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See Magazine  Jan. 12, 1994

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Human dimensions

The precious forms of Sidsel Naess

By Allison Kydd


   In a corner of the makeshift gallery on the main floor of City Centre, near the entrance to the "Just Niche" exhibition, the body of a woman ended abruptly at the neck in a ring of steel resembling a meat hook. The sculpture sat as a side of beef might lean in a butcher's shop, waiting to be hung. It was an arrest­ing image, flashing me back to other images of woman's bodies standing or hanging - naked, often faceless, deprived of personality.

Yet "woman objectified" didn't appear to be the major theme of the work. In this particular female form what seemed more important were the qualities which announced its place in the human con- dition and, therefore, made it approachable.

   It clearly represented a woman in her maturity. The evidence was in the rounded belly and drooping breasts. The legs too, showed signs of age, hinged with a thickening at the hip - rather than flowing in a smooth line from the waist (which seems to be the current fashion in bathing-suit models). The texture and colorations of the clay suggest­ed the staining and pock-marks one sees in classical statuary, also the marks of time. These effects were subtle - the body of a woman was still very recognizable - but the vari­ations from the ideal gave emotional content to a piece of sculpture which was far more than a political statement.

   It was my first exposure to the artist in Sidsel Naess. The woman I had already met and admired from afar - as many of us who live in more ordinary climes will stand in awe when we first hear the word "artist". When I saw Sidsel's piece in "Just Niche" - a piece which is also part of her Pillar Series - I was reminded of my own humanity and more. It identified something of the dignity of being a seasoned woman - flawed, no longer youthful, yet (to use Sidsel's words) "precious in some way".

   With some difficulty, I was able to contrive a meeting with Sidsel after I first saw her work, a meeting designed specifically to discuss her art. It wasn't easy to arrange, since Sidsel had (and has) a busy sched­ule. Not only is she a freelance artist and sculptor, but at that time she was a professor in the fine arts program at the University of Alber­ta. She still shares with her partner, David Bradley, ownership in The Paint Spot, an art supply store on Whyte Avenue. My intention was to write about Sidsel's work, to learn more about the sculpture I'd seen and about her as an artist, and our meeting gave me a wealth of material.

   I mentioned how I was fascinated by the "humanness" of the figure in the City Centre exhibition, and she spoke of her interest in human forms. She also enjoyed working with ab­stractions, she said, but always seemed to come back to the human. She enlarged upon that: "the female form is especially precious in some way." I congratulated her for pro­ducing a female form which honors the body of an older woman, and she admitted that was her intention, musing upon, "fragments, bruised, but with their own pride." She expects that her pieces will never be universally liked and that her female forms will always speak more to women, be­cause of women's shared history. 

   She showed me photographs from her "Pillar Series", of which the figure I'd seen is a part. The series as a whole belongs to the Central Col­lection of the University of Alberta. Sidsel also explained how the series incorporates both two and three-dimensional works. The two-dimensional studies and draw­ings were part of the inspiration for the sculptures, but they are also complete in themselves.

   Sidsel showed photographs of her "Walking Male" series as well. It became apparent that her appreciation of the human form is larger than her sympathy for her own gender. She also spoke of being influenced by religious traditions and images. In fact, the full title of her Pillar Series comes from the Book of Prov­erbs: "Wisdom has built her house; she has set up her seven pillars." However, she suggested that artists are now less preoccupied with such themes as the seven deadly sins. This, she said, is "comforting," since it means that the idea of guilt and judgment is "losing its powerful grip." Her political and spiritual stance ap­peared to be universal, holistic, and this is the attitude she brings into her work: "We have scars, so has nature."

   I asked Sidsel about her history and development as an artist. She told me she was born in Oslo, Norway, and that her first formal training in art was a drawing class taken through the University of Alberta's faculty of extension. After that, she took an art fundamentals course as part of a general arts degree. In the meantime, she was getting a portfolio together, and this opened the door to a degree in fine arts.

   My time with Sidsel, like her work, presented so many ideas that I was uncertain how to bring them all together. We parted with my prom­ise to present her with a more finished story idea. However, the City Centre exhibition was over in time, and the occasion seemed lost. I left my article unfinished, but hoped to return to it in the future.

   Because of this earlier interest, I was excited to learn, 18 months later, about Sidsel's current exhibi­tion at the Paint Spot's Fringe Gallery. I was especially pleased to discover that it consisted -of the drawings which are part of the Pillar Series, as well as several small three-dimensional pieces.

   This show's emphasis is primarily on the male form. Visiting it, I felt that I had been allowed into a very intimate space. It was almost like seeing the fragile humanity in my lover's body for the first time. Like the female form I first encountered, these drawings of males are not the ideal of manly beauty, not the perfectly-symmetrical golden mean. Rather, they cut close to the core of being human and reveal themselves in small irregularities, shoulders that don't quite match, scars, facial ex­pressions that are ambivalent, somehow at odds with themselves. I asked Sidsel about these irregularities and she suggested again that the flaws are what make us human.

   I suppose, for laypeople such as me, there is a temptation to focus on the emotional content of art, to say "I like and I feel; therefore..." One of the advantages of having access to the artist herself or himself is the opportunity to learn a little about the process as well.

   Sidsel Naess talks readily of her explorations in various media. Though her art seems to be part of her whole experience - her philos­ophies, her history - she doesn't affect a mystique. Rather, when she explains how she allows the "unex­pected" into her works by playing with (or having "accidental encoun­ters" with) her various media, it makes her work more accessible. In the exhibition at The Paint Spot, she uses a number of different effects, such as building collages and com­bining spray paints with oil sticks and charcoal. What she likes, she develops further; this she calls "in­tuitive exploration."

   There are certain elements she doesn't use. For instance, she has "no interest in the design aspect of art." She concentrates on the human frame itself: the bones, the naked person, doesn't spend time on the facade, such as hair. Neither has she particular interest at this time in working with colour.

 Therefore, what you encounter when you view her exhibit may seem stark against the white walls of the gallery. That is, until you look more closely and see your own humanity looking back at you.


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