Your Blood is Marbles: Jon Rafman at the Venice Biennale

Your Blood is Marbles: Jon Rafman at the Venice Biennale

 by Anna Kovler

At the 58th Venice Biennale the full force of Jon Rafman’s artistic skill for weirdness, animation and the absurd manifested in two works, one of them a feature-length epic film starring a girl in a Xanax cap. Dream Journal 2016-2019 follows a strange “dog-seal boy” who only has a head and legs, and Xanax Girl, who encounters an onslaught of outrageous situations while she tries to find her lost friend. In a bar scene recalling Star Wars’ infamous Cantina scene, the heroine opens a doorknob that is also a knife, slashing her hand while she is assaulted by sasquatch-like creatures covered in digital pink shag. There is an endless procession of dangerous hybrid creatures: giant frogs are followed by scary bugs sexually devouring a woman, a masturbating robot, an evil snail, and an arcade game that swallows people whole.

The protagonist never seems to get a break. A sea of milk appears and she happily starts to ride a merman before monsters in the milk-water attack them, forcing them to defend themselves. In another world she is harassed by muscular athletes with tails and animal faces. Despite her unending misfortunes, Xanax Girl doesn’t die, and when she bleeds, red marbles spring from her wounds, which always magically heal.

The film is viewed from cushiony chairs that vibrate subtly in a room carpeted entirely in a custom rug picturing a futuristic city. The softness of the seating and carpeted floor echoes the strange softness of the animation’s violence. At no point are the extreme scenes too disturbing to watch, despite their grotesque and gory nature. The characters seem to float rather than walk, and each stab wound or devouring is mitigated by its digital quality. Disaster borders on humor. Vomit gushes out in green marbles, blood in red marbles, and Xanax Girl prevails with eternal digital life. “Ultimately I’m interested in romance, tragedy, and pathos,” states Rafman, “but actually in order to achieve these … you need to balance it with humor. For me, humor creates a more honest and less sentimental way of expressing the human condition.”

Tragedy and humor come in equal parts in this absurd, captivating journey, which hints at the sedative potential of both pharmaceuticals and the virtual world Xanax Girl navigates with relative calm and resilience.

Jon Rafman’s video installations Dream Journal 2016-2019 (2019) and Disasters Under the Sun (2019) are on view at the Venice Biennale from May 11th until November 24, 2019. Recent exhibitions for Rafman at Arsenal Contemporary include solo shows in Montréal and Toronto in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

Installation shot of Dream Journal 2016-2019 (2019) at the 58th Venice Biennale. Photo courtesy of Antoine Ertaskiran.


Installation shot of Dream Journal 2016-2019 (2019) at the 58th Venice Biennale. Photo courtesy of Antoine Ertaskiran.


Jon Rafman in his Montréal studio, 2018.

In Conversation: Caroline Monnet

In Conversation: Caroline Monnet

Since 2009 Caroline Monnet has been writing and directing films that centre on the strength and resilience of indigenous peoples in Canada. In her sculptural and installation work she uses materials like concrete, wood, arrows, copper and clothes to explore the complexity of indigenous identity from the vantage point of her urban position and lifestyle. Bringing ancient motifs and stories into contemporary visual form is a driving impetus in her practice, as well as capturing the complex and elusive nature of defining indigenous identity. Her current exhibition, A Whole Made of Many Parts, brings together traditional patterns with materials like plastic, wallpaper and digital animation, layering tradition with current experience. I spoke with Caroline to find out more about her process, films, and thoughts on the evolving reception of indigenous art in Canada.

Anna Kovler: In your current show at Arsenal in Toronto there are photographs of people with a see-through mask over their heads printed with a graphic pattern. Who are they and where is the pattern from?

Caroline Monnet: They are indigenous people in my surroundings in Montreal, intellectuals, artists, and scholars who have a strong influence in the indigenous community. They live in the city so for me it’s interesting to talk about the hybridity of being indigenous and being urban and how we deal with our cultures and traditions. The patterns are inspired by traditional indigenous patterns passed down to me by the matriarchs in my family. I make them on a computer first and I print them on plastic and sow it together to create the mask. It’s always interesting to me to look at traditions, something that is sacred and speaks to my indigenous heritage, and transpose that into something more contemporary to my urban lifestyle and reality.

The mask is about wearing your culture and your identity. I think that your traditions are always part of your psyche, and I see the mask as merging and morphing with their faces, their psyches. I feel society is often trying to put us into boxes, so I made the masks square. Institutions for example have to check boxes and include indigenous people. I also think the design looks like city maps or QR codes and alludes to the future.

AK: In your short Documentary film Tshiuetin (which translates as ‘north wind’ in Innu) you show the first railway in Canada to be owned and operated by a group of First Nations in Northern Quebec. What was it like to make this short documentary?

CM: It felt natural to make this documentary, and the CBC commissioned it, which was awesome. It’s important for me to talk about positive stories about indigenous people, countering the negative image that is portrayed in the media. By putting positive images out there I hope to break stereotypes or romaticization. It’s quite a long train ride. It takes thirteen hours to get there and thirteen hours to get back. It’s a survival train basically. It allows them to keep a connection to the land, and it’s cheaper for them to go buy food down south than buy food in the north, and they can teach their kids how to hunt and to be on the land. I felt like a bit of a stranger, because even though I’m Algonquin they speak their own languages.

