In a photograph titled Open Ocean, an older man, a woman and a teenager row a punt filled with belongings through a dark night. The vessel, their clothing, bags and a large wood-framed mirror all reflect a rich orange glow that catches the surface of the black water around them. Even the end of the paddle is luminous through the waves. This is the first in a series of photographs that forms a narrative spine for Will Gill’s new exhibition, “From the Lion’s Den.”
Gill coats his props and costumes in reflective material, something that has been part of his practice for some time. It performs a fascinating visual function in his photographs— picking up ambient light and sometimes the camera flash to reflect it back to the viewer. It is also a rich signifier of human vulnerability. Is their safety gear meant to ward off whatever might lurk in the dark, or is it a signal for help? What source of light illuminates them, and who is watching their journey? The hands and faces of the figures remain obscured by the light reflected by their protective clothing, and their anonymity allows the viewer to project any number of narratives onto them.
The figures shift from orange to cyan in subsequent photographs, as the group makes its way to shore. As they set up camp, they are almost white against the sharp grey beach rocks. The next day, in Camp Early Morning, sunrise is a faint blush on the horizon, but their shelter and belongings blaze with light. Their arrival on the landscape is unmistakable. Clothesline Home shows the travellers having settled somewhat, propping a clothesline across lichen-speckled boulders. Their reflective fishing gear is more subdued in daylight, which has a warm pink glow, creating a silhouette of each traveller pinned against the overcast sky.
With stories of migrants filling the news, it’s difficult not to make a connection to vulnerable people seeking safety. In the context of Newfoundland and Labrador, there is also the ongoing resettlement of isolated communities to larger centres, out-migration by those in search of economic and educational opportunities, and successive waves of colonization. This place has long been a site of hardship, resilience, adaptation and renewal.
Fogo Island exemplifies this process and some of the contrasts it entails. Off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, it was inhabited by Indigenous peoples and colonized by Portugese, French, then Irish and English fishers and merchants. In the 20th century its communities were decimated by the decline of the cod fishery and the subsequent moratorium. The island has long been a site for economic and cultural rebuilding, most recently through the Shorefast Foundation and its offshoot, Fogo Island Arts. In addition to increased tourism and entrepreneurial activity, these efforts have brought high-end contemporary architecture and design (often in collaboration with local artists and craftspeople) to the island’s windswept landscape. A long-time resident of St. John’s, Gill made this current body of work during an artist’s residency with Fogo Island Arts, in the striking Tower Studio.
A series of drawings explores some of the seemingly contrasting visual elements Gill saw there. He made charcoal from local wood by heating it in modified paint cans in the studio woodstove, and drew on unstretched canvases hemmed by a St. John’s sail-making company. His dark, layered marks investigate small details of vernacular architecture on the island, such as the joints of fishing stages hand-built on wooden stilts, and what he describes as “generations- old markings on the land like cart tracks and garden plots.”
On top of the drawings, each canvas is appliquéd with brightly coloured silk. In Studio, Gill has rendered the geometric planes of the Tower Studio building in shades of blue, green and yellow. Rather than floating over the charcoal, the silk seems a grounded part of the composition, reminiscent of a handmade banner or flag.
Other canvases in the series depict different objects Gill found on the island—a wine cork printed with a graphic logo; the painted sign from a local Orange Lodge; the glass walls of the Fogo Island Inn dining room; a rusty metal bracket that resembles a human skull; and, linking back to the photo series, a set of rain gear in luminous greens. The compositions prompt considerations of new and old, manufactured and handmade. What is inherent to a place and what is exotic? What is authentic and what is alien? Are these false dichotomies?
In his artist’s statement, Gill says, “The creativity necessary to construct [fishing] stages in unique and often challenging situations never ceases to fascinate and inspire me. There is beauty in their seeming haphazardness and strength in even the most vulnerable looking structures.” In the sculpture Fantastic Stage, he takes a large plinth and punctures it, building a series of stilts, beams, platforms and ladders within the cube. As the title suggests, this is not a structure that could serve any practical function. Instead, it highlights and multiplies the hand-built elements Gill so admires. Where the dark, uneven branches of the stage meet the clean painted surface of the plinth, though, more dichotomies come to mind—art and craft, vernacular and professional, exhibition and function.
A collection of sculptures entitled Preservers seems to display several artifacts of Gill’s project: one of the canvas bags carried on the punt, two paint tins with holes punched in the lids, used to make the charcoal, and a dozen mason jars, all white. These are not the objects themselves, however, but plaster models, moulded from the originals. Like the finds from an archaeological excavation, sometimes only the impression of something remains as evidence. Here again, past and present, authenticity and artifice coexist in unexpected ways.
Without resorting to easy clichés or predictable imagery, “From the Lion’s Den” engages with ideas often used as political talking points— community, history, change and renewal—and strips them to their visceral core. The result is a tangled, valuable narrative, especially relevant today. ❚
“From the Lion’s Den” was exhibited at Christina Parker Gallery, St. John’s, NL, from June 7 to July 6, 2019.
Jennifer McVeigh is a writer living in St. John’s.