I first encountered Vanessa Paschkarnis’ work when she came to study at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University in the early nineties when I was teaching in the sculpture department. Her methodology was highly refined and she was focused in purpose. She worked tirelessly at large scale plaster casts, graphite drawings and ambitious stone carvings. The work had and continues to read, for me, to be simultaneously optimistic yet subtly doleful.
Paschakarnis’ most recent exhibition is effectively accommodated at the Alison Smith Gallery… a street level store front building in the older mixed zone district of Toronto’s west end. Domestic size marble carvings sit atop appropriately crafted innocuous bases. Parallel white walls that run the full length of the gallery display several large and small-scale drawings, punctuated by evocative intaglio prints. Overhead stainless steel aircraft cable suspends contorted cast bronze enclosures and their “shadows”. The rubric under which this collection of art work functions is offered as: Domesticated Beasts. The title suggests the notion of servitude together with the attendant uneasiness that it carries.
We are all souls
Tied to the bodies
Of dying animals
“Sailing to Byzantium” WB Yeats
Standing on the sidewalk, directly facing the glass-fronted gallery, the viewer can see clearly inside. Atop a bolted, multi timbered plinth sits a dark green and white variegated carved stone from which cow like bronze horns protrude. Upon entering the gallery and encountering this object, titled “Horned Being” (Pan) 2008, one becomes aware of incised lines and divots that scar this otherwise smooth, serpentine stone head. The substantial bronze horns that adorn this form are elegant in their intentionally primitive, torque presentation. They appear to hold the energy that has departed from the being itself.
In early Christian tradition it was purported when the heavenly host told of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, a deep groan was heard through the Isles of Greece. The great God of Nature, Pan, had died and deities were sent wandering into the wilderness. No longer was there felt to be space for the mystical cycles of the natural world.
Recall that Saint Thomas of Aquinas rationalized the striking of animals by arguing through logic and reason that the sound an animal made when hit was analogous to the noise produced by any inanimate object that was “sounded”.
St. Francis of Assisi, a contemporary of Aquinas, as we have learned, championed the status of wild beings and chose nature over human society to conduct his communion with God.
Notions regarding the sanctity of life seem however, to have little to do with what life forms may or may not possess a soul. Three additional carved marble heads complete this set of beasts. All are quite geometric in form and soft pink in color. The exception being “Horse with Colors”, whose variegation displays sienna and grey streaks upon a pinkish-white field. These carvings by comparison to “Horned Being” appear less discomforted and reasonably gentle. The cat, cow and horse do bear scars by way of incised markings but they are more the scars of a life fulfilled than of a life damaged. They are additionally the animals we have chosen to have close proximity with, over what is all but time immemorial.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
“Anthem” Leonard Cohen
If the hides have been removed from these domesticated beasts and they do appear flayed, then Paschakarnis has used them as the material from which the bell patterns were generated and subsequent bronzes cast. There is blue bell, blue echo and the shadows for bells; the titles are whimsical, the sculptures are not. Blue bell as example, reads rigidly fabric-like from one vantage point then curiously assumes the form of a rudimentary helmet, in what I would describe as the profile view.
Paschakarnis’s bells do not contain “tongues”, nor are there implements available to strike them. If indeed they are to be rung then the striker must take the initiative. There is, I feel, a suggested urgency in contemplating both function and engagement of these sculptures… time may not be wasting, but life most certainly can be.
A bell, as we know when rung, is a summons, a calling and an announcement. When intentionally silenced, it denotes censure, oppression and sadness.
Blue Echo (2008) a patinated suspended bronze, with its saddle like shape could believably be the hide from one of the marble animal heads. It describes a form no longer present and when struck with the hand, sounds sadly hollow.
There was a time when farm cattle had their own differently toned bell and could thus be identified at a distance, even in the dark of night.
Sculptures give way to drawings as the viewer navigates the gallery-scape of quizzical objects and images. Three large pine-framed, grey pencil drawings titled Blue Bell I, II and III, each display a view of the corresponding sculpture. The cross-hatching, which is curiously reminiscent of knitted stitches, serves to describe the blue-patinated bell. Each drawing floats on its white background, negating the notion of gravity so present in the bronze casting. That being said, they do project a sense of three-dimensionality that promotes rethinking the function of a “shadow”.
Physicality is returned once again, in the shadows for bells (2006). They are single cable-suspended cast bronze sculpture, with a soft brown-red patina. They remind me of the eviscerated deer carcasses that I sometimes chance upon when winter hiking in deep woods. The life force that once inhabited these wild beings is now echoed within the wolves and ravens that fed upon them.
Two framed intaglio prints carry the same name but are slightly different within their respective shapes. Titles “Domesticated Beasts” I and II, they display a blue floating form, similar in disposition to the bronze bells and slightly larger than the human head. Below each form, not completely separated from it floats an ink-black shadow/ reflection. Within each print the blue-black shapes appear to be about five or six inches apart and describe, if you will, a void. The black shadows do not completely conform to their elevated “Object” source and as such are somewhat unsettling.
What then does this space in between shapes describe … perhaps the void from which all things originate and return to… perhaps.
There is one more sculpture that I would like to speak of that does not appear in this exhibition. It was shown in the summer of 2008 at the Marlborough Gallery in Chelsea, New York. Two elongated marble carvings, each roughly twice the size of a human head, are singularly pinned (at the same elevation and back to back) to a six-foot high metal mast that measures about six by ten inches in cross section. The sculpture is named “Two-faced Individual”.
The carving implies that each form was developed from the same piece of marble and addressed accordingly. The more convex of the two faces displays aggressive pockmarks on an otherwise smooth surface. A mouth, as it were, gapes towards the ceiling and reads as a semi-circle at the topmost area of the mass. Opposite to this projects the second face like a long severed tongue hanging tip downward. The mouth of this piece appears on the right to its counterpart and continues to describe what might be a throat. It appears incapable of taking nourishment while the other waits, baby bird like, to be fed.
It is this posting of dialectic within Paschakarnis’s work that creates and maintains tension. Much of her sculpture and certain of the drawings bring the viewer to consider notions of separation, reconciliation, absence and concordance.
Paschakarnis is developing, I feel, a lexicon for describing that, which is not visible and in doing so, moves toward a higher level of consciousness. It is, after all, the space in between that offers potential for insight and awareness.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill,
and on a day we meet to walk the line
and set the wall between us once again.
“Mending Wall” Robert Frost
Dennis Gill is a sculptor and writer who currently lives in Dwight, a community on the Eastern Boundary of Algonquin Park in North-Central Ontario, Canada.