Meryl McMaster is having quite the year. She was just long-listed for the Sobey Art Award, has work in Ellyn Walker’s carefully curated Canadian Belonging(s) at the Art Gallery of Mississauga and in Jessica Bradley’s expansive Counterpoints: Photography Through the Lens of Toronto Collections at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, and last week an early-career survey entitled Confluence opened at the Carleton University Art Gallery.
Alongside Gabrielle Moser, I had the pleasure of contributing an essay to the catalogue that will accompany Confluence as it tours across Canada (to the Richmond Art Gallery, Thunder Bay Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in 2017, and to the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery and The Rooms in 2018).
McMaster’s photographs are anchored in her extensive use of props and costuming, which work to conjure a sense of the otherworldly, transporting viewers out of ordinary life and enlarging our understandings of inherited historical narratives. Her interest in taking on different personas and her theatrical embodiment of divergent aspects of herself are all part of extending the boundaries of identity beyond what is known and understood. Although McMaster does not consider herself a performance artist, the temperament of the central subjects she embodies shift in response to the outfits they are cloaked in and the objects they are in dialogue with, activated through a series of performances staged for the immediate audience of her camera lens. When I look at McMaster’s work I recognize a powerful articulation of identity along a spectrum of instantiation: from inherited to burgeoning to speculative. McMaster’s exploration of the acts and outcomes of identity formation arises out of the shifting reconciliation of these forces, new stories piled atop old ones. If her work is a mirror because of what we assume it tells us about her, then it is also a window onto our capacity to relate to any project that takes interrogation of the self as its motivation.
The catalogues arrived this week and the nerd in me is so happy with tactile beauty of the object. Further, I heartily endorse Moser’s essay, which reflects on continual development of meaning that photographs provoke, reading McMaster’s work through the lens of Kaja Silverman (among others), as well as an interview between McMaster and the exhibition’s curator Heather Anderson, which examines McMaster’s working methods. The increasing clamour around McMaster’s practice demonstrates how her explorations of identity, representation, storytelling and the environment resonate across different audiences and contexts. I can’t wait to see how else her practice will develop from this significant juncture.