By PAUL GESSELL
To understand the exhibition of Toronto artist Ed Pien at the Shenkman Arts Centre in Orleans, travel back in time to 2004.
Pien was visiting China. He saw many decorative, wall-mounted paper-cuts in which scenes and narratives were created by cutting shapes into unfurled paper. Pien was unimpressed with the paper-cuts, seeing them more as craft than art, until he walked into a temple — he is not sure what the religion was — and saw a perfectly symmetrical paper-cut of a tree filled with birds. At the top of the tree was the mask-like face of a mythological benevolent demon. At the base of the tree were two male figures involved in some mysterious ritual. Pien still carries that image around in his laptop.
The temple paper-cut was magical, says Pien. He was inspired to do his own paper-cuts. And then he discovered an image of a 17th century print by French artist Jacques Callot called The Hanging, a horrific scene of dozens of men dangling from a giant tree, which was used as a gallows to execute war criminals. Pien decided to create paper-cuts that would reference Callot’s masterpiece but in a more joyful way.
The result has been a decade of paper-cuts by Pien that have made him one of Canada’s contemporary art stars at home and abroad. Solo shows by Pien in the Ottawa area are rare — his last being more than a decade ago at Gallery 101, just as his career began to take off. So, kudos to the Orleans campus of the Ottawa School of Art for bringing Pien to the school’s gallery at the Shenkman Arts Centre for the exhibition and a workshop.
His exhibition is called Compelled. There are some small paper-cuts and some almost billboard-sized, mainly showing silhouetted male figures cavorting in treetops. The scenes make one think of mysterious Victorian-era fairy tales. Magic is definitely in the air. But so is some unnamed dark tension. Pien’s goal with the paper-cuts is to create “an emotional state” for the viewer rather than a particular narrative. Once under the influence of the scene, viewers can then create their own narratives.
A different type of magic resides in Pien’s drawings — both large and small — in Compelled. The large drawings reveal complicated, chaotic scenes of semi-human, demonic figures inspired by Chinese folk tales and Japanese manga figures. Amid the chaos in the large drawings are complicated narratives involving humans, animals, and ghostly figures. These narratives can be difficult to detect. So view all details carefully to unravel the story. The smaller drawings are like portraits of these demonic figures.
Ed Pien’s exhibition Compelled continues at the Ottawa School of Art, Orleans campus, in the Shenkman Arts Centre, 245 Centrum Blvd., until June 1. For info: www.artottawa.ca.