Review: MAD ROOM


Art Exhibition Review

This Soft-Spoken Artist Shouts Through Her Art

There has been substantial controversy in recent decades over the popular view that mental illness and creativity go hand in hand. Research shows that the two are not linked in inevitable lock-step. Nevertheless, Gloria Swain (pictured left), who speaks openly about her struggle with mental illness, certainly also displays high levels of creativity.

Swain’s show, ‘MAD ROOM,’ is a featured exhibition during the inaugural year of the new Tangled Art + Disability Gallery (TAG) at 401 Richmond (Sept. 23 – Dec. 3). TAG describes itself as Canada’s first gallery dedicated to showcasing disability arts and advancing accessible curatorial practices.

Swain’s work forms a visually and intellectually engaging cornerstone exhibition that powerfully demonstrates what this gallery and its staff are capable of. I look forward to more quality work to be shown here in the future.

It is not a large gallery space, perhaps 500 square feet, but it is richly furnished with Swain’s creations, serving to transport the viewer into what the artist herself calls a visit to her bedroom, her ‘healing place’ and refuge from some of the abuses she has suffered as a mental health patient.

In keeping with TAG’s policy of accessibility for the disabled, several of Swain’s pieces are labeled as ‘touchable,’ including some acrylics with obviously heavy impasto treatment.

Gloria Swain demonstrates a broad range of acrylic painting techniques in this show. These include geometric, textural, spatter painting and figurative. The simpler geometric works show an orderly and balanced composition that seems to represent the artist’s triumph in bringing peace and harmony to her canvases.

The single approach that had the greatest effect on me, however, is the depiction of scattered triangular shapes, reminiscent of shards of glass, that shout disorder, fracturing and painful interactions. These ‘shatter’ pieces speak to me, of one artist’s experiences of life in a struggle with mental illness.

Some of the pieces in reds clearly cry out with anger. And the several very dark blue and black pieces I take to reference depression. The ‘spatter’ works might either be interpreted as another expression of anger or possibly of bewilderment when trying to cope with the confusion and hopelessness experienced by many of those with mental illness.

Beyond the acrylic works, a poignant installation piece features a hospital cot with a pillow and a scattering of mental health medication vials. Hospital garb hangs from a peg nearby.

Swain’s book of 50 3″x5″ ink silhouettes (on 8 ½” by 11″ sheets) features many images that speak of her unpleasant experiences of mental illness and treatments for her condition: pain, violence, depression, suicidal thoughts, heartbreak, isolation, drugs and sorrow. But within what Swain calls this “visual storytelling” series are also imaged elements of healing: contemplation, music and academic study.

This exhibition will engage some visitors on the level of personal trials and triumphs, or of the emotions of suffering, or (as the artist would have it) of the politics of mental illness and persons of colour. But even if none of these resonate strongly, the viewer will still experience a visual and aesthetic feast that is rich and satisfying.

Gloria Swain – Artist in Residence at Tangled Arts + Disability:


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