The Palazzo Zenobio is one of those magnificent Venetian piles that hides its light under a bushel, its elegant, columned façade masked by an inauspicious wall that runs along one of the lesser canals of Dorsoduro. On a warm night in late May, a bandstand had been erected in front of the gravelled cammino in the palace garden, and the grounds teemed with partygoers tippling Prosecco.
The courtyard had been commandeered for the official reception in honour of Scarborough-born Shary Boyle who’s representing Canada in the country’s official national pavilion at this year’s 55th International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale. At the party, the evening’s honoree hung back with pavilion curator Josée Drouin-Brisebois (curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Canada), taking in a mellow, tuneful performance from musician and sometime collaborator Christine Fellows. “I love Christine’s music,” said Boyle, who’s done overhead projections and shadow plays to accompany some of Fellows’s shows; stopping by to chat after she’d wound down her set, the singer returned the compliment, saying, “When I play, I always imagine Shary’s work behind me.” The subdued conversation was interrupted, however, by hoots of excitement—some of the loudest coming from Boyle herself—as the next act took the mic: rock band Vag Halen, an all-girl group specializing in eighties heavy metal.
There were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of similar parties going on all over the city during the festival preview, but surely the Canadians were the only one to follow a performer like Fellows with another like Vag Halen. That juxtaposition seems a direct reflection of Boyle’s own personality and artistic temperament: casually cool, staunchly feminist, and willfully non-conformist. The same qualities were on prominent display in her pavilion installation, and they’re what helped to set her show apart and make it one of the most successful of this year’s Biennale.
Boyle’s presence in Venice is surprising enough in itself. “I find the art world very dispiriting sometimes,” says the 41-year-old artist, who seems to have spent most of her career determinedly pursuing a path at odds with the mainstream art marketplace. The Biennale, on the other hand—though not a commercial fair—is nonetheless the quintessential art-world phenomenon, a six-month marathon that kicks off with a late-spring preview that brings out every heavy hitter and hanger-on in the business. The glitz of the vernissage is fairly alien to Boyle: “I feel like an outsider,” she admits. “I’m not interested in contemporary trends and contemporary art, but in life, in communication.”
That feeling of un-belonging comes, in part, from Boyle’s unique history and background, an unusual one in the generally well-heeled, well-credentialed context of contemporary art. “I’m not self-taught,” Boyle explains, “but I’ve learned more through apprenticing and autodidactic methods than going through grad programs or other traditional routes.” Boyle was raised the youngest of five children, with three older brothers, two who still manage the screen-and-glass business established by their father decades ago. The atmosphere in the Boyle household was macho, if not out-and-out chauvinistic. “Women were mostly there to be secretaries and cook food and raise children,” says Boyle, adding, “From a very early age I knew I wouldn’t fit into that model.”
Bucking expectations, Boyle got herself admitted to Wexford Collegiate, an art-and-music high school in nearby Toronto and went on to earn a diploma at the city’s Ontario College of Art & Design. Her educational experience, she claims, was transformative. “I grew up in such a non-culture environment,” says Boyle, “so to go to an urban school and meet kids whose parents had libraries and travelled—that just caused this political awakening for me, and it really fed my desire to travel and meet more people.” By the time she graduated in 1994, Boyle had already found her inclinations lay outside the strictures of academia; at 21, fresh out of OCAD, she spurned convention once more, turning down grad school in favour of forging her own path as an artist.
From the very beginning, Boyle’s artistic practice has been less about working in a particular mode or style and more about the issues—social and cultural—that intrigue her most. As she puts it, “processes of hand-making, craft, the body, feminist political concerns, the intimate, and the psychosexual”—these ideas have dominated her work, and she’s explored them through an almost dizzying variety of media. “I always characterize myself as a restless materials user,” she says. “I’m constantly experimenting with new forms.” Whether it’s creating porcelain statuettes of womanhood, horses with human heads of polymer clay, or drawing otherworldly characters in Arctic landscapes, Boyle’s approach seems to be less about how a work of art looks than the emotional charge behind it. The pursuit of direct, personal communication is part of the reason Boyle eschews the studio assistants favoured by many of today’s artists, bringing the personal touch to her wildly varied output.
Shary Boyle’s artistic practice is, as she puts it, “processes of hand-making, craft, the body, feminist political concerns, the intimate, and the psychosexual”—these ideas have dominated her work, and she’s explored them through an almost dizzying variety of media.
If there’s any consistent aesthetic that seems to emerge from her diverse assemblages of sculpture, ceramics, and found artifacts, it’s a propensity toward image overload, the feeling of an all-seeing eye trying to take in the broadest possible array of images from human history and the natural world. “My art is a way of processing and translating my experience,” says Boyle. “It’s an organic extension of my life.” Her deeply felt personal politics, emphasizing acceptance and inclusion, seems to prompt her to put everything into her work; indeed, as she’s evolved as an artist over the last decade, her practice has taken an even more universal direction, branching out from some of the more strictly personal themes that dominated her work early on. “My work was more autobiographical before,” she notes. “I’ve moved farther and farther away from that.”
