Artrepreneur: An Uneasy Wonderland

Valerie Salez gives voice to her mixed feelings about beauty in Fourth Nature up at the Yukon Arts Centre.

Italian Renaissance grottoes inspired this show.

Salez was fascinated by those layered spaces. One generation of art patrons commissioned artists to create “sculptures, murals and architectural friezes” in caves as part of elaborate and controlled gardens.

They next fitted these expensively contrived spaces with systems to pipe heavily mineralized water over them, embedding, embellishing and radically transforming the artwork.

Over the years, Salez collected vast quantities of knickknacks, teacups and fabric, again because of being moved by them. She has packed and unpacked them, shipping them between studios across Canada.

In Italy, Salez found herself “seduced” by the art and architecture. She was moved, but suspicious of her own reactions.

Finally she knew what to do with them.

At the entrance to Fourth Nature a jumble of grey plinths confronts the viewer. The plinths are deliberately set at uneven angles. On these surfaces stand columns of objects joined with panel adhesive. Small stalactites of adhesive drip down from edges and some of the joins.

A sherry glass sits on a cabbage leaf bowl sits on a carved wooden vase. Most of these towers or totem poles of collected kitsch stand about three feet tall.

The intuitive accumulation that makes up each sculpture feels geologic.

On the floor there sits a little pheasant-like bird, on some sort of crystal object, on top of a doily, with what looks like a pewter thimble on its head.

It charms me. Its simplicity makes a contrast to the towers. It belongs to this world, but retains its own presence. Is it the guardian deity of this shrine, this crowned little bird? I turn to it for guidance, for permission to explore.

Alice from Alice in Wonderland would be a good friend to take to this show.

In the corridor leading to the main exhibition space, there are nubs or fingers of stuffed fabric. From these shapes springs an antler, painted bubblegum pink. From its prongs a cascade of pearls, or pearl-like beads, flows onto a mound of satiny spray-foam insulation, crusted with more pearls, costume jewellery, shells, and a maroon plastic Japanese fighting fish with a blue bead eye. A fictional treasure chest, running over.

Down the corridor and around the corner, the room is framed on two walls with an arch of more fabric stalactites. Centred in the far arch, a moose or caribou skull, painted pale green and bedecked with lace and rhinestones, gazes out over an altered domain.

On the back wall, lace has been used as a stencil to treat the gallery wall itself with blue-grey spray paint.

In the middle of the space we find large stalactites and the fate of Salez’ teacup collection. She smashed them to make these sculptures.

Three cones of yellowish spray foam hang, imbedded with broken tea cups and tufts of fur. The broken teacups’ rose patterns seem wistful in the insulation. The repeated loops of teacup handles make a beautiful kind of movement across the surface. The soft fur and sharp broken edges embody Salez’ misgivings about beauty.

Below the longest, like a stalagmite, a small cone of the same substance grows upwards from the floor.

But let’s turn back to the corner of the room. The fabric stalactites flow down the wall to a corner. In that corner sits a toad. It glowers, green, on pink and maroon stalactite fringes, on a cutwork embroidery doily, with two possibly clip-on earrings on either side.

This toad seems to me the surly king of this inner domain.

The show’s title refers to a description of Renaissance gardens as “Third Nature,” a kind of nature controlled by “Man.” In her artist talk, Salez pointed out that all of the objects used in the show depict some sort of natural object, and reflects that her most intense experience of the transcendent has been in natural places, untouched by human beings.

In breaking them apart and reassembling them in accumulative ways that mimic natural processes, Salez reaches for a “Fourth Nature,” taking control past control to question the representation of nature itself.

Fourth Nature continues until December 22 at the Yukon Arts Centre.

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