Outside the Palace of Me (Art Canada Institute, 2021) by artist Shary Boyle is an exhibition catalogue for a stunning eponymous body of her multimedia and ceramic works that debuted at the Gardiner Museum in February 2022. While this catalogue is a highly conceptual and well-executed offering from an artist at the peak of her abilities, there are aspects of the exhibition that the book cannot capture, no matter how beautifully detailed it renders the artworks. It cannot give a complete sense of the space, which was staged around the idea of carnival or stage performance, nor can it totally replicate the surprise of works that reveal three-dimensional secrets, such as eyes literally in the back on their heads, or moments of jarring kineticism as large standing works suddenly whirl, spin their head, or jiggle their hands. Since no catalogue can serve as a substitute for seeing an exhibition in person, those afforded a chance to see Outside the Palace of Me in its current turn at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (through January 15, 2023) are certainly advised to do so.
However, there are also things an exhibition catalogue can do that a visitor experience cannot. It can, for example, present the smaller ceramic works without the mediation of the display case, with the camera lens shoved up much closer and at angles that the museum context simply does not allow. It enables slow looking and endless return visiting, which is necessary to absorb work so densely packed with symbolism and exquisite detail. And this book in particular offers a fascinating so-called “visual glossary,” which places certain works in direct conversation with their source material, diving deep into inspiration and process that most exhibitions keep behind the scenes, or reference only in text panels that go largely ignored.
For example, “White Elephant” (2021), the show’s largest standalone work, is a huge, spindly figure that sits, hands settled on half-crossed knees, on a small platform stage. Almost everything is white, from her prim bob framing her ceramic face with features rendered in black, to her cable-knit sweater with its row of black buttons, to her pleated pants, to her Oxford shoes with black soles. Here, the color white — not eggshell, not ecru, but flat white — imposes even as it tries to be invisible, just like the privilege it represents. The figure would be unsettling enough just at that, but every so often an animatronic working sends the head spinning in a series of 360º turns. This piece, which struggles with the metaphorically head-spinning task of grappling with white identity, is placed in the catalogue’s appendix with source material that includes racist “varieties of mankind” charts and advertisements, white elephant swap parties, and The Exorcist (1973), which set the gold standard for unsettling head movements.
“White Elephant” is just one of 13 works explored in depth in the visual glossary, and one of dozens displayed in the book, which captures a view of the dynamic, beautiful, and challenging exhibition, if not its perfect replication. It’s a stunning and thoughtful meditation on work that has been a lifetime in the making, by a consummate performer of art across media.