An exhibition last autumn at Toronto’s Jessica Bradley Gallery highlighted some of the cosmic, spiritual motifs that have been circulating through the artist’s work of late. Mermaids were a recurring image, rendered in small porcelain sculptures as well as in watercolours of an intensity and imaginativeness that recalled the dreamy urgency of a child’s sketchbook. The figure of the sea-born goddess comes, in part, from Boyle’s experience working with the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, the storied artist enclave on Dorset Island at the mouth of Hudson Bay: the female deity Sedna—ruler of the Inuit underworld but also a giver of life—has been cited by Boyle as an inspiration for her witchy yet strangely charming sirens, along with mermaid mythology in general, and “how it intersects between cultures,” she says. Working with traditional practitioners and tradespeople is Boyle’s answer to the overprofessionalization of the 21st-century art world. “It’s about a folk connection,” says the artist, “more than a professional or institutional connection.”
Boyle’s insertion into the decidedly professional, institutional climate of the Biennale happened, in large part, through determined curator Drouin-Brisebois, who helped secure the pavilion commission and then shepherded the complex process that’s brought Boyle and her singular vision to Venice. “Shary is very much an activist and a feminist,” says the curator. “She’s interested in people who don’t really have a voice. Now suddenly she has this public forum to bring her message.” With expected crowds numbering in the thousands, if not tens of thousands, Drouin-Brisebois had to make sure that Boyle’s often very intimate work assumed a scale big enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with the other national representations in the sprawling festival—and that her statues, music, and projections all worked and looked their best. It was an operation of harrowing logistical complexity, but by and large the curator seemed pleased with the results. “There’s been a few things we’ve had to adjust along the way,” she says, “but we’ve had enough time.”
To see Boyle’s Music for Silence is to realize how difficult the show’s installation must have been. The Canada Pavilion, which made its debut at the Biennale in 1958, is an airy modernist structure with a lofted glass ceiling and an open, breezy feel, occupying a privileged (and culturally apposite) spot between the French and English pavilions. In a bold move, the artist alighted on the idea to turn the typically light-filled space into a cave, blocking out the Italian sunshine and using the entire space of the interior. Entering the exhibition by way of the building’s western door, visitors encounter a long, curving diorama and walk alongside it, passing the artworks to their left until they reach the exit opposite. The effect is something like the staged displays one encounters in museums of natural history—only instead of stuffed wildebeests grazing on a synthetic savannah, the scene is a surreal mash-up of gods and goddesses, Inuit and star clusters, kaleidoscopic colour, and iridescent lights.
The characters that inhabit this silvery moonscape include The Widow, a female Atlas-type figure bearing a large, planet-like sphere on her back, as well as The Cave Painter, a 10-foot-long mermaid cradling an infant inside a watery den. The characters are as compelling for the viewer as they were for Boyle when she conceived them (“It was eerie,” she says, “like they arrived and they wouldn’t go away”), and while it’s not altogether clear whether they’re participating in a cogent narrative, the message they impart—about the power of woman, the value of folkways, the delicacy as well as the resilience of nature—is remarkably distinct. It’s a message that’s also distinctly Canadian, despite Boyle’s avowed lack of interest in overtly nationalistic art. “Canada is a land of immigrants,” she says. “We have no single image, no unified voice.” The installation’s very sense of otherness seems an apt tribute to a country long reputed for its taciturn eccentricity.
Giving a voice to the voiceless is, as Boyle’s curator observed, an enduring preoccupation for the artist, and she’s proclaimed it the prime objective for her Venice show in an elegiac prologue, composed as a dedication text shortly after she was selected for the pavilion. “For the silenced,” it reads, “the unspoken / what we watch, witness and can’t name… / for the losers and freaks and the ones who don’t fit in and never will.” (The text is published in a Biennale brochure for visitors as well as translated into sign language by Beth Hutchison in Boyle’s exhibition film, Silent Dedication.) As it happens, Boyle’s celebration of the marginalized and forgotten was perfectly in tune with this year’s Biennale: the Central Pavilion was stuffed to the gills by curator Massimiliano Gioni with outsider art, the work of creative oddballs who have long been touchstones for Boyle. Among them were Dorothea Tanning, a surrealist artist who was prominent in the 1940s (and was once married to Max Ernst), and Morton Bartlett, a self-taught sculptor. Seeing this kind of work valorized made Boyle feel a little more at home in Venice. “I was so surprised to see them there,” she says.
Certainly the reception of her own pavilion must have been tremendously gratifying. On the first day that the Giardini della Biennale was open to the public, the line in front of the Canada Pavilion stretched clear out to the long mall that forms the east-west axis of the gardens. “There were a lot of wonderful people that my work seemed to speak to,” Boyle says, “and they spoke back to me. It was amazing to reach people on that scale.” Even amid the buzz and bustle of the Biennale, with yachts lining the Grand Canal and dinner parties in defunct monasteries, droves of art-lovers were plainly eager to hear what Boyle’s freaks and losers had to say.
Bringing those voices to Venice hasn’t been easy, and Boyle is plainly somewhat sapped by the experience. After the weeks of preparation, and then the endless round of interviews and social functions during the preview, the artist retreated to a quiet villa in the hills of Tuscany to rest and recuperate for a spell. “The last year has been completely colonized by this Venice experience,” she says. “I make my art for myself and not to meet other people’s deadlines or demands. There’s only so much I can do like that before I start feeling very jealous of my own time.” Never keen on the art-world runaround, her next move is to recharge her creative batteries by getting away from the scene. “I’m looking forward to travelling and disappearing for a bit,” she says, tactfully declining to mention just where she’ll go—back to the real world, presumably, to the places and people that speak through her work.
All works by Shary Boyle. All artwork images courtesy of Shary Boyle and Jessica Bradley Gallery in Toronto.