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ART NUNS: RECENT WORK BY NANCY EDELL (1991-93)

Curated by Mora Dianne O'Neill for the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (21 September-24 November 1991); travelled to the Sir Wilfred Grenfell College Art Gallery at Corner Brook, Newfoundland, 17 February-30 March 1992; Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick, 27 April-8 June 1992; Owens Art Gallery in Sackville, New Brunswick, 17 September-25 October 1992 and Acadia University Art Gallery in Nova Scotia, 23 November 1992-11 January 1993.

Vernacular hooked rugs can still be bought cheaply at flea markets in Nova Scotia. They often contain a cheerful mixture of crudely delineated flowers, boats and decorative patterns. When she moved to Nova Scotia in 1980, Nancy Edell added rug hooking to her repertoire of drawing, printmaking, and painting. Since then, she has become best known for her rugs.

Given the history of the craft, Edell's 1980s rugs are somewhat unconventional. The word "kinky" has been used to describe the actors that populate these works: some are partially-clad, hooded players who appear to be engaged in secret sexual rites, updated Greek "mysteries," and carnivalesque transgressions. Lately Edell has introduced new characters -- nuns -- into her iconographic world. This exhibition, called Art Nuns, produced by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, includes paintings, drawings, collages, and constructions made between 1988 and 1991, and two hooked rugs, one of which is incorporated into a multi-panelled painting.

Edell's painting and graphic works very often use a technical means that suits itself to rug-making, whether or not a particular drawing or painting ever gets made into a rug. (Edell partly attributes the "frozen" nature of her figures to a decade of childhood paper doll play.) The tight, slightly stilted look of the paintings and drawings anticipates the requirements of a process which, to use a computer analogy, "digitizes" an image into "pixels" of coloured fabric. The process, like some forms of printmaking, favours sharply defined contours and thoroughly worked-out compositions. A move away from this technique is detectable in some of the work in this exhibition, especially in the collages and landscape monoprints.

The imagery in the new works is as striking as ever. In one of the paintings, a nun cradles a fresh ceramic (or bread) baby which has been baked in a stone oven seen blazing behind her. In a triptych of mixed media drawings, a nun picks over an excavation with a shovel: she's found some bones. In a hooked rug, a Sister is shown working on her own hooked rug, a self-referential hooked-rug-within-a-hooked-rug. The rug hooking saint has Nancy Edell's glasses and profile.

Edell's art has a surrealistic edge. Her art nuns go about their business calmly while a cast of Bosch-like characters glows in the background: a votive figure is engulfed in flames; a lion stalks an Assyrian goddess in Halifax's Point Pleasant Park; collaged cut-outs of young men stand next to a pencil drawing of an old woman. Religious images from Buddhist and Catholic sources, among others, compete within the works for the attention of the resolutely busy nuns.

In a number of ways, the imagery of the original 1920s Surrealism amounted to an anti-clerical Freudian version of Catholicism itself, one that constructed its own religion from exotic sources. The use of nuns, halos, sexual imagery and totemic figures in Edell's work may bring to mind her French forbears, but the original Surrealism gloried in its own sexism: today it is one of many styles which are being reanimated and contested from the point of view of women. Feminist content in this work is not didactic, but can be read in the way Surrealist images are re-ordered from Edell's point of view.

Like several artists who live in East Coast Canada, including Gerald Ferguson, Yvon Gallant, Charlie Murphy and Janice Leonard, Edell sometimes uses a vernacular technique to make contemporary art. Halifax artist Gerald Ferguson, as pointed out in Mora Dianne O'Neill's Art Nuns catalogue essay, uses "theorem" painting and stencil decorative painting techniques in his work. Artists such as Cape Breton's Charlie Murphy and former Paradise, Nova Scotia resident Janice Leonard are bricoleurs whose work can look alternately like a piece of folk art or a Rauschenburg. For ideological reasons as much as business purposes, it is useful for local tourism if the "folk artist" is distinguished from the "contemporary artist", although many "folk artists" are young, well-educated and even art school trained.

The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia has yet to sort out how "folk art" should be judged as "contemporary art," and how work by an artist like Edell, who teaches at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, complicates the question. Unfortunately, the opportunity to rigorously address Edell's work in terms of these problems was missed.

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