The Pick: Canadian Artist, Shary Boyle’s delightfully twisted family tree

The Pick: Canadian Artist, Shary Boyle’s delightfully twisted family tree

The titular Canadian Artist, surrounded by her extended family (Image: Toni Hafkenscheid) 

Shary Boyle’s latest installation, hidden 68 floors above the suits and clattering heels of the Financial District in the BMO Project Room, is unremarkable at first glance. Forty-five three-dimensional plaster portraits hang on a wall, bound together by multicoloured ribbons. Together, they form a family tree for the typically macabre figure in the middle: the eponymous Canadian Artist, a stunned porcelain face painted with weepy swirls and crowned by a curtain of long, dark hair. It’s only upon closer examination that the piece truly comes alive: from the plaster busts emerges a whimsical yet disturbing tapestry that sets out the genealogy of this imaginary artist and an imagined history of Canada itself.

Each character is identified by a placard that drops tantalizing hints at its twisted backstory: “Schizophrenic, abducted by sailors, shipwrecked on Maui,” reads one; “Rapist, Hudson Bay Company man, Scotland,” teases another. Some veer into pure fantasy: according to Boyle’s macabre family tree, the Artist’s ancestors mated with mermaids and mystics along the way (longer and more twisted biographies for each of the characters are available on the installation’s companion website). The plaster busts are unfinished (you can still smell that workroom funk), but each piece is carved with immaculate care, conveying in every wrinkle and mole the idiosyncrasies of the character. Boyle, never one to shy away from her crafting roots, even bedazzles the pieces when necessary with a lace ruffle or pearl here and a cigarette or fur hood there. Delightfully, the family tree members actually feel like a family: Boyle carves out subtle but unmistakable resemblances between the parents and children, and their lineages have a thematic logic to them (it makes total sense that the daughter of a Romani goose girl and a British pirate would end up as a witch in Ireland). The true pleasure of Boyle’s piece is the narrative legwork that went into it—piecing it together (and filling in the blanks) is a giddily satisfying way to spend an afternoon on the 68th floor.

The details: To Nov. 30 (Friday afternoons by appointment only). Free. First Canadian Place, 100 King St. W., 416-867-5290, canadian-artist.ca