Sheila Ayearst

5 January 1988 - 30 January 1988
Opening Reception 5 January 1998 8pm

East Gallery:

Still Life

STILL LIFE, an exhibition of recent painting and photograph juxtapositions by Toronto artist Sheila Ayearst, opens at Mercer Union Tuesday, January 5 and continues through January 30. In describing her work, the artist writes:

When paintings and photographs are abutted, a confrontation develops between their two very different presentations of reality. At the same time, the individual statements made by the separate pieces are redefined and adjusted in the juxtaposition so that a new collective statement, a new reality is formed. – Sheila Ayearst.

Ayearst draws upon Western art history as a source for her paintings. In this exhibition, enlargements of objects from the paintings of Quebec artist Ozias Leduc (1864-1955) are paired with contemporary photographs and news stories depicting human disasters. The result is a confrontation between an ordered, idealized vision of the world and a state in which human affairs are completely disintegrating.

Sheila Ayearst graduated from York University with a B.F.A. in 1977. Her work has been featured in local solo exhibitions at A.R.C. and YYZ, and numerous group exhibitions including Buffalo/Toronto Exchange, Hallwalls Gallery, Buffalo (1987); The Interpretation of Architecture, YYZ ( 1986); and Medium: Photocopy, The Saidye Bronfmanm Centre, Montreal (1987).

Failing world inspires Ayearst’s painstaking craft
Now Magazine, January 14-20, 1988

Given the current popularity of remakes of songs and films, and in the visual arts the copiousness of appropriation, one artist copying another’s work is nothing out of the ordinary. But Sheila Ayearst has raised copying to a new plane. She produces painstaking copies, using archaic techniques and materials so that a work takes months to complete. This slavish reverence for the original seems out of synch with our times, and Ayearst isn’t even sure why she is drawn to copy other artists’ paintings. But the urge comes naturally to her, and she makes effective use of the images that result.

The four works in her current exhibition each have two components –a large canvas showing a detail from a painting by the Quebec painter Ozias Leduc (1864-1955), next to a photographic panel relating to a current event, idea or locale. It is left up to the viewer to construct and/or discern the relationship between the two.

“I think the general message in my work is about anxiety, contemporary anxiety, and our attempt to deal with it,” says Ayearst.

“I tell these little stories about things falling apart. The voice in the photographs is of someone not quite making it in the world, someone in stress. The world is failing for them.”

One of the pieces, Between the Lines, has a painting of a blown-up detail from a still life by Leduc of two eggs on a metal plate. The photo-panel beside this has images of cupped hands, a firefighter and the text of a Toronto Star story about a suspected arsonist whose father is a firefighter.

“The title of this piece, Between the Lines, refers to the newspaper writing,” says Ayearst.

“We tend to take newspaper stories as the true reading of an event, but they aren’t. The writing is so bald and cold, there’s so much that’s missing in the text.

“The eggs are about hope, reproduction and transcendence. Leduc purposely chose his subjects for their transcendent, spiritual meaning. But then, juxtaposed beside this image of hope is the idea of how a child can be produced who is so far from the parent.

“I feel there’s a conversation going on between the two elements in my work, the paintings and the photographs. Painting is really the core, but I don’t want more weight on the paintings than on the photographs, because they are really equal to me.

“The reality the photographs present is so much stronger than that of the paintings that I had to make them a bit smaller than the paintings, to keep them equal.” The decision to pair up photographs with paintings of others’ works came gradually to Ayearst.

“I had been working with the Fibonacci number system, producing abstract paintings and sculptures, while I was studying at York University. This is a mathematical system of proportion that was felt to be a way of mapping the universe during the Renaissance.”

“Then, for no reason that I understood, in l978, I started to copy Giotto paintings. I became fascinated with the idea of mediation, with the space between heaven and earth for example, which Giotto painted blue, or the space between two people.

“It became really interesting to me to try to map out this middle ground. I began by trying to illustrate it, but that became too literal.

“Then I started working with a postcard I had carried around for years, of the St. Boniface Cathedral fire. There was something so horrific about this image of a cathedral– civilization — burning. The piece I did was called Hang Fire, in 1985. That was important for me because that’s when the use of photographs began.”

Fire is a recurrent theme in Ayearst’s work. Fin du Jour (1987) in the current show contains a detail from a Leduc painting of the same title of a workers’ fire at the base of a cliff. Beside this painting is a photo-panel of a construction site in Toronto, a kind of profane version of the Leduc scene.

Rabid, which has the St. Boniface Cathedral fire image again, and a quotation from the arsonist/ organist of the church fire in Montreal from last summer, also contains a detail from Leduc of a burning candle.

To Leduc, influenced by 19th century French symbolism, light, whether from fire, candle or the sun, represented an active, transformative force in life. Ayearst is less specific in her intentions.

“I don’t know why I use fire. It’s just so amazing and powerful. There’s nothing you can say about it that doesn’t sound trite. It’s just the ultimate universal wipe-out image.” How did Ayearst come to choose the work of Leduc to copy? He is still little known nationally, though his reputation in Quebec has always been established, partly due to his lengthy career as a church decorator.

“I had had a postcard of the Child with Bread painting up in my studio for eight years. It had been my favourite painting in the National Gallery when I was growing up in Ottawa. I particularly loved the bowl. Finally I decided I wanted to paint the bowl. At the same time. I had these newspaper articles about murders which I found very disturbing. The two of these just seemed to work together somehow –the image of this transcendent, hopeful bowl became something of a mediating device for me in dealing with a horrendous story.”

What does a viewer come away with from Ayearst’s work? Since so much is left in her art for the viewer to analyze and interpret, probably people will have different reactions. There is pathos and tragedy in the work, as well as wistfulness and poignancy. A streak of black humour slithers through the work as well and, in some instances, there is even a vague sense of hope.

In the end, Ayearst’s art could be seen as an apt comment on the contemporary condition–one of confusion in the face of horrific world events.