AK: Why did you choose to shoot it in black and white?

CM: Black and white was a formal decision because it has this nostalgic feeling and grittiness. It was shot on a 16 mm Bolex. You can play a lot with texture in black and white, and with so much snow in that landscape it worked well. I also wanted it to be a little bit punk so it was important that the style had a rough quality to it. I didn’t want it to look like a news clip, but an art piece showcasing this community.

AK: I love the point of view in this film because it feels like the camera isn’t even there, it feels like nobody notices the camera filming them. Can you talk about how you chose the perspective?

CM: The camera embodies a sort of lurking presence on the train. There is something very iconic about the train and the idea of the long travel and long journey, so the camera is always there but not imposing on the people who are there. I was trying to capture an atmosphere rather than being active, even in the main part, the train conductor is always only shown from the back; he’s the face of the train but we can’t really identify him from the front, because he is meant to represent all the workers on the train, because it’s so much a team effort.

AK: Its been ten years since your short film Ikwé came out in 2009, a surreal dialogue between yourself and the moon or ancient spirit, how has your practice changed since then?

CM: It’s interesting that this film is still traveling a lot and it’s a testament to the emergence of indigenous cinema. It can be timeless, and still accurate today. It was my first artwork ever. It’s how I started, and it allowed me to continue being a filmmaker. Now, being an artist, I see the evolution in my work because I’m working on a feature film with bigger budgets, but it started with Ikwé, a small endeavor in my living room. I did it all myself, it’s super small budget and hand made, experimental. When you have a bigger budget you can start working with crew and directing actors and the film starts transforming and becoming more elaborate.

Also that film started off as personal and autobiographical and now I’m branching out into studying society rather than myself. When you’re an artist you can see your phases and as a young woman, it was a personal exploration at that time.

AK: have you noticed any major changes in the reception or representation of indigenous artists’ work in the last ten years?

CM: I think it’s changing for the better and it’s about time. Institutions are realizing the ways we can integrate indigenous voices into their programming and it’s an important voice to have in our society. As indigenous people we’ve been put aside for the last 400 years so it’s important that we become more present every year. And we’re not asking for that space, we’re just taking it. It’s an exciting time right now for indigenous artists and communities, and we’re staring to see people become allies in taking that space. For example, Isuma, the Inuit production company, does tremendous work up north cataloguing the elders. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, that was a first for an indigenous film, even for a Canadian film. They are pushing conventions and the discourse also, so it’s really great that Isuma is representing Canada in Venice. It shows the world that we exist, which a few years ago political leaders didn’t even recognize. That was only a few years ago, and now every Canadian knows that we can no longer pretend like it doesn’t exist and it’s not there.

Caroline Monnet’s exhibition A Whole Made of Many Parts is on view at Arsenal in Toronto from April 11 until June 8, 2019. Upcoming exhibitions include participation in the Whitney Biennale in New York City in May and the Toronto Biennale in September of 2019. Monnet is currently working on a feature film titled Bootlegger, which will be in production in the fall. Other future exhibitions will take place at the Koffler Centre of the Arts in Toronto and Arsenal Contemporary New York in June 2019.

Caroline Monnet, film still from Tshiuetin, 2016. A shot documentary commissioned by the CBC about the first rail line in Canada held by a group of First Nations. Runtime: 10:57.

Caroline Monnet, Fragment series, 2019. Digital print on paper. 24 x 24”.


Caroline Monnet, film still from Ikwé, 2009.

If You Build It, They Will Come: Alex McLeod’s Ghost Stories

If You Build It, They Will Come: Alex McLeod’s Ghost Stories

Alex McLeod’s work straddles the space between digital fantasy and reality. In highly detailed prints and videos he constructs worlds and characters that feel vaguely familiar but also totally alien at the same time. From a distance, his digital forests or mountain ranges have the right outline and color, but up close it’s clear that computer rendered shapes and planes of infinite variety comprise every branch and tree. McLeod has cheekily referred to his work as a “digital stew,” and there is something apt in his humour because of his slow, dense layering of many combinations of digital ingredients.

Besides preparing the largest digitally printed image in the world for Metrolinx in Toronto, McLeod is working on 3D printed sculptures, prints, animations, and an opera that will debut under the title Ghost Stories in Toronto on April 11, 2019. The opera will be backed by 16th century instruments and features four love songs performed by a singer to the digital creatures in the animations. I spoke with Alex about his process and what it’s like to work on an opera for the first time.

Anna Kovler: How do you achieve such intricacy and detail in your images?

Alex McLeod: It’s actually pretty simple and it has a lot to do with the hardware and software. The advancements in technology have afforded me the possibility to add more detail. But every time you add more texture it gets slower and slower. So there is a finite amount of detail you can put into the work before the computer might say nooooooo!

AK: Why did you choose the title Ghost Stories?

