Wylie: A seemingly simple medium executed on an epic scale

Enthusiasts of outdoor sketching who come to see this new exhibition may suddenly find that their sketchbooks seem unbearably small. Ontario-based artist Carolyn Wren has created enormous panoramic ink drawings that extend over the lengths of two gallery walls, and in one case, wrap to cover a third. The scale of the elements seems to be about life size, and the works are rich with images of overgrown trees and bushes, and a rushing white stream in the forest. All in all, it may mean a trip to the art supply store to scale up one’s art supplies!

A visitor to this show may have many quickly forming impressions, and also various thoughts that come bubbling to his/her mind. For example, what exactly is the odd-looking support material for the black brush-and-ink drawing? Upon examination it is revealed to be the tissue used for dressmaking patterns, tiled and overlapped in various configurations, and pinned to the walls.

So with the intrusion of the printed pattern marks and text, the notion of the human body is enfolded into this examination of landscape and the tradition of representing nature.

Due to the yellowish tinge of the tissue, especially when it overlaps another sheet, one has the odd sensation of being in the presence of something really old, because one associates this colour with aging newspapers, and pieces of dried old cello tape. But the work was just painted this year.

As well, the giant drawings look oddly temporary, the way a Renaissance cartoon for a huge painting project would have seemed when attached to a wall for transfer before painting. It is as though the huge tissue drawing is getting ready for something more permanent that is to follow.

But it is, in fact, a finished work, and the sheer density of visual information conveyed in it by the artist using her repeated representational schema is almost overwhelming. One can almost imagine one is in the woods, walking, and stopping to listen to bird calls. The play of light and dark over the foliage and tree trunks, the way the moving water in the stream tends to blur into white foam—all the plethora of observed data is there.

While in Kelowna to install her work the artist admitted that she hates sewing, which is surprising, as in fact she has extended her practice as a printmaker into the realm of textiles and garments in several instances in the past. So the dressmaking patterns as a support for Wren’s painting is in keeping with her usual thrust, and ought not to be seen as just a stunt or a gimmick on the artist’s part. It is the pushing against the envelope of traditional, editioned printmaking and against notions such as scale, visual reference, materials, and theme that has consistently intrigued her.

Ultimately, the overriding emotion or state of mind experienced by gallery viewers well might be that of nostalgia. Certainly the panorama itself is from the 19th century, and we do not often see large works of representational drawing in our own period.

We may become nostalgic for a time when straightforward landscape art could carry the day intellectually, and for an era when the notion of the sublime still had some currency. There are layers of complex meaning and reference in this work that are not immediately apparent, but like the printed notations on the pattern paper, eventually they make themselves noticed.

Carolyn Wren: Searching for the Sublime is on view at the Kelowna Art Gallery until October 30.




Liz Wylie is the

curator at the Kelowna Art Gallery.






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