Tricia Middleton’s exhibition is immersively submerged

by Gregory Beatty

photo by Darrol Hofmeister

art-2Tricia Middleton: Joy Is Just Melancholy With A Really Strong Sense Of Purpose
Sherwood Village Gallery
Until April 22

“Immersive” was the word of the day when Tricia Middleton’s exhibition Joy is just melancholy with a really strong sense of purpose opened at Sherwood Village Gallery on Valentine’s Day.

Mother Nature, you may recall, served up a doozey of a blizzard that day. Busing out to the gallery in northwest Regina from downtown, with 60 k.p.h. winds whipping up the snow and reducing visibility to less than a block, it was like being immersed in a snow globe.

Because of the tough road conditions, I arrived a few minutes late for Middleton’s talk. But she spoke for an hour so I got a decent sense of her art practice. Possessing a BFA from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, and a MFA from Concordia University in Montreal, she’s exhibited widely, and has also done Canada Council residencies in Paris and New York.

Dagmara Genda’s brochure essay for this show is titled “The Girlish Grotesque”. That’s not a bad tag for a show that opened in conjunction with Material Girls at the Dunlop. In several projects Middleton discussed in her talk, large piles of found and discarded objects figured prominently — most were consumer goods, and highlight concerns about the environment, pollution and sustainability, but natural objects such as sea shells, tree branches, flowers and rocks are also used.

Since graduating from Concordia in 2005, Middleton’s installations have become progressively more immersive. That culminated in a 2009 exhibition called Dark Souls at the Musée d’art contemporain. A long-time resident of Montreal, Middleton had visited the gallery numerous times, and had grown disenchanted with some aspects of its architecture that, she felt, sucked the life out of art on display.

To overcome this problem, Middleton built an enclosed space in the gallery that viewers could enter and explore. The space included a false floor and walls, along with a ceiling/sky fashioned from a large swath of blue fabric. The installation encompassed several rooms, and featured two video works: one depicting a star-lit night sky, the other a verdant forest.

Joy is just melancholy with a really strong sense of purpose isn’t as ambitious. Nonetheless, the exhibition is somewhat immersive, with seven sculptural groupings that you can wander around and examine from different angles.

The gallery walls have been painted bluish-silver too, complete with a whitish-yellow blob/drip motif.

As I was viewing the show, it occurred to me that the blobs were generally in pairs and aligned horizontally so that they resembled sets of eyes. But then it struck me that with the drips flowing down they also resembled tentacled jellyfish. Combined with the bluish-silver walls, that gave the installation an undersea vibe — creating a submersive experience, if you will.

One large mound-shape resembled a natural formation but the other sculptural groupings consisted mostly of conglomerations of manufactured objects such as glass bottles, a step ladder, mop, bucket, shoes, jugs, gloves, aluminum cans, wood pallets, plates, candles — you name it.

Initially, I pictured the groupings as being remnants of a lost civilization such as Atlantis — okay, first I thought about Disney’s Little Mermaid, because most the sculptures have a pearlescent pinkish-green-blue quality from the thick layer of wax and spray foam that Middleton’s applied, and I could totally see Ariel and her buds frolicking among them.

Hey, Genda’s essay does have “Girlish” in the title, remember?

Now, on to the “Grotesque”. Thanks to their wax coating, the sculptures do have a magical aura from a distance. But when you study them in detail, you realize just how extensively they’re composed of recognizable consumer goods. A couple of them even have tufts of prairie-type grass embedded in them.

That reinforced the flood analogy in my mind, although it later occurred to me that the detritus could’ve been due to a shipwreck, with underwater currents swirling the objects into disordered piles. Or maybe the groupings are meant to represent an underwater environment degraded by illegal dumping?

The foam and wax Middleton uses to coat and fuse everything together reminded of Aganthea Dyck’s famous bee hive works where she inserted shoes, cups and other consumer goods into hives and let bees build honeycombs around them to create sculptures. There’s a similar sense of that happening here, although instead of bees and honey the transformative agents are sediment and maybe aquatic life such as barnacles and coral.

That’s true of all the objects except for a handful that, for some reason, haven’t been impacted by this process. Instead, they exist in their “natural” manufactured state. Most are ceramic knick knacks such as cats, dogs and dinosaurs, and once you notice them they definitely stand out — which is presumably Middleton’s intent.

Although why they remain untouched by the wax and foam, I’m not exactly sure. Are they meant to be identifiable characters in the tableaux she’s constructed, or perhaps signifiers of some superhuman or divine presence?

Further on the “Grotesque” side, there’s evidence of human body parts — the most graphic being a lower torso. Yes, it’s somewhat doll-like. But still, it’s a torso — child-size to boot! There’s hands and bones too. And under the wax, who knows what lurks?

Not that this is a macabre show. Mostly, it’s a visual delight. And well worth a trek out to Sherwood Village Gallery. Even during a blizzard.