Esker Foundation’s three summer shows share a sinister air

The Esker Foundation’s summer show is vaguely sinister populated by hybrid creatures and surreal collages that blur the line between human and animal beauty and ugliness.

The show which is the gallery’s fourth since it opened one year ago is actually composed of three separate exhibitions: Another Perfect Day a series of female portraits by Janet Werner; Scenic Route which includes dark busy collages of Canadian animals by Dagmara Genda; and Valley of the Deer a 21-minute film by Jillian McDonald that is haunting and surreal.

“I’ve been thinking about the show and it seems kind of light a light summer show but in fact it’s far more creepy [and] sinister” says curator Naomi Potter.

The sinister edge to the work is subtle which arguably makes it all the more alluring: all is not as it may seem as you roam through the gallery. Werner’s oil paintings of women take up most of Esker’s space and at first her works looks innocuous — there are kittens lots of pinks and other cheerful colours and a bit of a pop art feel.

Explore further though and “quite quickly things start to break down” says Potter. Instead of kittens you get zombie-like faces masked figures animal heads instead of human ones stretched or occluded features and artfully disproportionate body parts.

Potter explains that Werner’s portraits are actually composite collages meaning that she references images from popular culture and fashion magazines but often distorts them just enough to unsettle the viewer.

“It’s almost like when perfection goes extreme” says Potter. “It’s … like a full circle so perfection and ugliness or horror are quite close together.”

Dagmara Genda’s pieces though fewer in number make bold statements of their own. One of her works requires that the viewers climb onto a platform where they are fully encircled by her art. This piece appropriately called Panorama follows a Victorian art form designed to give poor folk the experience of travelling to foreign lands.

Both Panorama and the collages hanging on the wall nearby ( Corrupted Animals ) share a similar style: Genda works with images of archetypically Canadian animals and layers them in crowded roiling tableaux. The works have a violent energy — with streaks of red figures vying for space and disembodied eyes floating above the action.

“There’s an intensity and a density and… there’s blood and gore but a lot of the figures actually aren’t fighting — they’re in the pose of animals mating but [Genda’s] taken away the females” explains Potter.

“I think this work is really interesting in relation to being so close to Banff National Park [in terms of] the town imposing itself on this place where these animals are in their natural habitat and are being pushed out.”

Across from Genda’s animal portraits is the theatre showing McDonald’s three-channel work a film created during her residency at the Glenfiddich Distillery in Scotland. Valley of the Deer highlights the Scottish landscape and features fantastical characters in a B-movie horror genre. Like in Werner’s portraits some of McDonald’s characters (played by employees of the distillery and residents from the surrounding area) are ambiguous hybrids of animals and humans. McDonald has drawn some of the characters on the wall outside the theatre and so you can get a sense of the cast before seeing the film.

Besides an underlying darkness Potter points out two other threads that connect the exhibitions. One is portraiture — Werner’s paintings are all portraits Genda considers her collages to be animal portraits and McDonald’s film not only creates portraits of otherworldly characters but of the Scottish highlands.

On a technical level all the artists use some form of collage; in Werner’s case using a variety of references to create her portraits and in McDonald’s superimposing cut-outs of animals in her film to give them unnerving proportions.

“There are a lot of different layers that… infiltrate the three artists” says Potter — and you’ll find many of your own after taking in the show.

ANOTHER PERFECT DAY; SCENIC ROUTE; VALLEY OF THE DEER are on exhibition at Esker Foundation until September 6.

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