The spaces within Gallery Connexion, an artist run center in Fredericton, were recently transformed, though not through any renovations. Rather, they were filled with the work of Halifaxbased sculptor Vanessa Paschakarnis, and although there was plenty of floor space left over, viewers couldn’t help but feel squeezed inside the two rooms of the gallery. "Sculptures and Drawings" was Paschakarnis's first exhibition in New Brunswick, although she has been showing throughout Eastern Canada for the past few years. A native of Germany, Paschakarnis immigrated to Canada to study at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where she now teaches part-time. Three large plaster objects entitled Red Shields occupied one gallery, while four large drawings, excerpts from a series called "Shields for a Human," occupied the other.
In each case, Paschakarnis installed the works with plenty of space Ieft over; there was no visual crowding in the show at all. However, the presence of the works was palpable. At the exhibition opening, the crowd gathered in the office area and studiously spilling over into the space occupied by the sculptures, as if there were an invisible wall, a barrier keeping them back.
When I was a student we used to talk about sculpture "activating" space. This is exactly what Red Shield did: the sense of fullness in the gallery had everything to do with the way that Paschakarnis’s sculptures reflected back the viewer's physical presence. Sculpture, of course, is more likely to create that sense of presence than other art forms, since it occupies the same space as the viewer. There is no sense of illusion, no “window” through which the viewer sees an alternate reality. Instead, that alternate reality is right in your face, stubbornly sitting in the middle of your space, in the way.
The three Red Shields are large disk-like forms, approximately four feet in diameter. Each was made from plaster shaped over a wire armature. They are roughly the same shape, apparently captured in various stages of movement. One, for instance, leaned against a pillar, extended so that the full form was visible. Another was bent over at the middle, creating a saddle-shaped form. The third arched, as if it were trying to inch across the floor. The shield reference is apparent in all three, though only the first is a traditional shield. The other two function more as possible shelters, spaces to hide within. While the source of these sculptures is naturalistic - the sand dollar familiar to anyone who has spent time on the beach - these works are not in any sense representational. They are new beings, with their own compelling logic.
The second gaIlery featured excerpts from, a series of drawings that Paschakarnis calls "Shields for a Human”. The four large works clustered at one end of the room, conveying the sense that the viewer was interloping upon a private conversation. Closely reIated to the sculptures, the drawings are roughly the same size and from the same source material. However, in spite of their large scale (over six feet high and five feet wide), the difference in presence was warked. Despite all the work evident in the drawings - their layers of graphite ard webs of meticulous lines (drawn and erased) - they remained flat signs, not challenging the viewer for space, suggesting rather than achieving a state of being. Paschakarnis uses the object to create an effect on the viewer, a physical effect rather than emotive or conceptual. The meaning is not in any notion of content, but in the presence of the object itself.
As pushy as it is about space, Paschakarnis's sculpture, remains quiet and reserved. There is no shouting from the rooftops, no polemics or bombast. Even her use of color is muted. Red Shields are red, yes, bot not a fiery hue, not the color of passion. Instead they are the color of rust, the color of metal returning to the state of earth, to a state of rest. "Sculptures and Drawings" was a complex and demanding exhibition, challenging the viewer physically and mentally, its hard-won simplicity a pleasure to experience.