Carol Wainio: The Book
Curated by Diana Nemiroff
21 February – 11 April 2010
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Illustrated books, which educate their readers through images and ideas about the world, are the focal point for Ottawa painter Carol Wainio’s recent reflections on the changing and contradictory role of representation. Her paintings draw on such rich and varied sources as La Vie Privée et Publique des Animaux (The Private and Public Lives of Animals) by the 19th-century illustrator J. J. Grandville, which depicts the ‘social class’ of animals by dressing them in human clothes, and illustrations for familiar folktales such as the story of Puss in Boots, in which clever Puss transforms his peasant master’s fortunes by dressing him like a prince.
The earliest works in this ten-year survey of Wainio’s painting depict sumptuously illustrated mediaeval books of hours, the work of anonymous copyists. They introduce the open-book structure that she carries, more or less literally, into the later works, as well as the theme of copying. Although nowadays invention and originality are privileged in art, for most of human history the visual images that were familiar to people were copies made for magical, ritual, or storytelling purposes. Wainio was especially fascinated by the narrative power of fairy-tale illustrations.
Wainio’s most recent paintings focus in particular on the aspect of reproduction inherent in the transmittal of such folktales, a two-fold process in which an earlier illustration is copied by hand and then further translated mechanically into woodcuts or engravings, for distribution. In fact, when we look more closely at her paintings, we see that doubling is omnipresent – in the two-page configuration of the prominent book motif, in the mirroring of animals and humans, and, more subtly, in echoes between the historical and the modern periods such as those between the illustrations of peasant farmers from the Puss in Boots story and the contemporary turbaned farmer holding his scythe in Puss in the Subcontinent.
Many of Wainio’s paintings evoke a mood of disenchantment and loss rather than wonder. In them, books have become crumbling monuments, provisional structures in a landscape littered with empty shopping bags and cheap, discarded shoes. Mass production replaces scarcity and commercial exchange, transformation, but poverty is nonetheless ubiquitous. The subjects of the traditional European folktale – poverty and excess, high culture and low, desire and consumption, camouflage and forms of recognition or status through representation or dress – become commentaries on today’s global consumerist society and its inequities. Combining contradictory kinds of spaces and modes of figuration, Wainio produces a representational instability that may be read as a metaphor for social instability.