Glenn Gear’s handmade kaleidoscope attaches to his camera, like a long triangular lens painted with multicoloured stars. In the gallery space at Eastern Edge is a photo of the artist in downtown St. John’s, NL, holding his slim black camera that’s barely visible behind the hand painted cardboard attachment. As an optical instrument, it is only as precise as the user wants it to be, yielding mirrored images that don’t quite align in perfect geometric tessellations. As a framework for viewing, it holds the potential for brilliant clarity and total obscurity.
The kaleidoscope is the centrepiece of Three Way Mirror, a collaborative exhibition by Glenn Gear, Daniel Barrow, and Paige Gratland, which opened at Eastern Edge (St. John’s, NL) in September 2022, and is on view at grunt gallery (Vancouver, BC) until January 21, 2023. Their collaboration began at the Intergenerational LGBT Artist Residency at Artspace Gibraltar Point (Toronto Island, ON) in 2018, and Barrow says that at Eastern Edge they took a skillsharing approach by “offering each other assignments or paths into our individual practices.”
The exhibition had the looseness of a studio visit, capturing both material tests and process documentation of their residency at Eastern Edge, alongside finished artworks. The three artists form a queer craft triangle–in addition to being filmmakers, they each maintain detailed, handmade, craft-based practices. Paige Gratland’s own textiles were exhibited alongside Magic in Plain Sight, her short documentary which follows seamstress Brenna Bezanson through the process of pattern making and custom garment creation. Daniel Barrow’s most recent paper doll poem is installed alongside their 2007 animation Artist Statement, which introduces their practice as an expression of desperation and exhaustion. Glenn Gear’s digital prints and sealskin appliqué are not only framed in the exhibition, they are captured on video through the kaleidoscopic lens, and projected in this refracted form. Each artist’s craft-based work is mediated through lens-based representations, and handmade elements come through in their films and videos.
What might be considered ornament–appliqué, beadwork, paper dolls–becomes the central infrastructure of each work. Barrow says, “I don’t think of my work as embellishing but I think of it as scaffolding–taking lots of different motifs or visual gags or ideas and sort of stacking them in strange configurations.” The resulting compositions of paper silhouettes in Barrow’s Equilibriste Bouquet appear to be vaguely Baroque, like an ornate 3D wallpaper. There’s a feeling of symmetry to the mapping of each figure, despite the fact that they’re not symmetrical at all.
Gear and Gratland collaborated on a series of material explorations, including sealskin appliqué on paper lace. They worked intuitively, producing weavings with strips of sealskin poking out through the yarn. Gear says, “There was a shimmer there that was embedded, and it looked like a landscape.” As an Inuk artist who activates stories of land and animals in Nunatsiavut through animation, Gear articulates landscapes in ways that are both otherworldly and familiar. Gratland used paper yarn–a postwar tradition from when materials were scarce–to not only create these weavings, but also the paper nets that appeared in Barrow’s paper doll poem. This borrowing and lending of materials reflected a reciprocity between artists, where even the more disparate artworks winked at one another.
It’s deeply refreshing to see a group exhibition that isn’t struggling against the pressure of its own thematic, but instead trusts the audience to find quiet connections if they care to look for them. As queer people we recognize each other through the most discreet details in our garments, the most obscure cultural references, and the subtlest coded language. Barrow, Gratland, and Gear carry themselves with the confidence of artists who are settled enough in their practices to be playful, to work intuitively, and to trust in the queer narratives they’ve built together.
Glenn Gear’s Six Fold Animals is a print series showing digital illustrations of animals tessellated to form six-sided snowflakes. Each creature comes into contact with itself in repeated patterns–the spotted backs of seals duplicate to form a starry sky, the noses of polar bears touch one another, and the antlers of caribou join in a heart shape. What new possibilities of affection are opened up in these tessellations, mirrorings, and repeated patterns?
In some cases the artists’ expressions of desire are muted, like Gratland’s Pride for Introverts. The long hanging textile features a colourway of pastel rainbow stripes, which could have been a banquet table runner at a lively but reserved dinner party. The title leaves little room for nuance, and is explicit about its subtlety, or loud about its quietness.
In other cases their works are loud songs of longing, like Barrow’s Artist Statement, a video which expresses the artist’s desire to create artwork that is “gratuitously honest.” Alongside glitchy HTML visuals, the artist’s voice says, “I hope in my work to do this, to express myself unnecessarily. […] Ideally, I just want to make people cry.” Barrow’s longing goes beyond sincerity and extends so far into melodrama that it doubles back into sincerity. Their words addressed me directly, as the art critic watching the video, and I wondered whether I was about to cry, or if I just wanted to cry.
Mirroring is not always a way of creating an orderly duplicate. It can also be a process of multiplying beyond conventions of symmetry. The three way mirror opens up new shattered reflections of ourselves, not to mention the possibility (both comforting and terrifying) of being reflected by others. Coincidentally, the day these artists landed in St. John’s was the same day that Kaleidoscope Drag Lounge & Restaurant opened–a highly anticipated all ages queer-owned drag venue in downtown St. John’s. On that summer day, as the artists arrived with the intention of creating a system of queer refraction, a kaleidoscope quite literally opened up to meet them. In spaces like these, new possibilities of connection are revealed when we mirror parts of one another, and remain open to what will be reflected back.