Cynthia Minden’s first discipline was music. She went far in this professional direction, studying in California, Toronto and Vermont, playing chamber music and founding an arts administration company and arts centre in Toronto. However, in 1987 she was drawn to the Pacific Northwest and found herself far afield of the ‘beaten track,’ many miles and inestimable cultural worlds away from the big city artistic matrix of Toronto. In this new world she began to explore visual art.
Attending conferences and workshops, studying contemporary form and paper-making with renowned fibre artists, she embarked on a course of creating two and three-dimensional art in her new media, including that of fine art basketry. Applying ancient, traditional materials and skills to creating contemporary sculptural form felt like a translation of her musical journey.
Earlier studies in music continue to shape the tone of her work, “most notably flute study with the eminent Marcel Moyse, theory and composition with the late Dr. Sam Dolan, earning an ARCT in Renaissance Counterpoint and later, music improvisation with Freddie Stone.” According to Minden, these extraordinary mentors still imbue her process with meaning and ideas.
Rhythms, harmonies, ‘musical’ phrasing, cadences and movements resonate throughout Minden’s visual art. She enjoys working with other artists to create cross-genre collaborative pieces, and has used textual elements, calligraphy and musical notation, as meaningful signifiers and emotional ‘keys’ within sculptural installations and constructionist pieces.
Look Over Look
Shadow and movement comprise powerful formal elements in Cynthia Minden’s suspended figures and mobiles, whereby light and lighting dynamics act as core instruments for her overall compositions; voids, spaces and empty volumes act like silences or intervals in pieces of music, affording reflection, perspective and the intimations or sensations of memory. Her primary influences in the realm of visual art include work with Lillian Elliott, Hisako Sekijima, Dorothy Gill Barnes and Dorothy Field. Drawing on a sparkling array of inspiration, mentors and muses, Minden's art skims the edges of traditional techniques, tying together three-dimensional weaving with innovative sculptural form and experimental mixed media.
Cynthia Minden’s installation piece, Look Over Look, shows keen observation of the figure, of gesture, and of movement. The suspended figures in the series look like joyful trapeze artists or animated puppets that have shucked their strings and turned them into gymnasts’ foils. Minden’s basketry figures are no less gestural and animated. The three-dimensional graphic design of the suspended figures’ arrangements and compositions in relation to each other suggest lines of musical notation or lyrical, cuneiform script. They can also suggest whimsical or mischievous action figures—animated Zen calligraphy characters dropped into three-dimensional, holographic space. Like antic hieroglyphs, the community of figures collectively imply hints of meaning and language through their interactions, cues and symbols, as if you could ‘read’ them and their conjoined communiqué—from left to right, perhaps, like a line of music, or right to left like a sacred text in some ancient forgotten speech—if you only had the key to its esoteric code. In fact, the code is close to hand, resident in the emotional perception of the audience. And, to this internal, essential, human barometer of feeling—collective and universal whilst being uniquely individual and personal to each and every viewer—this installation clearly and eloquently speaks.
The rotund forms also seem to resemble rusticated versions of low-tech scientific instruments. Reminiscent of antiquated navigational tools, spherical astrolabes or armillary spheres, they are like cosmological models of the celestial sphere. The ancient instruments they invoke were actually skeletal celestial globes consisting of spherical frameworks of rings centred on Earth or the Sun, that represented lines of celestial longitude and latitude (and other astronomically important features for astral navigation). Like the meteōroskopion of the Alexandrine Greeks (c. AD 140) or the Ptolemaic astrolabon, the twelfth-century astrolabes of Arabic astronomers in Moorish Spain likely served as the prototypes for all later European armillary spheres. (Elizabeth 1st wore tiny gold models of them as brooches or embroidered to her gowns and cloaks to advertize the British Navy’s dominance of the seas.)