AM: I’m interested in paranormal, unexplained phenomena and I think there is a lot of overlap between the real world and the virtual world, and how things are created in each world. When we don’t understand something in reality, it’s attributed to a supernatural force. Somehow, I am trying to approach the idea of unexplained, or difficult to explain phenomena through empathy to space. I see the discourse around dark matter tied to this idea. Ghost stories can be about anything that’s outside of our bubble that we feel we can control.

AK: If a ghost is the lingering soul of a deceased person that we feel energetically and maybe see as a see-through figure, what do you think the ghost of a computer or server or algorith would be like?

AM: Right? Its funny because we do use those kinds of languages, even in 3D printing. When the machine is buliding up the sculpture in layers there is a thing called “ghosting” that happens, it’s the movement of the last movement that is still apparent, like waves in an ocean, that happen because of the last jerk or movement. There are many examples of digital ghosts, like afterimage, when a computer glitches and we see the last thing that was on the screen. Like a human ghost, a computer ghost it electrical energy that dies and gets reused.

AK: Was it challenging to work with opera for the first time? How was that process?

AM: This will be the first time that I have any performance in my shows. It all started when I met Meghan Lindsay at EXPO Chicago and we really hit it off and wanted to find ways to work together. The whole process was easy and amazing, and I think that comes down to our personalities, and working with an art form so different than my own. There was a mutual respect and understanding for the paramentes of what the other person can bring. She would say, how about this, and it was very fluid and we’ve come up with a plan we are both really happy with. I’m always the one to make things more detailed than they need to be, but in this case I thought, lets keep it simple and see how it goes and later we can add more detail.

AK: Do you think there is a difference between creating something in the digital realm that then becomes physical and say sculpting something out of clay that didn’t exist before?

AM: I think it’s essentially the same, because instead of using my hands in the way a potter would, I use a mouse and a keyboard and a machine to help me produce it. So what I do is similar to what a potter does. On the one hand there is the brain and the idea and on the other, the tool to create it, the medium used. My tool just happens to be a bunch of very powerful computers.

Alex McLeod’s exhibition Ghost Stories will open on April 11, 2019 at Division Gallery in Toronto as a feature show for Contact Festival. His public commission for Metrolinx in Toronto will cosist of 3 kilometers of original scenes along an above ground rail line, the largest printed digital image in human history.


Alex McLeod. GT6, 2019. c-print, 36” x 36”.


Alex McLeod, ROSEBUSH 3, 2019. C-print, 48” x 48”.

Alex McLeod, PINKSHELL, 2019. c-print, 20” x 25”.

Alex McLeod, 2019. Photo by Jessica Laforet, courtesy of the artist.

Symbol, Mystery, Icon: In conversation with Greg Ito

Symbol, Mystery, Icon: in conversation with Greg Ito

Greg Ito is known for his meticulously crafted environments in which light, paintings, sculptures, and architectural features work in tandem to produce a unified, surreal experience. Drawing on a collection of well-known symbols from fairy tales and historical paintings, Ito conjures the biggest themes in human life like love, marriage, longing, and catastrophe. Recurrent imagery includes the intertwined hands of lovers, a snake with two heads, a white rabbit, burning candles, and an hourglass. Yet unlike the fairy tales we all know, Ito’s do not follow a predictable narrative arc, instead blurring the lines between ominous and pleasant situations. It’s impossible to tell whether these tales have a happy or tragic ending, and we are left with the faint realization that we may have been tricked; seduced by the beautiful colors and shapes of the installation. I spoke with Ito to find out why he’s drawn to fairy tales and what these symbols mean to him.

Anna Kovler: Walking into your show at Arsenal I was struck by these giant candles with neon flames. The electric candle is a funny object as it combines a very ancient light source with a modern one.

Greg Ito: I used to include a real candle that’s burning in my shows, to show the passage of time. I love the ability to watch the candle burn and get shorter. Here at Arsenal, I wanted to create this surreal fantasy dream world where time folded in on itself; I thought let’s just freeze these candles in time, and neon was the best option. As these “Alice in Wonderland” oversized candles, they become people in the room.

AK: Where are you pulling all of these symbols from?

GI: I am interested in things we all experience like birth, sickness, age and death, or simply the sun setting. I use symbols of mortality, and they become like avatars for people or relationships. If you look closely at the candles, you’ll see two faces make a single candlestick. All these things are reflections of what I’m thinking of in my daily life, like health or my parents’ health. I’m finding these cycles of life to be so much more potent now than when I was in my twenties. I still have fun, but the older I get the more I notice the weight of iconic life events, and I’m expressing it through this lexicon of images. I like to work with familiar symbols that people can relate to.

AK: Most of these images are happy, but I also get this sense of doom, with the hourglass and menacing spider.

GI: The lurking spider can be many things, it can refer to fear in general. Everyone has a fear of something, be it loss or failure, and this is depicted in the paintings. There is space there for you to project your own life onto it. In a way it’s like looking in a mirror, because you can reflect on things you’ve gone though just by seeing these spiders or hand symbols in a diagrammatic painting. I call them vignette paintings, because of the separated vignettes that create hotspots where I want associations to emerge.

