What wonderful objects are the drawings in this exhibition by Nova Scotia artist, Susan Wood; they, as the sub-title of the exhibition states, span three decades of the artist’s work. I call them objects because that is what they are in the classic mode of things of beauty—‘ a joy forever’.

Drawing exhibitions, particularly ones that illustrate classical skill, are a rarity in this an age of post-modern irony where ideas often out pace any inkling of technical ability. This is not to say that Ms Wood’s drawings lack ideas or are not contemporary; they are both, only that it is their sheer beauty that drew me in to their web and, in turn, made me think about their content.

The curator of the exhibition, Susan Gibson Garvey, in her catalogue essay, makes a very good case for the feminist roots of these drawings, but they are much more than illustrations of feminist theory and go to the heart of what it is to be human. The earliest works in the exhibition are five large, mixed media drawings, all from 1985, of skate egg cases titled by their popular name Devil’s Purses. Yes, they do look like a ripped open human body, a womb, perhaps; however, it is their large scale, 208 to 227cm by 118 cm, makes these drawings resonate. The real egg cases, the ones found on beaches by Ms Wood and used by her for the drawings, would fit in the palm of your hand. What the large scale allows is a look at the artist’s hand. Perhaps a better way to put it would be see her touch or marks. There are the pencil marks against dry pigment and watercolour on handmade paper. You can feel the presence of the artist in these marks. These works like all the others in exhibition are simply pinned to the wall uncovered by glass that lets you really see the drawings. It is a marvel that the artist and the gallery allowed this to happen as it makes the exhibition really very special. Drawings are so often exhibited under glass in semi-dark rooms that protect the drawings, but make looking at them a pain at best.

There are several series of drawings in the exhibition that span its thirty-year scope. I will bookend my comments with the flower studies that are among her most recent work in the exhibition. These works are about loss; the loss of her father, her husband and close friends. Clearly to this point is the ink and watercolour collage of 2010, Present/Absent. There are two side- by-side studies of tulips, one faded, the other more detailed, both over a dark wash that covers an unreadable handwritten text. It is very apparent that this drawing is about sorrow and a sorrow of the deepest order. Perhaps I am reading too much into this picture, as I know her history and have suffered the recent loss of a daughter, but I don’t think so. I know sadness when I see it. Sadness, however, can echo beauty and this 77.5cm by 55.5cm study is beautiful and its sadness, in an odd way, made me happy.

Ms Wood is a very good artist whose work deserves to be seen by more people. The curator and the galleries involved, Mount Saint Vincent University and The Owens Art Gallery, have done a fine job in presenting her art. The only caveat that I have is that I would borrow Hieronymus Bosch’s title Garden of Earthly Delights for the exhibition’s title rather than Earth Skins.

Susan Wood’s works hang frame-less on the walls of the gallery. Her older works (the Devils Purse and Dress series) are very large, over 6 feet high and line the wall like Grecian statues. The graphic punch of the Devil’s Purses series is potent. Looking at her renderings of shadows is coming into contact with honed observational and technical skills. There is obvious delight in this creation of depth. For those who haven’t spent summers at the edge of the sea combing the beach for mermaid glass and sand dollars, devil’s purse is the common name for a skate’s egg sack that wash up on the shore. With Wood’s drawings, one can’t help anthropomorphizing them. They become stand-ins for bodies we empathize with and relate to from inside- out. Stand-ins which bypass the voyeuristic gaze that objectifies: a reversal of sorts, a re-empowerment also.

Following this theme with the Dress series, Wood embarks on an epic exploration of her experience of the body. I perceive this series as a manifestation in dry pigment, watercolour, pastel and carbon of her intuitive inner journey. Wood takes us on a procession through stages, cycles, and ordeals, each tied into the glorious muck and guck, veins, organs, sex, sinew and bone that make a woman’s body. She embraces it all, leaning into areas of discomfort (body hair for example), examining the edges of pain. Made of coal, burnt and raw umber, rust and sanguine her pallet lends itself well to these explorations of body. She layers skin thin washi paper, collaging it to a thick watercolour paper base and drawing over it adding texture and dimension. Sensual, tactile and intimate her work is grounding and visceral in a way that an image on a screen cannot be.

From questions surrounding what we are as corporal beings to how we relate to our world, Wood connects us to our senses with a series of small monotypes in which hands are featured. The viewer reads a quote by Virginia Woolf: “Unless I can touch something I shall fall down and die”. Touch is the first sense developed in the womb and the last used at death. One can see how as a drawer, Wood connects to the tactile as a practice and with her drawing practice as a way to process and celebrate the world. She has laughingly called herself a material girl as notes curator Sue Gibson Garvey in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue. Her love of paper- Italian hotel stationary, bits of blotting paper she has tested on, labels of watercolours, beautifully hand written segments of letters all used either as ground for or alongside of exquisitely rendered drawings certainly attest to this.

‘’I call these: Les petites morts’’, says Wood of the dead bird and desiccated insects that populate her drawings from later series. There is a quality of eulogy to many of Wood’s pieces. The most recent work in the exhibition simply titled the Bouquet captures it all. Stripped, raw, breathtakingly beautiful, it is graphically and emotionally powerful piece.

Susan Wood’s practice pertains to the concrete and the temporal. Threshold experiences of birth and death act like parenthesis that contain her body of work. It is easy to imagine her as a young woman on the beach holding a skate egg sack with a shell in it’s exploded cavity, marveling at life, deciding to explore and draw upon these layers of wonderment. The power of that intention is palpable and a pleasure to encounter. 

Exhibition Itinerary

Owens Art Gallery
Mount Allison University
Sackville, New Brunswick
January 13 – February 26, 2012

Acadia University Art Gallery
Wolfville, Nova Scotia
June 18 – August 11, 2012

The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery
St. John’s, Nfld and Labrador
September 8 – November 18, 2012