The lights are dim in the Gordon Snelgrove Gallery this week for Shanell Papp’s graduating MFA show, Loners. At the entrance, a walled-off hallway opens on a large grey canvas wall hanging and the surrounding gallery is filled with life-sized textile sculptures, the “loners” after which Papp titled her show.
Papp is interested in the idea of being alone, either by choice or as an outcast from society.
“I was thinking about people’s urges to be in control and empowered in their own lives,” Papp explained. “Sometimes when things don’t go your way or people mess things up for you, you think, ”˜Maybe if I could just get away and move to Alaska, then things would be better.’ There’s this part of you that thinks that sometimes: I just want to leave.”
Central to Papp’s exhibition is the concept of “indulging in the idea of escaping and getting away from everything” and imagining what that could look like.
In a variety of textile mediums, Papp creates figures that embody this escape from society. The figures are like giant dolls or playthings but made slightly haunting and sad, with life-like glass taxidermy eyes. Sculptures sit and stand in the gallery, meditative and sometimes disquieting.
Papp’s practice as a textile artist stands alongside her interest in fringe-dwellers and misfits, people who live according to different sets of rules. She sees some of the escape from society’s structures in her own unconventional use of domestic materials.
“When making crafts,” Papp said, “there’s rules and you learn how to make things according to these rules: there are rules about how to hold your needles or how to get things done. A lot of [the patterns in this exhibition] are of my own making. In a weird way, you learn to make something to a certain extent and then you get tired of the rules and… you kind of want to rebel a little bit, so you end up stepping out and making your own pattern. Even for yourself but also for [artwork like] this.
“So that’s part of the thinking of fringe-dwellers and loners because they’re not really following the pattern,” said Papp. “They’re sort of making their own way of living with what tools are given; in this show, sewing or crochet — those are the tools. They become something else with what’s available to them. They sort of create their own realities.”
The other works mounted in the gallery (the wall hanging and two video installations) are a departure from her figurative sculpture and present another kind of emotional landscape. The hanging is a sort of drawing made with thousands of sewing pins. Cold and enticing, it recalls the form of mountains, icebergs or crystals: “something that can grow without human intervention.” The creation of the piece, Papp revealed, was based in her own childhood.
“I always wanted to make a velvet painting. My grandmother owns a junk store in Southern Alberta, so when I was growing up, there were tons of velvet paintings. I never really learned about art history until I got to university, so my visual culture when I was younger was TV and the stuff in the junk store.”
The piece, entitled “Anxiety,” presents an almost geographic record of worry.
“Worrying is sometimes like people preparing themselves.” Papp continued. “It builds up, like the pins in the velvet piece. By the time you’re older, it means you’re prepared for all these things. [Paradoxically], maybe that makes you calmer.”
The video pieces, “Disappearance (Part One and Two),” present another breed of escapism. “Part One is a person heading out into the landscape,” Papp described, “and when they’re coming back their footprints and any trace of them being in that barren landscape has been erased — so it’s like they never really existed in the first place.”
This seeming disappearance is re-thought in the second film.
“Disappearance Part Two is shot on super-eight film… which has this quality of looking like a memory,” Papp said. “So it is kind of a record from that person’s point of view, of them going out into the landscape.”
In Loners, the open gallery space and the unobtrusive presence of the sculptures may be a kind of refuge. Papp suggests, “this show is for the people who go to art receptions because they really want to go and to socialize, but they end up feeling awkward and standing in the corner. This isn’t a life-of-the-party kind of show. This is for those [introverted] other people.”
image: Gordon Snelgrove Gallery