Confounding expectations: the rewards of unexpected art

Artists know, even if we don’t, that our eyes and brain often see what they expect to see. Fulfilling but also deceiving that expectation is part of how art works. Confounding our expectations, without leaving us disappointed, is one of its great pleasures. Habit is comfortable but limiting. Occasionally we need a jolt.

The rewards of confounding expectations are found in a new exhibition at the Mary E. Black Gallery by NSCAD professor and jeweller Rebecca Hannon.

Contemporary Camouflage will jolt anyone expecting traditional jewelry. She takes as her starting point the principle of camouflage, citing the World War One paintings of camouflaged “dazzle” ships by Arthur Lismer as one of her influences.

Eschewing the more traditional materials of jewelry such as precious metals and gemstones, she has chosen a material that is so ubiquitous that, while we see it every day, it so successfully blends into our lives that we don’t think about it. We know laminates such as Formica from our kitchen and bathroom counters, but Hannon uses them to great effect to create flamboyantly decorative 3D jewelry.

She makes the works from laser-cut forms, slotting them together to create complex and dynamic forms in. Hannon writes: “a mash-up of colour and camouflage.”

Designed on a computer, laser-cut out of industrial material, using traditional material only in the background as fittings and clasps, this work has a vibrant contemporaneity. The colours, coming from a commercial palette of readily available laminate material, are familiar, if in an unfamiliar context.

Hannon’s use of colour theory in her choices is based both in the theory of camouflage, and on the colouration used by flora and fauna for warning or display. She has also designed a dynamic wall treatment that uses brightly coloured geometric patterns as the base for the display of her work.

The colours and patterns, both complementary and contrasting, ensure that small works, such as earrings, can seem to be hiding in the virtual “underbrush” of the background, while larger works are made all the more vibrant by their setting.

Hannon is asking questions in her work about how colour and pattern impact on form, and how jewelry worn on the body can create a site for posing and asking questions normally reserved for the walls of art galleries.

Despite being made up of 46 discrete objects, Contemporary Camouflage initially feels, and reads, like an installation. But as you look at the work closely, as you figure out the way that the works are constructed and imagine what they would be like to wear, you find yourself drawn into the material inventiveness and formal complexities of these deceptively simple objects.

There are constant visual surprises, the colour is indeed dazzling, and the intellectual underpinnings of the work, the thought about material, colour and forms of display, all combine to pack just the sort of jolt that gets us going in new directions.

Artists can confound our expectations in many ways; sometimes it’s as simple (and as difficult) as changing direction. Sara MacCulloch is a familiar artist to many readers, a painter who shows regularly at Studio 21. Her signature style of painterly landscapes, often of the landscapes and shorelines around Wolfville, is instantly recognizable.

And, perhaps expected, until now. MacCulloch recently moved back to Halifax from Wolfville to earn her Master of Fine Arts degree from NSCAD University. Her graduating exhibition, This is Where I Live Now, featured nine extraordinary paintings that flipped expectations on their head.

Rather than landscapes these works are interiors, and while they share some of the palette and painterly approach of the previous work, they feature a level of detail and an approach to paint handling that is new to McCulloch’s work.

As interiors, the works are more contained, less horizontal and more focussed on individual details like the texture of bed sheets, the gleam of light off of polished wood, or the architectural elements of the rooms she is depicting.

Moving through the show you gained a panoramic view of a familiar Halifax apartment in an older building, with its high ceilings, mouldings and familiar layout.

With this work, MacCulloch has set off in a new direction and I’m curious to see where it goes. This is powerful painting, which can only bode well for the future, and for more unexpected jolts from a painter whom we thought we knew.

Rebecca Hannon: Contemporary Camouflage is on view at the Mary E. Black Gallery until April 28.

Sara MacCulloch: This is Where I Live Now was on view at the Anna Leonowens Gallery from March 12–16, 2019.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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