March 4, 2022

Shary Boyle at The Gardiner Museum

Shary Boyle is an exceptionally accomplished artist. Her show at the Gardiner Museum, called Outside the Palace of Me, is a tour de force of skill and imagination. And the subject of the show — the idea of identity and how we create our “selves” — is an utterly timely and fertile one.

“Cephalophoric Saint” by Shary Boyle

The image above, by Shary Boyle, is titled “Cephalorphoric Saint.” The word cephalophoric means a saint who is carrying their own severed head. In Christian art, this generally means that a saint has been martyred by beheading. I’m not sure if Shary Boyle sees the artist as a matyr, or a saint, but it is an interesting idea about how the artist functions in contemporary society. In some of her images of artists, the subjects are devoid of any legitimate head, instead, blindly and thoughtlessly — without any conciousness at all — they are engaged in self-representation, groping to create an outward, public manifestation of their limited identity.

“The Sculptor” by Shary Boyle
Detail of “The Sculptor” by Shary Boyle
“The Potter” by Shary Boyle

Ours is society consumed with self-image. The decorated visage is everywhere and each seemingly innocent Instagram post a plea for validation. Do we even exist if we aren’t “liked?” Shary Boyle explores that contemporary affliction with an absorbing collection of objects and images.

Fame, status, and our hunger for validation drive cultures of excess. Tweeted Tik Tok Selfie influencers. Fate, addiction, glamour, celebrity, greed, the Fool. We are all the centre of the universe.

Shary Boyle, handout at exhibition “Outside the Palace of Me”

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The arrangement of the show references theatre. The visitor gingerly enters from a darkened hallway to pass three muses (“Focus,” “Lens” and “Pupils”), which are visible in a two-way mirror. Emerging onto a bright proscenium lined with ten, glass-encased, ceramic sculptures — each exqusitely rendered and fascinating to look at — the visitor is then obliged to consider their own participation in the show.

“Oasis” by Shary Boyle
“Peacock Spider” by Shary Boyle
“The Sybarites” by Shary Boyle

At center stage is the coin-operated star!:

“Centering” by Shary Boyle

Shary Boyle weaves an old timey sense of performance into her up-to-the-minute observations: traditional hucksters, wax museums, vanity cases, Punch and Judy performers, ventriloquists, vaudeville, carny folk, puppet masters and manipulators of all stripes are represented in the exhibition. She creates a slightly seamy, corrupt, down-market vibe, like a stroll around Clifton Hill after checking out Niagara Falls.

“Judy” by Shary Boyle
“Ventriloquist” by Shary Boyle

Walking to the Gardiner Museum along Bloor street I encountered a protest march. About a dozen people took part. One held a sign that read “Fuck Trudeau!,” while the leader shouted “Jesus Loves You” through a bullhorn. The Bloor Street shoppers, still masked and tentative, glanced with mild irritation at the noisy interlopers. I could really relate to Shary Boyle’s piece called “The Procession” and her quote:

One person’s parade is another’s riot.

Shary Boyle, handout at exhibition “Outside the Palace of Me”
“The Procession| by Shary Boyle
Detail of “The Procession” by Shary Boyler

Detail of “The Procession” by Shary Boyle

And then there is “The White Elephant.” I imagined this freakish creature striding around, blithly wrecking the place, leaving a path of misery and destruction wherever she goes, like a preppy white Godzilla in a twinset.

“White Elephant” by Shary Boyle

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