Dr. Julia V Hansen, Oct 2021, Storyforms

Review: STORY FORMS, Patriothall, Edinburgh
Olivia Irvine, Linda Kosciewicz, MicheleMarcoux 

By Dr. Julie V. Hansen

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact globally on the arts, interrupting many of its usual patterns of rituals and relationships. Despite this, the action of physical distancing and forced isolation has likewise shown us how much we need and value our connections to others. At the start of the pandemic in 2020, the three artists exhibited here began a continuous online dialogue in order to sustain their artistic practices in what became an extensive period of lockdown. Meeting weekly, they exchanged ideas, shared works in progress, and supported each other throughout doubt and apprehension as well as creative experimentation.

Fractal Imaginings, Michele Marcoux, 2021, oil, acrylic and newspaper on unstretched canvas

They were also fortunate to have been awarded residencies in early 2021 at MERZ Gallery in Sanquhar, Dumfriesshire, a beautiful rural setting which has inspired much of the new work presented here. Experiencing life through the strangeness of the pandemic, Irvine, Kosciewicz, and Marcoux ask the viewer post-COVID: “When does form become story? How does a story reveal its forms?” Moreover, how has the interaction of society and art changed in narrative form and experience after the trauma of the past two years? While each artist creates work that is very different, similar themes of confinement, restriction, melancholy, isolation and loss are all readily apparent.

After Irvine’s father passed away in April 2020 from COVID, she embarked on a series of frescoes (pigment on lime plaster) which responded to grief through degrading, obliterating or fragmenting images of precious objects which were collected by her parents over their many decades of travel and life together. Living for a period of time in her bereaved mother’s house, she found inspiration in the meaningful things surrounding her that held cherished memories. Like many of us during Lockdown, she became more introspective, thus leading her to create a new series of oil paintings on canvas that referenced the meaning of family within confined interior spaces. Unbreakable (oil and egg tempera on canvas, 2021) depicts some of the antique crystal pieces of her mother’s collection. The title is interesting as crystal is very fragile, yet Irvine seems to be suggesting something about the resilience of life when faced with the heartbreaking specter of mortality. Irvine’s stunning and large work Once Upon A Carpet (oil, collage, and egg tempera on canvas, 2021) focuses on a distinctive carpet in her mother’s house which seems to become a vibrating, living force within the painting. The carpet of this room has been the site of many family celebrations and the abstracted presence of figures juxtaposed in the forefront and back right only appear to reinforce this sense of remembrance and nostalgia. It is as if they have departed and left an affecting resonance of the past behind.

Like those of us who survived the pandemic behind closed doors, existing for months at a time inside our ‘safety’ bubbles, Marcoux’s monumental Fractal Imaginings (acrylic and oil on newspaper and canvas, 2021) presents an indication of that reality in the presence of the line of ghostly figures peering out behind the windows at the far left. Rather than participating in a once vibrant cultural life on city streets and inside venues and restaurants, we became virtual hermits observing the world behind the glass barriers of homes, cars, and streaming media.  Like many of us with family located in different countries, Marcoux has been unable to see her elderly mother for over 18 months or her son for over a year. This sense of isolation and disconnect is apparent in the solitary nature of her recent practice, particularly in another large-scale work entitled Trickle Down/An Economic Ghost Story (acrylic and oil on canvas, 2021).Inspired by a Philip K. Dick science fiction novel entitled UBIK (1969), the protagonist is a psychic character who is able to see objects in both their past and current incarnations. One scene in which he searches for an abandoned Victorian-style drug store that now serves as huge Walmart type superstore provided Marcoux with inspiration for some of her recent experiments in time-lapse photography and the ‘secreted’ images such studies reveal beyond the limits of the human eye.  Interestingly, the painting’s viewpoint is raised up as if we are looking out on a window onto an abandoned street. No cars or other indications of a human presence are located in this environment. This work echoes many of our own experiences during the height of the pandemic when we walked in former busy spaces that were now devoid of other people and activity. ‘Trickle Down’ as a phrase is used to refer to a situation in which something that starts in the high parts of a system and spreads to the complete whole. In this concept the artist seems to suggest the larger context of a fractured, economically-challenged, and mourning world that is still reeling from recent events.

Kosciewicz’ new series of performance pieces originate in the poignant Greek myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses of the nymph Daphne. Pursued through the woods by the obsessed god Apollo, the nymph is saved from the looming sexual assault by her own father, who transforms her into a laurel tree. In Kosciewicz’ depictions, Apollo is not present, nor is he important to the story. Instead, she focuses on the peaceful completion of the narrative when Daphne is reunited with Gaia (or her return to the Earth in the form of a sacred tree.) Dreaming/Daphne’s Sleep (mixed media and transfer print, 2021) and Into My Arms (polymer photogravure, 2021) depict the artist in the guise of Daphne in evocative natural settings in which she is literally representing this magic moment of transformation. Into My Arms does this particularly well as Kosciewicz has manipulated the image so her lithe body literally appears to be in the act of becoming one with the sturdy and ancient tree stump. The organic presence of an unknown beckoning body of water behind her only reinforces this mysterious and otherworldly quality of the setting and the inherent body/nature dichotomy of the photograph.

As Kosciewicz explains: “In the current pandemic world I have turned increasingly to stories and myths as a way of exploring what at times seems a surreal world. My current preoccupations include the personal and universal symbolism found in folk tales and myths and the ways these can be used to explain the human response to the pandemic world… These stories encapsulate for me the many ways that people may be changed by the sudden transformation of their environment. We have all been changed due to the pandemic.” Interestingly, the artist has translated her own experience of COVID confinement into a fascination with becoming a mythological heroine who is captured in a tree for all of eternity.

Each of these extraordinary artists has created timely new works that invite us into theatrical and dream-like spaces that express their own personal narratives of the last two years. Museums and galleries have a responsibility to capture historical events and artists now have the opportunity to record and examine how we as a society navigated this pandemic.  It will be uniquely interesting to see more courageous exhibitions like this one that traverse the recent events of our past and interpret it for future generations of gallery visitors.