Culture & Conversation

Childlike Estrangement

It starts with a secret meeting of birds, who do not greet you as you enter the gallery so much as stare you down, watching from beady eyes pressed crudely into their white clay bodies. They huddle surreptitiously in a corner, atop skinny plinths of varying heights. You wonder if you are interrupting something, if you should be here at all. Their bodies are childlike – lopsided and fingerprinted – crude, but consistent. You are the outsider among this clique of strange birds.

This peculiar feeling of estrangement persists throughout the exhibition of Canadian artist Jon Pylypchuk’s works at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. With seven major works on display, the exhibition is Pylypchuk’s first solo show in a Canadian museum. Frequenters of the MAC may recognize visual and thematic resonances with last winter’s Marcel Dzama exhibition. It’s no surprise – the two Winnipeg-born artists have worked and studied together, co-founding the Royal Art Lodge, an artist collective, during their years at the University of Manitoba School of Art. Dzama and Pylypchuk take similar multidisciplinary approaches to their art, weaving a familiar, childlike sensibility with the macabre to create works that are playful, threatening and disconcerting.

In the central exhibition space, a large installation of mask-like sculptures surrounds and attacks. The War is at once ominous and whimsical, each piece cobbled together with low-cost and found materials such as scrap metal, polyurethane foam, and vinyl. Taking up the entire space of two gallery walls and connected haphazardly by life-giving electrical cords, their glowing eyes bore holes into those who dare interrupt their gaze. Some look as though they have been violently thrust through the walls, while others resemble languid asbestos growths.

One of the most enjoyable and unsettling aspects of walking through this exhibit is experiencing the alienation effect triggered by the scale of each work. The pieces that make up The War are hung from floor to ceiling, towering above or meeting the viewer at eye level. They impose their presence upon the gallery space, diminishing those who stand in their midst by violently returning their gaze.

Another large-scale piece, press a weight through life and I will watch this crush you, spreads over this gallery’s floor. Here, amongst dilapidated wooden shacks, exists a ragtag group of impoverished-looking, anthropomorphic creatures. Hovering over or crouching down, there is no comfortable way to view this bizarre and lowly community. Examining the nooks and crannies of their shacks exposes more perturbing scenes. They loiter, scrutinize, converse, drink, piss. Larger creatures watch as their offspring hesitantly begin the process of socialization, learning lessons of acceptance and rejection.

These unfortunate beasts reveal stories of dispossession and neglect, exhibiting a world-weariness that is somewhat comical on their half-cuddly (their limbs are made of splintered wood) bodies. A secret seems to exist in the midst of this community as well. Through the cracks of one shack, where a few scattered animals stand shiftily on guard, a body, fully in shadow but noticeably larger than the rest, can just be discerned.

Pylypchuk’s audiences are outsiders in the realms he fabricates, excluded from the secrets kept and the games played, yet privy to the way in which these created worlds reflect their own, however brutish and disturbing this reflection may be.

Jon Pylypchuk is on display at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal until January 4, 2010. For more information, visit the museum’s website.

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