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Ihor Holubizky

Shelagh Keeley
at the Grunwald Gallery, Toronto, September 29 - October 17

Vanguard, Vol. 13 #10, January 1985
[ 835 words ]


Shelagh Keeley has not, in the recent past, been concerned with developing a signature motif as much as investigating the nature of image making, content and the significance of the mark and gesture. She has moved from a formal approach to the mark / gesture, to referential images combined with hand-written text incorporated into the compositions, to the African-inspired images evident in the exhibition, Rites of Passage / Forms of Initiation.

Her interest in African culture, motifs, design and architecture, comes from two extended periods spent on the African continent, the most recent, in the summer of 1983, travelling overland across the Sahara to West Africa and across to the Indian Ocean. Her 'African Journal', a large number of drawings based on her observations rather than experiences, formed an aesthetic anthropological record and served as the basis for the current works, executed on crezon panels (a wood composite with a laminated paper surface).

Keeley arrived at this point from two distinct activities; a private (literally) image-investigation and work for public showing. Since 1979 she has executed a number of sited wall drawings, originally in private spaces, some temporary, and more recently, in public spaces. These drawings provided a counterpoint to her work on paper. A wall, as a working surface, has a character quite different from the regularity of paper, due to conditions of structure, age and situation. It was not an attempt to make larger images, but rather to engage the viewer in a different type of visual experience. These drawings were not conceived as 'works of art' but as a means by which she could explore ideas about marking. In many instances, the character of the wall remained and perhaps directed the resulting image and composition. She has described this activity as the 'architecture of emotion'. In dealing with the crezon works, we are confronted with a body of work that sits (sometimes uncomfortably) between drawing, marking and narration.

There are images in the work, primal torsos, stylized creatures, architectural fragments and references (architectural in a base sense, since one can approach Dogon building not as a science of style but as form dictated by necessity) and geometric motifs, but they are not pictures in a painterly manner. There is an abundance of colour covering the surfaces, earthy browns, deep reds and blacks, but the works are not about colour. Text, of a political and cultural nature, from various sources, is incorporated into the work, but the works are not political tracts or illustrations. The issue is not an ideological confrontation.

There is no attempt to promote a conflict of values, i.e. primitivism vs. industrialism, or a particular bias, and it is futile to project the issue of colonialism or self-flagellating white guilt onto the works. Quite simply, she has engaged a powerful visual lexicon, which has both been embraced and is at odds with the stylistic movements of the past few years.

When Keeley made inquiries about decorations on village buildings, local people were flattered by her interest, but she could not convey to them her activity as an artist. There was no translation for artist, in the Western sense. The 'art' she saw serves a ceremonial and decorative function which embodies cultural values. Decoration is not viewed as an entity separate from its host, whether a wall, fabric or household item. The Western world has transformed decoration into a portable commodity. It can be argued that in both situations, decoration serves to indicate status, but industrial society has stripped it of real symbolic value and equated it with a demonstration of Taste.

The crezon works enter dangerous territory, containing contradictions and ambiguities. There is the desire to break away from the artful stance, but by utilizing the imagery of an alien culture, does it fall into another form of exploitation, no matter how well meaning the intentions?

The works retain the informality of her wall drawings. They are fragments, not quite resolved pictorially, but she has not attempted to re-create the unique situation that the wall drawings afford. She has, instead, imbued the symbols in the works with a compacted sense of urgency and power. There is an awkwardness in the form, but her drawing facility is still much in evidence.

The problem with these works is not with her technical ability to execute, but in borrowing an alien motif (and the accompanying symbolism) with an imposed text, it carries emotional and political implications. Ultimately, the artist must be responsible for the content of the images he or she is using.

This exhibition marks a critical point in Keeley's art-making activity. There is the possibility of pressure to clarify or polarize the issues she has set out, and repeating the same form would be redundant.

Vanguard, Vol. 13 #10, January 1985

Text: © Ihor Holubizky. All rights reserved.

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