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Colleen Philippi with Habitats, 2005 at Newzones.
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"Now is a Ship (detail)"
Colleen Philippi, "Now is a Ship (detail)," 2006, mixed media assemblage.
COLLEEN PHILIPPI, Retrospective: a series of Wunderkabinetts
Newzones Gallery of Contemporary Art, Calgary
May 11-June 30, 2006
By Dina O'Meara
Colleen Philippi creates the kind of narcissistic explosion that children — and the children within us — love to explore. The Calgary-based artist’s multimedia assemblages contain minutely detailed pages of her history, obsessions and dreams, both imagined and real. With the acute vision of a whimsical perfectionist (Philippi is nothing if not a lover of contrasts), she creates art pieces viewers can interact with. Her creations, layered with maps, butterflies, interpretations of formal European gardens and stamps from imaginary islands, are scattered with little drawers and doors begging to be opened.
And there is always a surprise within, from wood cuts to miniature portraits, sort of an Alice-in-Wonderland experience Philippi enjoys cultivating. “If you have another sense involved in something, you remember it more,” she says. “It creates a certain type of theatrical experience.” Just so: one of her new assemblages includes a dresser full of character puppets drawn from Russian folk illustrations and playing cards that viewers can hang to change the feel of the piece. The assemblage is vintage Philippi — a playful, almost absurd treaty with an undercurrent of mystery that draws you in… a bit hesitantly, perhaps, but nonetheless in.
Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Philippi has been creating unique multimedia art for two decades, drawing inspiration from objects found by chance, travels through Europe, the Baroque period, and her own musings. Her latest solo is a retrospective of those years with a twist, from blown-up memories of cut-out dolls and re-cogged turning toys to large, pensive views of formal gardens and island-themed assemblages. Two-thirds of the material used to create the exhibit is recycled from Philippi’s “artistic graveyard,” as she calls it — objects culled from past pieces that didn’t quite make the cut. “It’s a bit of a joke on the idea of retrospective,” she says, from her basement studio.
For this retrospective she went further back, all the way to art school at the University of Alberta in 1987, and through her roots as an artist. The results are prime Colleen Philippi — intricately detailed, playful and mysterious. A gifted writer, Philippi also sometimes incorporates elaborate “historical” backgrounds in her pieces, such as the travel tales of the imaginary Count Umbrelli in her 1998 exhibit Chapter Five or Six: 86,547 Trees, and of his great-great-grand niece Annie Imagineri in her 2003 solo Islomania. Part of Philippi’s inspiration for the new show came from texts on billboards and kiosks in Europe, where the signs and posters and handbills became a diary of that building’s history.
Several of the 12 new pieces are reincarnations. Years ago, Philippi often painted on hollow core doors, and for this exhibit she sanded several down, going back, layer by layer, through her own history, a process that proved to be more difficult than she had imagined. She also cut doors into the doors for viewers to open, wee hinged gates to the unexpected.
“I was yanked by history, my own history,” she says, with a slight smile. “It was a bit weird. I wanted to go back to around 1993, the last time I had significant artist’s block. To take the remnants of the last time I was fully blocked and make them work is the ultimate revenge.”
Characteristically, Philippi’s narrow studio is a treasure trove of history and imagination: blocks and boxes, embossed stickers and glue, rolls of wrapping paper and wall paper, and drawer after labelled drawer filled with things like stones, puzzle pieces, shells, shoes. A paper bag full of small, antique stuffed animals sits haphazardly on top of prints of 18th century sketches, and several packed bookcases proclaim Philippi’s eclectic interests: books on architecture, formal gardens, tomes of ornithology, stamps and dolls.
Formal gardens fascinate Philippi, the effort put into creating a groomed “natural” environment for people’s pleasure. “I’m always interested in the tension between nature and humans trying to control it,” she says, eyeing one of her paintings, based on a corner of the gardens in the Palais Royal in Paris. She also enjoys the tension of painting and collage together, pasting birds and fishes onto the garden scene. For Philippi, the goldfish represent the part of nature that can’t be controlled, but she leaves it up to viewers to interpret the piece at their own pace.
“There are clusters of potential meanings in everything,” she says. “The story reveals itself to me over time, and I count on viewers to generate their own story on viewing this.”
Represented by: Newzones Gallery of Contemporary Art, Calgary.