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Shary Boyle uses an overhead projector at the Gardiner Museum on Tuesday.

Tim Fraser/THE GLOBE AND MAIL/The Globe and Mail

Shary Boyle and Christine Fellows

  • At the Gardiner Museum
  • In Toronto on Tuesday

Before cinema, the Victorians entertained themselves with magic lanterns - early projectors with hand-painted glass slides that illustrated and even animated stories, sometimes with music. That vintage medium became new again on Tuesday evening at the Gardiner Museum, where visual artist Shary Boyle used an old overhead projector to make visible the songs of Winnipeg musician Christine Fellows.

Boyle laid her painted, figurative transparencies on the glass as Fellows sang songs new and old from a piano in the corner (with support from cellist Alex McMaster). Often the image was only a fragment that Boyle finished before our eyes with quick daubs of watercolour. Sometimes she moved it by hand across the screen, as in the opening image of a skater passing over a frozen pond, first in silhouette and then as a kind of figurative window over an otherwise blackened landscape. For the chorus of Migrations ("I'm light as a feather…"), Boyle used a mirror to send the image of a girl flitting across the ceiling and walls.

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An illustration is always also an interpretation, and in some cases Boyle followed the song into narrative or symbolic places that Fellows merely hinted at. At the end of What Makes the Cherry Red, Boyle shifted her cherry-tree transparency to reveal skeletons twining their arms at the tree's roots - an arresting visualization of Fellows's open-ended closing reference to "our decay."

They performed in a space adjacent to a group exhibition ( Breaking Boundaries) that features some of Boyle's ceramic works. The venue (way more tony, Boyle told me, than the bars where she and Fellows have done these shows before) heightened the ephemeral magic of Boyle's rapid image-making. Galleries are all about the crystallization of artistic labour into something permanent than can be collected and catalogued. Boyle put the process in front of our eyes, and then whipped away the results - to be wiped off, perhaps, for another show.

Fellows is a terrific partner for this kind of work because, like Boyle, she mingles light and dark, the sweet with the disturbing. One of her songs was a ballad-like number about a girl looking for shelter and gingerbread at a neighbour's house after her father has gone out drinking. The girl ends up dying in her sleep, and ascends to a gingerbread heaven. Boyle's image of this waif was almost like something from a mid-century greeting card, and when the girl sang her refrain, an overlaid transparency animated her mouth (and, hilariously, her dog's tongue). It was like watching a Saturday-morning cartoon, except for the pain and neglect roiling under the narrative.

A lot of Boyle's gallery work makes use of old-fashioned, supposedly down-market means (such as slip-cast hobby porcelain), and she clearly responds to the magic lantern in the same way. Her scenarios were all framed with a silhouette stage curtain that looked very Victorian. For Fellows's song Cruel Jim, she moved an iris opening over a vintage photograph of a dour-looking man, while with the other hand she gradually blackened the area around his eyes, till his face became a frightening, barely human mask that we never saw in full.

Fellows's songs were hugely magnified by these efforts, though they're not at all skimpy on their own. For her final number, the apocalyptic Not Wanted on the Voyage, she stood up in front of the illuminated screen and accompanied herself on ukulele, pausing only a moment as Boyle flung a sheet over her head. It was a touching display of trust, and purposeful silliness, from a pair of enchanting performers.

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