Lyse Lemieux

Lyse Lemieux has, over the past 10 years, created a distinctive and compelling art practice by expanding notions of what drawing is and can be. Working with unexpected materials, she entices the line to behave in what curator Melanie O’Brian describes as “a non-linear way.” At the same time, she smudges distinctions between figuration and abstraction, and between the graphic and the sculptural. “No Fixed Abode,” Lemieux’s recent show at SFU Gallery, was composed of two complementary bodies of work, Odradek Bundles and Odradek Drawings, their titles alluding to a 1919 Franz Kafka short story, “Odradek, or The Cares of a Family Man.” The bundles, which Lemieux conceives of as three-dimensional drawings, are organic shapes built around stuffed toys (sourced at a thrift store), their forms tightly and loosely wrapped in layers of old shirts, bits of fur, pieces of chamois and strips of felt. The black and white drawings, laid down on large, heavy sheets of Arches paper, are executed in oil stick, felt, sewing tape and pieces of found fabric. Lemieux essentially uses a pair of scissors as her drawing tool, precluding the need for preliminary sketches done in more conventional media. The line thus created is as much about excision as it is about more additive forms of image making.

The relationship of the artworks to the Kafka story is neither direct nor illustrative but, rather, evocative and implicative. Lemieux’s friend and colleague Marina Roy had seen the bundles in an early stage of their development and was reminded of Kafka’s story of an impossible creature that lurks in the narrator’s garret, stairways, lobby and entrance hall—in the home’s marginal or interstitial spaces—and that frequently disappears for months at a time before reappearing without apology or explanation. Seemingly composed of a wooden crossbar and a star-shaped spool bound in tangled and knotted thread, and trailing strands of thread behind it, Odradek is alien and elusive, an unknowable and destabilizing “other.” Although the narrator assigns this entity a gender, “he” cannot be fixed within the human body’s boundaries of space, time and subjectivity. Lemieux appreciates the analogy between her work and the Odradek story enough to intertwine them, at least in name. Still, she acknowledges that the connection is “a bit of a stretch.” Essentially, her drawings are largescale, two-dimensional iterations of her bundles, and her bundles are expressions of her probing intelligence and visual imagination, as if she had posed herself the questions, “What kind of body is this?” and “Where and how can it be situated?” Still, what Lemieux’s creations and Kafka’s creature have in common is a condition that is ambiguous, unstable and uncanny— yet somehow assertive of presence.

Lyse Lemieux, Odradek Drawings, 2016-18, oil stick, felt tape on paper. Images courtesy Simon Fraser University Gallery, Vancouver.

Mounted on the wall near the entrance to the gallery, three of the four bundles on view (chosen from a dozen such works) take on the appearance of animal heads—of hunting trophies, perhaps, or tribal masks, or somewhat distorted and oversized versions of the stuffed toys that function as their armatures. An elegant, high-heeled, calfskin shoe attached to the side of one swaddled form resembles an animal’s open beak or snout, seen in profile. In another, a flat oblong wrapped in smooth pink fabric suggests a tongue, and in another still, the head of a bear-like beast seems to emerge out of its component parts. Throughout, strips of felt function to emphasize or outline shapes and also to bind forms together, while the fur and found fabrics bring unexpected visual chatter—textures, colours, patterns—to each composition. The shoe, once belonging to Lemieux’s mother, and the fur, taken from the collar of one of her own coats, are loaded with their own particular histories.

The 10 Odradek drawings on Arches paper compel us with their deep, dense blacks against vivid white, the passages of oil stick seeming to absorb us into boundless depths while the felt presses subtly outward, not unlike relief sculpture. Wall-mounted, these works are imposing in size and heft, executed as they are on 300-pound, cold-pressed paper that bestows its own considerable physicality upon the series.

As mentioned, the drawings derive their severed and fragmented forms—a head or limb or foot or torso, all seemingly swaddled in or erased by lengths of fabric—from the bundles, although here the forms are more human than animal. The compositions are collage-like, with fragments of pattern, form and texture, of dots, stripes and checks, of the found and the described, all rekindling each other. Thick, organic lines of felt, oil stick and tape run throughout, creating a left-to-right momentum, individual drawings flowing together in an almost narrative fashion, like animation cells. In the artist’s studio, these works were mounted in a grid, but at SFU Gallery seven of them were mounted in a horizontal line on the rear wall and into the corner, with three further drawings mounted on the wall abutting. The final drawing in the series resembles a kind of vortex of swirling lines and limbs. The centre, it seems, cannot hold.

Lemieux has long worked with clothing as both image and medium, in two dimensions and in three. Her work beautifully and sometimes sorrowfully realizes clothing’s ability to symbolize the human body, its gendered presence and its ghostly absence. Her particular fondness for men’s cotton shirts seems to be prompted not only by the quality of the fabric and the dependable liveliness of the patterns but also by their manufacture, their construction. The shirt fragments speak to their makers, the unseen and unnamed garment workers who so carefully stitched collars, cuffs, pockets and placket fronts. Although these details are somewhat detached and abstracted aspects of the bundles and drawings in “No Fixed Abode,” they continue to express a phenomenon I’ve observed before in Lemieux’s art: meaning embedded in the making.

“Lyse Lemieux: No Fixed Abode” was at Simon Fraser University Gallery, Vancouver, from January 11 to May 7, 2020.

Robin Laurence is a Vancouver-based writer, curator and contributing editor to Border Crossings.