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Scary Monsters, Super Freaks. Art on the Dark Side.

Hello Kelowna Staff | October 18, 2017
Scary Monsters, Super Freaks. Art on the Dark Side.
Scary Monsters, Super Freaks. Art on the Dark Side.
A recreation of del Toro's Bleak House studio.
All Hallows Eve may have worshipped the saints and other departed souls, or had more pagan roots, but one thing is clear: it’s the time to vibe on the otherworldly, the dark side. Who better to guide us than visual artists, those ambassadors of the taboo, the psyche and the macabre. This past week we've seen two exhibits that do exactly this, Rotary Centre of the Arts' Bringing the Darkness into the Light and the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Guillermo del Toro: At Home with the Monsters. We thought we’d share them with you here.

The Pale Man Pans Labyrinth The Pale Man and The Faun, Pan's Labyrinth.

The Freakshows

First a little background. Guillermo del Toro, the Hollywood film director best known for his films The Devil's Backbone, Hellboy and Hellboy II, Pan's Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, and Crimson Peak is the focus of this AGO show. The exhibit re-creates seven of the rooms of his creative studio, Bleak House (named after the Charles Dickens book which so moved him as a kid) – it's equal parts library, art gallery and laboratory. This is where he conjures up the fantastical gothic and horror-filled worlds he commits to film, and representations from these are on display as well (sketches, storyboards & figures).

The Freakshows: Guillermo del Toro Bleak House Left: Del Toro & his sister in early 70's | Right: early drawing from del Toro
The RCA show is a collection of local artists exploring similar themes in a full-building exhibition – there are 20 artists represented in the show. Both exhibits get under your skin and into your brain almost immediately and linger long after, mwa-ha-ha.

The Freakshows:Bringing the Darkness into the LightAngela Hanson (RCA)

Youth & Innocence - always look under the bed!

Fans of Stephen King (and It especially) will understand the pivotal role that our youth and innocence play in forming our sense of good and evil, and the thrills in pushing the limits of horror. Similarly, in del Toro’s films children are often taken on horrifying and fantastical journeys, and many a scary cautionary tale is told of exploiting (and not always sparing) their innocence. 

Bringing the Darkness into the Light at Rotary Centre for the Arts Allanah Weston (RCA)

A Pleasing Horror?

Often the creepy is just toying with the surface, the formal beauty uncovering the feels below. If Leonard Cohen saw a crack where the light gets in, these artists see a crack when the dark seeps out, their interior expression unbound by an overly ordered world, like the Romantics that del Toro was moved by (one of his chambers is devoted to them). Fuelled by their sense of awe and pure emotion he draws a line from Dickens to Poe to Lovecraft and then even further to the pulpy melodramatic world of comics (more on this later).

del Toro – A Pleasing Horror Left: James Jean | Right: Paul Julian (AGO)
Del Toro was fascinated by gothic Victoriana, and amused by their term for it: “a pleasing horror”. Part of his collection includes the work of Travis Louie, a Queens, New York artist whose visual style is influenced by this era, and by the lighting and atmosphere of German Expressionism and Film Noir. He too was a big admirer of Sci-Fi and horror films and you can see Louie's work cross over into many of del Toro's film characters.

Travis Louie – AGO At Home with the Monsters of Guillermo del Toro Travis Louie (AGO)
Another striking example of macabre shock invading the realm of the comforts of civilized society is seen in the textile work, "Don't Touch" by Alice Pallett (below/left). Originally meant to be pleasing, the sweater turned out to be "ill-fitting”, so she made it intentionally so with the pins and mesh collar. Uncomfortable and beautifully menacing.

Don't Touch by Alison Pallett Alice Pallett (RCA)
The line through the gothic romanticism that holds emotion (horror, terror and awe) over the norms of uptight industrial society, flows into del Toro’s admiration and fascination with the so-called “freaks” of the world, making it clear that how they are treated by society says more about our problems than theirs. Instead, he elevates their features as something to celebrate.

Freaks and Guillermo del ToroLeft: characters from the 1932 film Freaks | Right: Joseph Carey Merrick (AGO)
Hellboy, for example was born a demon outsider having to make it in the world while struggling his monstrous impulses.

Hellboy sketches and proptotype Left: Hellboy being handed over to del Toro | Right: Hellboy's glove prototype (AGO)

The After-Life

The ultimate exploration in the “other side” is of course death itself. To many artists at the RCA show, you can see the connection between the living world and representations of decay, death or absence – searingly so in Alison Beaumont's photo (below left) – as if to show how they are in the world with us or part of the regenerative cycle of life.

Alison Beaumont Bringing the Darkness into the Light Left: Alison Beaumont | Right: Beverley Rein (RCA)
Del Toro echoes this in his proclamation that death and decay is not a negative, but the essence of life itself. He sees in his own upbringing, that the Catholic seeking of immortality as a reward for obedience and submission is itself the real death. Below he brings his macabre sensibilities to the religious iconography he grew up with, the arch-angel – she's there, ever-present, watching you with all those eyes!

arch-angel, The Angel of Death from Hellboy II Left: Hellboy II Angel of Death | Right: large coffin (AGO)

The unexplicable come to life!

What better way to engage your creativity than exploring the dark side, that which is brushed away, shunned, whispered, immaterial and fantastical until some artist conjures it. Alchemy. Cue the monsters…

The Monsters of Guillermo del Toro: the Strain & Dracula Left: original helmet from 1992 film Bram Stoker's Dracula | Right: The Strain (AGO)
It was great to see freaks, outsiders, and the pure emotive power of monsters taking over the staid uptight environment one of the country's most prestigious art galleries – even more so to find del Toro’s love of ‘low-brow’ pulp on full display in the comics room. Freaks are respected here, from Bleak House to del Toro’s monsters to your favourite pulpy antihero.

Bleak House and del Toro's storyboards Left: Charles Dickens book "Bleak House" 1853 | Right: del Toro storyboard art for Devil's Backbone (AGO)
Low-brow pulp of del Toro's beloved comics fill the walls Collection of comic books fill the walls in the AGO's Bleak House exhibition
Stay curious and freaky people!

Joel Daavid and Kate Hawley from Crimson PeakLeft: Joel Daavid | Right: Kate Hawley from Crimson Peak (AGO)
Artists Moozhan Ahmadzadegan and Wanda LockLeft: Moozhan Ahmadzadegan | Right: Wanda Lock (RCA)

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