When various medieval mountebanks and oddballs assembled “Cabinets of curiosities,” wooden boxes of things like mummy body parts, paintings of people with deformities, and narwhal tusks, they probably didn’t realize the enduring significance. Indeed, the mish-mashed collections of items from the natural and artificial worlds were essentially the first museums, and, moreover, forged a spirit of representational free-play that continues to permeate art today.
The emphasis, of course, then and now, is on representation, on the illumination of the world in otherwise darkened times. Michael Joyal is a local mixed media artist whose own shadowbox arrangements include ephemera like “shells, jars of liquids, Japanese lanterns, [his] cousin’s wisdom teeth, and a pair of pliers” amongst other contemporary curiosities.
“‘Cabinets of curiosities,’ that’s a great title. I might have to steal that for a show in the future”, Joyal said with a laugh, “Yeah, what I do is take artificial items like your pair of pliers, and mix them with seashells or tree branches, and throw them in a box , really to get a reflection on ‘what we live in.’”
Exactly which dark corners of existence Joyal is throwing light on, however, is up for our interpretation. “It’s all about story building,” he said, “The box is the page, and, yeah, I fill it with items that reflect something. But more important is letting people stand outside of it and build their own story or interpretation out of it.”
One undeniable thematic trope that permeates Joyal’s work is the negotiation of new landscapes, unsurprising since he was born in Northern Labrador, raised in Fort McMurray, formally educated at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and ended up in Winnipeg only four years ago.
“Coming into different places is always interesting, and everyone knows that Winnipeg has a huge cultural background, which is daunting. You know, nobody says ‘OK, here’s how you find out where all the artists are, and what they do.’” Joyal said, “So a lot of the work I’ve done recently is just finding out who I am here and what kind of work I want to do here.”
Trinity: Painting, Drawing, and Collage, showing this month at Cre8ery Gallery, represents nothing less than Michael Joyal’s formal introduction to the local arts community. And, as its title suggests, the exhibition has much more to offer than just weird stuff in boxes. Indeed, Trinity explores vast intersections of mediums and materials. One particularly predominant motif is comic book-inflected illustration, a key formative influence that Joyal has, at times, had to fight to retain.
“I took a lot of my comic book influences into [Nova Scotia College of Art and Design] and it didn’t go over all that well amongst the institution.” he said, “It’s not really accepted like it is now, as a new art form. In retrospect, it was a good thing, it taught me to fight for what I believe in.”
Joyal has spent virtually all of his time in Winnipeg pouring out what he “believes in” onto canvases, as well as into boxes. Over four years, he has managed to accrue an impressive array of work, almost two dozen of which will be on display at Cre8ery. What occupies Joyal now is the nervous awareness that inevitably presages the unveiling of such enterprises.
“I want to be known among my fellow artists as someone who is out there, who is a serious artist.” Joyal said with a palpable stir, “After spending four years in a 12 feet by 12 feet room just creating, it would be the greatest thing if someone who I don’t know came out, saw the work, and came away with a new outlook on something.”
It’s a hopeful sentiment that should resonate with anyone who has ever created in one form or another; with anyone who has known the vast anticipation felt upon emerging from that “12 by 12 room,” that maddening cell of creation, and into the light of the world, with something of themselves to share.
“Trinity: Painting, Drawing, and Collage” opens Sept. 10th and runs until Sept. 29 at Cre8ery Gallery, second floor, 125 Adelaide St.