Barbara Klunder at David Kaye Gallery Until Nov. 27, 1092 Queen St. W., Toronto; davidkayegallery.com
A young woman runs through a hot, dense forest. It is June 21, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Insects nip at her bare forearms, her ears, catch in her hair. Animals scurry before her hard tread, birds burst from trees.
She has left behind her wounded husband, her children, her farm, everything she knows and loves. Her young niece runs beside her, but eventually drops off, unable to match the woman’s frantic pace.
Finally, help arrives, from the chief of a Six Nations encampment, a chief who takes her to a British commander, a British commander who must be told: The Americans are planning a surprise attack.
Or so the story goes. And if you don’t recognize this now almost mythological account of the heroism of one Laura Secord, Niagara Peninsula farmer and shop keeper, a woman whose actions decidedly tipped the scales in favour of Upper Canada in the War of 1812, go dig out your Grade 3 history reader.
Toronto multimedia artist (and no shrinking violet herself) Barbara Klunder explores the life and legend of Laura Secord via a spectacular series of madly intricate paper cut/silhouette works and layered paper assemblages at David Kaye Gallery – works that seek to reveal both the reality of the Secord story and the tale’s dreamy, forest gothic elements.
We may never know all the factual details of Laura Secord’s travails, but we can now, thanks to Klunder, imagine her trek through the fearsome woods in vivid, atavistic detail. Where history fails, art takes flight.
As ambitious as it is unnervingly delicate, Laura Secord is comprised of two main elements. First, a suite of small cut-outs – works packed with shapes of animals (birds, bats, stags, cats, frogs, squirrels, snails), farm tools, guns, flags, secret messages, trees in full leaf and plenty of flinty, Day of the Dead-style skeletons – that loosely unspool Secord’s narrative to create a kind of material biography, a tribute in soft, leaf green paper.
These small works are elaborated on by a handful of enormous, visually generous assemblages, (including an arresting, diaphanous paper dress); flat dioramas that make large the allegorical elements in Klunder’s tiny paper puppet show. Stuffed to the edges with dozens of symbolic and didactic creatures and props, the blanket sized, totemic kaleidoscopes – each rendered in firmly cut but onion-skin-thin Japanese mulberry paper – teem with febrile life.
As if that’s not enough, the show is further complemented by a painted treasure box, a decorated lamp, an accompanying Secord-based alphabet book, and a knotted rug and a knotted wool vest.
Laura Secord the show is thus both a literal picture book and a well-educated guess as to what exactly caused Secord to embark on her fateful journey. According to Klunder’s ample evidence, Secord simply had too much to lose, living a life brimming with domestic and natural wonders.
Klunder stages the interior of Secord’s racing mind with convincing emotional accuracy. The shadows and amorphous forms of a forest seen through frightened eyes are deftly recreated in crisp, but never cold, lyrical swipes of blade against flattened fibre.
Chatting with Klunder, one quickly realizes that the Laura Secord story is an ongoing passion with the artist (the two textile pieces in the current show are remnants from a previous exhibition, presented 20 years ago).
Indeed, anyone who has ever met Klunder knows the woman thrives on her passions. Our animated talk ranged from Secord studies to Canada’s cultural need for myths and heroes, to Klunder’s own life (she is kin to Secord herself) as a “loud-mouthed rebel.”
If the Yankees try invading again, Klunder will be ready to do her duty for Queen and country.
How are these intricate works made? They look so fragile.
These days, it’s less fragile, because I’m onto Japanese washi paper, and it is heaven to cut. I found my favourite washi weight, and I use a No. 11 Exacto blade, and zip – it’s like cutting through butter. I no longer have to think about the physicality of it as much, because when you have a bad blade or poor paper, you’re dealing too much with the materials, to think about other things.
In terms of process, I sketch the cutting out, but I take liberties while I’m cutting. But I like the difficulty. I love the difficulty! I always try to make it more difficult. Even looking at these works now, on the wall, I can see where I could go in and cut this here, turn that there …
Where is Barbara Klunder in this work, this story, both?
Ha! You know me, I’ve got lots of opinions! I totally have a sense of identification with Laura. There are things that are very wrong out there, in the world, and somebody has to speak up – and I don’t mind saying what I think.
I started this project with the little works, and then I hit my stride, and I knew it was going to go on, especially with the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 coming up. But I had no idea Prime Minister Harper was going to copy me with his 1812 celebrations!
I knew I wanted Laura to get some respect.
AT OTHER VENUES
Ilya Gefter at Julie M. Gallery Until Dec. 18, 15 Mill St., Building 37, Toronto
Gefter's spectral, diffused-light style is as mysterious as it is entrancing. Gefter is a major emerging talent, a true “painters’ painter” – but there's room for you in the fan club too, because his overriding quest appears to be the giving of visual pleasure. Get in now while the getting is good.
John Scott at Nicholas Metivier Until Dec. 10, 451 King St. W., Toronto
Monsters, heroes, tigers and roaring machines – John Scott never paints, draws, or mixes his media without something to bark at, or alongside. His signature wing-headed angel (or devil?) beasts have taken on a whole new meaning in our us-against-them climate. Long may he rage.
Kate McQuillen at O'Born Contemporary Until Dec. 23, 131 Ossington Ave., Toronto
McQuillen's non-celebration of the 10th year of the “war on terror” takes a new look at conflict via the puffy, feathery, slithering exhaust trails, fumes and other forms of marking left behind by military barrages. Nothing this lovely was ever meant to come from war.