Cynthia Minden’s first discipline was music, and her earlier studies in this field continue to shape the tone of her work. Lyrical movements, rhythms, harmonies, musical phrasing, and cadences resonate throughout her visual art.

She describes the creation of her current show at Denman Island Summer Gallery as conceiving a lexicon or syntax for her environmental art: “I am building a library of artefacts drawn from the landscape, an intermingling of nature and humanity gathered from the margins of wetlands, forest floor and foreshore, intertwined with cast off findings from human civilization. By pairing bone with porcelain, nail with knife and vine, I am looking for multiple meanings, layers of interpretation and a framework for thinking about the relationship between art, society and ecology.”

Part found object, part assemblage, part constructivist painting, Minden’s wall pieces, such as Four Fetishes and Blue Lock Rock Bark (2018), highlight and accentuate naturally occurring pigmentation on beach refuse and flotsam due to oxidation, weathering, and mineralization. Incorporating meaningful or mysterious personal objects such as keys or watches, Minden’s highly abstract compo­sitions also feature animal bones and un­identifiable industrial remnants. In one, an old doorplate becomes a medley of cobalt and rust. Some pieces seem minimalist in their spare austerity, whereas others are baroque.

look over look (detail) (2017-2018)
Comox Valley Art Gallery, British Columbia
Photo: Ed Brooks

The exhibition Anima-L expands Minden’s interest in combining gathered natural materials and found objects in curious ways. This work reflects on the relationship between humans and animals, accentuating how animals have been a source of guidance, self-reflection, and companionship for humans throughout recorded history. Blended into these ponderings is her unease about world events, from caravans of displaced people to the horrendous donkey-skin trade between Africa and China. The title of the collection refers to anima (the Latin word for “soul”), the inner force that animates us, our true inner self, also spirit or life—attributes shared by all sentient beings. The sculptures are androgynous and animalistic but could also be seen as simplified human forms.

Rooted in nature and organic abstraction, Minden’s linear and spherical compositional elements suggest human or animal bodies, plants, and other organic structures. A wall-hung collection of masks includes references to old horse/donkey fly masks, which have been repurposed to art masks, embellished with needlepoint and mixed media. The masks, like the sculptures, further reference ritual, tribalism, and animals.

Minden works with a technique called random weave, intermingling materials to create order from chaos; she must strive to tame a mass of reeds or vines without following a prescribed pattern. Randomness and chance play a role; yet, there is a presiding structure and intention. Felted balls made from donkey hair brushed out in springtime are contained within some sculptures; donkey-modified (chewed and stripped) branches form the linear structure for others. The upright branches may also reference symbolic staffs, wands, or relics.

This work reflects on the relationship between humans and animals, accentuating how animals have been a source of guidance, self-reflection, and companionship for humans throughout recorded history.

The three-dimensional graphic design of Minden’s compositions suspended in relation to each other suggests lines of musical notation or lyrical, cuneiform script—animated Zen calligraphy characters dropped into holographic space. Like antic hieroglyphs, the community of figures collectively imply hints of meaning and language through their interactions, cues, and symbols. It is as if you could read them and their conjoined communiqué—from left to right, perhaps, like a line of music, or right to left, like a sacred text in some ancient forgotten speech—if you only had the key to their esoteric code. In fact, the code is close to hand, resident in the emotional perception of the audience. The figurative elements present as individual characters like dramatis personae in a ballet, whose combined choreography spells out a plot or theme that we can follow with our emotional antennae and our sensual appreciation. There is a subtle tension beneath the apparent careless, dancing sense of joyfulness of some of the figures; they seem to betray a sense of underlying strain, conflict, or contortion.

Fourteen mixed-media assemblages, 12” x 12” on board with paint, collage, and found objects, hang in groupings as wall pieces, with a single projected image of a cave painting from the Magura Cave in Bulgaria that depicts early renderings of humans and animals. For Minden, “this relationship etched and ground into stone is a vivid artistic reminder of our long connection with the creatures of earth. Here is a gathering of human and animal souls, in waiting or repose, lined up, perhaps in migration.”

The enigmatic paradox of Anima-L is that it accomplishes this subtle and profound communication with a visual vocabulary that is highly accessible, universal, esoteric, private, ancient, new, and essential, simultaneously. There is an open-ended story evident in the exhibition, for this show is essentially a cohesive, if highly abstract, narrative. Like the libretto to an opera that is also a mystery—Myfanwy Piper’s for the operatic adaptation of Miller’s The Turn of the Screw composed by Benjamin Britten, for instance—its story is to be apprehended, processed, and interpreted differently, deeply, and personally by each viewer. Minden’s singular artistic voice could be described as reflective and tender, quirky, humorous and whimsical, paradoxically bittersweet and lyrical. It resonates through overall compositions, echoes in volumes or forms, and animates by a sort of dancing rhythmic movement. 

Cynthia Minden: Anima-L 
Summer Gallery Denman Island, British Columbia
July 25–August 6, 2019