In her new exhibition, Julie Oakes suggests a planetary future of cataclysmic storms leaving “a wounding devastation that is both natural and man-made.”

Oakes lives in British Columbia where the summer has been marred by wild fires, yet there is great beauty in her work — even in catastrophe and death. Through her carefully staged scenes of anthropomorphic animal subjects within an idealized natural world, Oakes continues to explore themes of spirituality found in nature while addressing ecological concerns about the sustainability of the planet.

At the heart of the exhibition is The Blue Tornado, an installation of 120 suspended cerulean-blue glass birds that have come together to form an enormous tornado formation. Simultaneously a scene of calamitous action and frozen monument, as the funnel approaches the gallery floor, the colour darkens to cobalt blue. Dust, shards and chunks of cobalt glass, some still showing the evidence of the broken glass bottles from which they came, are scattered on the floor. The formation of birds reminds one of starlings or sparrows — diminutive and vulnerable on their own yet in large numbers they form an intimidating, Hitchcockian mass of would-be predators. In this work, the innumerable yet practically imperceptible ecological causes and effects of human activity compound together to create an apocalyptic storm in which the natural world is forever changed.

Oakes’ forecast of tragic destruction of the natural world is alarming given that she is not alone in her prediction. In fact, scientists are currently monitoring what has been named the “Sixth Extinction.” The last extinction, caused by an asteroid, annihilated the dinosaurs — as this one progresses, we are realizing too late that the next may be man-made. As if unearthing this future devastation, Oakes presents viewers with a series of works that resemble archaeological digs presented like museum displays in black boxes. Entitled Domestic Day Dreams, Oakes stages seven sites in which white porcelain domestic animals emerge from a sand of blue bottle glass, surrounded by mementos and artefacts and internally lit with blue light. Like ‘black boxes’ recording the last moments of a catastrophe, these burial sites are full of power, mystery and magic because the victims seem to project an aura of sentience. In order to emphasize the notion of trust and reliance that pets grant their caregivers, Oakes titled the works with such child-like monikers — Bunny, Horsey, Fishy and so on. Yet, the viewer occasionally moves from witness to voyeur as her subjects seem caught in suspended action that seems all too human. For instance in Pussy Days, a cat, surrounded by romping kittens, lays on her back with one paw over her forehead. One eye is closed while the other is half open; tongue sticking out of her agape mouth, flower decorating her body and her sex, this ‘kitty’ seems to be in the throes of a very human-like ecstatic swoon.

Turning her attention to the wild animals of the Okanagan where she lives, Oakes created a series of 12 white porcelain animal urns entitled Months. Each having an aura of near-human self-awareness as they represent the calendar months, the urns contain the remains of animals obtained and processed in conjunction with a local trapper, the Alan Brooks Nature Centre, members of the Okanagan Nation and country-style collectors. In this exhibition, the remains, which Oakes terms “DNA,” are tied to the exterior of the urns. One particularly poignant urn is June Rabbit. His gaze penetrating beyond our world, he sits erect with front paws politely crossed, noble and intelligent as if posing for an official portrait, but his remains, connected to the back of his head, are represented by a skinned rabbit face. Introducing each of the seasons and reinforcing the notion of mourning and loss, are four bronze animal busts, each garlanded with flowers native to Canada. Spring Rabbit evokes the mad and tragic Ophelia who drowned wearing garlands that included rue, a flower symbolic of regret — as heartbreaking as it is beautiful.

In four huge paintings, the seasons thematic is explored further only this time, the natural world is highly staged and idealized. Stanzie Tooth, former Lonsdale Gallery curator, described these works as “borrowing from vanitas traditions, [in which] the animals are given the reverence of saints — fur perfect and eyes bejewelled.” The animals share each scene with peaceful gazes in a sort of poetic harmony — a world that is not of this world. 

The Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery, Waterloo
September 20, 2015—January 03, 2016