State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

Mary Anne Barkhouse: The Filly and the Fury

When I first met Mary Anne Barkhouse I had a realization that I was meeting a bona fide rock goddess. Not just because she was in one of Canada’s first punk bands, The Restless Virgins but because she inserts her rock n’ roll vibe into everything she touches; her clothes, her taste in music and movies, her attitude and her art work.

While other writers and art supporters seem to concentrate on her First Nations background, and her stunning art pedigree (iconic west coast carvers are relatives) I have to say my attraction to what Mary Anne does is her unfailing commitment to making her statement a rebel yell. Her ethos is bathed in a punk aesthetic and like all smart old school punk rockers, she continues to show that the punk movement was a global art movement and not just about being poor, British and spitting.

Her latest exhibition the Reins of Chaos continues in that ethos. It is an ongoing rumination on themes of chaos; environmental, spiritual and personal. The exhibit is built around the four horses of the apocalypse, Conquest, War, Famine and Death. Mary Anne’s horses are lovingly refashioned grocery store rocking horses that you would put your kid on while you shopped. They work too. At the opening many kids were being bounced around riding them and probably thinking, hey art galleries are alright.

I’m really not a fan of artists who are able to buy these kinds of things because then what am I looking at? Stuff the artist was smart and rich enough to buy? These horses however are put in such a compassionate and personal context that any notion I had of being all grumpy and snotty about them vanished. Mary Anne suffers from severe asthma and as a child she couldn’t go near horses even though she loved them dearly. (Disclaimer here, I love them too!) Her only experience of being on one was at the grocery store. It’s these kinds of darling details that make her work really lovely.

In another part of the installation are four small, gorgeous bronzes of horses that are based on Mary Anne’s childhood toys. Each displayed imperially on plinths, they are a more somber study on the four horses of Biblical tales. Here the artist excels by capturing all the dignity and beauty inherent in our view of these animals casting a wider net to her thesis.  In the final room rocking horses of different vintage and material are set about with stenciled planes on the walls evoking what the artist referred to as “a boy’s bedroom”. I wasn’t totally sure what this had to do with the rest of the exhibit but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

Barkhouse’s bronzes. She is continuing a tradition of making animals worthy of our reverence and understanding in art.

The standout for me is a carved wooden donkey attached to a wheeled stand with a rope, ready to be pulled away from the chaos. The Donkey of Eternal Salvation as it is called, stands, head down, on wheels, frozen in a humble display of dignity. This animal gets a bad rap and though it was the very mode of transportation the Virgin Mary rode before birthing Jesus, history and stories have never been fair to this hard working, loyal and strong animal. Barkhouse gives the donkey a deserved star turn.

Ultimately the Reins of Chaos is not an exhibit about one idea or one notion. Barkhouse’s history of animal evocation and her evolution as an installation artist gets played with here. This is friendly stuff with a challenging approach. The associations concerned with chaos that Barkhouse unveils are pushed slightly to the background – heraldic banners behind the horses depict whaling, the oil industry (titled with punk anthems) and other complex issues of modernity – but they are there. Chaos isn’t a theme easily pinned down and Barkhouse isn’t making a definitive statement. I think it’s the horses that say the most. Horses are our connection to feelings of wildness, to the chaos we have in our selves, and how we tame that chaos defines us in many ways.

Mary Anne is a much sought after, nationally recognized artist who happens to reside in Minden and this exhibition rounds out a really phenomenal year for the Agnes Jamieson Gallery. It’s a coup for sure. Toward the end of the exhibit Barkhouse will be bringing in a hand made book that she has been working on which tells the tale of a beaver’s experience through history. It will tie various themes of her work over the years together. I spoke with Mary Anne about her work; the following is a transcript of that conversation:

Originally this installation seemed more about war and the reference to the Bible more obvious. Why this change in tone?

For me it is not so much a change in tone as an addition to what was already there. I had conceived of this as a four part series … one with the small toy horses/bronzes, one with the rocking horses, on part being the coin-op horses and the last part has been up in the air as I had originally thought of a photo-essay, then a video … but then I settled on the idea of a book as being best able to encapsulate what I wanted it to do with that section, which was to develop the narrative of the journey of the four horses … and how, through the donkey, they find their way out of these cycles that we have imposed upon the, which was a responsibility that they never asked for.

As I was looking at these cycles of conflict, I broke them down into several types of conflict such as nature against man, man against man and man against nature. The boundaries between these are not firm ones as in any one instance of turmoil their may be elements of each.

