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Wylie: Cozy first impression

Some works of art are really better seen in the setting of a small space. The suite of pieces by Halifax-based sculptor Sarah Maloney called Collapse, currently on display at the Kelowna Art Gallery, shows to advantage in our small gallery space, called the Mardell G Reynolds Gallery.

Viewers can definitely imagine that they are in a domestic interior, surrounded as they are by Maloney’s six framed embroideries, and facing her antique fainting couch. The almost cozy feeling is enhanced by the warm, bright colours in the densely-detailed paisley fabrics, on which the artist has embroidered frolicking pairs of tulips.

Her fainting couch has also been upholstered in orange and red paisley fabric.

These materials and their sensual richness hark back to the Victorian period, when rooms were hung with textiles and were crowded with all sorts of furnishings and collectibles. If you use your imagination you might even transport yourself mentally to Highclere Castle.

What Maloney has been thinking about is the history of the tulip as a cultivated flower and the subjugation of women. These two topics intersect with the encouragement of Victorian women to improve their domestic arts—such as embroidery—and flowers were always considered a suitable subject.

Maloney’s tulips don’t seem Victorian at all, however, as they frolic and dance in pairs on the paisley backgrounds. Even the paisley pattern has an allusion of sexuality, as the yin/yang forms stand for the male and female principles (among other paired opposites).

Maloney’s exhibition title, Collapse, is a double-edged one: The raging tulip market collapsed in the 1600s, similarly to the 2008 housing market collapse in the United States. And when we see the 19th-century fainting couch in her installation, we could imagine the urge felt by a woman of 150 years ago to collapse down onto its supportive surface.

Indeed, the condition known as hysteria was seizing women by the score, causing them to take to their beds, sometimes for years, for no known reason. Treatments ranged from rest to full-scale surgical mutilation.

So nothing in this exhibition is necessarily exactly as it first appears, it takes some looking at and thinking about.

The chaise, for example (or fainting couch, has 20 bronze tulips poking out of it, all their heads meekly bowed. Why have they knuckled under like this—for lack of water, or from the oppressive pressure of the patriarchy?

Although the references in the work are evidently pointing to the past, viewers will not be able to stop there, and may find themselves ruminating on the current status of women, both in North America, and other places in the world, and on the situations of both women of privilege and women of less fortunate circumstances.

Sarah Maloney was born and grew up in Toronto. She then studied at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design for her BFA, and the University of Windsor, in Ontario, for her MFA.

She has since taught at NSCAD and has exhibited her work throughout the Atlantic Provinces.

Though her work has humour and beauty, Maloney’s art seems determined to make us think.

Collapse is at the KAG until March 31.

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