“This is not a pairing in a curated exhibition sense. This is a presentation of two artists alongside each other,” Emily Falencki remarks about cross-rhythms of not yet and no longer by Kayza DeGraff-Ford and Hopefully, I’ll remember by Jenny Yujia Shi 施雨迦. The exhibitions co-existed for two months inside the Blue Building Gallery (December 2, 2022 – February 4, 2023) and managed to present a clear vision from both artists, one that encompasses an interest in themes of immigration, race, gender, memory and homogenization.
DeGraff-Ford’s rural upbringing involved being surrounded by horse riding and generally living a pastoral life, which clearly informs their work. Their paintings depict cowboys, horses, foliage and luscious landscapes. The choice to add these elements reveals their interest in narrative painting, which drew them to painters Henri Matisse and Henri Rousseau. Among the references found in DeGraff-Ford’s work, they mentioned how as a child they would draw the same avatars all the time, channelling how they wanted to look. The repetition of drawing those boys has evidently made its way into their present work.
In Second Sight (2022), the canvas was removed from the stretcher and hangs on the wall from grommets. The raw edges are covered in a binding that goes all around the painting. Two black hands with long bright green nails are ironing a blue cowboy shirt while steam is coming out from an orange iron and two eyes in the shadows are looking down at the hands. Surrounding this image is a wide edge where parts of the painting extend. The stylistic decisions in this work came to be as part of DeGraff-Ford’s interest in fashion and craft. The intense stare of the floating eye seems to be supervising or waiting for the hands to do something apart from what they are already doing. As if they are expecting something and by staring the person doing the ironing will get the hint.
The image of the cowboy can often be found in DeGraff-Ford’s paintings. During our conversation, they mentioned that this started about a year ago as a reference to their rural upbringing and their closeness to “horse culture.” In their work, the cowboys are shown riding horses and ironing their shirts, in exaggerated gestures depicted with vibrant colours over dark backgrounds. These aesthetic decisions make the work look campy, the artist feels. They refer to the horse in Apocalypse Pony (2022) as a “Barbie horse” since the horse is, “ridiculous looking, and kind of absurd.” The stark contrast between the black background and the horse draws attention to the image’s exaggerated quality. The horse’s face and the boot feature the most details, with sharp highlights, sparkles, precise lines, and layered colours, in comparison to the rest of the picture. This makes the painting alluring and adds a layer of playfulness.
I been thinking (2022) is the painting that standouts the most for me in cross-rhythms of not yet and no longer. The transparency, big strokes and limited colours in this work are so different from the other paintings in the show. The invisible balaclava in the painting, as Degraff-Ford calls it, served to navigate their university environment as someone who came from the trades. After transferring to NSCAD University, they realized their peers had very defined identities which they incorporated into their art practice. Degraff-Ford, on the other hand, was still trying to figure out their own racial identity, which combined with often being the only Black person in the room, left them feeling uncomfortable. This work encapsulates wanting to disappear and hide while still feeling visible.
In Hopefully, I’ll remember, Jenny Yujia Shi 施雨迦 discusses the overlap and entanglement between immigration and memory. She has experienced displacement from a young age, from being forced to move out of her neighbourhood in central Beijing near the Forbidden City to migrating to Canada fourteen years ago. Their work uses a multiplicity of layering techniques that seek to emulate the feeling of a memory: fragmented, out of focus, disappearing, and changing. These qualities make Shi’s work seem impermanent, aligning with her approach to a past which is subjective and everchanging.
Shi follows that tradition to her advantage in Untitled (Monoprints) (2015). This is a series of nine prints portraying the same figure in different coloured inks. The repeated image is a faceless person wearing a hat with their torso depicted as a floating blob. Shi says this work references her experience during middle school and high school, how wearing uniforms and following a strict code of conduct served as a way to homogenize. The repetition of these images can allude also to the processes implemented by the IRCC (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada) to identify/qualify “human capital.” The entire system lives off the dehumanization and flattening of immigrant experiences. Demanding and expecting them to be industrious, serve Canadian communities, and prove themselves valuable.
The theme of uncertainty is latent within Hopefully, I’ll Remember, and Shi’s work can speak to a specific audience that seeks to be seen. The choice of making faceless figures hints at a universality which allows for these clusters of people to be anyone. Portraits of Those in Limbo (Paper Figures) (2022), show a series of different size figures walking in various directions. There is no detail to them except they all have variations of the same colours (off-gray, off-brown, off-black, blue.) Shi utilizes xuan paper to add transparency, letting the work approximate the texture of memories that live as flashes of clarity.
These two emerging artists displayed their individual exhibitions side-by-side, and even when the themes don’t overlap in an evident way, both do contain a yearning for who we want to be, who we are in the present and who we were in the past. The exhibitions managed to complement each other even when the artists’ points of reference come from their respective backgrounds. Their collective work enables the ability to carve an aspirational place and palpably delivers a sense of urgency.