this architectural – reaching out, not upwards – nature seems to want to reach out and kiss you, as the ‘box’ – or perhaps ‘mouthbox’ or ‘boxmouth’, edit as you will – is painted – open and wide, with fleshy red lips and tongue, a smudge of black around and above it – on a box loosely positioned on a longer box, in an abstraction, or a minimal allusion in form and ‘fleshed out’ in colour and paint, of a face. Again, a singular eye is here, and natural browns and blacks and wear and dilapidation of the cardboard are left alone, so as not to take away from the heavily ‘shadowed’ (as though made up in a style worthy of glam-rock) eye. The painted greens are echoed in the green packing tape. As you walk along the wall, you might turn and find this piece directly behind you, as though it was sneaking up behind you to kiss, but the mouth also suggests those voluptuous lips and probing tongue so often associated with The Rolling Stones, and the caricatures of Mick Jagger. Again, a bit playful, a bit unsettling, and again the sum is more than the discarded – or perhaps better described as recycled – parts.
In a similar manner, the focus upon eyes evokes a number of Francis Bacon paintings I’ve seen, where a bruised face, or a fleshy glut of skin is ‘broken’ by a single eye, like a piece of humanity staring out from a brutalized landscape. As portraiture is something that can engage the viewer – allowing them to find a visual or conceptual foothold for their own experience – so, too, is the eye.
Eyes, recycled components, tape both clear and opaque and now lips can be seen as repeating offerings. A smaller work, installed a bit separately, are of soft, almost inviting lips, painted so as to fill the surface of the box that projects out from the wall. The pre existing words on the box are backwards, and, depending where you stand, are not fully legible through the mouth: the lips are closed, more restrained than the ‘sexy’ ones I previously mentioned, and they seem more silent, more restrained. Other works are more ‘traditional’ portraits, offering more marks and colour to portray a figure, less fragmented and more animated, perhaps. A man, with his hands on his head, sketched in with a simplicity and colour that makes it a bit different from other works, is ‘framed’ on both sides of his cardboard ‘window’ by vertical slats of Styrofoam, like bars. His expression and raised arms suggest a bit of frustration, as though the white packing holds him in ‘place.’
He appears in another work, too: this composition is more vertical, and though his eyes are soulful and very detailed – though looking over and away from us – Van Stygeren has simply a slab of green packing tape for his ‘mouth’, though his hair is rendered in a wavy and gestural style that perfectly conveys what it would look like, in ‘reality.’ The pre existing markings on the cardboard are put to use to allude to cheekbones and his face, contrasting well with the rest of the loose, gestural marks that shape his ear, or shoulders, or the highlights of his face as he poses for her, and now us. The box logos read alternately ‘do not drop’ (up, to ‘his’ right) and ‘great ideas start here’ (emblazoned on his cheek, down to his chin), and only enhance the seemingly arbitrary, but truly not, portrait.
If you’re familiar with Geoff Farnsworth’s portraits, where his foreground and background seem not so much to fight as meld, perhaps coagulate, then separate again, or other artists who blend a textured surface with foregrounds / backgrounds that seem to oscillate back and forth, Van Stygeren’s childlike (not childish) use of shape, mark making (by her hand, or working with pre existing conditions) and colour is well served by how she unites it under the umbrella of portraiture, or the human form. This is something we’re so familiar with that she can push and break edges and expectations, and count on us to still see the person, or people, in her ‘portraits’, even when fragmented, or dissected, into parts. Or even – and this made me laugh out loud, in an appreciative way – with shiny silver duct tape. After all, it isn’t what you use, but how well you use it, in creating an image that challenges and entices.
Kim Odine Van Stygeren’s works in the theme of portraiture – sometimes deconstructed, you might say – is on display at the Queenston Mile Vineyard (963 Queenston Road, Niagara-On-The-Lake) until January 3rd. I visited during the week, and the retail hours of the winery are 10 AM to 6 PM. I must also add that this is the latest example of how many ‘non traditional’ spaces are some of the best for seeing regional artists; the last few months have seen Bruce Thompson’s work at Rise Above, or Sarah Schultz’s art at Studio 4 Tattoo Parlour, or Rob Royal’s constructions at Mahtay Cafe. All images are courtesy and copyright of the artist.
Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, New Art Gazette, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.