In the past decade, Sylvia Ziemann has unflinchingly researched issues around violence and disaster that are overwhelming at both personal and global levels. To engage with this material, she changes the scale of a situation, often building miniatures and puppets, and creates work using narrative and an often dark humour. The exhibition “Accidental Utopia” brings us back into a world she created as an expressionist installation about post-catastrophe survival, entitled Carnival at the End of the World1.

This new body of work, curated by Holly Fay for the Art Gallery of Regina, consists of black-and-white ink drawings hung in clusters, salon style, with vividly colourful paintings, and culminates in a large painting, entitled eponymously Accidental Utopia. In this speculative fiction, Ziemann asks not “what if”, as the unthinkable does happen all too often, but asks instead, “knowing this, how shall we live?”

Ziemann’s beautifully organic ink-line drawings are created through a meditative process similar to Surrealist “automatic drawings”. She begins by pencilling an outline, and then switches to ink to draw freely within the silhouette. From a distance, these images are anatomical: hearts and heads, torsos and digestive systems. The interiors are dense, in a graphic “underground comix” style, and invite close reading. She notes personal events (her mother’s heart surgery), headline news (another oil spill), quotations, theories and lists (I love her “slogans for a messy life”).2 The drawings form a crazy-quilt of characters and stories that zip from words to images. The visual interplay between the body and the inscribed experiences is eloquent. Our sense of self evolves as a daily dance between our thoughts, our environment, and our physicality.

Ziemann’s beautifully organic ink-line drawings are created through a meditative process similar to Surrealist “automatic drawings”.

In contrast to the density of her drawing, the majority of Ziemann’s paintings are visually minimal; studies developed out of sketches, and explored in a different context. Colour takes the place of words. For the viewer, these images provide resting points, visual space that allows us to contemplate her motifs. A drawing of a Pinocchio nose with leaves develops through painting into a living branch. In the large narrative painting, she becomes a tree-woman surrounded by children, a story-teller. Red Riding Hood’s battle with the wolf becomes a portrait of a young woman with haunting eyes.

In her artist talk, Ziemann discussed her research into fairy tales, psychology and art history, in particular, Brueghel’s Tower of Babel and parable paintings. Her large canvas, The Accidental Utopia, is structured to make visual reference to Brueghel’s work. The point of view is from a high vantage, and the landscape seems collage-like, as if drafted in sections. In each area, hybrid animal-people engage in everyday and intimate tasks: farming and laundry, dinner by the fire, courting, reading books and playing cards. These scenes offer several functions. Some anchor the painting in Ziemann’s meta-narrative. The card players in the foreground are reprising a scene from The Carnival at the End of the World. Others, such as a hookah-smoking caterpillar (suggestive of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland) are clues that this is a looking-glass world, meant to be read allegorically. As in Brueghel’s work, there is much fun in puzzling out the metaphors. From the “pile-of-bones” in one corner, a visual pun on the nick-name for Ziemann’s hometown of Regina, to the character hanging bat-like from the central tree, suspended by one foot. Suspended in limbo, he resembles the Hanged Man from the Tarot, a symbol for being at a crossroads before a major decision, or knowledge gained at great sacrifice. Our world is poised in a similar position, with climate change and increasingly divisive politics. In this exhibition, Ziemann challenges us to adapt to the taxing days ahead, and to remember we need compassion to overcome our differences, or we may lose everything. It has happened before.

(1) Sylvia Ziemann: Carnival at the end of the World. MacKenzie Art Gallery, September 27 – October 26, 2014

(2) Sylvia Ziemann: «The Midway» 2014 – 2017, ink on paper, 22 x 30 inches. Ziemann quotes Atwood on Utopia—a slippery concept. Coined by Thomas More from the Greek prefix «ou-» meaning «not», and topos, «place”, a Utopia is “not a place” but an ideal, a fiction as invented as justice or compassion, but as Margaret Atwood observes, “you have to be careful with how perfect you want the world to be, after all, the best intentions have paved many miles of the road to hell… But, we can’t give up trying to help those in need.” 2011/oct/14/margaret-atwood-road-to-ustopia

Sylvia Ziemann Accidental Utopia
Art Gallery of Regina
December 9, 2017—February 23, 2018