Exhibition examines relationship between human, natural world and digital media

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The Magician and the Surgeon is on at the OAG until Sept. 15. Photo: Ryan Pepper/Fulcrum

Thesis showcases vibrant paintings that “activate” the gallery space

The interaction between the human world, nature, and our growing digital society is being explored through a series of buoyant paintings that comprise Tiffany April’s MFA thesis exhibition at the Ottawa Art Gallery.

The theme of April’s MFA exhibition is two-fold: she is interrogating the separation between the human world and the natural world while also analyzing how painting can interact with digital media. Humanity’s increasing awareness of our connection to the natural world, April argues in her exhibition, is due in part to our increasingly digital world.

“What I landed on for my thesis was looking into the relationship between humans and this separation that we’ve created between ourselves and the external world, the natural environment … this idea that we’re separate from the natural world,” April said.

The Surgeon and the Magician. Photo: Ryan Pepper/Fulcrum

“I look and think about painting through contemporary digital society and how painting reacts to that, what can the digital mean in a painting,” April said. “I’m using it more metaphorically, thinking about the human as flexible and fluid, much like digital technologies … being constantly changeable.”

The thesis title, The Surgeon and the Magician, takes its name from German-Jewish cultural theorist Walter Benjamin’s influential essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction.” April read the essay in the first year of her MFA and came back to it when she was creating her thesis. In the essay, Benjamin compares the artist to a magician and the filmmaker to a surgeon, an analogy that April adopts for painting as opposed to new digital media.

April’s work looks at digital media, but she purposefully didn’t use any herself in the exhibition. Her acrylic and oil paintings are the best medium to get across her message of the blurring between the human and the natural.

In fact, each of her paintings has a human form hidden in them — though you might have to use your imagination to find some of them.

“I was explaining a couple pieces to my thesis supervisor and I was like ‘Yeah they’re figurative’ and she was like ‘These are figurative pieces?’ ” said April. “There are figures buried in each one of them. I tried to put them to the peripheries of the composition to dissolve them into the surrounding environment … working with that idea of post-humanism and taking humans off this pedestal.”

Just as important as the paintings are the creative ways April hung them. Creative hanging, said April, is becoming a bigger part of curating exhibitions as a way for the audience to engage with the “presence” of the space. April placed some paintings unusually high and put one on an angle as a way to “activate the space” and to accentuate features of the room.

“I tried to work with the gallery space as an element of the exhibition, so bringing attention to the gallery space and using the paintings in a way that they could maintain their status as a painting as an image and also toddling the line between painting as an image and painting as a sculptural object, so being able to activate the room through the paintings,” April said. “Trying to get that activation of the space … making themselves very aware of their presence in the room.”

The Surgeon and the Magician. Photo: Ryan Pepper/Fulcrum

The paintings make use of bright pastel colours, giving the space a vibrant, buoyant feeling. Combined with the creative hanging, some pieces seem to be floating in the room. The use of acrylic also offers April control over the final product, as she knows how to work with acrylic’s properties and effects.

One of the best experiences of the whole MFA process, said April, is getting to exhibit in the OAG, a gallery she loved going to as a student. She said she’d always had the hope that she’d get a spot in the OAG someday, but she wasn’t expecting it to be so soon.

“I’m a young artist and I’d come here to see shows and say, ‘maybe one day I’ll be in the OAG’ and now it’s sooner than I thought.”

The Surgeon and the Magician, Tiffany April’s MFA thesis exhibition, is on now at the Ottawa Art Gallery until Sunday.

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