While recent events in France still cast a figurative dark cloud over the eastern horizon, the weekend forecast is bright and clear for Vancouver’s annual open-studio arts event, the Eastside Culture Crawl. As Factory Worker Media customarily focuses on “dark” art, given the circumstances we take this opportunity to spotlight a handful of artists who are brave enough to not only address dark themes in their work but to show viewers how this process can have positive, transformative, and cathartic effects for both artists and audience.
Global circumstances have prompted some critics to point out parallels between current events and the historic factors precipitating the second World War – notably the displaced Syrian population seeking refuge in Europe and the politically destabilizing effect of terrorist actions – but creative parallels are also evident (particularly in “dark” music, where the resurgence of interest in the occult is a natural regressive response, which looks to the past as solace and sanctuary from the present.) The destructive effects of war and the threat of death provide a potent and poignant impetus for any artist to create, and, as exemplified by the Dada movement and the Surrealists thereafter, the imaginative mind seeks whatever means it can to understand and come to terms with the absurdity of manmade destruction and violence.
This year’s Crawl features a number of artists whose work ventures into darker territory: both Jenn Brisson and Megan “deadkittie” Majewski take a richly coloured, lighthearted approach to darkness, rendering edgy characters in glossy, illustrative styles (Majewski’s latest work is a series of breathtaking portraits that even caught the eye of Aerosmith vocalist Steven Tyler during a recent exhibition); Desirée Patterson‘s ecologically-themed works literally unite figure and landscape to challenge the viewer’s assumptions about humanity’s role in nature and our collective identity as just one of many species sharing the planet; much of Lee Roberts‘ art features birds in urban environs, including the ubiquitous crow, and demonstrate a sense of anxious, flurried motion similar to harried commuters rushing to unknown destinations.
And finally, Irish-Canadian painter Sibeal Foyle aptly conveys the apprehensions of viewers preoccupied by current events through paintings and drawings which often present the beholder with overlapping ideas, figures, or objects that seem to simultaneously exist in multiple contexts and places.
The underlying thread of displacement evident in Foyle’s work is a persistent one that weaves through both her cultural identity and personal experiences. Born the fourth of nine children in Galway, Ireland, Foyle graduated from art school in Belfast during the politically volatile era known as The Troubles, when conflict between British-governed Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland often erupted in violence. Like all but one of her siblings who settled in various other countries with better economic prospects, Foyle left Ireland and immigrated to Canada.
Foyle relates that her greatest creative challenge and achievement arose in response to the events of 2012 in Benghazi, Libya, where one of her sisters had settled decades earlier. “We were all just glued to every event that was happening…I was just beyond terrified, begging her when I could get through to her to leave, leave, leave.”
She reflects that, watching events unfold from a distance, “you just feel helpless,” and that her response was an urgent impulse to act: “I just started painting. I started thinking about our lives – I chose to come here, and she chose to go to Libya…When the Benghazi situation started, I couldn’t stop painting, I was obsessed.”
The series of paintings that emerged were eventually shown at the first exhibition of art in Benghazi since the revolution. Personally overseen by Foyle (who made the trip alone, carrying 10 large rolled-up canvases in two oversized shipping tubes), the opening drew a crowd of more than 350 people. Bright colours bursting with vitality suggest a heightened awareness of life’s fragility and the intense instinctive drive to pull through the direst of circumstances, while the juxtaposition of fighter jets and armed figures with Canadian landscapes speak volumes about concepts of home and safety, strife and displacement. Reflecting on hers and her family’s experiences as well as the current plight of Syria’s refugees, Foyle says, “leaving home, there’s a huge difference between us who have choices where to go and people who have nothing.”
While mainstream media continue to point out the obvious in its news coverage of events – that destruction, hatred, and fear have not left us – Foyle’s work serves as a reminder that art endows even the most challenging experiences with transformative potential, providing context and creative expression for thoughts and emotions that are difficult to grasp let alone articulate.
As art can facilitate both personal and communal catharsis, one hopes that visitors to this year’s Culture Crawl will take comfort in the work of these and all of the artists on display this weekend.