Wainio’s paintings are a fresh look at classic yarns

by Gregory Beatty

Carol Wainio - Puss in Boots Copies

Carol Wainio: The Book
Dunlop Gallery
Until June 2

Once upon a time, there was a miller who left no more riches to the three sons he had than his mill, his ass [ mule], and his cat.

So begins French author Charles Perreault’s famous fairy tale Puss In Boots, which was published in a collection of eight stories sub-titled Mother Goose Tales in 1697.

At first blush, the youngest son seems to have gotten the short end of the stick. The cat, though, turns out to be exceptionally resourceful. After persuading his new master to get him a pair of fancy boots, he sets off with a satchel and, through a blend of feline guile, bravery, and even ruthlessness — at one point he threatens to cut villagers into mincemeat if they don’t do his bidding — he helps his master win favour with the king and marry the monarch’s beautiful daughter.

Since then, Puss In Boots has appeared in different guises in our culture, from advertising to ballet (Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty) and modern fairy tales like Shrek. But Perreault’s is the original version.

And it’s a core narrative in this exhibition of acrylic paintings by Ottawa artist Carol Wainio that’s inspired by traditional and contemporary children’s literature.

Wainio’s exquisitely rendered paintings resemble pages in a book. Central images range from smaller-scale linocuts of the type found in early children’s books to the lush illustrations of today. The images, especially in the larger works, are set against generally dark backgrounds composed of streaks and blotches of paint applied in a forceful, abstract expressionist manner.

Wainio, who teaches at Carleton University, and has exhibited widely across Canada and in Europe, has been a professional artist since the mid-1980s and is well known in the art world — but among mainstream Canadians, not so much. Although Wainio did gain some notoriety last September when she outed the Globe & Mail’s Margaret Wente for plagiarism on her blog, Media Culpa, which she started in 2010 to expose inaccuracies and distortions in media news reports and commentary.

Her Book project predates the blog by seven years. But while her initial inspiration came from reading children’s books to her own young children, her activities as an artist and media blogger are interrelated. Fairy tales and other types of kid-lit, after all, play a prominent role in socializing children and establishing their value systems. And the media, which is really a purveyor of narratives, too, plays a similarly influential role in broader society.

Other tales in Perreault’s anthology included “The Sleeping Beauty In the Wood”, “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood”. And the entire collection was titled (as translated from French) Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals.

Wainio breaks down Puss In Boots’ moral message. The cat’s essentially a con artist. He lies, cheats, steals, bullies, and does whatever it takes to advance his master’s status and wealth in society. And the princess, feminists have pointed out, comes across as shallow for being passive and easily impressed by her suitor’s outward appearance.

Wainio draws (paints) a comparison between Puss’s finely crafted leather boots and plastic Crocs. The mass-produced latter are infinitely more plentiful. But are they better?  In fact, study Wainio’s paintings closely and you’ll see oil derricks, polluted skies, barren farmland and recklessly discarded litter. The fairy-tale figures — cats, foxes, rabbits, birds, frogs and more — stand in for capitalists, labourers, merchants and farmers.

This is not a healthy world.

Then again, Puss In Boots is still a rags-to-riches story and those are always uplifting — especially when no one gets cut into mincemeat.