Chickens, crows and groovy angels
Globe and Mail, Sarah Leavitt
Crows and chickens with golden halo cover the walls of the grunt gallery, along with groovy angels wearing headsets and Mary Magdalene holding scrolls printed with the poems of classical Chinese poet Li Po. The paintings and mixed-media constructions have invaded the tiny space in Mirificus, an exhibition of recent work by Persimmon Blackbridge, Elaine Savoie and Suzo Hickey. The three artist have turned Catholic devotional imagery on its head in irreverent explorations of family and identity, violence and death, strength and survival. Mirificus, appropriately, is Latin for "working wonders."
Elaine Savoie's glowing paintings could be mistaken for the works of medieval Greek and Russian icon painters. Flat, with distorted perspective, subjects dressed in flowing robes and gold-leaf halos are surrounded by traditional Catholic iconography – except for a few vital details. First, Savoie has given crow or chicken heads to all her subjects, including the Madonna and Child. Second, she has added her own iconography to reflect personal history: Savoie's family are Meti who settled on Hornby Island and farmed, hunted and fished to survive. Her paintings are filled with shotguns, bullets and beer-bottle caps. In one work on driftwood, a crow-headed Louis Riel holds a replica of the church at Batoche where he made his last stand and Savoie's great-grandmother was baptized.
"Even though I do this rebellious art," Savoie says, "there's a part of me that's very Catholic, very spiritual." Not everyone sees it that way; a traditional Russian icon painter recently demanded that Savoi renounce her blasphemous paintings. But she remains unrepentant. "I'm being sarcastic by using the chicken and crow, and I'm elevating them. These paintings challenge the church's assumption that humans are better than everything else."
Persimmon Blackbridge is know for tackling issues such as institutionalization, pornography and censorship. But in this exhibition, Blackbridge's mixed-media constructions, many of them dioramas, illustrate moments from her own history. Small figures of saints and crosses mingle with vodka bottles, guns and photographs in three-dimensional scenes of family violence and determined drinking.
In Little Red Wings, the artist at age 4 or 5 stares out stubbornly at the viewer, blowing a small horn. Blackbridge says this reminds her of the archangel Gabriel, the messenger of God, interpreter of dreams and visions. As legend has it, Gabriel will blow his horn to announce Judgment Day. Little Red Wings seems like a fitting herald for Blackbridge's revelation of family secrets.
I like to use fire as a transformation symbol and to work against the Christian image of fire as hell," Blackbridge say of the flames surrounding the photograph. "The feathers suggest wings and flight, though they're ragged and worn – not in perfect condition but keeping on." Suzo Hickey's paintings are full of hearts: the sacred heart of Jesus, the immaculate heart of Mary and anatomically correct hearts. Hickey, a devout atheist who left the Catholic Church when she was 16, says such imagery is the only part of the religion that has stayed with her. It now provides the perfect symbol for expressing grief at her son Marlon's recent death from heart failure.
In La Mano Poderosa, the traditional symbol of protection and blessing is transformed. Instead of the hand of Jesus with stigmata, Hickey has painted Marlon's outsized hand, his fingers elongated by Marfan syndrome. Hickey has replaced the usual figures of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and Anne with those of Saint Jude Thaddeus, patron saint of hopeless causes, and Saint Rita of Cascia, patron saint of desperation.
"We all liked Catholic art," Hickey says of her family, "and we adopted these saints." Jude and Rita held particular attraction for Marlon, who knew the syndrome weakens all the connective tissue in the body, including the aorta. "In the end," Hickey says, "his heart killed itself by beating."