It is commonplace to call our contemporary moment a “post-studio” age, and even the most glancing perusal through the monthly journals issuing from New York, London, Los Angeles, and all the other far-flung outposts of taste-making confirms the idea. Their pages are full of shiny fabricated objects and spare conceptual proposals, both of which seem increasingly interchangeable. What is the place of studio practice at such a time? I use the term “studio” here purposefully; I am not inquiring, that is, about the place of a particular technique – say, painting – within this constellation: the death and rebirth of painting has been alternately hailed and decried enough. No, I am curious about the physical space of creation, the atelier, and the role it plays in shaping the art made within. For it seems to me that if we can point to something exemplary, and shared, in this group of MFA graduates from the UVic Visual Arts program, it lies in a spatial paradox peculiar to the studio: namely, that this enclosed area – which was long disparaged within critical art practice for its isolation from the world – is actually a space of exploration. Each of the four artists whose work is being presented here – Allison Cake, Katie Lyle, Shelley Penfold, and Sara Robichaud – have recognized this fact, and for each of them immersion in the studio has opened their work to the widest of horizons.
That is clearly apparent in the paintings of Shelley Penfold, who presents works from a series of canvases made in 2009. Collectively they image parallel universes, a concept that could stand as an emblem for her and her colleagues shared project. Penfold’s universes are mysterious, resonant places, many of which seem to evoke the hidden corners of childhood life. In them, something fragile – a little being, a tiny animal – frequently finds shelter in the protective body of a young person; the atmosphere is both melancholic and tender. The best of them take advantage of the staining effects one can obtain in the application of acrylic paint onto unprimed canvas; here a figure can emerge from a smoky ground, as in Third Universe, where beautiful dark washes provide an indeterminate space for a young boy who lies in his bed, his right hand gently grasping a small bird whose head peeks out over his besweatered hand (a lovely detail). Something of that same domestic atmosphere is found in Sixth Universe, a more playful image in which a vaguely Munch-like personage grins out at us, simultaneously proffering and protecting a round, black object (rock? egg?). Each hints to us of a narrative, engages us in tentative stories whose children are caught between interiority and a relation with the larger world around them.