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Of Masks and Metamorphosis

Sometimes the least likely places are where you’ll find the more interesting artwork. In past artist features, I’ve mentioned how several sites in the downtown of STC rotate exhibitions by artists (some of excellent quality, in places like Rise Above or Bolete or Studio 4). I recently visited Garden City Essentials not to purchase anything (although the space smelled very good…) but to see Melanie MacDonald’s Lichen paintings. The richly rendered works contrast well with the white walls, and dominate one side of the slim “hole in the wall” space.

The Post Office in Thorold is another such site: the past two exhibitions have featured works by Sandy Middleton and Geoff Farnsworth, and as you read this, Clelia Scala will have either installed her exhibition of new works (that intersect with puppetry and performance, with masks that look evocative on a wall but truly only become “alive” when used by the actors / artists for whom she often creates them) or you may yet have time to catch the opening reception on the 10th of October. The shows there run for several months, so a quick trip to 18 Front Street North in Thorold is worth your time.

A bit more background about the Post Office, before exploring the artistic practice of Clelia Scalia (clelia.ca), whose work is likely familiar to you, if you’ve been an appreciator of STRUTT; it’s an historic space (and I’m just offering a teaser here. shannonpassero.com/pages/community for more) that sat empty for a decade before, in working with Heritage Thorold, Shannon Passero revitalized the space. A bit of the online history: “The Post Office received a National Trust of Canada Award in 2016 and was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act in 2003. Post offices in Canada have always been important buildings in the community. They were often large and impressive buildings in central locations that became meeting places for the residents of the municipality.” Lest you suspect an advertorial, the reason I praise the Office is because all of the artists I’ve spoken to, who’ve exhibited there, have nothing but praise for it. This furthers an idea I put out at the beginning of this piece, in mentioning spaces and people that foster visual culture and local artists in Niagara. (But, if I tell the truth and shame the devil — or The Underworld Crew, and that will make sense momentarily — I’m blunt enough to appreciate the fine wine at all the Post Office openings, which flows freely. And I’m blunt enough to contrast the Post Office and Passero’s actions to those of people who say they support culture and yet have missed nearly every meeting of the Rodman Hall Alliance, and then bark that they’re only interested in “relocating the Rodman collection elsewhere”….)

Returning to Scalia’s work: Clelia’s masks have also turned up in other places, such as in the play Boys, Girls & Other Mythological Creatures (Carousel Players, 2017 – and yes, that’s the one that saw people using “religion” to enact ignorance make the news here in STC). For last year’s Voix de Ville, she fashioned a rich red horned and hideous (in the best possible way) mask for The Underworld. That was one of five masks for that event alone. Other works move into puppetry. Mr. Croc’s Dinner Party (where she created the heads and hands, and frequent and longtime collaborator Alexa Fraser designed the body and costumes) is a favourite of mine. These were made for XPT (Xperimental Puppetry Theater) Center for Puppetry Arts, in Atlanta GA, in 2017. I appreciate these as several characters – such as the lion, with its full plush mane, or the aforementioned Mr. Croc, are all very elegantly clad in tuxedos and ties and tails…yes. I’ll make that pun. After all, humour is an element here, but also the uncanny. That’s a term that arose several times when we spoke, as well as a mutual appreciation — and inspiration — found in literature and reading, from Borges to Kafka. Texts that focus on metamorphosis, but also an uncomfortable sense of interpretation feed Clelia’s work (a possible — hopefully future — mask based upon the discordant readings of Nabokov’s Lolita, that Clelia described and is only at the planning stage, is an example of this aesthetic. This sprouted from a character’s comment that “you talk like a book.” There is always either a dominant, or undercurrent, of the performative in Scala’s mask. When she conceives of them, it’s of them in action, like a musical instrument that might be lovely as an object, but fully lives when “used”).

The Uncanny is something that Jung focused on a great deal, and being less pedantic than Freud, is someone whose ideas have found a wider audience: strange or mysterious, especially, if not exclusively, in an unsettling manner, it’s also a term that offers a hint of the unnatural (like a lion in formal wear, or like the characters in Goatsong, from STRUTT in 2014, where the woman’s mask is a distended face. And the goat headed man is an enduring symbol of perhaps a god, perhaps a demon, depending what you worship…). Theriocephaly (a fancy term for humans with animals heads) is ancient in artistic depictions, going back thousands of years… and perhaps the formality of Mr. Elephant’s Party (2016) is akin to Ganesha, one of the most popular, and widely worshipped deities in Hinduism. Lest I be too academic here, let me mention one of my most favourite graphic novels, The Invisibles, and how King Mob would often loudly proclaim “I worship a God with an Elephant Head!” as Ganesha, among his many attributes (wisdom, arts, cultural) is also a remover of obstacles…But when I saw the not quite life size puppets from Mr. Elephant’s Party, with heads of a Hippopotamus, a Gazelle, a Cheetah, and the previously mentioned Lion and Elephant, I immediately thought of them as avatars, in a mythos from contemporary Hinduism to ancient Sumeria (and if, like myself, you were addicted to LOST, then you see Taweret, looking appropriately maternal as “lady of the birth house”, as she embodies childbirth and fertility. Here Miss Hippo seems to wear a lovely little ensemble in earthy blue and green, perhaps less exotic than the Gazelle headed diva to her right, but less intimidating, too).

What Clelia is showing at the Post Office is a mix of new and old works, under the exhibition title of Metamorphosis. The space itself is a hallway, very simple and tight but quite long. it’s augmented previous exhibitions. Sandy Middleton’s landscapes took on a narrative quality as you read them as a linear story. Geoff Farnsworth presented larger portrait pieces that flanked you like a crowd, that meshed in an unexpected way with the nature of the store itself. The shows are approximately two months long (Clelia’s work will be there until December). A teaser, from our conversation, is that several of the masks will reference Milton’s Paradise Lost, Collodi’s Pinocchio, and Dante’s Inferno. We share, it seems, an interest in Dante Alighieri’s Wood of the Suicides… I’m already imagining the hallway gallery with “faces” you walk between, falling under discomfiting gazes. In a similar vein, as Clelia and I let our conversation roam back and forth, she also introduced me to the concept of medieval schandmaske (shame masks). Another way in which the history of masks is a living — if disturbing — story. Perhaps some are familiar with “plague masks”, with their prominent, exaggerated proboscises that were more feared than comforting, suggesting that your “final” metamorphosis, death, was waiting impatiently upon you….

Scala described her masks as combining several streams of thought, but especially literature and the notion of change, or metamorphosis. Masks speak to this both directly and implicitly, whether literally in offering disguise, or more metaphorically, in offering freedom from pre existing, interpolated identity / identities. Artists from James Ensor to Euripides have employed them as motifs.

Text is also something that is often directly incorporated into the masks. Oftentimes the books, or a fragment of text, will inspire and initiate the process of creation. To offer an overview of her process: Clelia will focus on a phrase, or perhaps even a paragraph, but a point in the text that is notable, and that speaks very directly to her. This references back to how a past teacher in a class on American Literature encouraged students to focus on individual sentences and “unpack them, and it changed the way you read, and how you interact with the text.” These words essentially become kernels that masks are built around, and grow outward, sometimes clearly delineated back to the source, other times changing along the way.

Visit her site: her experience and breadth of her practice is wide, and here I’ve focused primarily on the masks, in support of her exhibition Metamorphosis. But that’s one of many ways in which her artistic practice exists.

Written by Bart Gazzola

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.

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