Most of us think of sculpture as something created in clay, bronze or marble. The idea that it can be made of ordinary stuff like banana peels or dried grapefruit seems far-fetched. Yet, that’s exactly the kind of media Lyndal Osborne uses with breathtaking ease. Osborne’s retrospective that spans 40 years of her career, Bowerbird, Life as Art, is inspired by stuff most people find useless, even ugly. But in the hands of this artist it’s transformed into a veritable Beethoven’s fifth symphony of texture.
Osborne’s nearly alchemical transformation of ordinary materials is visible right from the beginning of her career. One of the first works in the show, “Jellied Moonlight” (created in 1976, not long after she came to Edmonton to teach drawing and printmaking at the University of Alberta) depicts sugar Jujubes. Her inspiration appeared in an unlikely place: a basement. That’s where Osborne hid a bag of candy to be doled out to her son piece by piece. One night she happened to shine a flashlight on the gleaming stash. That moment turned into a series of airbrush drawings that turn jellied candy into sensuous objects.
Osborne’s uncanny ability to see splendour in the mundane is visible throughout the roughly chronologically arranged exhibition. But part-way through, a dramatic change comes to light: candy, seed pods, stalks and other objects that initially formed the inspiration for prints become the artwork itself.
This change occurred during Osborne’s show at the Edmonton Art Gallery in 1990. Roger Boulet, the curator at the time, visited her studio and noticed some intriguing objects that served as models for her prints. He asked if she would display these small sculptures—such as wrapped balls of weeping willow branches—alongside the prints. The response was enthusiastic and curators began to invite Osborne to exhibit her sculptural assemblages.
Only what started as intimate, hand-held objects soon grew to monumental proportions. For instance, “Tracing Tides: A Topographical Investigation” (2001) forms a landscape of tables that hold myriad sorted textures. This sensuous vista undulates like waves across the gallery. At a distance the texture is mysterious, unidentifiable. On close inspection it’s intimately familiar: bright bits of plastic washed up on a beach, mounds of colorful shotgun cartridges, gentle surfaces of intertwined bones and branches.
The sensory blast of this installation is so delightful that it’s like drinking a cool Margarita on a hot summer evening. But beneath the sensuous charm lie deeply personal experiences: “Tracing Tides” includes a tier of fiber balls inspired by intimate memories. “We lived pretty much along the beach,” Osborne recalls, of her childhood home in Coffs Harbour, East Australia. She often walked with her dad along the shore, where they encountered Aboriginal people. “My father knew them and all,” she says. They often stopped to watch these neighbours sitting, talking and creating traditional hand-held objects. “I thought of them as artists,” she says.
This was Osborne’s formative exposure to art; a memory she recreates in “Tracing Tides.” She wove her myriad of balls together with her sisters as they sat and talked on a beach in Newfoundland.
While the beauty of these installations seduces, Osborne’s artist statements invite the viewer to reflect on harsh environmental realities; for instance “ab ovo” depicts rows of glass jars that contain oversized seeds—or as Osborne says, “capsules of life.” Some were modelled on electron microscope images the artist had transformed into foam replicas. This artwork honours the Millennium Seed Bank in Wakefield Place outside of London where seeds from 48 countries are stored and occasionally used as start-up stock in places where indigenous seeds have been destroyed.
The sheer scale of Osborne’s installations invites the viewer to stroll and reenact what is perhaps her major theme: walking, observing and collecting. As I stroll among thousands of amassed items, it’s hard not to marvel at the countless hours the artist spent on picking up this magnificent detritus of nature. It’s a task that Osborne describes with infectious joy: she has been collecting since childhood. Walking with her mother and sisters, they would agree to pick up let’s say, only flat yellow rocks. Osborne never ceased collecting and makes it sound as easy as breathing. The large basement of her house is now packed floor-to-ceiling with boxes of leaves, petals, stalks and countless other objects.
As the title of her retrospective suggests, Osborne is the living incarnation of the bowerbird. This Australian bird stole colourful objects from around her childhood home to build elaborate nests.
“We would go into the forest and look at the bower and there was a little bit of my tea set or a doll’s eye,” she recalls. “What [the male birds] do is watch the reaction of the female, and if she doesn’t like it he will change it around and waits again.”
That’s not a task Osborne need undertake. Her work is well loved and admired throughout Canada. It delights the scholar, the artist and the five-year-old child in equal measure. That’s an extraordinary accomplishment. Osborne’s bower is complete and quite perfect as it stands.
Until Sun, Apr 27
Works by Lyndal Osborne
Art Gallery of Alberta