AK: One of the recurring motifs in this show is a cloud of smoke rising from various places and objects, what does the rising smoke mean?

GI: The smoke has been a symbol in a lot of my paintings, and it has a dual objectivity where it can be that you’re deserted and you need somebody, or something more terrible, like a boat crash. It can be either a signal of hope, or disaster. I also want to communicate a sense of longing for a companion, that special somebody you’ve been searching for.

AK: Some of your paintings have this scene where the action is framed with a keyhole, why did you choose this shape?

GI: For me this shape is heavily rooted in the mood of longing. It’s like you’re looking into a world you want to experience, but you don’t always have the key to open that up. You’re peeking through into this world that you see yourself in so clearly in the future, but you’re not there yet. I think that everybody has an idealized idea of what paradise would be, a place they want to get to or experience, and it’s different things for different people, like a family with a house or a really nice job or just freedom. But not everyone’s dreams are realized, either now or ever.

AK: Your paintings remind me of Tarot cards or Emoji icons. Would you say that’s accurate?

GI: Yeah I would. I’ve always been a fan of Tarot card imagery and freemason imagery, and I like how cult images are composed, like old astrology drawings. I’ve also been told my work reminds people of Japanese Hanafuda cards. My paintings are a product of everything I’ve seen, they’re injected with lots of symbolism just like Tarot or other cards.

AK: Are these about love?

GI: They’re definitely about love, and about the fleeting nature of love and time running out. I see them as contemporary “Vanitas” paintings that are meant to remind the viewer that they too will die one day, and all things on earth are temporary.

Greg Ito’s exhibition Enchantment is on view at Arsenal Contemporary Toronto from January 26 until March 30, 2019. Upcoming exhibitions will take place at The Drake Hotel in Toronto at the end of May, Penske Projects in Los Angeles in June, and No Place Gallery in Colombus in June, 2019.

Greg Ito. Installation view at Arsenal Contemporary Toronto, 2019.

Greg Ito. Installation view at Arsenal Contemporary Toronto, 2019.

Greg Ito. Installation view at Arsenal Contemporary Toronto, 2019.

Greg Ito in his LA studio, 2019. Photo courtesy of artist.  Photo by Roman Koval.

Body of Water: In conversation with Nadia Belerique

Body of Water: In conversation with Nadia Belerique

Nadia Belerique’s practice frequently deals with the act of looking. How something looks from behind a piece of glass, from the backside, or underside can completely change our perception of that object. Using symbolic, quotidian things that surround us in the privacy of the home like beds, glassware, carpets and stickers, Belerique hints at the misunderstandings that occur because of our diverse perspectives and vantage points. In her most recent project she explores the Lower Don River, using its glassy water as yet another mediator in the constant act of looking in our limited attempt to understand reality. I spoke with Belerique in her studio to find out about her process of image making what she found in the river.

Anna Kovler: Tell me about this new project; what is the basic idea?

Nadia Belerique: Well it’s something I’ve been working on with Kari Cwynar for a couple of years as part of the Don River Valley program. I definitely decided to engage very directly with the river so I ended up shooting in the river, and making photographs. The site I’m making them for is Castle Frank station, and it’s a long, cinematic stretch of windows above ground. I like these images as a reminder that the river is there, especially at a site that is close to but not immediately on the river.

AK: How did you get around the river?

NB: I asked artist Seth Scriver, who moonlights as a “mud larker” to take me out. Mud larkers dig out old things like bottles, and there is a whole community of people who do this. I knew that he was familiar with the river, so I hired him as an assistant to navigate, and we went out in a canoe. Then you get out of the canoe and fish through the mud. I had a really good time going into the river. A lot of the time things are actually sticking in the banks of the river, where they are lodged. The objects that are more recent, like golf balls, tend to be at the bottom… there were a lot of golf balls.

AK: Looking at these photos makes me wonder if you are overlaying the image with things that weren’t actually there?

NB: No, these are just straight photos of the river. Some are inverted or upside down. I added certain things to the water too, like this glass flower from my studio, and a real flower from a flower shop. And they were taken over multiple excursions. I ended up going back multiple times to the same spot.

AK: Did anything stand out to you in the water?

NB: We found a sole of a shoe, so just this iconic shape of a shoe that I was attracted to. And I’ve worked with that before, and bottles also. Then I restaged the scene, floating the flowers on the water, and re-photographing. I was trying to think of the water like glass because you’re able to see through it, and see to the bottom of it, but at other times it is reflective. I was particularly drawn to this spot in the river where there was a bridge that cast a shadow on the water, so it looked like two photographs in one frame.

AK: Did you add anything afterwards in the studio?

NB: I brought the photographs back to the studio along with other objects that I found and then I took pictures of the objects and made stickers out of those. I used a piece of glass and photographed them on the surface of the original image to create a new shadow. I wanted to respond to the site of a bus shelter in general, because it’s a series of frames, so I wanted to flatten the photographs more by shooting with glass and stickers.

AK: These photos remind me of Tarkovsky’s use of water in his films as a symbol for the subconscious.

