Carolanne Patterson loves to be surrounded by the outdoors, sleeping under the stars, feeling the stuff of the earth all around. It seems appropriate then, that she would begin to use discarded relics of daily existence, often found outdoors, in her art, where discarded things— dead leaves or twigs, old flatware, Soviet era flashlights, or bits of debris scavenged from something meant for another use—are incorporated. Many visual artists have made a habit of incorporating fragments of things from their everyday lives into their art, using materials at hand. Art is life, life is art. There is a lot of Fluxus Movement motivation to be found here.

Carolanne Patterson, Old Light (2023), installation view (Photo: Colleen Wolstenholme)

Old Light at St Thomas University’s Yellow Box Gallery presents a lineup of examples from her collection of vintage European (mostly Soviet and Eastern European 60-70’s era) flashlights, and includes photographic images combined with sculptural objects made from the brightly colored, indiosyncratic boxlike forms. Patterson has photographed one of the interior flashlight reflectors, its blown-up image printed on a semi-transparent material and installed over a bright square window, turning the gallery itself into a lightbox of sorts.  Running the length of the sixteen foot gallery wall at eye level is a continuous  narrow sheet of paper printed with the bright images of the variously sized flashlights the artist has collected for many years. The flashlights face us, showing off their reflectors but not their lights.

Characterised by Marshall McLuhan as pure information, electric light is a medium containing other media. McLuhan maintained that media shape and control human action and association. Photography, a medium reliant on light, is used here to make wry implications pertaining to light itself. There is an undercurrent of dry humour, orbiting around the idea of light. Six of the actual flashlight wall pieces  have been rewired with LEDs, undoubtedly due to limited availability of spare bulbs for these relics of the past. Now electrified using coin batteries, they are each housed on their own shelves, equipped with a push-button on/off switch inviting the viewer to interact.  Every flashlight is inserted vertically into a small acrylic shelf, mounted on the wall at eye level. In addition to the box light form, a square Image of flaming candles is pinned in front of the flashlight, illuminated from behind by the glow from the rewired flashlight when it is activated, creating mini light boxes. The candle holds the secret of the light bulb within its flame, and  the power of projection is held within the light bulb. The medium is the message or so the saying goes.

Carolanne Patterson, Old Light (2023), installation view (Photo: Colleen Wolstenholme)

Black ink drawings on individual prints of the flashlight images are also in the show. These large photographic images of the flashlights are covered with random geometric and organic forms, mechanistically inspired, but drawn by a human hand. These drawings hold the images in tension. Sitting on the surface, they are clearly hand drawn without the use of any drafting aids for exactness. The lines and curves wobble ever so slightly and are laden with intention. It isn’t certain whether some other surface being drawn on with ink hadn’t bled through to the photographs below, so little does the drawing look like it belongs there. The clean geometry of the flashlights is in counterpoise to the organic lines of ink applied by brush. While the photograph is bright and crisp, it is the ink drawing that holds one’s attention because it is done by hand. The coolness of the photographic image pushes us away.


The flashlights here are iconic examples of 20th century Soviet and Eastern European design. They are brightly coloured; a wise choice for flashlights which can easily be mislaid. Their shapes reflect the constructivist trajectory of their designers who hailed from the trade schools of the Eastern Block. Vkhutmas, industrial art schools originally staffed with Russian Constructivists and Futurists like Popova, Tatlin and Malevich, trained designers and architects. Their predominant aesthetic produced examples of brutalist concrete architecture found all over the former Soviet Union, echoed by the shapes of these flashlights. The exaggerated brutalist forms of such buildings seems an infringement on space. Their thick walls and chunky dark cement shapes don’t ease human pathos but somehow create more. As McLuhan observed “medium(s) … shape and control(s) human association and action…and the content of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.”[1]


These ideas of McLuhan’s are well known and have become a cornerstone of media and other theory. They echo the concerns we have today about how the structures in our society control the ways we see each other. In this exhibition we are asked quite plainly to look, to look at light both “natural” and “artificial.” The artist chose to collect these oddly shaped lights and present them to us this way. It reminds me of Haim Steinbach’s work which also presented us with “items” purchased and placed on shelves. Such work speaks to our consumer-based consciousnesses, though here Patterson has turned that into something of a sideshow, one that places a semiotics built around light front and center.

[1] McLuhan Marshall. The Medium is the Message. Understanding Media… P. 9