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This article was published 21/5/2015 (824 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
My earliest childhood memories are marked by a mix of wonder and fear. Before we learn the names of things or develop the grammar to communicate our experiences, we sense that there's an order to the world, but we struggle to grasp its mechanics. That uncertainty is both exciting and scary: the landscape a young child inhabits is a wild patchwork of best guesses and overwhelming new sensations. In that setting, boundaries shift constantly. Every new encounter is at once incomprehensible and charged with meaning: the pile of clothes becomes the monster in the closet.
We recover fragments of that childlike perspective in the wilderness, which might be an actual forest or any environment outside our comfort zone -- any context that reveals and magnifies the limits of our understanding. Art can do the same thing, and it's precisely a child's sense of fearful wonderment that Libby Hague sets out to reproduce in We're Not Out of the Woods Yet, her engrossing print installation at Martha Street Studio.
Hague assembles hundreds of cut and crimped print fragments to produce a lush and slightly frightening storybook landscape, but we're left to piece together the story ourselves. (For the most part, that is: visitors have the option of carrying one of three "travelling companions" -- a skull-faced child, a plantlike entity or a shaggy, swamp-thingy mop of rustling paper -- as they navigate the exhibition).
Brightly coloured, ruffled, fringed and accordion-folded scraps of paper burst with botanical motifs and falling stars. Thorn-covered branches morph into menacing loops of concertina wire, while tropical tufts of greenery and delicate paper flowers rustle up against printed firework explosions in the sky. Animals emerge from the underbrush: a deer with a bloody crêpe-paper fringe at its neck, an owl and a rabbit all might have been clipped from a picture dictionary. A painted cardboard marionette hangs at the edge of the installation's most chaotic passage, as if poised to flee.
Moving on, overgrown thickets give way to white walls and a collection of abstract but vaguely mechanical-looking cut-paper contraptions. Strands of yarn link the various whirligigs, trailing up to the ceiling before branching off towards other areas of the exhibition. The tangled network reveals an interconnected system with no self-evident function.
The Toronto artist fully recreates and inhabits both the esthetics of children's art and the emphatic loopiness of their logic -- no small accomplishment for an artist with decades of professional experience to overcome. Even when the work expressly mimics the look of a kindergarten art project, it never feels condescending, overly precious or fake. If anything, Out of the Woods leaves you wanting to enter Hague's childlike dream-world more completely.
The exhibition feels thin in places, too manageable, too easy to navigate, but in its richest, most unruly moments, it's pretty magical.
In her statement, Hague writes about the more nuanced view of the world that comes with age, but as we come to understand the order of things, we lose sight of possibilities outside that order. It's comforting to feel like you're in the clear, but the woods are more exciting.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist and writer.