NB: I am hugely influenced by his work. This is my second or third project thinking about water and water levels. They don’t necessarily refer to water levels rising, but at the same time they do. I think of it metaphorically like a swelling subconsciousness. I have definitely been thinking of it in terms of psychology.

AK: Like the subconscious, these images have layers of depth and things occurring at different levels of my perception.

NB: Yes, and they are super flat at the same time, because they are photographs. My hope is to make you aware of that flattening. I am attracted to moments when this happens, and look for it in my editing process.

AK: Will the photos have actual stickers on them?

NB: So yesterday I shot five images with different scenarios of stickers, some that include stickers, some of them facing you, and some of them facing away, and a lot of them are images of things that were actually in the river cut out, and others are more abstracted. In one case there is an abstracted image of a flower, so it has a relationship to signage in general. Like this oval can be a circle photographed on an angle, but there is also something indicative of a portrait or a cameo there, or an egg. I like the associations you get with particular shapes, and it is also an act of blocking out, it’s not just an addition, it’s also blocking the frame.

AK: The shapes seem intrusive in a way.

NB: I shot in the studio as the sun was moving from one side of the sky to the other, so they cast a harsh shadow in moments.

AK: The audience at a subway station is totally different than a normal art audience in a gallery, did this change how you work?

NB: These photos are not punchy; they are muddy, dark images. I really wanted to interact with the site itself to make it blend in, but they are not punchy ads. We are so used to seeing different kinds of images in public spaces, and so they might confuse people, but I don’t want them to be incredibly obtuse for the public. I want them to be more intriguing than alienating.

AK: To make it more accessible, would you consider using that Homer Simpson sticker I see on the floor there?

NB: I would never. Not a chance.

Nadia Belerique’s site-specific project in Castle Frank Station will be installed from April 1st until May 31, 2019, as part of Evergreen’s Don River Valley Park Art Program in partnership with CONTACT. Recent exhibitions include CHÈRE at Arsenal Contemporary New York, The Weather Channel at Oakville Galleries, and a presentation at ARCO Madrid with Daniel Faria Gallery.

Nadia Belerique, above and below and so on forever, 2019. Part of a series of five photographs to be installed in Castle Frank subway station in Toronto, Canada.


Nadia Belerique in her Toronto Studio, 2019. Photo by Laura Findlay courtesy of Anna Kovler.

Impossible Objects: An Interview with Maskull Lasserre

Impossible Objects: An Interview with Maskull Lasserre

Maskull Lasserre’s work centers on the relationship between tools and instruments and the raw materials they transform. Often, raw building materials and tools like wood, steel, magnets, axes and anvils commingle with musical instruments in his work, forging a connection between the way musical instruments shape sound and the way other tools build houses, ships, and artworks. His surprising sculptures combine opposing qualities such as delicateness and coarseness, lightness and heaviness, nature and industry. I caught up with Lasserre at his exhibition Immovable Objects, Unstoppable Force at Division Gallery Montréal to find out what inspires his practice.

Anna Kovler: There are often references to music in your work. I’m thinking of the piece Anvil Study #3 (Lyre’s Paradox), which looks like a violin but has the body of an anvil. Can you tell me about this work?

Maskull Lasserre: I played the violin for almost 15 years, so music is very much a part of how I see the world and how I engage with it and I think this is perhaps one of the more literal metaphors between the delicacy and ephemeral quality of music and the manual dexterity of making. I wanted to fuse those two things together in a meaningful way. I believe that emotion and meaning live through physical matter, one is embedded in the other, and you can’t separate the two. I’m so intimately familiar with both of these structures; it did an interesting thing to my brain to unify them.

AK: I feel like a lot of your work has some impossible element, either in terms of gravity or force. Do you want the viewer to imagine actually picking up this strange violin and playing it? Can you play it?

ML: I have it tuned, and it sounds exactly what you would imagine an anvil-violin to sound, it’s not wonderful. Like much of my work, it coalesces in the brain and not in reality. These things are impossible in a practical sense, and yet they exist in our world, so you as the viewer have to reconcile yourself with the fact that these things exist and they have physical authority. Using this object as an anvil to forge something wouldn’t work, so it doesn’t work as a violin, nor as an anvil, it works only conceptually or metaphorically, in the imagination. My sculptures are designed as artifacts or prompts, to get the viewer to complete the action, to complete the story around them. They are not communicating any one thing; they are tools for you to play with mentally.

AK: I asked you before if your piece Ouroboros, a steel piano that doubles as a workbench, was a self-portrait, how exactly is that true?

ML: I try to dissolve the distinctions between tools, artworks, and instruments. If I can dissolve those barriers it makes my physical environment more interesting to me because I’m never sure… the possibility of what I’m holding can go in any number of different directions. You deal with an instrument very differently than you deal with a workbench and yet there is a magical place in the middle if you were to transition from one of those things to the other. Philosophically I think the two entities are actually a single system, you can’t separate the tool from the instrument. They live as one unified whole.

AK: Study for Cord Progression is a massive piece of raw wood barely attached in the middle section where it is intricately carved to make it look like fraying rope or string. Where did the tree come from for this work?

