Cindy Stelmackowich recaptures the Victorian era
by Allison Smith
Disease is in the air. Always has been. And it took until 1854 for us to realize it.
Squiggly wormlike critters and blobby amoebas populate the first hand-drawn illustrations of the microscopic air particles thought to cause the spread of cholera. On the wall at the Patrick Mikhail Gallery, they are delicately coloured and adorned in black mourning lace.
In Mourning Of, a solo exhibition by Ottawa-based visual artist Cindy Stelmackowich, investigates the Victorian era's relationship to death, discovery and science. The combination of large-scale photography and minimalist sculpture is made even more striking by Patrick Mikhail's industrial-style gallery space, a diamond in the ruff of South Keys' suburbia. The gallery features high ceilings, exposed floors and plenty of space to wander around and gaze at the art.
Stelmackowich exhibits three series: Mourning l & ll, Cholera Shapes and Spaces and Requiems. In Mourning l & ll large-format digital photographs capture the pages of 19th-Century medical anatomy books. In each work, the aged ink from the illustrations of dissected bodies has slowly imprinted itself onto the opposing page over the past 150 years. The results are haunting mirrored images.
"There is a perceived dialogue between ghost and life," says Stelmackowich. "The two forms seem to be addressing each other."
The mirrored images recall the childhood artistic technique of dribbling paint onto the centre of a piece of paper and folding it in half to create a splotch that loosely resembles a butterfly. The butterfly motif continues in Requiems, a set of three sculptures partially adorned in collages of butterfly wings. The forms of the sculpture vary from a small Egyptian-style pyramid to a four-foot-tall funereal obelisk.
The luminous colours of the wings contrast with the black hue of the bases, while commenting on the Victorian obsession with collecting pieces of nature. Nineteenth-Century Britain's colonialist tendencies extended into the natural world where flora and fauna were meticulously captured and categorized into the expanding dictionary of natural science — killed and displayed without having their value as living beings considered.
Stelmackowich copies this practice by displaying her captured butterflies for human pleasure.
"They came from an enchanted forest," jokes the smiling artist. "No, how I got them is a long story so I am going to save it for the artist talk. All I can say now is that they were ethically farmed."
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