A house can fall in many ways. It can crumble due to natural causes such as earthquakes and landslides, flash flooding. Then there is displacement by humans: foreclosure, eviction and demolition. An unattended cigarette can set a whole house aflame in a matter of minutes. New worries accumulate: nuclear bombs, planes flying into buildings, air strikes by drones. There is an inherent anxiety at play when it comes to architecture; a building comes furnished with temporality, chaos and insecurity. A house is fraught with the anxiety of displacement.
The Olga Korper Gallery, nestled next to train tracks in the west end of Toronto, is a large room with patinated scaffolding supporting the cathedral ceiling. The gallery is lit from the windows alone, and the light casts different shadows on the cement floor and on the art, depending on the time of day. Isolated from the core of the city, the visible structure of the building strips the gallery of any pretensions. If you happened to come across the gallery during Meaghan Hyckie’s solo show at Olga Korper’s, the building itself began to look like an extension of one of her drawings.
The show, titled “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Atomic Radiation,” rotated among three common tropes in Hyckie’s work: architecture, clouds and nuclear bombs. Or perhaps the clouds were nuclear bombs and the buildings are clouds. It’s hard to say, with the ethereal images blurring the lines between porousity and structure. Each of the drawings—which ranged from 13 x 17 inches to a sprawling 72 x 95 inches (the latter necessitating the full spectrum of eye movement to survey)—is meticulously formed by layering lines of coloured pencil crayon. The marks appear to be floating on top of the paper with a fabric-like density, the woven colours optically mixing together to create transparency through colour.
In his 1980 seminal essay, “Walking in the City,” Michel De Certeau describes looking down at Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center as “a wave of verticals,” from where we must eventually descend. “An Icarian fall. On the 110th floor, a poster, sphinx-like, addresses an enigmatic message to the pedestrian who is, for an instant, transformed into a visionary: It’s hard to be down when you’re up,” writes De Certeau. Twenty-one years later it becomes difficult to read “Walking in the City” without a foreboding sense of prophecy. Photographs of the planes flying into the Twin Towers, the backdrop a perfect sheet of cerulean blue, are ingrained in the mind, becoming the defining text of the 21st century. The images of the falling towers introduced the world to a visual language for the anxiety of architecture. Hyckie’s drawings, which toggle between being outright menacing and slightly disorienting in their beauty, continue this visualization.
Within the category of “outright menacing,” and one of the most captivating pieces in the show, was the ombre drawing “John Connor & Patsy Cline.” A mushroom bomb almost fills the the paper, creating the illusion that the explosion is growing exponentially and will soon absorb all the oxygen from the scene. The horse galloping below, its back singed with the markings of the bomb above, is sure to be suffocated. Hyckie’s minute pencil strokes are layered marks of reds, oranges and yellows, invoking movement.
We’re first introduced to the anxiety of being vertical as children when we learn to walk. “Children learn from birth onward that no one force operating in their lives is so constant, unforgiving and relentless as gravity. Verticality opposes gravity,” wrote R Buckminster Fuller in his 1969 essay “Vertical is to live—horizontal, to die.” The title perfectly encapsulates the anxiety present in Hyckie’s drawings. According to Buckminster Fuller and referring to modes of transportation, our inherent anxiety of the vertical leads us to the false conclusion that travelling horizontally (by car) is safer than space travel. While there is anxiety in being upright, the alternative, to be horizontal, is akin to death—literally or metaphorically.
Of particular interest to Hyckie are wartime houses. Those embody a kind of horizontal living: low to the ground and dredging up a sleepiness through repetition. Built during and after the Second World War to house veterans and war-adjacent workers, they embody the semiotic notion of what a “house” looks like: a square with a triangle atop. Rows of bungalows sit neatly next to each other in grid-like patterns across Canada and the US. Andrea Fraser, in her 1989 performance “Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk,” refers to Philadelphia’s wartime houses as “living tombs.” Horizontal, to die.
Hyckie depicts these so-called living tombs with an ominous quality that befits Orwell. The homogeneity of the wartime houses is mimicked in her drawings through the two-dimensional grids of houses. A single colour on black paper mimics the digital glare of a computer program. It’s worth noting that the drawings in this series were the only ones in the show that are portrait-oriented, the verticality accentuating the tension of a horizontal subject. The two-dimensionality of the colour-on-black series renders space void.
The flatness of these works is in direct contrast to the three-dimensional drawings in the show that accentuate the feeling of space, so much so that you feel as if you could climb inside one of the houses and live there. Would it feel like living in a dream or a nightmare? The line between utopia and dystopia is fraught in Hyckie’s work, and has more to do with the anxiety—or lack thereof—that the viewer projects onto the images.
The drawing “Free Connective Mother Clouds” marries Hyckie’s theme of architecture and clouds: a cumulus congetus cloud is superimposed over rigid three-dimensional cubes. The nature of clouds is that they’re free from the rules of gravity—and should, therefore, lack the anxiety present in buildings. This drawing introduces the ethereal quality of clouds to the precarious nature of architecture, creating a work rife with tension.
A through line emerges in Hyckie’s work. Things aren’t quite what they seem. Architectural renderings of houses never-to-be-realized are drawn in radioactive greens, yellows and pinks. What could be seen as utopian images are made uncomfortable with the irradiated colours. Horizontal houses are stacked on top of one another to make a vertical, ready form, to topple over. There are clouds, but there are also bombs: two things that really couldn’t be more different.
“The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Atomic Radiation” was exhibited at Olga Korper Gallery, Toronto, from March 23 to April 22, 2018.
Tatum Dooley is a writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Aperture, Canadian Art, the Globe & Mail, Real Life Magazine, The Walrus and more. She is a contributing editor at The Site Magazine.