SLUMBER at Patel Brown

When I entered the exhibition space for Vanessa Brown’s solo show SLUMBER at Patel Brown, I found myself wholly surprised by an exhibition I had already ‘walked through’ online. In fact, ‘surprise’ is a word I used over and over during my half-hour viewing.

With only a few weeks left, SLUMBER reopened to the public on March 9th, offering limited viewing appointments after Toronto lifted its lockdown restrictions. SLUMBER is Vanessa Brown’s first solo exhibition with Patel Brown, featuring five large-scale sculptures in the main gallery space and a few smaller works in a side room. In this exhibition, Brown “engages a slowness in the viewer’s eyes” in wood and steel sculptures that reveal themselves to viewers in delayed layers.

Installation view of Vanessa Brown’s SLUMBER, Feb 23 – Mar 28, 2021. Courtesy of Patel Brown and the Artist. Photo: Laura Findlay.

The first sculpture that is visible from the gallery entrance, “Mantle” (2021), hits with the full force of its monumentality, the scale of which is difficult to capture through photographs and online exhibitions. Steel lines of black, blue, brown, and ochre, swim their way above the curved platform on which they sit. Behind them, a tall and dark black triangle is painted on the wall, popping off the gallery wall with such strength that I initially thought it too was a steel piece independent of the wall—one of many surprises. The largely black lines take refuge in this deep black background, only revealing themselves in short bursts of colour or through careful searching. The longer you look, the easier it is to trace the trajectories.

Mantle, 2021. Installation view of Vanessa Brown’s SLUMBER, Feb 23 – Mar 28, 2021. Courtesy of Patel Brown and the Artist. Photo: Laura Findlay.

In “Sun Lethargy” (2020) two figures lay under a lusciously hot sun. The wood sculptures, of solid blue and orange, are all soft curves, sometimes ambiguous and sometimes clear about the human features they model. The solid colours, green, blue, orange, and yellow, serve to make the elements independent of each other; they all inhabit the same universe but don’t bleed into each other. Rather, one can peer through the negative space of one figure to glimpse a piece of the other. There is something that is extraordinarily alluring and soothing about these figures. The ease with which they fill the space—maybe due to their lethargic poses and the sultry climate—lures you in and begs you to join them in their world of slow sunbathing.

Sun Lethargy, 2020. Installation view of Vanessa Brown’s SLUMBER, Feb 23 – Mar 28, 2021. Courtesy of Patel Brown and the Artist. Photo: Laura Findlay.

As with all of the sculptures, “Fugitive Pond” (2021) plays around with its negative space, featuring droplet-shaped holes that from a distance appear like painted white elements—another delayed reveal. Yet, unlike the others in the main room, “Fugitive Pond” is without a painted backdrop, and thus, looks lonely. Even the silhouette it forms screams loneliness, somehow resembling the figure of a shawled woman stooped over in grief. This sculpture requires company, asking its viewers to crouch—or stoop, as it does—and gaze through the negative spaces.

Fugitive Pond, 2021. Installation view of Vanessa Brown’s SLUMBER, Feb 23 – Mar 28, 2021. Courtesy of Patel Brown and the Artist. Photo: Laura Findlay.

A dimly lit second room, equipped with a curtain to shut out the bright light that floods the main space, is yet another gifted surprise. In a corner is a series of steel sculptures with candles, titled “Mnemonics” (2020-2021), casting shadows of cats and whales that dance across the floor and walls—though this took a moment to notice. It would be another two minutes until I observed that each one of these steel sculptures had a real candle and that these were the only sources of light in the room. The idea that someone had the task of lighting and replacing these candles was so delightful to me. Perhaps this delight was a product of our current automated, distanced world in which the evidence of labour is a sweet rarity. The title “Mnemonics” is particularly engaging—what are we trying to remember? Or is it that the “Mnemonics” carry their own independent memories? The candles themselves, too, suggest something about memory and time. They burn slowly, and over time they recede, leaving record of the time they spent lit. As members of the exhibition, they serve as a record of the hours that gallery visitors filter in and out. I wondered how different this room looked during the city lockdown, and then, enjoyed imagining the ceremonial lighting of the candles once the gallery reopened for visitors—like a celebration of rebirth.

Mnemonics, 2020-2021. Installation view of Vanessa Brown’s SLUMBER, Feb 23 – Mar 28, 2021. Courtesy of Patel Brown and the Artist. Photo: Laura Findlay.

Brown’s sculptures surprise viewers in their use of scale, negative space, and hidden gems—or not so much ‘hidden’ as ‘obscured’. They are meant to be peered at from all angles and thoroughly searched. Ultimately, this exhibition succeeds in stopping viewers from slipping into states of ‘gallery fatigue,’ refreshing them over and over again. Small, sweet surprises are generously scattered in SLUMBER, rewarding viewers who gaze slowly and rigorously. Vanessa Brown‘s solo exhibition provides unexpected small delights and, if you can safely make it to a gallery appointment, should be viewed in person even by those who have already seen the online exhibition.

Installation view of Vanessa Brown’s SLUMBER, Feb 23 – Mar 28, 2021. Courtesy of Patel Brown and the Artist. Photo: Laura Findlay.

Olivia Mariko Hsuen-Ferris

*Exhibition information: Vanessa Brown, SLUMBER, (extended dates) February 23 to March 28, 2021, Patel Brown, 21 Wade Ave, Toronto. The online exhibition is available on the Patel Brown website. Patel Brown is offering viewing appointments that can be booked for the remainder of the exhibition.

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