By Paul Gessell
The first thing you see upon entering the Karsh-Masson Gallery in Ottawa City Hall is a floor-to-ceiling flimsy white cloth covered in writing that begins to tell a strange tale.
“This is what I can tell you,” the storyline begins. “The August sky is vast, blue and cloudless. It’s the kind of afternoon that reminds me of a long unravelling thread.”
The narrator is a 14-year-old unnamed girl. She sits beside a man named Walt who has grey tufts of hair on his ears. So he must be considerably older than the girl. The rambling tale leaves us feeling unsettled. Then, suddenly, it ends with these words; “I’m watching you throw a girl with blond curls into the water.”
Welcome to Silent Falls. This is a fictional village of tiny dioramas of swimming holes, cheap motels, haunted houses and other scenes that are meant to be deceptively bucolic. Most of the dioramas are small enough to sit on a glass-encased cake plate, depicting village characters involved in ambiguous activities that might just be ordinary daily activities or might be scenes of impending murder.
These are the kinds of scenes David Lynch would create, if he were crafting dioramas instead of creepy television series like Twin Peaks and movies like Blue Velvet. These are also reminiscent of the kinds of scenes Winnipeg artist Diana Thorneycroft creates and then photographs to show Canadians the darkest corners of our culture.
The dioramas are the handiwork of Ottawa artist Patti Normand. They are exquisite and macabre and intentionally baffling with incomplete narratives. That’s where Outaouais writer Leslie Buxton comes in. She has created a short storyline to accompany every diorama. One text is written on an apron, another in a child’s scribbler, yet another on the torn page of a newspaper. A coupe of texts are recorded messages, one of them audible upon picking up the receiver of an old phone. Buxton’s media for conveying words are as ingenuous as her actual words.
(Leslie Buxton is a name familiar to many in this region because of the very public story surrounding her late daughter, India Olivia Taylor, a wonderful little girl who died last year from a rare, incurable neurological disease. Buxton still maintains a blog called Fall On Me, dear about the life and death of India.)
The Karsh-Masson exhibition is titled Patti Normand and Lesley Buxton: Little Voices. It’s a real winner. You can literally spend hours examining the details in each diorama and then reading the accompanying text, which always leaves enough questions unanswered that you must still fill in some of the blanks and create your own spooky Lynchian tale.
Patti Normand and Lesley Buxton: Little Voices. Until March 9. Karsh-Masson Gallery, Ottawa City Hall, 110 Laurier Ave. W.