“The Intrigue of the Parrot” by Laurianne Simon
Alliance Française, Toronto, Canada 06/01/2020 to 30/01/2020 Opening: Thursday 24/01/2020 at 6:00 p.m.
In her most recent series of artworks, the figure of the parrot assumes a triumphant place in the theater of personal references that make up Laurianne Simon’s passionate ode to painting.
Presented in “The Intrigue of the Parrot” are several large, intensely colourful, layered compositions featuring the wings and bodies of parrots. Yet to think that the paintings are just about birds would be to miss the point entirely. That is because Laurianne Simon’s subject is first and foremost an allegory of the search for her identity as an artist. In approximately half of the seventeen pieces in the exhibition, the bird’s body and wings are positioned directly in the middle of the canvas, like a portrait. The parrot figure takes on symbolic and psychological proportions. This sense of monumentality sets the tone for the rest of the show, which moves freely between abstract expressionism to repurposed sculpture to figurative painting in the modern grotesque style of James Ensor.
With a range of influences such as Eugène Leroy, Helen Frankenthaler and Edouard Prulhière, the expressive qualities of paint and the way it is applied and manipulated is the main feature of Laurianne Simon’s oeuvre. The figure of the parrot can be understood as a form of artifice that the artist uses to explore her own theatre of perception. To refashion the words of Georg Baselitz, the subject is “suitable for painting precisely because it is unsuitable as an object”. Even though Laurianne’s parrots are always right-side up, thereby taking advantage of their figurative qualities to increase their emotional impact, the materiality of their features is above all a tool to harness psychological intensity.
This psychological intensity is part of the artist’s intimate, unfiltered approach to life. Her signature style of communication is raw and highly tactile. To illustrate this more clearly, I will provide an anecdote. One day I was invited to have lunch at Laurianne’s house/studio in West Toronto. Laurianne paints in the dining room, which is approximately 20 metres square. Surrounded by art books, paint palettes and stacks of drawings, we conversed over plates of winter vegetables and chicken with baby potatoes. Laurianne's child demanded to be breastfed, which did not interrupt our meeting in the slightest. No sooner did Laurianne splay her legs up on the side of the chair and let the baby suckle than she had already done away with the silverware and continued eating with her hands. Nothing seemed more natural for her. Watching her eat was like witnessing an act of painting: it was an immediate, direct experience with her body and her emotions in the centre. In the bright, very personal conversation that we had, Laurianne shared her fear of being consumed by the subjects of her paintings. It struck me that though that may be true, the subjects of her paintings should also probably fear her, because she has no doubt eaten them by consuming the paint of their very composition.
This personal example shows how the mental and physical boundary between the paintings and the artist who brought them to life is blurred. Likewise, the boundary between the subject of the works and Laurianne's identity as an artist, wife and mother is also blurred. The uncanny ability of a parrot to imitate, to evoke and to provoke its owner seems like the perfect subject of this
allegory. Just as an intrigue, by definition, is a secret plan for accomplishing a task, the act of making art is part of making something come alive which is not. Trickery, artifice and collusion are all part of a theatre of ruses.
The history of the parrot in art also plays a significant role in interpreting Laurianne’s oeuvre. Traditionally the exotic subjects of natural history illustration, parrots have an uncanny ability to imitate and mock human behaviour. They chatter, coo, click, cackle, shout, growl and laugh. They talk back to us. Personification of this colourful beast in art was common in the fifteenth century, when it was associated with the Virgin Mary. Works such as Jan Van Eyck's “The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele” and Albrecht Dürer's “Adam and Eve” exemplify this association. The underlying reasoning is one of analogy: if a bird can speak and imitate people, then the same miracle must apply to a Virgin who can be impregnated by the Divine.
Parrots also frequently appear in art history alongside women as caged birds. They can be used to represent materiality, wealth and trade. The species gained its notoriety as a pirate’s companion in the centuries of European imperial conquest in the Southern Hemisphere. A contemporary art reference of this type is Rodney Graham’s 1997 video, “Vexation Island”. The protagonist is condemned to the Sisyphean fate of being hit on the head with a coconut and passing out over and over again, with the lone parrot as his only comic witness. Parrots are often depicted as self-stylized pets, part of a personal theatre of dressing up.
These multiple historical references are just the beginning of exploring the theatre of Laurianne's making. Over the ten-year history of her work, Laurianne Simon's relationship to abstraction has evolved. Her earlier paintings were almost completely abstract. They consisted of compositions of squares and rectangles in which figuration played only the tiniest fraction of a part, underneath the surface. Many different textures and movements showed through the paint. Today, Laurianne's relationship to figuration has inversed. Paintings such as “The Paradox of the Doll and the Hen...” and “That is All” are monumental in their presentation of a personal play of characters. There is a strong sense of celebration and joy in their progression.
The more Laurianne paints, the more her personality as an artist is revealed. She is someone who lives her emotions very intensely, with her body in the center. When she smiles, she beams. Her laugh is charged, explosive and passionate. When she speaks, the words come straight from her heart and from her guts. She spares herself of nothing. In life, she fervently commits to every tactile and corporeal experience available. Giving birth to a child and building a family is integral to her personhood. What is beautiful to see in this exhibition is the progression of the artist in relation to her cohesive subject. What might seem in her studio as oddly crumpled up outliers—the shredded and repurposed pieces of canvas that have been styled into masks—turn out to make perfect sense given the artist’s search for identity and understanding of artifice.
For Laurianne Simon, the act of painting is an act of giving life. Through artistic manipulation, inert materials rise to the challenge of depicting living matter that inevitably confronts the psyche of the maker. Just as parrots imitate humans, stare at them and laugh in their faces, the birds in Laurianne's canvases flaunt their power to be reckoned with. They reveal, they invoke, they play, and they revel in their self-styled mystery, daring us to admire them. In light of these new, figurative paintings that depict a progression of characters in different states of personal transformation, the parrot seems to beckon us, too, to put some paint on our faces and join in the intriguing parade.
Shannon Doyle d’Avout