At some point, every artist may choose, consciously or subconsciously, to explore or to stagnate.
There are artists in Ottawa today whose work is practically indistinguishable from what they created 10 or 15 years ago. Repeating oneself may allow an artist to make a living through art and, amen, it’s not an easy living. Yet the decision to settle in with a theme or style that reliably resonates with buyers is a creative trap for the artist, and for viewers it quickly becomes routine (read, boring). It’s safe and formulaic, and a safe formula is the enemy of inspiration.
Meanwhile, some artists, such as Ottawa’s Heidi Conrod, can’t seem to stay still. They’re incapable of repeating themselves, driven as if by compulsion to explore, to search, to imagine what their art can be, and what truths it can reveal about us and our world.
Conrod, whose new works are at the Ottawa Art Gallery’s Annex Gallery, is restless. Thirty years into her career as an artist, her vision is in constant, contemplative motion, like the swirls and strokes of paint in her abstracts on plexiglass.
Conrod’s human figures are constantly evolving, and not always in a straight line. They fade in an out of focus, like a contrapuntal beat to her broader explorations between representation and abstraction.
In recent years she’s done quiet head-and-shoulders portraits of young women, their enigmatically thoughtful expressions rendered in muted, earthy tones. The portraits were vaguely and pleasingly anachronistic, as if they’d been made in the 16th century by a student of Botticelli.
Earlier works saw more simply drawn people, dressed in clothing of soft pastels and set in verdant scenes.
Most often her work has explored the lands between what is abstract and what is immediately identifiable — in soft, gauzy landscapes, or in abstracts alive with colour and shape and an ominous sense of nature’s power, of a storm, of a sea, of billowing smoke or clouds. Her 2016 exhibition, titled Magical Thinking at the City of Ottawa’s Karsh-Masson Gallery, explored these thematic midlands.
The current exhibition explores the same lands through a different lens. The show, curated by Rose Ekins and titled Magic Mirrors, includes not actual mirrors, but mixed-media collages of photography and paint that reflect the collective memory.
The works are built of personal and found images, and set behind plexiglass marked with erratic accents of soft-coloured paint. The effect is busy but purposeful, and the experience is like trying to grasp a distant, inchoate remembrance of . . . something.
Conrod was searching for “a way to tell open-ended narratives that felt dreamlike and surreal,” she says, “narratives that hint at historical moments, while reflecting current political, social and cultural events, and at the same time allowing a personal voice (to) enter the story.”
Thus the works’ mixed air of the intimate and the international, which reaches a high point in the geopolitical dance that is the piece Pas De Deux. On the left are young ballerinas prepping their outfits, while on the right of the space are young women who are hooded and masked and running toward or from some peril in some part of the world, in stark contrast to delicate ballerinas. At the bottom right of the panel, a white wolf carries a dead bunny in its jaws, beneath swirls of pink paint, the same pink seen in the masked women’s clothing.
“The colourful, painterly marks are intended to add a hopeful, playful element to these works,” Conrod says, and they are playful, though they are not without gravity.
The marks serve as acts of resistance in a chaotic world, as little jabs of order, each one an expostulation from an artist who is not content or complacent, an artist committed to exploration, and to all the revelations it brings about the self and the world we share.
Magic Mirrors continues at the Annex Gallery to Aug. 10.