River Underground at Clint Roenisch Gallery

I find myself back at Clint Roenisch gallery to report on another enthralling show there. Currently on display are the works by two artists, Heather Goodchild and Margaux Smith. In the last year or so these two women have formed a friendship, and as a result have partnered up to produce works for a joint exhibition – invited by Clint Roenisch. The underlying themes are mythology and dreams.

There literally was a river, or creek, just to the south of the gallery that was buried around the turn of the twentieth century. Of course, the river alluded to in the title of this show is not a physical one, but a metaphorical one, namely one constituted by the mental. Between its banks flow our subconscious thoughts. Calling this river metaphorical suggests that it doesn’t really exist – it is rather a poetical construct. But that seems wrong insofar as what goes on in our subconscious would seem to be real in some sense. How exactly is unclear, a result no doubt of the intangibility of the mental generally – apprehensible by each of us privately, but not publicly. Nonetheless, what we call the subconscious is that which resists apprehension even by us privately. It is buried underground. But while it resists being apprehended it can be so. Two routes to grasping it are through mythology and dreams.

Writing about the artists, in their essay Boris Steipe and Yi Chen appeal to Carl Jung’s ideas to explain how this all works. According to Jung the mental or psychic world runs alongside the physical world. It is shared by us all innately and manifests itself as archetypes, which are essentially symbols that we coincidentally all apprehend and express in various ways. These symbols are featured especially in ancient mythologies. It is these myths that particularly interest Goodchild and Smith.

Indeed, on display at the front of the gallery are a series of small studies by Smith, based on myths featured in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. As the name suggests the book consists of a series of stories about transformation. Nature is in constant flux – the river being a common metaphor for this. In one instance, Smith illustrates a scene from the story of Callisto. Callisto is a favourite companion of the goddess Artemis, but raped by Zeus – Artemis’s own father – Callisto is made pregnant and exiled by Artemis. This is the scene Smith depicts, echoing a well-known painting by the Venetian artist Titian.

Margaux Smith, Callisto exiled, 2022, watercolour, 9 x 6 inches

And after giving birth to a son, Arcas, she is turned her into a bear. Years later her estranged son comes across Callisto, but unaware that it is his mother he aims his arrow to kill her. The story clearly highlights many universal themes such as chastity, motherhood, matricide and so on. These feature Jungian archetypes that derive not so much from experience as from an innate source we all share, and hence all recognise intuitively. The psychic river runs through us all, so to speak.

Margaux Smith, Scenes From The Life of Callisto, 2022, watercolour on Colouraid paper, 24 x 18 inches

Dreaming is the theme of the works by Goodchild located in the entry passage to the main gallery, that effectively acts as an antechamber that mimics the processing of our experiences throughout today that we do before falling into sleep and dreaming fully. In this space, surrounded by patterned fabric, hangs a set of scenes painted in oil in miniature.

Installation view of the entry passage

These are the sorts of scenes that make up our mundane daily experiences, including cafeterias, the door to a friend’s apartment, the basement stairs in a public building and so on. Their scale forces Goodchild to render them loosely, which, together with the intimate details they each depict, adds to their dreamlike quality.

Heather Goodchild, LA Ghost, 2022, oil on board, 9 x 12 inches

So it is in the main gallery where we encounter the dreamworld full on. On the walls hang alternating works by both artists. At first glance one could be forgiven for thinking the works are by the same artist, despite being in quite distinct media. All the works share a vibrant pallette. They resonate together beautifully.

Installation view of the main gallery

Heather Goodchild has produced a series of striking ‘hooked rugs’, that is, images made by hooking dyed wool. At mid-distance they appear to be paintings, which they are in the sense that she dyes the wool herself. One example is titled Ghost Dogs, for which there is a watercolour study at the front of the gallery. The picture depicts two white dogs with a sword in the foreground and two suns in the background. These haunting features point to a dream world – dreams being the second route to the grasping of the subconscious.

Heather Goodchild, Ghost Dogs, 2022, dyed wool and burlap, 41 x 62 inches

Smith’s oil paintings in the main gallery depict surreal landscapes. They are done in a style that could be described as Paul Klee meets Samuel Palmer. The English nineteenth century painter Palmer is famous for his pictures of moonlit pastoral scenes, inspired by another Latin poet Virgil – in particular his Eclogues. A mythological theme is evoked in the title of one of these, namely Leda’s Egg. Leda is another victim of Zeus’s libido, whereupon after their tryst, when Zeus is disguised as a swan, Leda lays one or two eggs. Nothing is entirely discernible in Smith’s dreamscape. It is a visual feast, with the painted surface being variously scratched, layered and dripped upon.   

Margaux Smith, Leda’s Egg, 2022, Oil on wood panel, 48 x 60 inches

And in the middle of the floor sits a whimsical construction made of bricks and various sized amphoras and vases, with a hint of water trickling across the surface. This work is a collaboration between the two artists, who have each decorated the jars. It might be read as a shrine – to the gods and goddesses that haunt the rivers of our subconscious perhaps. All told Goodchild and Smith provide a rich and evocative set of works. Magical.

Installation by Heather Goodchild and Margaux Smith

Hugh Alcock

Images are courtesy of Clint Roenisch Gallery

*Exhibition information: River Underground by Heather Goodchild and Margaux Smith, December 1, 2022 – January 21, 2023, Clint Roenisch Gallery, 190 St Helens Ave, Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed – Sat 12 – 5 pm.

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