Reclaimed objects meets minimalism

A look through two new exhibits at Union Gallery 

Jan's beautifully decorated After the Hunt installation.
Photo by Adam Loudfoot
A collection of textiles from Billy's Fleeting Memory exhibition
Photo by Adam Loudfoot

On Friday, Montreal-based artists Emily Jan and Anne Billy made themselves at home in Union Gallery with a seventeenth century Dutch banquet table deluged with food and ornaments and walls covered in warm and homey textiles.

Union Gallery is notorious for scouting fresh, local talent and showcasing it to the Queen’s and Kingston community. This season’s exhibitions feature Emily Jan’s After The Hunt and Anne Billy’s Fleeting Memory.

Originally from San Francisco, Jan completed an MFA at Concordia University in 2014 and is currently based in Montreal. 

Jan’s installation is impossible to miss. Placed in the middle of the gallery’s main space,  Jan’s exhibition features a banquet scene — a long table covered in ornaments, food, drinks, artifacts, vases, cups, dishes, flowers, and extremely lifelike woolen animals and carcasses. 

Her three-dimensional and life-sized installation brings certain objects to life, especially when mixed with real fruit and lively flowers, which interestingly alter the display as the exhibit goes on and they begin to rot. 

Modelled after seventeenth century Dutch still-life paintings, typically characterized by a display of ornate decor and luxurious possessions, Jan’s banquet scene is littered with seemingly expensive and impressive belongings. 

However, Teresa Carlesimo, Union Gallery’s curatorial assistant, explained that the expensive-looking objects amongst Jan’s carefully crafted and handmade animal caracesses, are items Jan found at thrift stores. 

“From a distance it looks like these might be expensive objects, but when you get closer you realize it’s not, it’s just discarded things,” Carlesimo said. 

Jan’s use of discarded items and junk comments on the excesses and consumption of today’s hyper-consumer culture, which is similar to that which also existed in seventeenth century Dutch culture. 

The critique of the material excess of today’s culture is compelling. While looking at an  immoderate number of forgotten items in her display, I began to feel self-consciousness and almost guilty about personal and communal consumption. 

Although her work features a lot of found objects,  for anyone who has been to a thrift store, you’ll realize that Jan’s display doesn’t include even a fraction of the discarded items out there. Her work subtly reveals how much stuff people have, and then forget about. 

In the gallery’s smaller room, just off the main space, is another featured exhibition, by Anne Billy —a multidisciplinary artist also located in Montreal. 

Billy’s exhibition Fleeting Memory is influenced by her father who suffers from a degenerative memory disorder. 

In comparison to Jan’s work in the next room, Billy’s minimalist exhibition is calming and inviting, featuring a delicate and intricate use of textiles and soft colours. 

Taking over three of the project room’s walls, a large white textile circle depicts a bird’s eye view of a man in walking motion; a quilt-like piece made with thread and ink on Chinese funeral paper and three shirts with needlepoint work. 

The commonality of fabric in our lives makes Billy’s exhibition seem humanistic and familiar, but her use of textiles is most intimate through the use of three of her father’s shirts, which the artist has altered with intricate needlepoint work to depict houses, hands and faces. 

Whether this is an attempt to capture snapshots of her father’s life is unclear as Carlesimo explained that Billy doesn’t want to reveal what these places are, or what they mean to her. 

Billy’s pieces are open for interpretation because she wants people to understand them in the context of their own lives. 

The openness of interpretation invites viewers to enter an almost escapist frame of mind to reflect on their own homes and family relations. 

Both Jan’s After the Hunt and Billy’s Fleeting Memory will be on display at Union Gallery until November 11.

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