Susan Warner Keene
May 12 - June 25, 2006
In the 1980s and 90s, Susan Warner Keene made paper, mostly out of flax and cotton, and created organically-shaped, low-relief wall sculptures with coloured and textured surfaces that capture the rolls and curves of panoramic views across the land. While these works intimate a close relationship to the natural environment, they do so without negating the significance of urban life. Architectonic elements creep into the structure of the surfaces, and sections are stitched together to generate complex geometries that suggest perspectival recession. Her handmade paper becomes the landscape – they are one and the same.
This early work was followed by The Folio Series: Nature Studies (2000-01). Here, the artist created rectangular diptychs – single sheets of paper, most often in vertical pairs, as though pages of an open book. These skin-like, monochromatic surfaces are embossed with imagery of leaves: single leaves; brittle, skeletal leaves; leaves organized in systematic patterns. Their presence is the result of controlled thickness of the paper: in thinner areas light is transmitted and shapes become legible The image in the last piece in this series, Breathe (2001), is a dominant, poignant word: “breathe.” Its presence is commanding: breathing is an unconscious thing, but it is something we must do in order to survive, if not thrive, and something this fibrous material must be able to do if its message is to be communicated. Unlike a printed word, the “breathe” in Breathe is in the structure of the page. It is the page.
In 2003-04, Keene created the work in this exhibition, “Verso,” and she continues to work with paper pulp made out of flax, which has been a source for papermakers for thousands of years. She turns long texts into a network of ‘scribbles’ which, in the case of the large diptych, A Gathering (2004), is installed in modules that read like a bird’s-eye-view map of islands, ponds and rivers – a nod to the cultural significance of the natural landscape. The script is a play of intertwined scrolls and glyphs, a collection of writings that include references to places, ideas and people in her personal world. In her words, Gathering “…is organized visually rather than verbally, obscuring literal meaning and giving priority to the work’s material presence.” The title refers to a specific task in traditional Western bookbinding, in which pages are ‘gathered’ for each folded section of a book, also known as a signature.
The smaller works are based on excerpts from the writing of three English women who described their encounters with the southern Ontario landscape in the 1830s. Anna Jamieson, Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, all educated middle class women, recorded their impressions with a public readership in mind. Keene states, “Their observations reveal a shared ambivalence toward the landscape they encountered. The selections I have chosen either exult in the vastness of unspoiled nature or witness its taming.”
When speaking of the anatomy of a book, verso refers to the back of a page or printed where the text from the preceding page is seen in reverse, but faintly. In this exhibition, verso can also be seen as the result of building an object out of a written image or physical impression so that the pages of the book itself (the carrier of the message) are no longer necessary, and language is expressed in a physical form. This is the inverse of what one has come to expect of such a revered icon of learnedness, communication and expression. “Verso” pulls the authoritative printed word off the page and turns it in to a sculptural element that writhes with poetic intonation.
- Sarah Quinton
Sarah Quinton is the senior curator at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto. Her exhibition, Drill, was on view at the gallery in the summer of 2001.
Susan Warner Keene was born in Hamilton. An honours graduate of the Ontario College of Art in 1979, Keene has been exhibiting in Canada and abroad since 1980. In 1991 she was presented with the Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in the Crafts. In addition to her gallery exhibitions and commission work, Susan Warner Keene has been active as a lecturer, teacher, writer, editor, and curator. Keene's work is in the collections of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Canada Council Art Bank, the Government of Canada (Department of External Affairs), the Ontario Crafts Council, Fujitsu Canada, Standard Life, Toronto, the Cambridge Public Art Gallery, as well as in many private and corporate collections. She is represented by the David Kaye Gallery in Toronto.