Arts and culture

Masterpiece Fair: Shannon Bool tackles what gets lost in cultural translation


Born in Comox, B.C. in Canada, Shannon Bool's work is housed internationally, from the Museum fur Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 

close up of artwork by Shannon Bool

In artist Shannon Bool's body of collages, photograms, and tapestries, historical anchoring gets reversed and decontextualized to create something altogether antiquarian, yet undeniably contemporary.

In Defaced Muse, a tapestry of a low-resolution mannequin head plucked from a 1920s French fashion magazine perfume advert is defaced with stitched graffiti copied from medieval effigies. “A rupturing of the idealized muse," as Bool explains.

Muddy Galaxy, made of silk batik and fabric paint framed over a mirror, creates an “ambivalent space" with a classic pattern of crosses originating from Africa that now appears in IKEA textiles. The piece is a meditation on where they come from, how they get consumed, westernized, and reflected back.

It's dizzying and at the same time, grounded in recognizable motifs, the spirit the RBC Curatorial department had in mind when it picked Bool as part of the RBC lounge at this year's Masterpiece London Art Fair.

Born in Comox, B.C., Bool's work is housed internationally, from the Museum fur Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, and the Lenbachhaus in Munich, to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. She's a part of a number of private collections, and her work is also a part of the RBC Collection.

Bool will be featured at the London Art Fair alongside fellow Canadian Mark Lewis. "Shannon Bool and Mark Lewis are both artists we're proud to have included in the RBC Art Collection," says Corrie Jackson, senior art curator at RBC. "Their shared interest in antiquities, and how we engage with these historical artifacts from a contemporary lense, is a thoughtful reminder of the role of the role of cultural histories in our current moment. They ask us what builds a history – and how do we as viewers engage with history in new and dynamic ways."

Ahead of the exhibit at the RBC Lounge at this year's Masterpiece London Art Fair, Bool shares some insights on the crossover between old and new, cultural transfer and bias, and being a Canadian abroad.

detail of artwork by shannon bool

Shannon Bool, Defaced Muse, 2018

Have you been to the Masterpiece London Art Fair before?

I'm actually really excited to see it. In contemporary art, you're mostly limited to [seeing] contemporary art. There are some art fairs like The Armoury Show or Frieze Masters where there are some older masterpiece work in a section of a fair, but I've always been obsessed with going to one of these fairs to see the treasures in them. I've never had time to.

Your work often references antiquarian motifs or concepts, so it seems like it could be a great introduction for art lovers who spend more time with traditional pieces.

There's a line drawing through everything. It's interesting when you can make this line clearer. I also find the differences in the public who are interested in more traditional epochs of art quite interesting. I was connected with carpet experts when I was living in Florence — Islamic art experts. That was really fascinating, to spend time with them — pockets of art expertise — people who are really passionate about different arts from different time periods or places. But there are crossovers.

How does spending time with them influence your work?

It's not so much in influence, it's more… like the series of carpets I made that were based on Northern Renaissance paintings, through those conversations I was able to gain different knowledge and more specific information. That didn't in the end effect the work but it makes my relationship to the work a bit richer. The carpets I was making were based on the carpet by Hans Memling, or very important painters from the 15th century that the contemporary art world doesn't really know about. But when I'm standing in front of my works and someone says, "Oh, that's from Memling's triptych in the London museum," then it's really nice. It's like meeting fellow nerds.

Textiles seem to be a medium you cycle back to. One of your works in the RBC Masterpiece Lounge, MEC V, 2015, comes from a body of carpets you produced between 2007 and 2015 working with weavers in Anatolia.

Those carpets are really about cultural nemesis and cultural transfer of information. The information in my carpets comes from a genre of painting in the 15th and 16th Century featuring a Madonna at an altar, maybe with a Christ child. Some of these paintings have oriental carpets on the Madonna's throne. That was the period where carpets were first collected in Europe, so they were really expensive and revered objects. They also show the beginning of mercantile capitalism, or this type of trade, between especially Flanders or Italy and Turkey and Egypt and places like that.

And you've taken a carpet as it appears in one of those paintings — folds and all — and given it to traditional weavers in Anatolia to recreate. A carpet within a carpet, so to speak?

The weavers in Anatolia get a template of the carpet in their language, but it's completely misconstrued; there's no symmetry because I have the perspective of the original of the painting, not the original carpet. It's this transfer of information back and forth and also the alteration that took place with the Western eye which was to skew things and change details to make them Christian or make them fit into a painting. They have to pay attention to every knot and they make some mistakes, it's not an easy weaving process for them.

Like the kids' game of telephone?

Exactly — that's a good way of putting it. The background pattern of checkers around the detail of the carpet fragments shows the negative space that you have in the digital realm like in Photoshop if you erase things … this digital language of absence. It's like this fetishization element of the space of painting in this time; how that can be transferred today, and how a specific knowledge or idea can get transferred using a material process.

And the finished product is a mix of knowledge?

It's also this relationship with the western view. The critical element of it is looking at the western canon of art history and how we absorb material knowledge. We did it very haphazardly and very randomly in a way.

What effect does being a Canadian who's spent most of their artistic career in Berlin have on your approach?

I've been away from Canada for so long, but you never really become ... well, I'm not German.

I guess being Canadian makes me look at things in more of a fragmented way because I grew up outside of the European canon. It's a hard question. You become a free floater, in a way.

It would also fit into the realm of Euro-centric. I mean a lot of my criticality of looking at surrealism, or the canon of art history, comes from growing up away from that. Most of my studies took place in Germany, and I had more exposure to German art than Canadian art when I was developing. But I'm not German. It's a very fragmented existence.