The face in the oil portrait looks like that of a Pekingese dog, except for the whites of the bulging, staring eyes. There's some kind of fierce need coming through that stare, a need that undermines the figure's resemblance to Disney's anthropomorphic critters. Its fur looks soft, and the light around its head has a glow that's almost heavenly, but this beast with ragged teeth and swiping tongue isn't cuddly. It's hungry, for something in you.
There's a lot of hunger in the figurative art of Shary Boyle. Sometimes the need is for something specific, like sex, but more often it's sharply felt but elusive. Boyle, the Toronto artist whose major touring exhibition Flesh and Blood opens Wednesday at the Art Gallery of Ontario, creates worlds in which fantastic dreams of constraint and escape harden into porcelain, plaster, fabric or marks on paper.
During her relatively short career (she's now 38), Boyle has mastered techniques as out-of-the-way (from a fine-arts perspective) as mosaic tiling and one-off plaster sculpture. The array of media included in Flesh and Blood seems more typical of a group show than of a collection of solo work mostly done within the past year.
"I never wait for a show to make work," she said, while taking a break from hanging the show in the AGO's European galleries, where her work will be seen with a few Old Master paintings chosen by her. "I'm actually really impatient. I get an idea and I want to figure it out right now. But I usually have a lot of ideas for things that might not be practical till someone comes along and says, 'I have this amount of space,' so I can actually do them."
For this show, that someone was curator Louise Déry, who invited Boyle last year to take over her space at Montreal's Galerie de l'UQAM and wrangled touring stops at Vancouver's Contemporary Art Gallery and the AGO (which was already committed to a Boyle exhibition, as part of the Gershon Iskowitz Prize she won last year). Déry wanted a wide-screen, documented view of the artist's entire range of media and scales of work, from paintings and clay miniatures to larger-than-life sculptures and installations.
"Most of my work is really personal, coming out of this endless cauldron of images that are always interpreting my experience," Boyle said. "I have a verbal internal dialogue, like everybody, but I also have a pictoral dialogue that I've developed since childhood, and it helps me imagine how I could make a picture that would properly describe what I'm feeling. And I get excited about materials through that process."
Seven years ago, she got turned on to porcelain, through an underground hobby network of women who assemble and decorate precast Royal Doulton-style figurines. Boyle's father and brothers are skilled trade workers, and she liked the idea of acquiring craft knowledge like an apprentice, from artisans with no particular links to fine art.
"I was so excited about working with these women, about the figurines themselves, and the evolution of a kind of kitschy hobby figurine from this really hallowed and refined place in European art history," she said. "I'm really interested in the economic, class and gender aspects of that evolution, from the king's court to the hobbyist's basement."
Boyle's early riffs on that tradition were exhibited at Harbourfront's Power Plant in 2006, and appear in her 2008 book, Otherworldly Uprising. Those emotionally powerful works infect a reified type of decorative prettiness with deformity and fluorescence, as flowers and extra limbs burst from the shiny flesh.
Boyle has since learned to model her own figures for porcelain, and informally apprenticed herself to a master plasterer, Jean-Francois Furieri, who taught her how to make large plaster sculptures. For a big, soft sculpture, she went to a Toronto weave shop and learned the technique of threading human hair through a mesh-like cap.
"There's a real emphasis in the international contemporary art world now on the artist as the director of a team of craft people," she said. "I have a real class problem with that, because I see it as the artist almost replicating a corporate position, where they have serfs that do the dirty work.
"I still have this old-fashioned romantic idea that art is something about the spirit, and I feel that if you want to make something that has a spirit, and speaks to the spirit of other people in the world, you have to touch it, you have to physically address it. If you don't, if you just farm it out, it becomes a product."
Not surprisingly, Boyle is a dogged worker, who recently spent weeks slaving alone for 14 or 16 hours a day on a single tiled sculptural project. One way she breaks out of her solitude is through live multimedia performances, such as the one she has planned with Winnipeg musician Christine Fellows, for a group show at the Gardiner Museum next month.
"It's a huge challenge, because I have to use my body," Boyle said. "But I love the immediacy of it. People seldom weep in galleries, or laugh out loud, which can happen at a performance." There are so many ways to move the spirit.
Shary Boyle: Flesh and Blood runs at the AGO through Dec. 5, at Montreal's Galerie de l'UQAM Jan. 7 to Feb. 12, and Vancouver's Contemporary Art Gallery June 17 to Aug. 21, 2011.
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