DaveandJenn, "Pretender is the Other Bird," 2016
bronze, epoxy putty, sequins, acrylic paint, powder coated steel, feathers, wood, fabric, found object and mixed medium, 69.3” x 29” x 18”. Installation view of "A Natural History of Islands" showing in foreground. Photo: M.N. Hutchinson, Courtesy of Nickle Galleries, Calgary
The young duo, DaveandJenn, work as one. As painting students at the Alberta College of Art and Design in 2004, David Foy and Jennifer Saleik teamed up as a collaborative. Once they graduated in 2006, they quickly drew attention for densely detailed narrative paintings that sandwich figures, creatures and forest landscapes within multiple, clear layers of resin. As collaborators, they have honed their thinking, sentiments and work process to a fine point. “I can’t imagine working alone,” says Foy. “We are better as one.”
DaveandJenn are among the first generation of artists to grow up with the Internet. The qualities of possibility, hierarchal collapse and unendingness inherent in the web are their natural milieu. As artists, they pick their way through forking paths. Sci-fi, fantasy and ancient mythology are attractive frameworks because they can encompass big questions. Natural history, especially the life of reefs, feeds their imagination. Twelve years into their career, the stories embedded in their work are coalescing into a grand narrative, revealing a mythology that draws on shared cultural history and speaks to our time.
A Natural History of Islands, curated by Christine Sowiak, at the University of Calgary’s Nickle Galleries is up until Dec. 17. It’s one of two exhibitions that are part of a long-standing program, Series, that gives mid-career Calgary artists full rein to produce new work with a regional curator. The other show is Robin Arseneault’s ONLOOKERS, another strong offering.
DaveandJenn take a page from the epic poem, Paradise Lost, by 17th-century English poet, John Milton: Start in the middle of the action and let the characters put forth their arguments as they float in darkness on fiery waters. Take Milton’s premise of felix culpa, the idea that uncertainty, suffering and loss can bring about hope, goodness and renewal. Put it to the test through a cast of characters, some noble, flawed, or misguided, but each in relationship with other beings, and each with their own histories.
DaveandJenn, "Paradise," 2016
epoxy putty, acrylic paint, borax crystals, polymer clay, wire, black glass, tinsel palm trees and mixed medium, 8” x 26.3” x 12” (detail). Photo: M.N. Hutchinson, Courtesy of Nickle Galleries, Calgary
The amputated arm that still clutches a balloon bouquet of tinsel palm trees in Paradise is accompanied by a skunk cleaner shrimp that symbiotically preens the exposed bone as crystals sprout from flesh. In TAILBITER / I tried, an aging Ouroboros, a Norse mythical serpent that eats its own tail in an act of renewal, futilely chews as its life force oozes out as freshwater pearls.
DaveandJenn, "TAILBITER / I tried," 2016
bronze, copper wire, epoxy putty, aluminum scales, epoxy resin, plaster of Paris, polymer clay, acrylic paint, fresh water pearls and powder coated steel, 75.3” x 34” x 30” (detail). Photo: M.N. Hutchinson, Courtesy of Nickle Galleries, Calgary
The exhibition’s setting turns the whole gallery into a dark watery world illuminated with wall projections of a luminous orange setting sun and a rising moon. Each sculpture seems suspended in a cone of light as if floating on a vast sea, or emerging onto small islands. The staging contributes to our understanding. The spare setting of TAILBITER / I tried is especially effective: a tipped red neon light suggests the serpent is riding a sea swell and the horizon is distant; a ray of light shining through a hand-cut stencil projects the silhouettes of departing birds.
DaveandJenn, "Pretender is the Other Bird," 2016
bronze, epoxy putty, sequins, acrylic paint, powder coated steel, feathers, wood, fabric, found object and mixed medium, 69.3” x 29” x 18” (detail). Photo: M.N. Hutchinson, Courtesy of Nickle Galleries, Calgary
DaveandJenn do most of the making themselves, imbuing their work with hours of care. Pretender is the Other Bird is their version of a sadsack St. Sebastian. In Christian iconography, he is tied up and suffers as a martyr, pierced by arrows. DaveandJenn’s character will do anything to be a bird. Stripping to his skivvies and being shot with arrows is one way to get feathers. DaveandJenn have also given him wings the colours of a macaw. Stitching each sequin for each feather was a labour of love. But the duo can also employ an economy of means. For instance, it looks like the projected moon is scudded with clouds. The effect is achieved in a delightfully low-tech mode: a short video of a hand held horizontally in front of a spotlight, fingers parting slightly, suggests a gently shifting brightness in the night sky.
For this show, DaveandJenn worked on a relatively small scale so they could push detail, complexity and colour to the max. This Creeping Feeling is a delicately wrought lavender requiem in coral. In Every Bad Feeling, teratomas, monstrous tumours that can grow teeth and hair internally, erupt on the skin of a colourful prancing creature. DaveandJenn have a magpie aesthetic for razzle-dazzle materials that results in baroque combinations: polished bronze co-exists with epoxy putty, paint with tinsel.
The overall effect of each piece offers material beauty, the allure of shiny surfaces, glowing colour, intricate details. But they also function as contemporary reliquaries, elaborately decorated vessels for the darkness of pain, decline and loss, pilgrimage destinations for those who remain. Grace, folly, beauty and darkness coincide.
Milton’s verse rings true:
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.