I grin when I enter Maura Doyle’s exhibition Dear Universe/Cher Univers at Axenéo7 in Gatineau. Empty chip bags, suspended from the ceiling and framed by the oversized window that looks out onto an idyllic backyard, hover over my head. Like a pesky flock of seagulls, they flutter over the audience, a taunting constellation of delicious crispy snack foods poised to attack. They are all there: Doritos, Lays, Old Dutch, and Humpty Dumpty. Along the wall, a series of fifteen colourful posters further contextualizes the installation. Chip Bag Drop is a 2004 project for which Doyle proposed that a helicopter parachute thousands of empty tasty treat bags into Toronto’s Sky Dome. Installed in Axenéo7, the work is both quirky and concise, a nod to the ridiculous spectacle of professional sport and the architecture of waste that it engenders.
Below the floating trash turned art object, another iconic symbol of Canadiana is poignantly disrupted. Roll up the Rim to Win (2010) is an oversized gouache-on-paper sculptural re-creation of the famous Tim Horton’s game inaugurated in 1986, which invited people across the country to unroll a paper cup with their teeth (or fingernails) to win a variety of prizes. Use of the physical cup was discontinued in 2022 – much to the chagrin of the Canadian consumers who saw it as a piece of their heritage. Doyle’s larger-than-life rendition, slightly dejected and droopy, speaks to the kind of disproportionate nationalist affection we might have for a consumable good that represents the economic vagaries of lottery games. It also underscores how these cups invariably end up cast away on sidewalks and street corners, as yet more run-of-the-mill refuse of the Anthropocene.
In the next room, the curious and wonderful world of sculptures, prints, drawings, and other relics and installations that Doyle has created over the past two decades populate the space. Vitruvian Woman (Google Glass), Vitruvian Woman (Hourglass), and Vitruvian Woman (Flesh Knot II) (2019) are three prints and drawings from a series, derived from Leonardo da Vinci’s Renaissance depiction of the “ideal man.” Doyle’s recasting of this patriarchal male trope of perfection places the woman’s body front and centre, drawn with a cartoonish aesthetic. The idealized hourglass figure, childbirth and child rearing, the ability to juggle multiple tasks, and other stereotypes of quintessential “womanhood” and “femininity” are set up and pointedly toppled in this series.
The beaver, one of Doyle’s animals of predilection in her practice – the word being popular slang for women’s genitalia – is also present throughout this gallery. Beaver Log Ferried through Panama Canal (2008) is a small shrine containing a piece of gnawed wood and multiple souvenirs commemorating how Doyle performed the action described in the work’s title. Describing this, among other works, as an “impish re-examination of context, labour, and value” in her introductory essay for the exhibition, curator Kimberly Phillips invites the audience to feel free to laugh with the work while remaining aware of the serious undertones at play. In this instance, Doyle draws on the archetype of the beaver, one of Canada’s national symbols, and its association with labour, sex, community building, global commerce, and travel in a piece that is both cheeky and frank.
Nowhere is this mixture of playfulness and seriousness more apparent than in the final room of the exhibition, where Doyle’s Fool’s Cap Letters (2019) hangs at the rear of the gallery. This series of posters uses the format of a letter as a space for artistic dialogue, a mix of stream-of-consciousness writing, journaling, and left-handed ink doodles. Oversized, the letters are hung with similarly scaled handmade porcelain pushpins that add to their sense of importance. One poster reads, “Dear Bono, I choose Free Birth. Birth to a Free World Order. Free Association. Free choice to live or die in a puddle. Sorry, no straight-white-guy rock.” It’s at once funny and heartbreaking, witty and sincere, and it is impossible to read this text and not think of the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the United States and the continued assault on women’s right to bodily autonomy. Doyle’s work, with its particularly savvy Canadian iconography, is a constant reminder of our cultural transgressions. Throughout Dear Universe, Doyle navigates this careful balance, making lighthearted, accessible work with the utmost dexterity and craft, while striking at the heart of capitalism’s misogynistic assault on women, the environment, and the entire universe.