The reference to the Bible was mainly one of using scenes from the Book of Revelations as a platform to discuss these end-of-world scenarios that appear in different locations at different times with different cultures from around the world. Showing the work in 2012 is particularly poignant because of the angst that has surrounded the Mayan calendar, which changes over this year. But as with Y2K angst, calendars changing over has proven to be a focal point for this type of hysteria. I would also add the following (which is an excerpt from a statement I did for the Tree Museum):

” For the ancient Maya, late December in 2012 will mark the end of their Long Count calendar. Hopi prophecy speaks of transition from the fourth world to the fifth, ‘the great day of purification’ by fire. The Mohawk seventh generation is already here, marking the time to restore stewardship of the earth to indigenous people. As a contemporary First Nations artist I find inspiration in these interpretations of space and time. Coming from a Kwakiutl background, fundamental principals of stewardship of the land were always of utmost importance for the determination of individual or communal conduct. This is in stark contrast to ecclesiastical ideologies which speaks of salvation for a very few … and of a Life Everlasting that will be achieved in Heaven, and not on Earth. This can sometimes lead to the idea that it doesn’t really matter what we do with the planet, as it is only a temporary construct. ”

So thusly I have incorporated more references to environmental consequences of our actions in this final version of the Reins of Chaos.

The Donkey of Eternal Salvation and he lives up to every inch of his name.

Animals figure a lot in your work but horses seem something new. Do you have a different feeling toward them as opposed to other animals like beavers?

If you knew me when I younger you would not have said that! When I was a kid ALL the art I did was about horses. I was deathly allergic to them, but I developed a fondness for them right from the first time I laid eyes on one at my grandfather’s farm in Nova Scotia. Apparently I asked if we could take Charlie (the name of the horse) home with us. My Dad drove a early 60’s Volkswagon at the time. I amuses me to think of us driving home with a large draft horse in the back … I obviously had not developed any sense of volume or space as a young child!

So this is me getting back to my roots. When I was young, my grandfather (who was a fisherman, and lived on the other side of Canada in BC) used to tease me and say I must have been switched at the hospital because the Kwakiutl were fishermen, not horsemen.

For this series, regardless of my early horse-craziness, I thought that the horse was the most appropriate animal to tell these stories. And I say this not only due to their representation in the Bible, but also from their place in history where they were arguably the first weapon of mass destruction. Their place in human history, hand in hand with wars, agriculture and hunting, has made them an icon of power and change.

Horses are also an animal that has suffered greatly from their association with us. One only has to read Anna Sewell’s book, Black Beauty, for a brief taste of this. Beavers have suffered at our hands too, but their suffering has been relatively recent, being the past 400 years when people started the mass slaughter of them on this continent. Horses have had the dis-pleasure of our association gong back hundreds and hundreds of years BC.

Tell me about the book and when we can see it.

I think I have elaborated about the book a bit already, but I will say further that when I decided upon the format of the book I was inspired by some of the illuminated manuscripts which were commentaries on the Apocalypse. Some of those early manuscripts are physically massive in size, and a bit awkward to my way of seeing. So the work I am doing is (dimension-wise) based more upon the more modest Book of Hours type of manuscript (around 5 x 7) which I personally find more visually appealing. I am working on it for the duration of the exhibition and it will be finished towards the end of the showing at Agnes Jamieson. I will be further accessing the collection and archival holdings at Agnes Jamieson to inform some of the content in the book, as I wanted it to be a representation of where I am at this point in time.

You have worked with all sorts of materials over the years; do you have a comfort zone with one or a loyalty to one material over the other?

Not really. I use the material as is necessary to the content of the work … having said that, I do love working with bronze, but I would not phrase it as a loyalty to that material over another.

You often use text in your work or use it as an inspiration; can you expand on the role it plays in your work?

As well as horses, when I was younger, I also loved books and reading. Perhaps it was because I was so deathly allergic to things when I was a child, and the subsequent amount of time I spent in hospital or recuperating in bed, that I became an avid reader and I love the mental transportation that books can provide. They are an escape, but they are also a grounding of ideas. So I think it is natural for me to have that inter-relation between the visual work and the written.

Three favourite punk anthems:

Not Anymore – the Dead Boys
Tin Soldier- Stiff Little Fingers
Anarchy in the UK – Sex pistols
That was a tough one, because I wasn’t able to also include Slave to My Dick by the Sub-Humans …. Fuck You by DOA and Sheena is a Punk Rocker by the Ramones. Three is tough ….

The Reins of Chaos runs until November 3rd at the Agnes Jamieson Gallery in Minden.

State of the Arts is off next week and will return October 18th with a brand new blog.

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