Being Here: The sculpture of Vanessa Paschakarnis

by Ray Cronin, Fredericton, NB Canada, July 2000

"There is nothing new under the sun," the old adage goes. Sculptors disprove that every day. Consider these objects: large "shields" covered in red pigment, sharing the same basic shape although each is in a different position, as if at various stages of a leisurely stretch. They are disc-like forms with a diameter of approximately four feet. One leans against a pillar, fully extended so that the full form is visible. Another is bent over at the middle, saddle-shaped, with its outer edges curled under as if to lift it up the last few inches off the floor. The third lies almost flat, slightly arched as if it is trying to inch its way across the room.

What are they? One approach is to ask, what are they like? Well, they're like shields, like sand dollars, like human torsos. Yet they are manifestly one of these things. They are neither images nor representations. Weighted ith poetic possibilities, they aren't symbols either. They're beings in and f themselves, autonomous objects that occupy space - in the room and in the viewer's head. Sculptures, in short.

When I was a student at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design we talked about sculpture "activating" space. An object succeeded or failed based on its thing-ness, on whether or not it seemed true, seemed necessary. The conceptual, expressive or poetic content followed - if the object didn't hold together it didn't matter what sort of rationalization you tried to hang on it.

Vanessa Paschakarnis' exhibition, Sculpture and Drawing, set up a dialogue between how these two sorts of human activity are perceived. Paschakarnis' drawings occupy an infinite space, that of the imagination. The differences in how these pieces are made - the labour, the manipulation of materials - are not that marked. The perception of them, however, is vastly different. The difference between the two halves of the exhibition is the basic dichotomy between image and object. Objects are of the world; images are of the mind. 

The term "sculpture" ... underwent a semantic expansion to include more or less anything in the universe. This was possible because of its objecthood; a picture is always, in some sense, a picture of something. But a sculpture is just an object. [1]

As the art of reality, sculpture has become the predominant art of the postmodern, Thomas McEvilley claims, because it is convincing in an age of "radical doubt".

Red Shields convince - these are things in the world, they belong. They are more than merely utilitarian, but they share with their more prosaic counterparts a physical and material logic. Like a hammer, a coffee cup or a telephone, they make physical sense. Where sculpture differs is in its resistance to being consumed. Tools are made to be used, to be consumed through use. How do you wear out a sculpture?

The source of these sculptures is naturalistic - the sand dollar familiar to anyone who has spent time on Maritime beaches. But that source is subsumed under the forms. These works aren't representational in any sense. The physical effect of Red Shields, for they do have a notable physicality, is akin to the feeling of walking into a room full of strangers, to the bodily awareness one feels when under scrutiny by unknown eyes.

Vanessa Paschakarnis uses the object to create an effect on the viewer, a physical effect rather than emotive or conceptual. The meaning of this work is not in any notion of "content," but in the presence of the object itself. More than activating space, these objects fill it, crowding the viewer. 

The relationship between perceiver and object is rooted in desire. The viewer wants to make something of the things they perceive, to categorize them into something they can use. We see the world as a collection of tools. Tool-culture is driven by desire, by the belief that we can fashion a world over which we have control.

Paschakarnis understands this relationship between perceiver and perceived as a fundamental human need. "This identity of the unknown in an object reflects on our urge of self-definition. . . This essence seems to be desire - the human desire to interact with inhuman form." [3]

This isn't virtual reality, that realm pioneered by painting, but, to borrow a concept from Plato, real reality. Real reality is heavy, awkward to store, fragile, messy and resistant to easy categorization. Image and object, material and idea, it is Paschakarnis' fusing of these recalcitrant antagonists that powers this work. So stand back, there's sculpture in the house. 


[1] Thomas McEvilley, Sculpture in the Age of Doubt (New York: Allworth Press, 1999), p. 45-46

[3] Vanessa Paschakarnis, Works 1993-1999 (Halifax: exhibition cataloque, self-published, 1999), p. 14



Blue Moon, 2010 was exhibited at Sculpture Today: New Forces, New Forms; 2011/2012 at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA
Vanessa with her "Bestia Romana", 2009
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© Vanessa Paschakarnis