ML: It’s an Ash tree. It took almost two years to carve, and I carved it hanging like that because if you lay it sideways it would flex and crack. So it is strongest when it’s hanging. It’s an experiment; it’s a test like most of my work. I never make anything that I already understand. All of these things, their purpose is to help me understand something that I cannot conceive of in my mind. To see how far I can go with it, how thin can it get before it cracks. It’s a question I pose to the material, and these are the accidental outcomes of the process.

AK: In Fallen Sky it looks like a bird flew into a heavy metal safe door and bent it. What was the most challenging part of making this piece?

ML: Balancing all of the force. It took a hundred thousand pounds of pressure to do that. And it’s so beyond my capacity to imagine that kind of force, and to be working with that was really challenging, and the reason to do this. I wondered, how can you steer that much force to create an effect that looks like it was instantaneous? It took days to press this in, and cut it apart, and weld it and then reorganize the structure of the inside so that it had this geometry, and all that to make it look like it happened in an instant. I think that fiction is what gives it truth somehow.

AK: The piece called Trust appears to be a heavy metal safe on the ground, what’s inside the safe?

ML: Ten thousand dollars in cash. I went to Afghanistan with the Canadian Forces as a war artist, which is a story all unto itself, but through that I ended up designing some coins for the mint and so it’s the money that I was paid for those designs. I received a cheque and it seemed like there was something special about that money, and it seemed right to turn it back into an artwork somehow. So to put it in a safe and weld it shut, to seal it. In a way there is no record of it other than the few people who were at my studio when I did it.

AK: Do you consider the money as part of your savings?

ML: Not really. This work acts as a lighthouse that keeps me honest. For as long as I can live without cutting that thing open, I will. The week after I welded the money into the safe I rolled my truck on the highway. And so for the next six months taking public transportation I would come back to the studio and look at this thing. I’m pleased I had the integrity just to suffer through whatever it took to not go in there. It’s also a wink and a nudge to the commercial art system. How do you value a work like this? Do you value it based on its material properties? How do you build that ten thousand dollars into the value of the work? Here, the value is implied and it’s a matter of trust and belief, that’s why this piece is called Trust, you have to trust that there is that money in there. And there is this wonderful inaccessibility to it; you have to suspend your disbelief in order to believe it, but in order to verify it you’d have to destroy the work.

Maskull Lasserre’s exhibition Immovable Objects, Unstoppable Force is on view at Division Gallery in Montréal from February 6 until March 30, 2019.

Maskull Lasserre, Trust, 2013. Safe, $10 000 (500 x $20 bills), steel, weld

Maskull Lasserre, Anvil Study #3 (Lyre’s Paradox), 2018. Steel, wood, violin components, velvet, sand, potential sound.


Maskull Lasserre, Study for Cord Progression, 2017. Ash tree trunk, gantry, rigging hardware.


Maskull Lasserre, Fallen Sky, 2017. Steel, hardware, paint, European tree sparrow, wood, recovery straps, pressure.

Maskull Lasserre, detail of Fallen Sky.

Psychological Slips: The Sculptures of Trevor Baird

Psychological Slips: The Sculptures of Trevor Baird

 by Anna Kovler

Molding and firing clay is among the oldest recorded human activities. In the Ancient Near East, clay was imprinted with tiny lines to keep records of grain and other goods. The Greeks made clay vessels for eating and drinking and for honoring the dead, the surfaces covered in intricate geometric designs and abstracted figures. In his ceramic vases, tablets, and sculptures Trevor Baird combines this ancient language with the more contemporary aesthetic of comic books, creating hybrid objects that reject the rules of their constituent traditions. His comics either needlessly repeat or are abruptly cut, making it impossible to follow a linear narrative, turning them instead into psychological portraits and snapshots of daily life.

In one dream-like pattern, a face looks into its own reflection in a large kitchen knife held by a severed hand. In another sequence a pair of hands cradles its severed fingers and an arm smashes through a computer screen. A few repeating speech bubbles discuss ripping off Japanese pottery. Trying to make sense of these comics is of no use. Like deciphering a disturbing dream, the viewer must connect disparate puzzle pieces. “I used to draw a lot of comics, and I had a cash of drawings I wanted to use,” says Baird, “they are doodles or narratives that belong to a larger story, so I took that and edited it.”

In past works, Baird referred to identity formation by depicting Hollywood stars like Nicole Kidman and Matt Dillon. He was interested in the gap between who a person really is, their likeness, and what others think them to be. Celebrities serve as a perfect example of an unstable or mysterious identity since the public starts to associate the roles they play with their “true” selves. “It’s really hard to represent someone accurately,” reflects Baird, “because you’re always drawing your own likeness, you just end up representing yourself and amalgamating that with what you assume that person to be.”

Baird works with porcelain slip that is extremely thin, giving his vessels a milky chalkiness resembling fresh cookie dough. As the clay rips and folds it also starts to look like pale skin with stretch marks, folds, and scars, the blueish lines of the comic drawings echoing tattoos. “There is not a lot you can control about the process, it’s a ‘fingers crossed’ way of making a piece,” he says.

