By Paul Gessell
The 1960 Alfred Hitchcock thriller, Psycho, left me with the life-long habit of always opening shower curtains with a degree of caution. Early in the movie, the actress Janet Leigh takes a shower in her room at the Bates Motel. Suddenly a hand rips open the curtain and stabs Leigh to death in what is still, in my view, one of the most terrifying scenes ever filmed.
I was a very impressionable 10-year-old when the film came to the Legion Hall of my small Saskatchewan town. We didn’t even have running water in those days. Hence, in our house there were no showers and, thus, no shower curtains. Perhaps that made Leigh’s murder all the more exotic and memorable.
With that bit of history out of the way, let me now proceed to the intriguing paintings of Montreal artist Victoria Wonnacott, one of the stars at Ottawa’s Cube Gallery and the sister of Ottawa’s celebrated photo-artist Justin Wonnacott. There is a new show of Victoria’s work at Cube — don’t miss it.
Victoria has a particular fascination with water, including her paintings of people taking showers on the other side of translucent shower curtains or pebbled glass walls. There are also paintings of people swimming, some as seen from below. Think of the view a shark might have as it looks up and sees a tasty treat treading water in a bright bathing suit. That’s not a scenario as scary for me as the shower scenes, perhaps because I saw the film Jaws as an adult, found it rather tedious and decided the giant shark was a mechanical fraud.
Wonnacott’s paintings are mesmerizing. For those of us freaked out by memories of Psycho or Jaws, it is impossible to view the paintings without a feeling of dread. What psychotic monster is going to open the shower door or, with teeth bared, rise to the surface of a swimming hole?
These feelings are difficult to escape despite the gentleness that otherwise cloaks these watery paintings of children swimming or adults showering. Those feelings are further complicated by the fact that we are essentially voyeurs in looking at these people showering and swimming. You feel guilty about staring at people in their bathing suits or birthday suits, yet you can’t take your eyes off them. Who knows when the monsters will attack?
“Victoria Wonnacott has been part of the Cube Gallery since the doors opened in 2005,” says a catalogue for the Cube show. “An artist without pretence or guile, her work is semiotic and conceptual while also figurative and representational. The overarching theme throughout Victoria’s art is born of her own artistic, personal, and physical journey of and about water. ‘We are born in water. It is fluid. It transports us. It can be a very peaceful place, a mysterious place,’ she says.‘We can be weightless and move in a way that is afforded us only in water or outer space.’”
Water can also be a place of death. Janet Leigh certainly seemed to remain wary of showers long after 1960. In 2000, when the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts staged an exhibition honouring the work of Alfred Hitchcock, Leigh came to the opening to pose for photographers with some of the sets and props used in the filming of Psycho. When she encountered the actual shower stall used in the film, Leigh opened the curtain and then refused to go inside. Instead, she delivered a silent scream, just like in the movie, but standing outside of the stall, where the world was deemed much safer.
Nov. 8 to 27. Cube Gallery, 1285 Wellington St. W., www.cubegallery.ca