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'Shellwork' by Karen Azoulay and Amy Brener at ESP, Toronto

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Working on shells, or the work that shells do. Azoulay and Brener make shells, or forms that could otherwise be described as casts, masks, hollows or skins. They reduce bodies to their magical and mundane matter, resulting in works that are at once otherworldly and tightly tethered to the glossy and gritty materials of our time. There is a shared interest in personal myth building that seems optimistic yet aware of its own futility. Within both artists’ experimentation, sincere gestures blend with elements of humor, and failure is embraced. In the back gallery, Azoulay’s video Nocturne reveals a surreal dreamscape of masks floating through a spacey void. Using special fx and craft techniques, Azoulay transforms her own face with second skins of latex, encrusted with hair, paper, chips of lapis lazuli and chrysanthemums. Body iconography merges with the symbolic properties of earth elements, as she pantomimes emotional states. Another mask is revealed in the darkness. It’s metallic form, a linear matrix that traces the artist’s face, paradoxically references a cage and a protective helmet. The accompanying score is a field of meditation-bell like sounds of the cast sculpture being played with percussion mallets. Glowing across the room is Brener’s sculpture Drifter, a form that resembles an abstracted mummy or cocoon. It features a cast of her deceased father's face, a relic appropriated from his studio that recurs frequently in her work, seeming to possess talismanic qualities. This deeply personal item exists alongside casts from plastic packaging and a variety of familiar objects collected from dollar and hardware stores, all encased in silicone. Drifter, with its multisexual organs pointed skyward, is lit from below and appears to be pregnant with brewing energy, in a constant state of generation. If Drifter is a figure in flux, Brener's Flexi-Shield sculptures toward the front of the gallery are more like shells of memory, time capsules of former states of being. They are skin-like armors that also act as variety packs, containing useful bits and pieces such as flossers, pills, screws, blades and buttons. Decorated with pressed plants and flowers, a sense of reverence is given to these products, as though they are being preserved for a future generation to study. In all of Brener's work there is an interest in levelling the hierarchies between human and nonhuman objects, so as to acknowledge the common matter between them, and the purely material state that all bodies return to at death. Azoulay's masks reappear in textured wall works that imagine stages of decay, transformation and regeneration. Bronze Age Mask with Mulberry Foliage is a work on paper that suggests the turning of autumnal leaves and a hint of patination to come. Weather Vision, the original bronze sculpture wears a protective coating of verdigris and a tumbled ruby has been secured into the eye socket. Using these materials taken from the natural world, Azoulay seeks an emotional resonance with alchemical parallels to her own interior world.

26.10.18 — 24.11.18

ESP

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