The touchy subject of self

•Selfish by Barbara McGill Balfour

•At Richmond Art Gallery, 7700 Minoru Gate until Feb. 25

•Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends

by Matthew Hoekstra

Staff Reporter

A new exhibit at Richmond Art Gallery might turn visitors away. Wait, come back. Really.

Yes there is standard issue caution tape helping form a barricade at the gallery’s front doors. But it’s only meant to trip up visitors. You know, get them thinking.

Just look at the tape a little closer: “Danger, I think I’m falling in love with you.”

Art isn’t always what it seems.

The display is part of Selfish, a new exhibition at Richmond Art Gallery. Toronto artist Barbara McGill Balfour explores the impact of printmaking as a social technology using herself as the subject.

McGill has brought together a series of “self portraits” meant to humourously reflect upon the enigma of identity. There’s representations of the artist in the guise of TV characters, in action figures created in her likeness, in Silly Putty body impressions and a fingerprint installation.

All are meant to question the way artists, and society in general, glom onto a fixed sense of self. McGill sees identity as always in flux.

“When I use the word selfish, I know what will come to people’s mind at first, which is someone who only thinks of themselves and doesn’t think of other people. So it has a negative connotation. But I’m playing with that word, and thinking about the self, and what constitutes the self in terms of identity,” says Balfour.

Balfour, who completed her master’s degree in fine arts at Concordia University in Montreal, is head of the print media area in York University’s department of visual arts. She considers herself a full-time teacher and a full-time artist.

In a few of her works she’s inserted her face and certain body parts into images of TV show characters: Emma Peel from The Avengers and Buffy Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

“It’s not that I identify with them, in fact I think I’m interested in these characters because their life is nothing like my own.”

Other works use of a non-traditional material, glow-in-the-dark Silly Putty, that covers a cast of her face.

“I’m interested in life masks because life masks and death masks look exactly the same,” she says. “They’re eerie. There’s this confusion between life and death. And then having them glow, it’s like the Silly Putty is animated in some strange way.”

Other pieces of the exhibit are articulated action figures. With the name Barbara, the Barbie doll has always been a spectre in Balfour’s life.

One is called “Tenure Track Barbara,” created when she was going up for tenure at her university. The figure has a professional appearance that is fixed on a revolving stand as to display her continuously.

At the same time in her life, her back went out, requiring physiotherapy. Although not life-threatening, the pain put a kink in her perfect plans. So the second action figure, “Happy in Traction,” is lying down, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt.

“It was showing that there’s the self, or the way people see you, but two things can be true at the same time, or there are different aspects of your life that people can’t see.”

Balfour has difficulty with the way art looks at self, as a single idea of the self-portrait, which is a fixed identity.

“Maybe we’re all more complex than that. So that’s why Selfish is a bit tongue and cheek,” she said.

n Also on at the gallery is Tangible Shadows: Intersections by Ian Johnston of Nelson, B.C.—a series of sculptural ceramic vessels. Johnston will discuss his work on Feb. 22 at 7:30 p.m. in the gallery.

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