by Maura Broadhurst

It only takes a few moments with this series of paintings by Karen Curry to realize that boats are a fascination for the artist. Not just any boat, though, well-used, abandoned, wise boats, from the north, and not fresh, pristine, ready-to-use boats, just their ribs. Their skeletons whisper stories, olds stories, of lives of long ago, verbalized through the images laboriously crafted by the skilled hands of Karen Curry. Her interest in this subject is evident by the very fact that this is one of several series of boat works that have been haunting Curry for years.

The journey began on a trip to Greenland that Curry took in 1993. While there, she came across, "a solitary boat hull – inverted, ribs exposed, lashed down to wooden posts on a rocky hillside." The image of this overturned boat intrigued Curry because of its organic qualities and in its role as a record of life. In its overturned, abandoned state, the worn frame revealed the wear and tear received over a lifetime of use, but also the physical work of the vessel’s maker.

"Equilibrium" by definition means a condition of balance between opposing physical forces. Balance, of course, is key when operating a small water vessel like the kayaks in these paintings. Kayak is the Inuktitut term for a one-person canoe built with a wooden frame and covered with stretched sealskin. When manipulated masterfully, the elegant vessel can skim the surface of the water with surprising speed. This is different than the subject of the earlier paintings, which was an umiak, a Greenlandic Inuit boat, designed for many passengers. There is something about this solitary travel that seems to reflect Curry’s personal journey with the subject. But what are these opposing forces and how and where does the artist find or need balance?

This exhibition gives us a number of small studies and six large finished works. Each of the four groups of studies presents three alternate views of a similar position of the boat. For instance, Equilibrium A, B and C show one end of the kayak staying in the frame of the painting just before it leaves the space. The ideas and explorations established in these studies culminate in the large paintings Equilibrium I and II. The tones in these works are lighter and paler than those of the paintings of a decade earlier. The subtle blues and yellows lift the structure out of its earthly realm and emerge it into the water world or raise it, perhaps, into the sky.

Equilibrium III and IV depict the centre portion of the kayak. The boat is caught in the middle of the frame as if captured on its way through. This view shows the part of the vessel accessible to us as potential occupants. And yet the seat is empty, the boat old, without its cover, unusable. The background of these two works, similar to many of the others, is treated very differently than the boat. Whereas the ribs of the boat have been sanded and worked into, showing the erosion, the background is created through a series of layers. The paint is allowed to drip, but it is a controlled drip and the pigment to pool. Curry moves the panel tilting it vertically when needing drips or otherwise laying it flat. The image of the artist moving the painting gently in different positions recalls the ebb and flow of a body of water. To me the result of this lively and abstract background is the sense that the vessel is flying through space. It is as if it has been liberated from the earth and now is floating eternally through a more ethereal atmosphere.

The one painting that does stand out from the others is Equilibrium V. Unlike the others, this boat is a Currach, an Irish boat that has a similar wooden frame but instead would have been covered with canvas and tar. It is a larger construction and, more like the paintings of 1994, the hull is painted overturned. In this state it appears like a ribcage, sharing the shape of a whale and consequently appearing like a body, like a life form. This work clearly shows that the rich background, created through painterly brushwork with many colours, is of equal importance to the boat itself. There is an undeniable pull between the two parts, each one fighting for dominance, a tug-of-war where balance is only precariously maintained.

This most recent series of paintings arrives a decade after Curry’s initial boat paintings. The process and approach remains similar but these latest paintings are independent enough from the earlier ones to show that time has passed and there has been a development in the relationship between the subject and the artist. In the original series Curry worked on large mahogany surfaces, continually removing and adding to them while building up the image. This process, imitating life, captured the erosion that existed on the skeletal frame of the boat itself. Almost a decade later, Curry revisited the same subject, this time in printmaking, creating six drypoint prints. But not unlike the paintings, the process again echoed the subject. Working on copper plates, Curry scratched, incised and burnished the surface to create the finished image. The series of prints is entitled Resting Place, undoubtedly referencing the boat’s final state, but perhaps also suggesting the artist’s own resolution with the subject matter. But with this new series of paintings we now know that the prints marked perhaps only a "resting place", a momentary pause along Curry’s much longer and involved journey.

In all these pieces there is a strange simultaneous presence of stasis and movement. The vessels are at once captured in a particular moment in time and hard to trap, thus causing the conflict and need to stabilize, find balance. Their position in the paintings is in constant flux and parts of them are hidden and revealed by the lighting, the texture and the framing. At times they seem caught and at others liberated. It is a delicate balance of these struggling forces that Curry achieves through her composition and her varied techniques. As I look at the series all at once along the wall, there is no question of the gentle movement like that of a quiet flow of water, a subtle yet certain shift in reality. And yet most predominant is the skeletal structure, the life that did exist, the artifact that now is and the stories that it tells.

Maura Broadhurst has worked in a variety of Ontario public art galleries over the last ten years. She received her Master’s in Art History from Concordia University in Montreal (1997) and her Bachelor’s in Art History and Cultural Management at the University of Waterloo (1995). Maura is currently the Curator of the Latcham Gallery, the public art gallery in Stouffville, Ontario.

This article is written by Maura Broadhurst in conjuction with the exhibition of Equilibrium at the Propeller Centre for the Visual Arts in 2004.