Monday, March 18, 2013

Stephanie Vegh: Beating a Dead Horse? Or, Emerging from an Academic Chrysalis?

'Scratchings: Talon, Sting and Claw’     
Now showing at the Nathaniel Hughson Gallery.

Stephanie Vegh, the artist, was born in Hamilton, studied Art and Comparative Literature at McMaster University before leaving for the Glasgow School of Art to complete a Master in Fine Art.

This background is essential to understanding the ink drawings, watercolour sketches, cut outs and literary tidbits that she inserts into arcane 'history' and 'science' books. As she writes, "My labour-intensive articulation of diminutive subjects at an excessive scale in relation to their illustrated environments subverts the logic of these books, forcing a fusion between their history and my own."

Still with me? Take a breath, it's not as tough as it sounds. Meaning: she looks and reads, she thinks about what she's looking at and reading, and she integrates that studying into her evolving persona. All quite normal self-development when you strip away the sophistry.

As for contemporary relevancy, as a country gal born and bred, I couldn't help but think that, cumulatively, these works were 'much ado about nothing'.  Rather then stating the obvious, like the now well-documented global collapse of bees or the on-going eruption of mutating amphibians, we are teased into believing Vegh's quixotic renderings of the historically side-swiped minutiae of Nature is a  'NEW DISCOVERY' of some kind. - Well, it isn't.  

Note: All children, all over the globe, still marvel at the intricate antenna twitching of ants and the buzzing of bees. Bugs, at eye level, remain fascinating.

Perhaps Ms. Vegh's point is that all that child-like awe and wonder is lost as the head, through excessive years of myopically confined book learning, hardens the ever-curious heart. This is commonly known as the ‘ivory tower’ syndrome.

As a visual 'critique' of how, we, as a species, relate to the rest of the species of the world, Vegh seems, to me, to overstate the obvious. Drawing on once revered academic tomes dating from the 1700’s to 1850’s, Vegh has, somewhat mockingly, illuminated their deficiencies. Ok, we get it, those tomes are old hat.  

But one still wonders. Why would anyone study book works that are clearly not relevant today, except, perhaps, as a prologue to understand where we are now? In that regard, Vegh's meanderings in these dusty illustrated tomes appear as 'superior' musings on the atrophied thoughts and illustrations of dead people.   

To give them some credit, if these authors and accomplished artists were alive today they could well be at the forefront of their respective disciplines.  Imagine, for example, Charlotte Bronte writing as a contemporary of Margaret Atwood, or Carl Linneaus  working on The Genome Project ...  

It is very easy to be critical of the dead.

Aside from the overwrought obscure intent of this exhibition, the execution of Vegh's drawings and the pairing of words do have some resonance.  Thoughts ricochet and muddy emotions swirl into the murky eddies of Time Past. Individually, we journey inward - and backward - to cultural backwaters that are now very far removed from the opened floodgates of the internet. 

We all KNOW these dusty tomes are ancient and anachronistic. We can SEE Vegh's tender (not abusive) engagement with them. And, consequently, we can't help but come away wondering if, perhaps, Vegh's miffed chastisement of their inherent failings today doesn't better reflect her greater disgruntlement of her own years of isolated and isolating 'higher learning'.

An essay she wrote seems to give credence to this observation: 'Dwelling in the Windowpane: The Futural Transition of the University'   (PDF link) Therein, metaphorically speaking, she's banging on the doors, flinging open those windows and overall reasonably attempting to up-end the logic of traditional 'reasoned' learning.  

In that sense, these re-fashioned book works, on exhibit at the Nathaniel Hughson Gallery, could be construed as a rebellious 'breakthrough' for Vegh. Yes, she has now graduated into Life. She is, after all, the Executive Director of the Hamilton Arts Council and a member of Hamilton's Supercrawl Curatorial Committee.  

Hopefully, she will soon give herself lasting permission to ‘put away the books’.  

It would be grand, for example, if she funneled her talents into the little appreciation earth-rooted physicality of the web. Andrew Blum's excellent and enlightening book, 'TUBES: A Journey to the Centre of the Internet'  might be a good place to start. She would have to be quick and precise though. His practical ‘field’ research and pertinent cross-fertilized understanding of 'the way things are' will be just as obsolete as our pioneering forefathers insight, knowledge and know-how - given another year or two. 

'Scratchings: Talon, Sting and Claw’ at the Nathaniel Hughson Gallery closes April 6th, 2013.    
Hours & Directions to Gallery: here. 

(Photos of Ms. Vegh's imagery were shot by MLH during the opening on Thursday March 14th. )



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