MONTRÉAL — It is known that hummingbirds come to the call of red, their eyes configured for a sensitivity toward rouged hues. One could be mistaken for thinking the preponderance of that palette throughout A Pool is Water is an elaborate playground for the delight of those small creatures, widening the conception of audience for whom the show has been made. The exhibition itself performs this concern with the relation between nature through the domestic first given away by the title of the exhibition which quotes writer Joan Didion. Her dry remark on a popular feature of affluent life recasts the luxury as its basic component part. As the accompanying text points out, pools are not oceans or lakes, but fantasies of nature, tamed. Across the space of Galerie Division (the commercial arm of Pierre and Anne-Marie Trahan’s massive private art complex Arsenal art contemporain), the artists beckon birds and bees, snakes and spiders, dog and flowers, not in a call to be answered by their living kin, but rather as enthusiastic performances meant to keep safe distance.
The exhibition opens with Maryse Larivière’s “Bird Baffle” (2016) hanging in front of a bank of windows in the gallery’s second-storey foyer. From the treetops just outside, it is easy to imagine birds peering in at the show, and engaging the sculpture that appears to be an animal plaything, its long wooden body, coral colored, adorned with all kinds of hanging accoutrement, including ribbon, rope, cord, and chain. It is the holographic tape that tendrils out and around the “Bird Baffle” that performs the rub: the tape’s rainbowed reflections are pure delight to the human eye, but for birds they act as a deterrent. It’s the evocation of nature without the complication of real animal presence.
The facade of broached boundaries continues with an affecting curatorial intervention: a large section of the gallery’s front wall has been removed to act as a window into the exhibition. The edges of the cut are unfinished and so the action is legible even if a visitor has not been to the space before. It’s not perfect — the drywall’s ripped edges and cavernous insides are exposed — but there’s little at stake because there’s no outside to let in. What else is a window, really, other than a ploy to have it all, communion with an environment from the safe distance of shelter? Nonetheless, the gesture reads as revelation, acting as an invitation on behalf of the works beyond.
There are Tiziana La Melia’s paintings of crooked animal forms, more the product of imagination than study. There is her poetry, set wandering down a wall in a hideous but cutesy bubbled typeface that adorns every letter with a stick flower, the poem conjuring a field in ripe blossom. There are Raque Ford’s hard acrylic diptychs that set movie quotes and song lyrics alongside cut-out images of insects, flora, and little cartoon devils. Her implication suggests that the construction of an identity is a relational exercise, a bringing together of disparate parts informed by the context in which those parts otherwise exist. There is Athena Papadopoulos’s “Will-o-the-wisps Licked His Lips, Lizzard Seeks a Sip of Angel’s Trumpet Soup, Best Served Cold” (2016), which is a bedsheet colored electric red from hair dye, lipstick, and nail polish repurposing these items of a beauty regime to evoke family histories. The red wash covers over collaged image transfers, embroidery, and lapel pins — symbols both intimate and popular — that are arranged in a spiraling spiderweb pattern with a big black arachnid at its centre. And then there are Megan Rooney’s snakes, which, coiled on the gallery’s floors, mimic escape from Rooney’s large-scale paintings of abstracted landscapes that the creatures are set in relation to. Constructed from clay, fabric, paint, and string, and stuffed with bird seed, it’s almost too easy to imagine that, despite the feigned gestures of the outside coming inside that recur throughout the show, that there is some unintended permeability, that the bird seed is potentially food for, let’s say, mice. It’s hilarious to imagine this scene, of mice devouring a snake, and the inverted logic that the sculptures’ materials could make possible.
Complementing the works in the gallery, Galerie Division has published a book of Larivière’s poetry entitled Hummzinger (2016). Comprising short poems positively dripping with longing, as well as simple line drawings of avian forms (it might be a bluff that the exhibition is courting an imagined audience of hummingbirds, but here they finally appear as images of themselves), Hummzinger is an exercise in prolonged desire. The space between lover and beloved is torturous, but to close that space is to extinguish desire. Through romantic language, Larivière performs the central, if implied, proposition of A Pool is Water, which is that perhaps we do not want the things we long for. Perhaps what we want is the longing itself, and not so much the complex and messy negotiations of boundaries that contact necessitates.
A pool is water, sure, but a pool is also the construction that holds it, and to the best of my knowledge there’s not a single structure amongst us that is not permeable to some degree. As recurring harbingers of the world outside the gallery walls, the works in A Pool is Water mark that boundary between spectatorship and immersion, reluctantly conferring that recasting nature for our own delight is bound to fail.
Editor’s note: The author’s travel expenses were paid for by the gallery.