A National Test Market

Hannah Keating

The process of making work, particularly as an emerging artist, is one of testing the waters. Calculating nascent abilities against the pulse of society, emerging artists consider the scope of their perspectives and the response of viewers in practices that have just begun to take shape. Such is the case with the artists in A National Test Market. Meagan Christou, Charlotte DiCarlo, Calla Durose Moya, Robin Love, Amber Helene Müller St. Thomas, and Jemma Woolidge all have connections to Peterborough and, through their work, interrogate the spaces in which they have visited, lived, and worked.

Peterborough is a community with colonial, rural, and industrial histories, aspects of which each artist in this exhibition either references or confronts. Interestingly, these qualities may have helped to identify the city as a suitable testing ground for commercial products on their way to national markets—perhaps, “tested” in Peterborough, these artists will discover insights that lead to comparable relevance and applicability. But clever comparisons aside, the notion of a test market poses interesting questions pertaining to the nature of local, national, and global borders, which are in places heavy with both physical and intangible forces and simultaneously eroded by increasing connection and permeability in others. The artists in this exhibition confront the pleasures and anxieties of this contemporary time and place. They embrace the absurd, shine a light on dusty corners, and look inward, reflecting on consumption, desire, and external expectations. They are playful second glances at the sometimes overlooked, critical confrontations with the politics of labour and history, and visions of abundance, rear-view mirrors, and domestic comforts.

Occupying the bodies of notable female figures from Peterborough’s history, Calla Durose Moya stages a conversation with the past in order to come to terms with her identity in the present. With volunteer and employment experience in local heritage institutions, Durose Moya has observed first-hand the limits imposed by the colonial lens with regard to a routinely prejudiced and biased version of history. Appropriating the images of settler women for her performance, the artist hopes to invert the trend of Indigenous appropriation and exploitation in both historical and contemporary narratives. Séance is a film that addresses her experience as an emerging artist, archivist, and historian and, in this way, it is both a critique of the systems that perpetuate colonialism and a very personal reflection centred on individual experience.

Whereas an interest in her city’s heritage led to Durose Moya’s work in film, experimenting with decorative patches in her wardrobe led Jemma Woolidge to the art of embroidery. The piece in A National Test Market is her largest work of embroidery to date and while it is an ambitious leap from the scale of personal adornment, like other of her artworks, it finds inspiration in the absurd and pleasantly strange. Numerous of Peterborough’s aging commercial signs have served as productive source material for Woolidge and frequent travellers of Reid Street will recognize in this work the mural from Harbour Front Laundry Villa. Featuring bodiless outfits scattered on a beach, this surreal scene has adorned the south wall of the city’s seaside laundromat for decades. As a promotional image, the mural aims to associate Harbour Front’s laundering services with fresh sea air and carefree days at the beach, but for residents, it can easily become an overlooked oddity, a blip in the predictable, or an unnoticed backdrop to routine. In contrast, Wollidge’s reinterpretation required both extended time and dedication. As such, it is a type of commemoration. The artist preserves a unique expression of place and celebrates the shared experience of public sites. Soft, enveloping, and playful, the work is a nod to the odd side of Peterborough and the very tactile quality of memory.

Two works by Amber Helene Müller St. Thomas, from the artist’s Unsettled Attachments series, likewise depend on the evocation of texture and tangible memory, but in the photographic image. In the first, two pillows are nestled in a tangle of long grass. The decorative floral print feels as at home here as it would arranged on a living room couch surrounded by photo frames, pleated lamp shades, and matching drapes. In the other, a time-worn desk stands before a structure that appears just as derelict and forgotten, or more so. Both images have an air of comfort and solidarity about them, with the door and desk composing an inanimate double portrait and the pillows, a loyal pair. With an emphasis on the passage of time, they ask viewers to consider the cycles of consumer culture, from changing tastes to eventual waste, as well as the intimacy of objects that populate our daily lives. Like the Harbour Front mural, domestic accoutrements have a way of both blending into the background of our at-home thoughts and movements and of standing out as sources of comfort and security. Because the artist manipulates chosen objects in unlikely environments, the images are also disruptions. Indeed, in their practice, the photograph is actually a document of a performative action and Müller St. Thomas states that Unsettled Attachments is an attempt to map personal desires and relationships and to queer space though autonomous interruption.

Robin Love interrogates her own relationship to desire in a video installation that combines text and interactivity, all in the glass of a rear-view mirror. When the artist discovered that her own experiences of repressed desire were paralleled in the lives of many female friends, she began to consider how societal expectations had led them to give up what they wanted and yield to external pressure. The artist recreates this process in a work that mimics the disappearance of the road, its lines and landscapes, in the rear-view mirror of a moving car. Drawing to mind a cinematic protagonist who, from a road out of town, longing glances at a life left behind, the work is a provocative dedication to those discarded hopes, both big and small. The metaphor of a car suggests both constraint and freedom of movement, and in a scrolling series of affirmations, the repetition of “I want” challenges the pattern of pressure and abandonment. The work carves a space for shared experience and leaves us wondering: to what extent are individuals able to change the route or turn around?

Drivers, walkers, and cyclists alike all know, upon each hill they climb, that Peterborough’s geography is a formative ingredient in the character of this place. Charlotte Di Carlo employs fiber art to express her own relationship to the curving, climbing streets of a city she has moved to and from numerous times throughout her life. Using the language of abundance, she sews colourful pillows into organic shapes. Di Carlo connects these works to healing and her recovery from personal struggles, including postpartum depression and anxiety. The flowing multiplicity of dots produces a colony of playful shapes that represent community and lead viewers on meandering journeys, much like those taken on city streets and paths.

With analogous attention to form, Untitled (Dustbox) by Meagan Christou reproduces the swirling masses of dust that surround workers in a grain silo. Employed as an agricultural labourer not far from Peterborough, Christou came to identify herself, and her relationship to her colleagues, within these clouds of expelled waste that waft into sculptural towers and form the structural boundaries of her work space. Cleaning and storing grain is physically challenging and dangerous work, undertaken by the artist in the midst of a difficult job market. With low wages, hard labour such as this is inexorably tied to a global history of socio-economic disparity and exploitation. These themes may also have resonance for those with connections to Peterborough’s General Electric plant, slated for closure next fall. While serving as a community landmark and major employer for well over a century, reports have condemned the factory for exposing its workers to high concentrations of toxic substances. With numerous job losses, the closure of GE will soon leave a community to grapple with a complicated and environmentally precarious legacy. It is with ample relevance that Christou transplants her work environment into the gallery in a piece that mesmerizes and provokes; in the constant movement of dust, viewers observe the perils of industry and the poetics of its frequently invisible bodies.

In all, the six practices of this exhibition ask viewers to look inward, at their desires and preconceptions, and to look outward, at a community that is replete with oddities and opportunities, flaws and difficult histories. The works are inventive, but also grounded in issues pertinent to our regional community and beyond. Suggesting a space ripe for creative innovation, A National Test Market promises good things from our emerging artists.