Saturday, April 6, 2013

Precarious Circumstances ( Sara Cowan )

Sarah Cowan  Precarious Circumstances

Gallery 1580

1580 Cook St

Victoria BC

Review by Debora Alanna

Read a transcription Sarah Cowan’s interview with Debora Alanna here:

Precarious Circumstances is a two person show. This review is concerned with Sarah Cowan’s work in this exhibition.


For surely it is time that the effect of disencouragement upon the mind of the artist should be measured, as I have seen a dairy company measure the effect of ordinary milk and Grade A milk upon the body of the rat. They set two rats in cages side by side, and of the two one was furtive, timid and small, and the other was glossy, bold and big. Now what food do we feed women as artists upon?

~ Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

As scientist Sheldon H. Geller explains, “scientific research cannot prove anything…it disproves error.” By contrast, the perceptive artist learns how to repeat and magnify his errors in order to create his own distinctive style for sharing new truth.

~ ABC of Prophecy: Understanding the Environment, Barrington Nevitt, 1985, pg. 77

There are messages whose codes seem sometimes to be without a key, streaming away from our grasp. Yet through these apparently haphazard infusions, we apprehend the mystery thrall. It is this pulse that moves us ever deeper into those interpenetrating moments where intimations of new mythologies begin.

~ Mystic Trudeau: The Fire and the Rose, B.W. Powe, Thomas Allen Publishers, Toronto, Ontario, 2007. pg. 178-9

Sarah Cowan (Houghton) shares her truth, with a universally accessible medium, paper, cutting in herself, as her part of the two person exhibition, Precarious Circumstances. This version of her truth is new to us. A departure from her previous intensely minute diary drawings/paintings, they are the papery feeling Sylvia Plath wrote about in her poem, Cut. ('O my homunculus, I am ill,/ I have taken a pill to kill/ the thin papery feeling.) Cowan simultaneously cuts out her streams of consciousness while feeding us what cannot be measured. Ironically, Cowan’s work is meticulous, succinct in size, length, fit within the gallery architecture. Codes that become pulse points.

Cowan cut the same forms from single sheets of white paper to create a module, connecting one to another, and repeating the process forming consistent verticals traversing of material suspensions, many throughout the gallery space. Sometimes they break as people weave between the hung streams. Cowan says she doesn’t mind. She says they evoke cellular structure, as round shapes might. These are the negative of a cell, vacant capsules; empty spaces strung together, an interconnectivity of the cellular void intact and together.

Resolute, repetitive, fragile paper cut-out tresses suspended from the Gallery 1580 ceiling to the floor evoke fantasy, nostalgia, for many, Cowan says. Her interpretive intimations of inscrutability, profoundly wispy and tenuous, that would be a feeling, fleeting and nearly indiscernible, Cowan magnifies for our experience.

Paper cutting, cutting as drawing has a substantial tradition. Crafted paper cutting by Mexicans, papel picado. German paper cut art is scherenschnitte, areknippen – Netherlands, monkiri  by the Japanese, and guajian in China or k’e-chih, Chinese paper carving. Polish paper cuts - wycinanki. Psaligraphy is paper cut silhouette. French découper. Mattise, famously relied on paper cutting in the last decade of his life.

Contemporary artists using this medium including Tomoko Ishida, Ayuk Kuperus, Yuko Takada Keller, cut paper to make installations, using multiples and monochromes as Cowan does. They too occupy rooms. Cowan’s work, unlike the mentioned artists uses the outline of the circles cut out to assert form. This is significant. She asserts what was as having form. Her cavities have structure; take their own shape, mutated by the hanging, yet the remnants assert over and over.

Peril lived becomes a condition, the repetition of scored living, incidents circling and dangling. Cowan chose white paper for her work, which colours shadows well. She develops mystery and distraction, holding the audience captive, and in awe of beauteous equivalency that is vulnerability bared.

Cowan’s strength in this document to her sharpness is her resolute work practice, her indomitable rendering of personal history’s endowment that translates into ‘mystery’s thrall’ (Mystic Trudeau: The Fire and the Rose, B.W. Powe – see quote above) giving advantage to her enlivening structure. Walking through Sarah Cowan’s work is walking within wonder. She suspends time, and her beauty as Precarious Circumstances is unquantifiable. What a nourishing feeling.


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