Lies For Your Eyes
Lalie Douglas' pretty deceptions are worth a look
By Gregory Beatty
LALIE DOUGLAS: IN THE CORNER OF YOUR EYE
UNTIL SEPTEMBER 24
Even for insects, locusts lead pretty weird lives. As nymphs, they lie silent and immobile underground, feeding on the juice of plant roots. Then after 17 years (or 13 with some species), they burrow above ground, transform into flying adults, mate, and die within a matter of months.
Which brings me to this show by Lalie Douglas - or, more accurately, Douglas herself. In 1994 she travelled from her lifelong home of Montreal to Regina to exhibit Hearts, Roses & Other Stories at Neutral Ground's old location on the F.W. Hill Mall. I was writing for the Leader-Post then, and interviewed her while she was in town. Her show, I remember, had a lot of sculptural dress forms and explored the relationship between fashion and femininity in patriarchal society.
Seventeen years later, Douglas is back to spawn – I mean, present In The Corner of Your Eye.
Unlike a locust, in the time she's been away, Douglas has been anything but silent and immobile. She's exhibited extensively in group and solo shows, obtained her MFA from Concordia University, taught art, taken courses in weaving and embroidery, and worked as an assistant for other artists. She also married and is now the mother of three children.
When I interviewed her about her new exhibition at Neutral Ground, she was in mid-installation. This exhibition, it turns out, is a sequel of sorts. "This is based on a show I did at Circa in Montreal in 2010 called All Is Not As It Seems," she says.
In this day and age, that's something that's definitely worth remembering. Through mass media, we have unprecedented capacity as humans to visit far-off lands and experience realities outside of our own. But that capacity comes at a price. Because what we're seeing and hearing is highly mediated, we're vulnerable to being manipulated.
Spin doctoring. Green-washing. Thirty-second sound bites. Bogus surveys and studies. Good old-fashioned bafflegab and Orwellian newspeak. When we process and interpret information delivered to us by media, we have to try to be conscious of all the tricks that can be used to deceive and mislead us.
Traditionally, I think, artists have a reputation for being more honest and down-to-earth in the work they present than more commercial news and entertainment media. But maybe I'm looking at it wrong.
"The word 'art' has the same root as 'artifice," says Douglas. "They're both connected to the idea of 'fake stuff'. But something is real in the gallery - the viewer's reaction, where they have to test out what's fake and what's real."
Central to In The Corner of Your Eye are two large-scale renderings of the ultimate domestic icon - a house, or home if you prefer. Although there's little evidence of habitation. Just two plywood structures that Douglas has installed in such a way that, to view them, we must rely on a convex mirror that shrinks the dwellings and inserts our reflection into the resulting image. In select locations, she's also installed mini-binoculars that she's trained on small-scale domestic dioramas.
When I view an art exhibition, I like to roam. You see something from a distance, move closer, notice something you missed before, glance back over your shoulder and get a different perspective on a work you've previously viewed, stuff like that.
Fat chance of me doing that here. During our interview, Douglas even joked about being "mean" in her determination to restrict the freedom of viewers to experience her art as they wished. Probably 90 per cent of the gallery's space is blocked off.
But guess what? That type of manipulation and control happens all the time. Ever watch someone deliver a speech using a teleprompter? Or listen to obviously scripted "banter" on a radio or TV broadcast? And don't theme parks like Disney have designated spots to get the "perfect" vacation snap?
Besides, far from trying to trick us, Douglas is totally up front about what she's doing.
"The show is really kind of messy," she says. "The mirrors are held up with a rough [truss] of plywood. All the little dioramas are going to have paper backdrops that will just be held up with tape. So everything will show."
In truth, most of the imagery Douglas presents in this show functions more as sign than realistic representation. The houses, for example, have peaked roofs, chimneys, and decorative bushes out front. They're the type of dwellings most of us would draw if asked to draw a "house".
Except for the flames and floodwater, that is. Those are unique touches that depart from the archetypal idea of a house that most of us hold dear.
In the aforementioned Circa show, Douglas exhibited another house engulfed in flames - an image that could be read as a critique of the unfair burden domesticity places on women, she acknowledges.
"When I was doing my master's at Concordia, one person saw [one of my houses] and said, 'Oh, it's the destruction of the domestic!' I didn't like that at first, but realized later that in a sense she was right," says Douglas. "I have three children, a house, a husband, all these things. So to me the image of a burning house is about burning this roadmap of how, if you're a wife and mother, this is how you're supposed to act."
Her initial inspiration for the flame, she says, was a brass vessel she saw in a museum.
"It represented the sacred heart of Jesus. It was a heart with this lovely sculpted flame coming out the top. I started to play with that image - making hearts, then putting flames on everything. And the one that stuck was this house with flames," says Douglas.
A house immersed in floodwaters is a new twist on that motif. Like the burning house, it's suggestive of disaster - be it on a household level or within broader society, where home ownership is regarded as a touchstone of middle-class security and prosperity. It's a touchstone, though, that can be menaced by all sorts of things, from natural disasters (like the floods that occurred in Saskatchewan this spring and summer) to financial setbacks (like the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the U.S. in 2009 that forced millions of Americans to abandon homes they could no longer afford).
Given all that house and home mean to us on a personal, social, political and economic level, that's a harsh reality to confront. And don't think you can insulate yourself from it by staying away from Neutral Ground, either.
"I'll be placing satellite pieces around town in shop windows and in nooks and crannies on the street," says Douglas. "They'll be smaller, simpler versions of some of the pieces that are in the show."
If people happen to spot them (out of the corner of their eye, perhaps, in our busy urban landscape), Douglas says, "it winds up being a gift."
"Because the reaction I hope people will have is that they'll go home or back to the office and they'll say, 'I saw this really cool thing. It was just on the street. I don't know why it was there.' It's this marvelous sense that you've seen something that you maybe won't see again, that's not an everyday thing."