The pastel children’s images in Carol Wainio’s exhibit The Book, which opened Friday at the Kelowna Art Gallery, are at once inviting and horrifying, familiar and appalling—and therein lies their beauty.
The exhibit presents as a giant storybook with wall-sized images of common fairy tales and illustrative drawings anyone lucky enough to have grown up around a Beatrix Potter collection or a decent copy of Jack in the Beanstalk will find nostalgic.
Cloaked in pale pinks and blues, often with the kind of faint mint backdrop one expects to find in a child’s nursery, each painting harks back to a simpler time when life was about beauty and stories fantastical and repetitive enough one understood exactly where the twists and turns of each tale would lead.
The devil is literally in the detail in this work for, as one approaches each painting, it’s clear the picturesque illustrations serve as both a metaphor and a sharp contrast to the transformational desires in each text.
“The stories evoke a particular premodern moment, a moment of scarcity of things and social hierarchy that we really can’t imagine anymore,” said Wainio, who was described at her opening as one of the country’s leading painters and scholars.
This collection is all about those areas of the world where we can imagine this desire to change still exists, where one might hope to start a toad and wind up a prince, to win over a princess, to run from poverty to the American dream.
Wainio is thus challenging her viewers to consider how modernization, the pursuit of excess, the crisis in the global food cycle and the politics of poverty reflect a timeless power struggle the developed world too easily forgets.
Images of the Puss in Boots storybook sit behind a cluttered foreground of plastic footwear in Puss ‘n Boots #10, homage to the disposable lifestyle those living in premodern conditions struggle to achieve.
This could be a landscape of a Mexican dump where children grow up surviving on the discarded excess of others, but it’s actually an Indian farmer’s field.
The painter was reading Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunder’s work on the Green Revolution in India when she noticed a photo paired with his article that looked exactly like images of farmers in premodern Europe, an ox and plow tilling the fields in the early 1600s, around the same time the fairy tales she studies were written.
The column spoke of Indian farmer’s suicides and how those striving for a more modern agricultural operation and lifestyle are selling their last cow to pay for Monsanto seeds that no longer produce more seeds at the end of each growing cycle, thereby requiring the farmer to purchase seeds again the next year.
Among the many failures of the Green Revolution, these seeds also demand the farmer buy specific pesticides to achieve a successful crop. Soon costs overburden crop yields and the farmers end up killing themselves—often by drinking those pesticides—trying to achieve the very disposable lifestyle that litters their fields with plastic flip-flops.
“I was thinking about those stories and how they were about transforming a peasant into a prince and how the acquisition of things, and the use of transformational objects, is used to achieve great change,” said Wainio.
Jack in the Beanstalk shows up in the exhibit as the painting Jack and the Cornstalk looking at what Wainio describes as one of the more overtly commercial, pre-industrial to industrial transformational fairy tales as Jack’s exchange for the bean is a clearly commercial transaction.
She changes the bean in the story to corn as it’s one of those products that hovers between classes today—food for some, a cure for global warming for others to be used as biofuel, combating the destructive excess of the oil and gas industry.
Wainio researched the original stories and illustrations she uses extensively, discovering that some of the earliest illustrations were hand-copied from one another, a process which speaks to another type of scarcity before printing presses easily mass produced stories.
The copied images were in a sense ritualistic, an important part of handing down stories from generation to generation and part of the art form of storytelling itself that is lost in the consumer process of buying a book.
Altogether, The Book presents an evocative look at the messages given to children in stories, the pictures presented alongside, and the world children are being presented with outside those story books where it would seem everything is disposable.
Carol Wainio’s The Book, organized and circulated by Carleton University Art Gallery and curated by Diana Nemiroff will be at the Kelowna Art Gallery through March 17.