After some inspection it becomes clear that we are looking at psychological portraits. Despite being non-linear, the theme of identity and its fragmentation emerges from the comics on the porcelain. On one vase, twin portraits of a woman repeat, suggesting perhaps the storyboard for David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, with it’s mysterious plot and unstable identities. Other recurrent drawings refer to the identity of an artist, and the artist’s pain. We see a severed hand holding a pencil, and a weary character struggling to use a paintbrush so large that it reaches the top of his head.

The special combination of ripped and folded porcelain, sketchy lines of the comics, and theme of identity gives these works an exciting and multilayered complexity. It can be hard to invent something new when working with an ancient material, yet Baird has succeeded in conveying a unique and contemporary visual language through his deft handling of clay. Hitting a nerve that feels universal, these works capture the mechanisms and fragility of the artist’s identity, and by extension the mysterious nature of identity in general.

Trevor Baird’s exhibition A Satyr in the Creamery is on view at Arsenal Toronto from January 26 – March 30, 2019. Recent exhibitions include the group show Clay Today at The Hole in New York City. Upcoming exhibitions will take place at the Chromatic Festival in Montréal, and the Material Art Fair in Mexico City in February 2019.

Trevor Baird, Large Vase 4, 2018. Underglazed Porcelain, Glaze. 21 x 11 x 11 in.


Trevor Baird, Work, 2019. Underglazed Porcelain. 7 x 10 ¼ in.


Trevor Baird, Large Vase 6, 2018. Underglazed Porcelain, Glaze. 21 x 11 x 11 in.


Trevor Baird, detail.


Trevor Baird, installation of A Satyr in the Creamery at Arsenal Toronto, 2019.

Fluid, Data, Blood: New Sculptures by Michel de Broin

Fluid, Data, Blood: New Sculptures by Michel de Broin

by Anna Kovler

Michel de Broin is known for using everyday objects to reveal relationships between mechanical and social bodies. Whether adopting a power drill, bicycle, artillery gun or light bulb, his alterations to these tools point beyond objects to the people who use them, becoming metaphors for the flesh-and-bones human body. In his latest sculptures, knots appear as if by magic in otherwise straight copper pipes, twisting and bulging like veins or intestines. de Broin takes the flow of electrical signals as inspiration. According to the logic of electricity, a resistor only resists if power is running through the network. These metallic clusters resist the force of whatever runs through them, signaling a complication in flow; a loop where fluid must slow down like blood clots or rush hour traffic.

“I’ve been trying to bring out the body underlying mechanical or technical objects,” says de Broin, “and incarnate machines as though they are alive.” Indeed in these works the machinic collides with the organic in a movement that both humanizes the hard machine, and mechanizes the soft body. Although typically used to carry water, these copper pipes entail other kinds of flow too, from oil and gas, to bodily fluids, capital, immigration, dreams and desires. The Anomalies as he calls them, elicit a sense of empathy. We imagine the pipes might feel some pain or discomfort from being all tangled up.

Displayed on a plinth, the work titled Universal Plug In Play represent the opposite formation of a knot. Clusters of square and cylindrical openings grow in star shapes like crystals do out of the ground. Resembling technical attachments or adapters, the sculptures accommodate a grand imaginary network. “I was influenced by the Internet protocol that allows different devices to connect together with ease,” remarks de Broin. Rather than slowing down a substance, these universal adapters would allow for faster flow from a variety of inputs. Like much of de Broin’s work these objects point outward at the larger systems they belong to.

In a climate where fuel, water, and data rule global politics, de Broin’s knots and ports suggest looking more closely at these flows and the roles of individual bodies. As the world hits record highs for carbon emissions, Russia is busy installing a natural gas pipeline under the Black Sea, and the Unites States plans to open new public lands to oil and gas drilling. Resistance seems futile amid the interests of powerful industries, and yet individuals do take to the streets, amassing into blockages and influencing policy. While de Broin offers no answers, the knotty sculptures can be see as an attempt to resist the current, and foreground the human body as a locus of power, potential, and social responsibility.

Michel de Broin’s new sculptures were on view at Division Gallery in Montréal from September 13 – November 17, 2018. Upcoming exhibitions include an installation of de Broin’s Thresholds (2017) at Âjagemô in Ottawa, and Deviations, an intervention in three of Vancouver’s parks for the 2018-2020 Vancouver Biennale.

Michel de Broin, Universal Plug and Play, 2018. Polymer, fiberglass, epoxy, nylon fiber, steel base.

Michel de Broin, installation shot at Division Gallery, Montréal, 2018.

Michel de Broin, Twilight #403, 2018. Light bulb, wood acrylic.

Michel de Broin, Anomaly IV, 2018. Melted bronze, galvanized steel, copper plating.

Fire Indulgence: The Paintings of Laura Findlay

Fire Indulgence: The Paintings of Laura Findlay

by Anna Kovler

Laura Findlay’s latest body of paintings takes the primordial world of volcanoes as its subject matter. Plumes of fire ascend from dark mountains as magma sleeps then awakens under the surface, bursting forth in magnificent colors. At times, the movement of her brush strokes follows the logic of fire and sky, inching upwards in thin washes but then, unexpectedly, another mark moves sideways, making us fixate on the painted surface and the movements of her hand.

