Two new exhibits on now at YAC

Drawn Together: embroidered portraits by Meshell Melvin and Doortraits: Intimate Pandemic Images by Alistair Maitland, two exhibitions on display right now at the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery, will be most meaningful for an audience of Yukoners. As you view the art, you will look for faces you recognize. I found this experience both timely and poignant as I walked through the gallery, a mask obscuring my own features.

In both shows, the presence of the artist becomes part of the observation of the subject. The large photograph that greets the viewer coming into Alistair Maitland’s Doortraits: Intimate Pandemic Images features a smiling older couple, seen through a window. The reflection of trees and sky outside would have made them invisible, but for the shadowed shape cast on the window by the photographer’s silhouette, the arc of his finger over the shutter button.
Large-scale photographs high on the wall evoke the distance we have all been respecting and from which we have been viewing each other. Smaller images lower on the wall proliferate the people depicted and bring us, as viewers, in for a more intimate gesture of viewing.

Maitland began making these photographs in the first scary weeks of the pandemic when we were self-isolating, confronting the almost existential presence of all we did not know about COVID-19. He came to realize in that moment “how much of his own identity was wrapped up in his work highlighting the identities, adventures and achievements of others.” He found a way to do this anyway.

I found many feelings looking back at me from these photographs. Intimacy, family love, worried children, brave smiles, staginess and silliness, not only from human Yukon residents but their animal companions. A Northwest Coast-style mask, beaded moccasins–these photographs also bear witness to the household art that sustains us.
No tags give you names, but you will see people you know, even just from the grocery store. The choice to leave individuals unidentified shifts the intent of this portraiture, from the depiction of a particular individual, to a portrait of our community at a historical moment.

In the next gallery, I am delighted to see Drawn Together: embroidered portraits by Meshell. This project dates from 2003 and coincides with my own earliest days in the territory. I sat for Meshell on at least one occasion, “being seen without judgement and with kindness and regard,” as she writes in her artist statement.

Each portrait, drawn in olive green thread on an 8 x 8 piece of raw canvas, claims both embroidery and portraiture for the practice of drawing. The locations or events where Melvin set up her Universal Movement Machine and drew all comers, as well as the years in which she drew each group of portraits, offer landmarks to help figure out who you know here.

As in Doortraits, individuals aren’t named. Part of the mystery of this show lies in looking at all the faces, trying to find who you recognize. I encourage you to circle the space many times, as you’ll notice different things as you go. I am sure that some of the people in these portraits are not with us anymore. I noticed that people are more recognizable from a distance of as much as 10 metres.

Most faces fill the square, gazing directly at you, but some look down, evoking blinking, which gives a sense of rest and relief from all the direct gazes. Some portraits have space around them, children and sometimes adults, which give me a deeper sense of their vulnerability. There are interesting exceptions to these patterns, with some faces drawn in profile, or one depicting musicians playing music, a nod to Melvin’s other practice of drawing performers.
For me, Melvin’s practice draws from her own background as a performer. Over the years, her public drawing sessions have inspired and comforted me. “The greatest work for me is to be fully present with the model in focussed attention,” she says.

Her most recent portraits highlight some of the opportunities that COVID’s proliferation of online communications carry with them. Her portraits from 2020 and 2021 were carried out over digital means, but rather than including only people physically present in the Yukon, they also draw from models across Canada, the USA and Europe. Sometimes the constraints that narrow our worlds also widen them.

What is art? As an arts writer, I like to leave this question open-ended, to give me space to wonder. Looking at these two shows, it seems to me that whatever art is, it is something made out of human attention, including the attention of the artist and the attention of the audience.

I would suggest that the quality of whatever community or culture we might make together will depend on the quality of the attention we are able to pay each other. In these bodies of work and in the performance of their practices, Meshell Melvin and Alistair Maitland offer us examples of some high-quality human attention.

Drawn Together: embroidered portraits and Doortraits: Intimate Pandemic Images opened June 5, and will remain on display until August 27 at the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery.