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This article was published 17/9/2015 (705 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
For whatever reason, the idea of the tortured artist has enduring appeal. Artists, we like to think, suffer for their art, mining inner turmoil for inspiration, transforming private pain into works of enduring genius or some nonsense like that.
The rather less romantic fact of the matter is that inner turmoil is as toxic to creative work as it is to every other kind of work, and artists coping with mental illness face the same stigmas as anyone else, even among their creative peers. Art that communicates first-hand experiences of mental illness is quickly deemed "too personal," and it struggles to find an audience.
It's generally true that art therapy is more valuable as therapy than art: it doesn't need or necessarily benefit from a wider audience, and there's nothing wrong with that. Art, the theory goes, should engage viewers in a kind of critical conversation. Work that gets "too personal" leaves little room for reflection, and unchecked self-expression leaves little space to respond.
Lossy (Specters of Schizophrenia), which opened last week at the Maison des Artistes, might not invite critical conversation in the way of other exhibitions, but it shows art can do other, equally important things. It affords particular, immersive insight into experiences that might otherwise be alien to us (or, on the other hand, might be painfully familiar), and, critically, it fosters a sense of personal connection.
With a bio forthrightly identifying him as a "recovered drug-addict living with schizophrenia" and a practice that spans painting, street art, music and graphic design, Winnipeg artist Benj Funk brings something of an outsider's perspective.
The exhibition walks us through harrowing life events -- the appearance of auditory hallucinations at age 15, subsequent hospitalizations, drug abuse, periods on and off medication, suicidal ideation, self-harm and eventual recovery -- approaching them from unexpected angles.
Though it's anchored by a handful of expressionistic canvases, Lossy is a multimedia affair. Features include a glossy publication of photographs, drawings and personal narrative, an album-length soundtrack of uneasy, percussive electronic music and a blog. While it's unusual to see such intense experiences branded and packaged this way (Funk works as a graphic designer), it's remarkably effective, offering multiple ways to approach the show's often uncomfortable subject matter.
The paintings themselves employ a loose hand and personal symbolism to illustrate symptoms of schizophrenia. Suicidalité is a wall of sprayed and spackled abstract marks tagged with a plaintive, nearly illegible "can i die now."
The Cotard delusion, in which the sufferer believes he's died, is pictured as a toothy, gruesome mouse-like monster. Clouds of calligraphic grey spray paint, partially painted over in spots, spread across the walls and collect in the gallery's darkened corners.
The songs Funk recorded for the exhibition, one for each artwork, play back simultaneously through eight small speakers attached to track lighting. A rustling, whispering soundscape drifts in from all directions, swelling to insistent rhythms as you approach each work, in the process conveying an unsettled mindset even more directly than the paintings themselves.
It's reassuring that the show's most confident painting is a self-portrait titled Upwards, and it's loveliest moment is the gold-leafed corner of a burbling abstraction called Recovery. Making art has clearly been a part of Funk's own recovery, but he invites us into that difficult process, generously making room for reflection and response. The results are good for any of us to see.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.