Review: The Elemental, new work by Morgana Wallace, at Madrona Gallery (606 View St.) August 29 – Sept 10 2015.
Morgana Wallace’s multi-dimensional images have a striking vibrancy that cannot fail to captivate. Her mythological figures rise up from the page, their bodies contorted into druidic mudras, while elemental forces and fantastic creatures swirl around them. Created from delicately cut segments of painted papers, each of Wallace’s compositions conveys a sense of movement and depth that seems to contradict the work’s humble medium. By virtue of their wafer-thin layers, her paper cut works constantly remind the viewer of their materiality. Yet the incised line suggests a fragility not matched by the content they express.
It doesn’t take long to realise that the majority of Wallace’s characters are female. Initially simply a matter of finding women easier to draw, this tendency has evolved into a conceptual pillar of Wallace’s work. It indicates the importance of female figures in cultural history, and can even lead to a reinterpretation of old narratives. Consider Vesta, whom Wallace depicts with an animal personification of the hearth —a dragon curling contentedly at Vesta’s feet. Looking at the calm energy of Vesta, the dragon submissive yet protective, the two figures channelling a shared fiery power, I have to wonder whether the dragon and maiden of medieval legend weren’t getting along quite happily before St George showed up. But Wallace’s women are not fey Disney princesses with cute animal subjects; these animals are integral to the power of their human counterparts. “I feel like animals are a conduit to the spiritual world” she explains. In Wallace’s world, women are warriors, warlocks, and wanderers. And they don’t take prisoners.
Wallace’s collages have become exquisitely detailed and complex, quite a leap from the looser collage-paintings of a few years back. “It hasn’t been a conscious decision so much as natural refinement of a technique I’ve been developing” explains Wallace. “I started experimenting with paper cutting about 5 years ago and it’s been a learning experience every time I sit down and attempt something.” It was while inking individual pieces of paper for a monotype print that the seed of her current work was planted. “The action of cutting out separate pieces of material to form an image was very appealing to me.”
Wallace’s pieces have a lightness which makes them appear effortless, but they are the result of many hours of careful rearrangement and intuitive experimentation. “I start with a face and the rest of it grows outward from there. My initial idea never usually materializes, but I’ve learned to let the process happen that way. I never pre-plan anything, if I did I don’t think it would work.” Since each limb and lock of hair is individually articulated Wallace is free to experiment with the pose and wardrobe of each figure. “Sometimes I feel like Dr. Frankenstein swapping out limbs and ripping out hair.”
Along with a refinement of technique is a deepening involvement with character design. One gets the distinct impression of looking at characters from a deep and complicated story, captured for just a moment. For Wallace, the imagined narratives present in an image are more potent that set story lines. “One of my favourite artists to this day, is illustrator Victor Ambrus. My mother would read me his books solely because of his artwork. The stories themselves weren’t nearly as important to me.” This may explain Wallace’s shift towards representing specific characters from mythology where rich backgrounds already exist and are ripe for reinterpretation. Yet Wallace’s characters also defy being pinned down to a particular age. Several images, like Precious Cargo, are related to exploration and the preservation of species, hinting at an anxiety that is very much of our own time.
Wallace draws on a range of legends from animistic, polytheistic traditions, including Graeco-Roman paganism, Shintoism, and Norse myth. As the histories and fables pass under Wallace’s knife, they become synthesised by her unique vision. This process allows certain core themes to become clear: the centrality of women as important and powerful, for instance, or connections to animals and spirits. But most of all, the idea of continuity with the past, and that myths can still be potent forms of identity for a contemporary age. The collage activity of Wallace’s work is therefore twofold: just as she snips and positions her paper people, so too she cuts, folds, and re-presents ancient legends. Just like the two faces of Janus, Wallace looks back into the past and forward to the future. The result is an artwork that is as contemporary as it is enchanting.
words: Laurie White
paintings: Morgana Wallace