Words and Pictures, Pictures and Words: Shary Boyle and Emily Duke

When artists Shary Boyle and Emily Duke began an intense and unguarded e-mail correspondence over a decade ago, they could never have guessed what it would become. They called their picture-and-word collaboration Illuminations, and what it illuminates is variously captivating, grotesque, lyric, brutal, sensuous, perverse and bewildering. Included among the 35 pairings are poems, narrative fragments and drawings in a number of styles that don’t tell a coherent story so much as intimate a range of complex psychological conditions. There are characters in the sequence, Bloodie and Peg Leg, who re-appear, as well as groups of feral boys and girls who are every bit as terrifying as the wild animals that regularly turn up. These marauding gangs are governed by a kind of post-gender queerness–all traditional roles collapse and, suddenly, all bets are off. It’s the sort of world where Peter Pan, Henry Darger, Hieronymus Bosch and the head of a giant, shark-toothed woman play games that can turn from the titillating to the torturous in a single heartbeat.

Boyle describes the collaboration as a “zero restraint project.” She attributes its lack of self-consciousness to the privacy of their originating emails. “We were very raw and open, and Emily and I both thought it was important to keep in our work a sense of vulnerability and emotional honesty. Just by nature that became central to our politics as women and feminists and artists.”

Illuminations is a fantastic world, complete with amputated limbs, volcanic eruptions, vicious dogs, rotting cadavers and Angel’s Trumpets hanging above a pair of corpses as emblems of exotic death. Boyle and Duke are the sisters grim-and-bare-it. In an especially bestial orgy, humans and animals (and hybrids of both), engage in a number of innovative combinations, including some racy horse-on-girl action. It’s a sort of undressage. Emily Duke describes it as “fantails and dapples, still-humped and grunting, horse, satyr, human woman, all hot in the face.” This frolic exemplifies what she calls, “evidence of holy magic afoot in the land.” In another combination, the collaborators push hard on the door of excess (Duke’s prose version is called The Delicate Perversity of Obscene Excess.) The drawing is a binge of an altogether different sort. On the back of a grotesquely antlered horse, a feral girl stuffs her face with gobs of cake, while she is orally serviced (pleasure might be going too far) by a man whose head has just burst into flames. This takes being hot in the face to a new level. But it embodies what the drawings and poems do best: it seduces and repels us with the same strangeness. Illuminations doesn’t simply shower us with light from the imaginations of these gifted artists, but it generates considerable light (and heat) from the glow of our gazing eyes as we look in on what they have fashioned.

Above images: Shary Boyle, ink and gouache on paper, from “Illuminations Project,” 2003-2010, Shary Boyle and Emily Duke. Photographs © Raphael Goldchain. Courtesy Jessica Bradley Art + Projects, Toronto. (Left) *Bloodie is Born and Born Again, 2009, 42 x 48”. (Right) Angel Trumpet Flower of Death, 2009, 45 x 42”.*

Volume 30, Number 2: Brian Jungen

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #118, published May 2011.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.