Alison Yip

First shown at Galerie Noah Klink in Berlin, Alison Yip’s installation/painting show arrived at Contemporary Art Gallery (CAG) in Vancouver in January 2022. There are 12 oil paintings in six pairs, dispersed through the installation. There is a collection of scarves; two of the paintings hang on 2 x 4” framing (as if ready for drywall), 10 are on walls swagged with clear plastic (apparently proposing renovations in progress). Six are made on fragments of roughcut laminate tile, six on similarly prepared metal scraps. A low metal frame table is entwined with the scarves and forms a sculpture on the floor of the gallery (some are wrapped; plastic ties and QR codes on packaging are prominent). Six paintings were made after consultation with a psychic; these are termed by the artist as “auratic” and are painted on pieces of metal. Six paintings were made after the artist’s consultation with a neo-shaman; these are termed “somatic” and are on fragments of laminate. Attached to both types of surfaces are snips of collage material—as the gallery notes have it, “paper mementos from her daily life.” The psychic and the neo-shaman answered the same speculative questions about the artist’s future and the varying responses are depicted in small figurative oil paintings. The questions:

What will cause me great embarrassment?

What new skill will I develop?

Where will I live?

Who or what will I desire?

What animal or organic form will I connect with?

What will my relationship be with the gallerist?

Alison Yip, installation view, “Soma Topika,” 2022, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography. Courtesy CAG, Vancouver.

The paintings are made with the attentiveness and precision of a miniaturist. The scarves arrive as a response to the neo-shaman’s answer to the question “What will my relationship be with the gallerist?” That reply was, essentially, “Create gallery merchandise.” Most of the paintings contain a puppet or automaton (a significant distinction and difficult to make in these paintings) as a stand-in for the artist. The neo-shaman’s advice to paint with “the colours of the earth” has been (mostly) followed. The artist/puppet in the paintings appears benign, more like Jack Haley’s Tin Man from Oz than the pedophobia of Chucky, although perhaps winsome enough to indicate that agalmatophilia (sexual attraction to a statue, doll, or mannequin) is not completely out of the question.

The contrasting answers to the six questions, somatic and auratic, neo-shamanic and psychic, are represented in the paintings. They’re inventive, surprising and amusing: for the connection to animal or organic form question, our puppet/automaton tends plants on a trellis (auratic, prompted by the neo-shaman) and guides guests to a swan boat (somatic, the psychic). The premises that determine iconography in the paintings (and the gallery merch sculpture, come to that) are elaborate and convoluted. For the viewer they’re experientially stacked, one over the other, inviting a criss-cross of the space to compare neo-shamanic and psychic prognostications as they are manifested in paintings. Card after card is played: provisional wall treatments, ripped-up tile and metal plate, the banner of commodity raised by the commissioned scarves, collage material that’s potentially autobiographical, the varying responses to the six questions that contrast auratic to somatic—the essential to the bodily. Nonetheless, within this humorous and fantastic game the opportunity to decelerate, to pause, is always available; the execution of the paintings is remarkable and rewards attention. Yip has the dexterity to paint with the finest of brushes and to render exquisite details: the sweater in What will cause me great embarrassment? (Auratic), a tiny kitchen torch in What new skill will I develop? (Somatic), or the shoes in Who or what will I desire? (Auratic) are all extraordinary. Who paints this way?

Like all painters, Yip has no choice but to reanimate the history of painting; deep antecedents for “Soma Topika” might be found in the “Books of Hours,” in Renaissance painter Sassetta and in the Lorenzetti brothers, also 14th century—intense scenes rendered with exactitude on a small scale. From harvests to winter privations, from annunciations to interments, it’s hard to find something that doesn’t feature in that early Renaissance canon (although a swan boat might test this assertion). Quotidian detail meets the divine. All so distant from the CAG exhibit. And yet … in Alison Yip’s paintings we encounter the everyday—through collaged paraphernalia and through what is depicted (a laptop with an offline snack of Doritos), and we encounter the critical figure of the puppet/automaton. She’s the centre of attention, the actor around whom all drama occurs, but her articulated form differentiates her from painted wedding guests, the gallerists and the rest of the cast. While she may not be angelic, the puppet/ automaton occupies a similar, liminal iconographic space. The neo-shaman and the psychic have assigned her roles as she considers her destiny (and, by extension, the destiny of all who occupy her painted world). Just as the Limbourg brothers included a portrait of the Duc de Berry in early 15th-century Très Riches Heures, in Yip’s work here are Noah and Julia, gallerist and curator, present as facilitators of her exhibitions and as figures in the artist’s predicted future.

Alison Yip, What will cause me great embarrassment? (Somatic), 2022, oil, paper, laminate tile. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography.

Yip’s work contains a paradox (one not unknown in the history of painting): her eye and hand offer the viewer certitude—the representation of a rotary phone in Who or what will I desire? (Somatic) is an example—yet the meta-narrative she has created for “Soma Topika” destabilizes all; autobiographical ambiguity, alternative futures, unfinished exhibition spaces and the sculpture of the scarves that, by agreement, will never be available for sale. There’s a wonderful little quattrocento Sienese painting by Francesco di Giorgio Martini made on the cover of a book of accounts, Madonna of the Earthquakes. Its subject is the earthquake season in 1467 and it shows tents and huts outside the city’s walls as the popolo senese seek to avoid the terremoto. Another question perhaps: What is your greatest fear? (Somatic)? ❚

“Soma Topika” was exhibited at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, from January 28, 2022, to May 1, 2022.

Martin Pearce is a painter and the director of the School of Fine Art and Music at the University of Guelph.