Culture  Punishment, by skeletons

St. Henri artist uses gallows humour to condemn environmental degradation

Arranging modern detritus with a medieval sensibility, Isa B. takes a fresh look at the age-old theme of the dead returning to punish the living. In her new exposition at Galerie SAS, entitled Corps à os (“Body to bone”), she explores the theme of punishment and the differences between constructed and natural worlds.

The flattened perspective of these pieces, all mixed media on wood, immediately calls to mind the art of the Middle Ages – and the iconography that the St-Henri-based artist references only reinforces this notion. Her skeletons – the most common form that human life takes in these works – grapple and joke with headless, nude human figures in a way that recalls both post-Plague art, for its focus on the macabre, and art preceding the Black Death, for its often slyly humourous take on sex and violence.

Though subtle, the artist’s playful side shows through in these bleak tableaux, like in her homage to Manet, “Déjeuner sur l’herbe” (“Breakfast on the Grass”), in which skeletons, one of whom is wearing a football helmet made of rags, picnic with a decapitated human. “Sans-Titre I” features a hysterical practical joke – the skeletons have put a horse’s head on a man’s body. The sexualized battling of the living and the dead in “Combat” is also rendered somewhat comical by the dolled-up undead, who sport blue eye-liner and lots of rouge.

A certain sense of trauma pierces through this humour, however. The outdoor scenes, though violent, display low-velocity attacks, a tranquil assault of the dead on the quick – the most disturbing aspect of “Combat,” for example, is the figure of a rabid horse, belly torn open, running at full speed, which recurs in several other pieces as well.

But it’s human constructions that witness true brutality, a past violence of which only traces remain – like the Khmer-Rouge–style pile of feet, skulls, and hands in the cell pictured in “Aux oubliettes” (“In the Dungeon”), or, the most disturbing piece of the exhibition, “Les membres et fouineurs V” (“Members and Snoops V”), where a skeleton, arm shattered, hangs against a blood-stained stone wall underneath loose chains and picture frames displaying an apple and a nail.

These depictions of the indoors often hint at something horrifying and vaguely sadomasochistic, like the torture chamber door in “Le dortoir” (“The Dormitory”), the menacing armoire in “La chambre” (“The bedroom”), or the omnipresent hooks, nails, straps, and chains. Sometimes, there’s even some leftovers: the severed horse’s head, for example, hanging from a meat hook in “Sans-Titre II,” and the floor plan of a house littered with limbs, leaves, and apples.

Apples – the symbol of hubris and the subsequent fall – are only rarely absent in depictions of humans in Corps à os, and indicate past or present punishment. Like the allegorical painting “Les sept péchés capitaux” (“The seven deadly sins”) – which features a masturbating skeleton – this Christian icon reinforces the medieval sensibility of the works. The fruit abounds in “Combat,” the large-proportioned chef-d’œuvre of the exposition, where the dead enact their vengeance on the living with a certain gallows humour.

The root of this conflict seems to lie in the distinction between the organically-designed natural sites and the deformed, perturbing human constructions; perhaps these corpses have returned to chastise their descendants for abandoning nature, for spoiling it.

The punishment is not without tenderness, as though these living dead were parents disciplining their children. The most moving piece of the series, “Convoi nocturne” (“Nocturnal Convoy”), shows a gang of skeletons transporting a headless human, from whose slack hand drops an apple. The night-time scene occurs along a winding path that undulates into the blackness, though some of its shining stones twinkle on. There is a gentle remorse in the touch of these gauze-wrapped bone-men, as they gingerly move their fleshy cargo. Their expressionless faces somehow transmit an unbearable regret, as though mourning that it had to come to this.

Corps à os is showing from March 12 until April 11 at Galerie SAS, 372 Ste-Catherine, space 416.