Amy Schissel: Art in a dig­i­tal time

Find­ing a sense of res­o­lu­tion in­side all the Tower of e-ba­bel Sys­tems Fever, new paint­ings by Amy Schissel

Ottawa Citizen - - ARTS & LIFE - PETER SIMP­SON psimp­son at ot­tawac­i­t­i­zen.com; face­book, Google +: Peter Simp­son; Twit­ter: big­beat­ot­tawa

What a cu­ri­ous thing is the Pa­trick Mikhail Gallery, si­mul­ta­ne­ously the most pres­ti­gious and non­de­script com­mer­cial gallery in Ot­tawa.

PMG is way up on Bank Street, across from the South Keys shop­ping cen­tre where art oth­er­wise never goes, in a strip mall that wouldn’t stand out even in a con­test of sad strip malls. Yet Mikhail’s small sta­ble of 20-or-so artists is pound for pound the most im­pres­sive in Ot­tawa, in­clud­ing Jonathan Hobin, An­drew Mor­row, Michelle Provost, Adrian Goll­ner, Cindy Stel­mack­owich and, show­ing this month, Amy Schissel.

Schissel’s sta­tus as a ris­ing artist of na­tional re­pute was stamped last fall, when she was a fi­nal­ist for the $25,000 RBC Cana­dian Paint­ing Com­pe­ti­tion. She didn’t win, but the na­tional nom­i­na­tion tes­ti­fied to why she was wanted by Mikhail, who, per­haps more than any other Ot­tawa gallery owner, looks out­side the city to sell the works of his artists. Schissel, mean­while, just hopes her new paint­ings are not “a jumble.”

Her show, ti­tled Sys­tems Fever, is a se­ries of seem­ingly fre­netic and vivid ab­strac­tions, as if some­one had carved a data port in a Jack­son Pol­lock paint­ing and pumped it full of ran­dom data. Schissel is look­ing out­side our ana­log world to find in­spi­ra­tion in the e-tower of Ba­bel that is the In­ter­net, the fledg­ling uni­verse of “in­vis­i­ble in­for­ma­tion flows that cut across cities, hover over con­ti­nents, and seem­ingly negate the need of ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion for hu­man in­ter­ac­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” She has only one ques­tion: how will this dig­i­tal world change paint­ing?

She’s not pos­ing that tire­some re­frain about paint­ing be­ing dead, which Chicken Lit­tles dis­guised as for­ward-thinkers raise ev­ery time a new tech­nol­ogy comes along. She’s merely ask­ing how paint­ing will change, and there’s no ques­tion paint­ing will change in the dig­i­tal world. I be­lieve the In­ter­net and mo­bile gad­gets are chang­ing how our minds work in a real and fun­da­men­tal way, and chang­ing the very pat­terns of how we com­mu­ni­cate and re­late. If that’s true, then paint­ing must change some­how, per­haps marginally, per­haps mag­nif­i­cently.

Schissel is try­ing to en­vi­sion this change and cap­ture it on can­vas and board, which she cov­ers in layer af­ter layer of me­dia and then switches about un­til it works. “This piece was up here, this piece was over here, so they’re al­ways mov­ing around,” she says dur­ing a visit to her stu­dio in an east-end apart­ment, point­ing out a half-dozen pan­els that have been as­sem­bled into one large im­age. “Fi­nally, they have their lo­ca­tion or their spot and ... that’s when they’re fin­ished.”

It sounds easy and glib, but it’s not. The spa­ces to be cov­ered are huge — the big­gest paint­ing in her apart­ment, Neu­roc­ity, at 13 feet by nine feet, barely fits into her apart­ment — and all the works are ob­ses­sively, metic­u­lously cov­ered in layer af­ter layer. There’s paint, ink, pa­per, all added, re­moved, added again, scraped off again, air-brushed, dripped. As we speak she roughly rubs residue (or some­thing) off a paint­ing, and I mar­vel at an artist who can be so con­fi­dently brusque with her works.

“I’m try­ing to stick to the ana­log and tac­tile way of paint­ing, but ad­dress those kind of is­sues in terms of how the images are set up,” she says. “When I’m work­ing, in a way I’m try­ing to re­lo­cate my­self within this sort of dig­i­tal in­ter­con­nected world, where you can be ev­ery­where but nowhere at once.”

At first the larger works defy com­pre­hen­sion, but as she talks about paint­ing in the dig­i­tal world — she did her Mas­ter’s the­sis on the topic at the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa — all comes into fo­cus.

The images are ev­ery­thing and noth­ing, an am­bigu­ous mass of shapes and in­for­ma­tion that de­fies tra­di­tion’s de­mand for a cen­tre of grav­ity. She points to dif­fer­ent spots on the vast can­vas and says that each spot, each hub, is its own cen­tre of grav­ity, and sud­denly it makes sense: the dig­i­tal world is not he­lio­cen­tric, re­volv­ing around one mas­sive body at the cen­tre, it is a sys­tem of in­fi­nite hubs with no one heart, no one brain, not even one pur­pose, much less mean­ing.

Yet as I stare at the epic Neu­roc­ity it be­comes clear that all does re­volve sub­tly, even vaguely, around a cen­tre of grav­ity that is, con­ve­niently enough, at the cen­tre. “I just can’t have it be com­pletely chaotic,” she says, “there does have to be some sense of a res­o­lu­tion. I don’t want it be a jumble, I want there to be a sense of vast­ness and land­scape, and some­thing hov­er­ing over top. I want there to be a flip­ping be­tween things that are rec­og­niz­able and things that are ab­stract.”

PAT MCGRATH, THE OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN

Amy Schissel’s Neu­roc­ity may look chaotic, but isn’t. ‘There does have to be some sense of a res­o­lu­tion,’ she says, ‘I don’t want it be a jum­ble.’

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