How a painting differs from, enhances, and mutes lived reality is at the crux of these works. Arguably nothing on this planet is as intense as an active volcano. The extreme heat of magma in the earth’s crust, explosions caused by sudden cooling, and the racecar speed of volcanic ash traveling down a mountain toward life below are phenomena beyond human comprehension. Life forms die in a flash near an eruption. Mountains form. Islands form. Massive chunks of earth bend and shift as sulfuric gasses hiss and stain the oceans and skies. At these magnitudes, the only way humans can understand these things is as abstractions, ideas, stories, and images. A human life is about 70 years; the average volcano is millions of years old.

The image of a volcano then – whether it’s a postcard or large painting – is closer to an idea than anything else. It’s therefore a little ironic to paint a volcano. It also brings to mind the generative magic attributed to cave paintings of bison and aurochs in prehistoric caves. Perhaps an image can brew some good luck, or at least tame the threatening beast. Both are speculation. Nonetheless, humans are constantly watching, recording, and monitoring volcanoes, and this is where Findlay seeks out visual material to manipulate, from cameras pointed at volcanoes by scientists. Unlike scientific images though, her paintings are half-imagined, populating the world of dreams and fantasies more than of seismometers and computer screens.

Not everyone who watches volcanoes is a scientist. Findlay is interested in a community of volcano enthusiasts who believe them to be supernatural or extraterrestrial. Sometimes a camera streak or lens flare is taken as proof that fairies, pixies and demons are at work near an active volcano. “People want to see what they want to see,” remarks Findlay, “which I think is faith.”

The special combination of Findlay’s raw washes of paint and such iconic, powerful imagery results in a conversation about paint itself, the image as such, and what it means to look. To paint a volcano is to take it as an object of thought, yet its magnitude can never be contained in thought or image, and it remains inherently mysterious. As meditations on the aesthetic sublime and the earth’s primordial, elemental forces these paintings affirm the prevalence of magic and mystery in our world despite the seeming totality of scientific knowledge.

Laura Findlay’s exhibition Tuff will be on view at Arsenal Contemporary in Toronto From January 26 to March 30, 2019.

Laura Findlay, Gills, 2018. Oil on panel, 9.5 x 11”.


Laura Findlay, Brista, 2017. Oil on panel, 17 x 19”.


Laura Findlay, Magic Mountain, 2015. Oil on panel, 24 x 24”.



Body at Zero Gravity: Juliana Cerqueira Leite at the Naples Archaeological Museum

Body at Zero Gravity: Juliana Cerqueira Leite at the Naples Archaeological Museum

by Anna Kovler

Juliana Cerqueira Leite has described her working process as being similar to that of a worm. Working frequently with massive amounts of clay, she literally burrows inside of the heavy material, sometimes at the risk of being crushed. This line of thinking began for her as a student at the Slade School of Fine Art in London where she decided to challenge the idea of an artist “mastering” their material. What if the material crushed the artist? And, by extension, what are the dangers of perpetuating the master-slave relationship within artistic practice? Her answer came in the form of continual struggle, a realistic negotiation of power between artist and material imprinted into the clay itself.

The body is the focus of Leite’s sculptural production, the basic unit where human struggle takes place. Unlike her previous work where the body exerts force from semi-conscious movements like hand gestures, her newest research looks at involuntary physical movement. Pompeii is the starting point of this investigation. Leite is fascinated by the mummies unearthed at Pompeii, where the eruption of Mount Vesuvius created a unique scenario for the preservation of the body. Found in a fetal position, the corpses of the dead were covered in ash, which solidified before the body had decomposed, creating a mould. It was initially believed that the fetal position of the corpses recorded the moment of death, but later concluded that it was in fact the involuntary position taken by the already-dead body when exposed to heat. It is the natural contraction of human muscles.

The fetal position is not unique to the Pompeii mummies. Leite identified a formal similarity in a famous dance move, the trademark pose of dancer Martha Graham, and the “Neutral Body Posture,” the form of the human body at zero gravity, and the basic shape NASA uses to design spacecraft. For her upcoming exhibition at the Archaeological Museum in Naples, Leite will connect these three instances of the human body as it is reduced to pure physics and anatomy. She will work with dancers, recording their interpretation of the fear freeze response with motion capturing technology, and use this data to create a sculpture. The exhibition will also include a series of photographs showing the connection of patterns between the iconic dancer, NASA, and the mummies of Pompeii, a series of body casts, and a live dance performance.

Juliana Cerqueira Leite’s exhibition at the Naples Archaeological Museum is scheduled to open in spring of 2019. Her exhibition “Until Different” was recently on view at Arsenal Contemporary New York.


Mummies of Pompeii, Ancient Rome, 6th Century BC- 79 AD. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Martha Graham Dance Company. Graham pioneered the “Contraction and Release” principle in modern Dance.

NASA’s “Neutral Body Posture”, developed in Skylab studies.

Juliana Cerqueira Leite in her Brooklyn studio, 2018.