Encountering Catherine Thornley Carmichael’s work is like slipping into a chair just after she’s vacated it, leaving behind the warm echo of her body. The works in this exhibition, going back into the ’80s, are as warm-blooded as you can get. There is no artifice here, no irony, no cheek or inside joke. When you look at the work, you’re looking at the artist. Everything is visible and speaks to the visceral reality of a life being lived and a body that feels itself.
Carmichael is a scab picker. She can’t wait for things to heal. It’s not that the artist fearlessly approaches discomfort or vulnerability; she’s actually quite terrified but at the same time can’t help herself. It hurts and she has to poke at it. I think this is what some of the best art does. To paraphrase South African writer JM Coetzee, to make art the artist must move towards pain. For some people, being an artist is like having a wardrobe full of hair shirts. They move through the world outwardly wearing a smile while inwardly struggling with the itch, and the alienation of knowing that they occupy some kind of meta-view where they can see their culture but are forever outsiders.
The drawings, mostly watercolours, are tentative and teeter on the edge of not being there at all, yet contain a concrete presence of knowing. There are minimal relationships between forms establishing moments of potential, things coming together or moving apart. Hanging over the work is an aura of drama, as if something is about to or has just happened; gestures in formation as opposed to being fait accompli. In one drawing the artist writes, “In my mind I do whatever I want.” This is part confession, part celebration and part delusion. In another she writes, “Sometimes out of the blue I get a thrill through my body.” This thrill is passed on to the viewer like a slight electrical charge of recognition. I think we’ve all had that momentary connection to our physical being. The drawings reveal a tenderness in the handling of materials, allowing the works to breathe, leaving them open. In Untitled (Red Circle) you see a soaked red orb slipping off the bottom of the paper, or possibly entering. Like a bubble it feels as though it’s about to burst or float away. When she writes “You Sing” she gives us permission, a gesture of generosity. You could even sing right there in the gallery. Some drawings look as though the marks were birthed onto the surface, while other marks appear like bruises.
Informed by an early interest in contemporary dance and then performance, the sculptural works are like dancers frozen in time, caught like the tortured victims of Pompeii. They make me think of the materiality of Cy Twombly’s sculptures from the mid-1940s made from found materials, like wood, plaster and salvaged iron fragments. I’ve only ever seen the Twombly works on plinths, which changes the body relationship with the viewer. Carmichael’s dancers are in my space, pushing out, potentially moving towards me. Trying to Become God, in particular, sits atop a concrete dolly and could quite literally traverse the space. At 85 inches tall, it towers, metallic silver, a head upon a single spinal column, a red painted gash running down its front, bumping over what look like vertebrae. It’s raw and feeble and caught in the tragedy that is its own desire. The materiality is simple and has the austerity of works I think of as northern and eastern European—concrete, plaster-encrusted canvas, pieces of wood crudely assembled. The performance artist Jerzy Beres´, who died in 2012, comes to mind. He was an artist who lived and struggled through the era of Communist oppression, and, through the use of crude materials and his body, created touching expressions of a life force crushed by an authoritarian regime. The sculptures seen here contain truths in their materials.
Although the work in this exhibition spans more than 30 years, it feels as though it was all made last week. Unlike a survey, which tends to illustrate a sense of development or transformation throughout an artist’s life, this work speaks to an integrity of presence that is consistent. I want to say that Carmichael’s work is void of external mediation, but that’s not possible. She knows what she’s doing and is patently aware of history and her contemporaries. This is what I find most compelling. It’s smart work. While the drawings echo the bodily fluid works of Antony Gormley, the stained surfaces of Marlene Dumas and the physical presence of Louise Bourgeois, the artist owns her gestures and marks territory that is her own. She is a chimera: childish, scary, dazzling, a beast out of control, a trickster, a mother, a dancer, female, male, performer, artist. ❚
“Catherine Carmichael: Sculptures, Paintings, and Works on Paper” was exhibited at Clint Roenisch, Toronto, from September 12 to November 31, 2020.
Randall Anderson lives in the small town of Vankleek Hill, Ontario, where he built a studio and makes art, gardens, keeps bees, plays music and has long conversations about art with his partner, Natasha Martel. He has exhibited in 11 countries, writes for multiple publications and hopes for a better world.