How did you first approach creating art within art school? Did you find going through an educational institution sharpened your critical and artistic ability, or limit it?
When I graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1994, the MFA system had yet to become ubiquitous. My personality gravitated to the solitary discipline of a private studio practice. Art school broadened my ambition through encounters with visiting artists, who demonstrated the possibility of an artist’s life. I was always drawn to people older than me; artists and characters with far more developed skills, talents, intellectual experience to challenge and inspire. In that way my peers in school didn’t influence me as much as what I observed outside of school, and I was eager to leave the confines of anything institutional. I always thought of art as something that emerged through my own private interior life, built and expanded through reading, conversation and apprenticeship models outside of school. I had been socialized in a working- class, conservative environment, without artistic role models. My desire to make and study art emerged in childhood from my own mysterious 4will — in that way I didn’t see my work in conversation or lineage with a North American or European art history. I wanted to make a new school of art. I was involved with various DIY, hardcore music, and Riot Grrrl scenes through high school and college that taught me to ask: Who assumes the authority to dispense value? What happens when art is academized? What relationship does wildness have with creativity? What doors will I be welcomed through as a woman, and what does class have to do it?
I identified with punks and outsiders, the lonely, the eccentrics, the storytellers, the women. Mostly my art was a survival avenue to explore identity, power, social hierarchy, life and its attendant emotions. I had been bullied in middle school and in my family, and I understood violence intimately. As a young artist, I was still struggling to understand that impact on my character. Art school was a stop along the way, as my creative discipline and critical tendencies had been developed before I entered it, and was not dependant on that structure. Not pursuing a MFA didn’t inhibit my skills — I’m compelled by the necessity to innovate, which has led me to seek knowledge independently. Over the years I’ve engaged a broad community of thinkers, writers, and makers outside of student culture, which increased the breadth of my practice. I am sure this is why the audience for what I do is diverse, and the people who respond, respond deeply.
I had been making art from/for life, not art from/for art; it is a completely different paradigm. Writers and curators, who have developed their way of seeing within an exclusive academic/contemporary sensibility, can have a hard time contextualizing my work.
You employ an array of themes and content, everything from delicate floral patterns to abject bodies. Do you think the juxtaposition of these two heightens the “taboo” aspect of some of your works? I’m thinking of, for example, when Richard Gober’s Untitled (leg) was placed within a gallery setting; it may have been distinctly startling due to the contrast between the work and white, sanitized gallery space. Do you think this phenomenon also affects your work?
There is a sense of provocation or resistance in much of my urge to make art, and I sometimes employ contrast to animate a viewer’s sense of discomfort. This tension is a ‘waking’ technique. There is a seduction in using beautiful material well, employing colour, form, texture or pattern pleasingly. It gives me a rush — and any artist that denies themselves pleasure in their process is forsaking one of the major benefits of life as an artist. Delicacy draws people closer so I have a better chance of reaching them. I want nothing less than to share a moment of humanity! I insist on fierce kindness, grief, and wonder, and this can be threatening or embarrassing to some. There are masks of insincerity, irreverence and intellectual posturing within the contemporary art world. Much distancing and bravado is borrowed from corporate and class strategy, to gain power. It is my tiny way of resisting — this insistence on using a personal, emotional lens to frame my subject. Life is uncomfortable for most people; that’s the truth. Taboo is culturally relative. Pornography, narcissism, exploitation, violence, abuse — in North America these things are the daily fodder of news and entertainment. There is no such thing as a sanitized gallery space — we have delighted in the cleverly abject for too long to think there’s anything shocking in excess or repulsion. What is taboo in the ‘high’ art world? Tenderness. Narrative. The raw emotional expression of women.
Although your work has many deep layers and interpretations, the term “phantasmagoric” seems to distinguish itself. Why do you feel that audiences seem to respond to imaginative/fantastical currents? Do you ever find people resistant to inhabiting the liminal settings you create?
Reality and ‘the real’ is an individual prerogative shaped by culture and subjective experience. Art is invention, an artist creates their own language through a myriad of references to dial in what they want to put forth. I’m open to transformation, hallucination, metaphor, symbols and myths, hybridization. There is improvisation in my process that requires intuition, and permission to explore the reaches of imagination and good taste. It really is a sensibility and style thing. Less people want to be psychically or emotionally moved than they want to feel smart from their art experiences. I’d like to reassure those resistant that imagination is a central function of intelligence. Don’t be afraid of fiction! It’s just theory, and isn’t necessarily synonymous with ‘escape’.
Off of that, your installations, figures, and objects contain somewhat surreal ambiguities. There is a sense of the impossible or a boundary-crossing amalgamation of ideas. How do you think your work operates in terms of blurring borders between figures, forms, and themes?
Artists deal in representation and ritual, we don’t change actual events in the world. But we can make people think, we can promote ideas that could lead to acceptance or possibility. My images affirm connections and absolve contradiction, rather than promote externally imposed boundaries or binaries. I want to propose we all contain a range of male and female, animal and human, old and young, powerful and powerless, whole and partial. True and false. Dead and alive! Strict boundaries lead to fear and oppression.
Through phallic forms, suggestive poses, and sexual scenes, some of your pieces gesture sexual deviancy. Could you explain the relationship between the sexual deviancy in the works and the clean, pure, and almost innocent forms they are portrayed through? Does the answer lie connected with the idea of the “fairytale”? Are they adult stories adapted into children’s language?
The idea of ‘sexual deviancy’ is the same as ‘taboo’, and it is relative to whatever norm you adhere to. I don’t mean to sneak away from responsibility — there are sexual violence laws for good reason. Sexual desire, death, and childhood — these are things most adults will/have experienced. The erotic is supercharged, and I’m very interested in making sexual images that operate on a completely different (my version of feminist) level of arousal than conventional pornography. I like wondering what sex would have been like without patriarchy. I give myself permission, which is what one needs to do for good art or good sex. My drawing style has a kind of distorted, sometimes cartoonish quality; this comes from rarely using photographic references, and being disinterested in strict realism. I’ve never seen my work as innocent, clean or pure- I don’t really believe in what those terms suggest. I am interested in all cultural myth and story telling that humbly disregards ‘reality’, but my work isn’t intended for children or as moral lessons, there’s far too much ambiguity for that. If anything, I am aware that every adult was once a child, so sometimes I collapse those two states into an interchangeable form.
Where do you feel is left to go in contemporary art? After this (post)-post-modern contemporaneity, are there any ideas you find pertinent to your practice or important to still investigate? Why?
Innovations in media (most likely led by tech and science development) are to be expected, as is an ever-deepening focus on social and relational practices. Many artists feel political responsibility to provide an alternative-education function. Aboriginal and non-white artists are rising up to make their voices heard through art. The ongoing decolonization of museums and galleries via inclusion of diverse bodies is slow, but anticipated with hope and excitement. Equal interest and respect for the ideas and art of women of all backgrounds. Breaking down antiquated categories and value systems used to classify what is “important”.
As for me, the ideas I feel most driven to investigate reside in the realm of connection. What is the function of art in contemporary society, outside of the museum or market? Can the work we make offer some kind of hope or fighting spirit? Is it ok to express grief without solution? Can we develop cross-cultural communication through art that might overcome specific historical associations or limits of writing and speech?
A new exhibit of Shary’s work and collaborations with Inuit artist Shuvinai Ashoona entitled “Universal Cobra,”opens November 7, 2015 at Pierre-François Ouellette Gallery in Montreal.
This interview was conducted by curator Matthew Kyba.