Uneasy Painting: The Ambiguous Art of Shary Boyle

In practice and material, Shary Boyle is a polymath. Her media: painting, sculpture and drawing, the choice at a particular moment governed by her being compelled by the material itself.

When she paints, she says it’s the liquid feeling of that medium that’s pleasurable and what she’s after shifts. Four years ago, when she’d lived for a time in Winnipeg, she recognized that she’d done her last series of work she described as quick paintings. These were followed by long paintings. The quick works were done in a single sitting, a duration that could be eight hours in length, the achievement and completion satisfying but finally becoming too easy. “There was something sleepy about it,” she said, “and I wanted to challenge myself.” What she did then was set aside the spontaneity and intuition in her approach to working and looked to the historical techniques of layering and glazing, making the paintings’ surfaces deeper and more complex through the element of implied and real time. The intensity and depth meant depth of meaning, too, slowing down both process and apprehension. In the way that depth is accretive through layering–think here of the portraits of 15th-century painter Hans Memling or 16th-century painter Francesco Zurbaran, so meaning has become, as well.

Paintings like Sami of Finland and Isaac are amalgams of Boyle’s interest in both quick and long painting where the careful underpainting is present but the surface, the last gestures, show a return to the spontaneity of quick painting and a giving over to the medium’s sensuality. In the way that the material is seductive, so was the urge to be messy. Her painting self portrait, where the figure is elaborated by a web made of beads of paint is her enjoying “marring the tight perfection of the underpainting.” What she’s doing here is neither giving over nor giving in to the event. She’s in control, setting up a dialectic or tension between letting the manufacture and form of the painting take over (and her seeking out the depth of meaning that comes with that) and seizing the wheel and steering the sensuous, spontaneous course. Sami, Isaac *and *The Sack are portraits that have been built with careful layers of underpainting and then messed with on the surface to, as Boyle says, “wreck the fussiness” and produce what she calls strange hybrids.

In subject as well as technique, hybridity–loosing formal expectations–interests Boyle. Pulling against form, she’s engaged androgyny and mythology. The body of Swedish Man could be one of Tamara de Lempicka’s elegant cocktail-dressed Art Deco-era women. The carefully groomed long yellow beard suggests otherwise but the braided coronet of golden hair wrapped across his brow has you willing to reconsider. Subjects whose reading are occluded or obscured by ambiguity or androgyny represent her sense of what could be transgressive. The Haircut does this too. A portrait of a young woman, apparently naked but not nude, looks out from the canvas while at the same time looking inward, seeming to consider her status with interested expectation, even curiosity. A pink colour has risen to her cheeks, the same rosy tone as the diamond-patterned wallpaper against which the portrait is set. Her hair is a rich, thick, chestnut brown and her arms rest easy, shoulders relaxed. Gathering her hair firmly, as though to draw it away from her neck in preparation for the haircut, are two long-fingered hands. Or, two long-figured hands have closed firmly around her neck to do her no good.

That hovering state of immanence, what Boyle calls the suspended state of unease, is real for her. Life is ambiguous, uncertain, surprising. This is both acknowledgement and program. “Putting myself in the centre of discomfort is an important philosophy for the way I want to try to live,” she says.

Technique and highly accomplished painting, hybridity, mythological sensibility in place and deed, androgyny and suggestions of transgression are all present in the newest paintings. In one, a young figure, gender indistinct, wears a cap with a feather and is clothed in a mix of tartans. Another face emerges from behind the figure’s thick hair–a Janus figure, an eavesdropper, a doubling? Trees against a darkening sky form a tondo around the figure/figures.

In another painting, a creature upright like a human but more cat-faced than homo sapien, still looking, for all the too-pink nose and far-set eyes, like someone I know–comes from where, and with what intention does it lick its lips and pointy teeth with its very pink tongue? And in another of the newest work, a man in a bearskin hat has left his guardpost outside Buckingham Palace, removed his jacket and is swallowing or licking the little dance slipper of a Highland lass, while holding to a twisted branch bearing a few green leaves.

These are long paintings with layers of underpainting and rich glazing, like the surface of porcelain medallions. Making the work beautiful holds at bay the risks and dangers inherent in life, as Shary Boyle sees it. It’s beauty and the beast of fear, it’s putting it to work, to answer Elvis Costello’s question, “What shall we do, what shall we do with all this useless beauty?”

The dialectical lines that Boyle walks, where she says she sees both sides of everything come together synthetically in the wholeness of her painting.

Shary Boyle spoke to Robert Enright from her studio in London, England, on June 17, 2007.

**BORDER CROSSINGS: ****What has been the relationship among your various practices? How do you determine what it is you want to do? Basically I’m asking a question about the muse.

**SHARY BOYLE: **I guess I’ve been very intuitive. I’ve let myself do what I really wanted to do. It’s almost an unconscious whim in that I feel compelled to work with a certain material. There are specific experiences and feeling you get when you’re painting that are completely different from sculpting and drawing. Depending on my mood or impulse, it’s pretty clear to me what I want do to. The times that I have done my best painting have definitely been when I’m feeling a real pleasure in the material and really getting into pushing paint and colour around. The liquid feeling of the material is a pleasure that is quite specific.

***BC: ****A lot of the work you did in 2005 through 2006 were meta-paintings in that, if you did a figure, like Sami of Finland, not only were the figures painted but you also decorated the figures with painting itself.

SB: **Exactly. My painting took a massive turn about four years ago when I was living in Winnipeg. I did my very last series of quick paintings. For all the time I’d been painting, I had a certain method in which I would sit down with a blank canvas or masonite panel and start with some image I had allowed to bubble up out of my head that I really wanted to see. I didn’t work from sketches and I would sit there for eight hours until I completed it. If I was in the studio and I was on a roll, I would do a painting a day. It was very satisfying because at the end of a day you had something to see and you felt you had accomplished something. I’d been doing that for so many years that it became a bit too easy; there was something sleepy about it and I wanted to challenge myself. I had a conversation with a friend whom I really respect who encouraged me to get a handle on figurative painting and to push myself more, to attempt portraits, or a long painting that had layers of depth. So I started to look into historical techniques, underpainting and glazing, and focused more on isolating a single figure and working on just the face and shoulders. It took years but now I do paintings that take forever and they drive me crazy. I’ve completely lost the ability to be spontaneous and do a painting in a day. (See Issue 103 to read the full interview.)***

Volume 26, Number 3: PAINT

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #103, published August 2007.

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