Today, a kind of collective madness seizes Toronto's art lovers as they range around the city in search of talks, tours and the Next Great Thing. One contender for this designation would surely be Shary Boyle's The Charmed, a 10-inch-high serpent girl who will be holding down the fort at Jessica Bradley Gallery. Is she beautiful or is she grotesque? A bit of both, perhaps.
Not that this is Boyle's goal. "I am always surprised when people find my work ugly, because that is never my intention," she told me a few days ago over the phone. This week has been a busy one, with the artist at work on her project for the Canadian pavilion at next summer's Venice Biennale, gearing up for her solo show, and installing some of her earlier figurine work at the new Maison Vuitton in Yorkville.
Instead, says Boyle, she is merely trying to expand the rubric of what one might consider beautiful in another person, or in oneself. "There is an expression on her face that is very open and very vulnerable," says Boyle, of her little sprite. "But you'll notice that the tail is wrapping around her own neck. In a way, I think this is about self-defeat, about any of the parts of life where you are responsible for generating your own obstacles."
Boyle's inspiration came, in part, from the portfolio of illustrations of natural curiosities collected and collated by the 18th-century Amsterdam pharmacist Albertus Seba. But she could equally have relied on such precedents as Heironymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights in which the frolicsome denizens of this world appear mutated by their unbridled lusts.
The Charmed, however, is a daintier creature. Cupping her breasts in her hands, she emanates an appealing modesty and tenderness, while her coiled reptile parts lurk below.
Boyle naysays the notion of her gremlin as a latter-day embodiment of female original sin – that old wicked sorority between woman and snake that got us kicked out of Paradise. "I think of her much more as the Uncanny. We have a lot of trouble relating to reptiles," Boyle adds. "They are cold-blooded, they don't rear their young, they have muscles, not limbs. We just can't deal."
Is The Charmed, then, symbolic of those people whom we find alien, who weird us out because of how they look or what they believe? "Well, in a way, all of my work is about a kind of compassion, about opening up alternatives – and that's not just about beauty, that's about all ways of being that aren't conventional." Diane Arbus, she says, is a heroine to her, having created a new visibility for non-conforming humanity. "But really, mostly I feel that we are alien to ourselves. No matter how well I know myself, I will always do things that I do not understand."