Cynthia Girard, installation view of Unicorns & Dictators, Esker Foundation 2014. Photo: John Dean
It happens every year. After a long winter, Canadian cities come alive in the summertime. Once-dormant streets suddenly transform into bustling markets and outdoor festivals brimming with people.
Echoes of that “carnivalesque” atmosphere can be found in an exhibition currently on view at Calgary’s Esker Foundation Contemporary Art Gallery. Cynthia Girard: Unicorns and Dictators features an array of what appear to be — at first glance — whimsical paintings, banners, papier-mâché and other works by Girard, a Montreal-based artist.
Installed from floor to ceiling and hung on scaffolding throughout the exhibition space, Girard’s art immerses visitors in a candy-coloured world of animals, birds, and slogans. But as Naomi Potter, the exhibition’s curator and Director of the Esker Foundation, told NGC Magazine during a recent conversation, there is a significant “political and social commentary under the surface” of Girard’s work.
Cynthia Girard, Le gendarme / The Policeman (2014), acrylic on linen, 182 x 152 cm. Photo: Guy L'Heureux
Take her painting Le gendarme / The Policeman, for example. It refers to a figure of authority one might associate with a militarized police state; but, in Girard’s world, the gendarme is depicted as a phallic-nosed, Cubist character. “She takes the power away from [such figures] by making them comical,” says Potter, noting that although the gendarme still has a billy club, it has been rendered useless by falling-apart hands.
As in many of her other paintings, Girard has placed the gendarme in a highly stylized, abstracted garden setting. It’s a characteristic that prompts Potter to suggest that Girard’s work can also be thought of in terms of street theatre: an often-politicized art form that may combine performance with protest. “The three elements of street theatre are the action of the play, the setting, and the characters,” explains Potter.
Cynthia Girard, Fraternité (2013), acrylic on linen, 150 x 180 cm. Photo: Guy L'Heureux
One of those characters, or recurring motifs, in Girard’s work is the unicorn. Frequently depicted in mythology and medieval tapestries as an elusive beast, the unicorn evokes the idea of an unattainable state or utopia. “It is this animal that we believe has magical, mystical powers, and that we all want to have a relationship with,” says Potter, “but is fleeting and off in the distance.” Unicorns and Dictators features a series of unicorn paintings that refer to ideal — but sometimes equally elusive — states that people have sought throughout history: fraternity, justice, peace, equality, and liberty. While clearly evocative of the French Revolution, the paintings also reference more contemporary events. The pink and rainbow-patterned Fraternité, for example, is a nod to the Stonewall riots of the late 1960s.
Girard additionally pays tribute to the struggle for human and civil rights in a series of powerful banners that feature the words and likenesses of historical figures, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt: people who Girard felt “were ahead of their time.” But the artist also turns to her contemporaries for inspiration, having invited David Altmejd, Julie Doucet, le groupe Épopée, Henry Kleine, and Noémi McComber — artists known for creating work that is often engaged, political, and smart — to participate in the exhibition. By including their voices in Unicorns and Dictators, Girard has opened up the possibility of the exhibition “as an opportunity for discussion,” says Potter, adding that the exhibition is not “set and done,” but has the potential to be a “productive space.”
Detail of David Altmejd, Untitled (2013), resin, epoxy clay, acrylic paint, synthetic hair, glitter, glass eyes, amethyst, quartz, coquimbite, steel, 89 x 64 x 20 cm. Claridge Collection. Photo: John Dean
That seems to be in keeping with the Esker Foundation’s own approach to presenting art. Since the over-1,000-square-metre, state-of-the-art gallery opened in 2012, Potter says that she and fellow curator Shauna Thompson have been “thinking about exhibitions as a conversation. Who can we bring together who have not necessarily shown together?” At the moment, the gallery’s concurrent programming features a separate exhibition of works by Beth Stuart, an artist whose practice is distinct from Girard’s, although the two can be seen as having a shared sensibility. And, as Potter notes, what we as viewers learn from one artist, we can take to the next.
Cynthia Girard: Unicorns and Dictators and Beth Stuart: Doubting Thomas are on view at the Esker Foundation Contemporary Art Gallery in Calgary until September 7, 2014.
Robyn Jeffrey is a writer and editor based in Wakefield, Quebec.
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