Minden’s spheres show their bony exoskeletons, made of twigs, inside delicately calligraphy-inscribed waxed paper, stretched around irregular hoops like the astral bands that revolve around an armillary sphere to show the courses of the planets across the sky. Their waxed-paper “skins” are actually made of the very thin and fragile dressmaker’s tissue used in making patterns. Dressed with layers of beeswax (adding the intensely sensual feature of beeswax’s perfumed scent), the “skins” are then inscribed with spidery calligraphy like fading, mummified tattoos. Reflective, metallic pigments spell out a mystical Semitic text on one sphere in a fusion of Arabic and Sanskrit calligraphy. Other stained and painted surfaces are achieved by use of oil-stick pigment. The mixture of graphic, esoteric textual elements with abstract painting, rare, rustic or exotic materials, all incorporated upon monumental sculptural form, makes for complex three-dimensional visual texts. They emerge as textured, tactile objects that demand to be emotionally, sensually and intellectually “read.”
The figurative elements present as individual ‘characters’ like dramatic personae in a ballet, whose combined choreography spells out a plot or theme we can follow with our emotional antennae and our sensual appreciation. There is a subtle tension beneath the apparent careless, dancing sense of joyfulness of some of the figures; they seem to betray a sense of underlying strain, of conflict, or of contortion. There is an open-ended story evident in Look Over Look, for this is essentially a narrative (if highly abstract) piece. Like the libretto to an opera that is also a mystery (Myfanwy Piper’s for the operatic adaptation of Miller’s The Turn of the Screw composed by Benjamin Britten, for instance), its story is to be apprehended, processed and interpreted—differently, deeply, personally—by each audience member. Comprised of human gesture and the abstract visual language of elemental shape and form, the paradox of the piece is that it accomplishes this subtle and profound communication with a visual vocabulary that is accessible, universal, esoteric, private, and essential simultaneously. Look Over Look is fundamentally cross-disciplinary in its many mediations.
This artist’s artistic production is sweepingly varied. Her oeuvre has incorporated radically different approaches, materials and moods, but her singular artistic voice is immediately discernable throughout, resonating in expansively shifting media over the years. This voice could be described as reflective and tender, quirky, humorous and whimsical, paradoxically bittersweet and lyrical. It resonates through overall compositions, echoes in volumes or forms, and animates by a sort of dancing rhythmic movement. Subtly resounding through an enormous repertoire of expressions and scores of discrete bodies of works, Minden’s signature style and the aesthetic integrity, the ‘through-design’ of her approach, endows such consistency and coherence across a vast range of works.
In 2012, Minden created an extensive body of works that were part found object, part assemblage, part constructivist canvases. By highlighting and accentuating naturally occurring pigmentation on beach refuse and flotsam, from oxidation, weathering or mineralization, she created highly abstract compositions incorporating meaningful or mysterious objects, like keys or watches, bones or unidentifiable industrial remnants. In one, a piece of tree bark serves as the variegated surface and tactile ground for an azure painterly comment and an old door plate becomes a medley of cobalt and rust. Some pieces seem minimalist in their spare austerity, others baroque. Still other found objects make their aesthetic statement in terms of sheer location, and in relation to the placement of other items. Minden wrote: “I am building a library of artefacts drawn from the landscape, an intermingling of nature and humanity gathered from the margins of wetlands, forest floor and foreshore, intertwined with cast off findings from human civilization. By pairing bone with porcelain, nail with knife and vine, I am looking for multiple meanings, layers of interpretation and a framework for thinking about the relationship between art, society and ecology."
Minden’s simultaneously streaming series of works seem to comprise progressive movements of an integral, essential theme. Uniquely recognizable, Cynthia Minden’s highly personal vision means that her creative peregrinations are all of a piece. All embodying that subtle dancing movement, they dexterously incorporate the harmonies of her Denman Island studio. Can the works be homed within a larger, regional Voice, one we might call the “Western Islands School,” or the “Vancouver Islands Movement”? On first sight, any one or all of Minden’s works seem to announce their geographical roots and environmental foundations like a clarion call, to my eyes at least. But then, I am also long resident in these islands, and I recognize Minden’s visual music as profoundly resonant and expressive of this vast, brooding rainforest, these endless shores.
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