May 1, 2024

Carol Wainio: Recent Paintings and Drawings at the Arsenal in New York

by Ann McCoy
in Brooklyn Rail

In Carol Wainio’s pictorial realm the fabled creatures of Jean de La Fontaine and Aesop, haberdashery-clad rabbits, and children plucked from Victorian illustrated postcards dwell in forests that are part Gustave Doré, part Jean-Antoine Watteau, and are expressionistically rendered. This is an imaginal, liminal, and magical realm that feels deeply psychological and feminine. Here, children like Charles Perrault’s Le Petit Poucet and Hansel and Gretel, who have been abandoned by parents too poor to feed them, brave dark forbidding woods. Wainio is on the side of children. She risked four ectopic pregnancies and several miscarriages in an age when feminism often devalued motherhood; Mary Kelly’s post-partum accountancy of soiled nappies and drudgery represented the period’s prevailing zeitgeist. We rarely encounter motherhood as a transformational realm in art today, and Wainio with great tenderness and skill has done so. In Plato’s Hytera, Luce Irigaray reclaimed Plato’s Cave as womb, and a place of maternal origin. Carol Wainio, in her work and thought, reclaims the mysteries of motherhood and a concern for children’s vulnerability.

When many were focused on Walter Benjamin’s writing dealing with mechanical reproduction, Wainio visited Benjamin’s collection of children’s books housed at the Goethe University of Frankfurt. In his essay “The Storyteller,” Benjamin describes a slower time when tales were passed on, read aloud in conditions that allowed sensory matter to slip, unregistered, into our memory. With her array of century-old sources, including Benjamin’s favorite illustrator Johann Peter Lyser, Wainio slides back down the timeline. There is an intimacy to her painted narratives, which makes the viewer recall a childhood sitting on a lap being read to aloud.

In The Fall (2015), a painting from her “Le Petit Poucet” series, we see a group of children pulled from a hand-tinted postcard. The source passes through the artist’s unconscious and reemerges on the canvas as part of an inner tableau; her references feel transformed and internalized rather than appropriated. The picture plane takes on a further dimensionality, with an overlay of stick-like black line trees culled from a child’s drawing; we must pass through to enter the painting. The pictorial narrative continues. On the right side of the work is a clearing, a light at the end of this visual and psychological tunnel. Tiny patches of light fall onto the forest floor, like the alchemical scintilla, those sparks of light manifesting in the darkness. This narrative has a redemption motif, the children are given a way out of this dark wood. The Fall is a standout, one of her best.

Aesop’s “Tortoise and the Hare” comes back to life in a variety of sources ranging from illustrations and postcards to seventeenth-century Dutch hunting scenes to overlays of children’s drawings. The hare appears in various incarnations in works like At Hare (2019), Ground Time (2022) and Hurry Up and Slow Down (2021). In At Hare, we see a giant rabbit costumed as a dandy pulled from the nineteenth-century illustrator, J.J. Grandville. Grandville’s Scènes de la vie privée et publique des animaux (1867) presented animals as a full range of social class caricatures, like the anthropomorphized aristocratic hare shown here. The hare stares down at a fellow aristocrat, a top-hatted gentleman riding a tortoise (an image taken from a photograph of Walter Rothschild riding a Galapagos tortoise from his private zoo). Wainio’s pictorial narrative is a far more charming version of the anthropomorphized-animals-as-class-actors encountered in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945). Again, there is an overlay of a large line drawing of a tortoise by a child which covers the picture plane, adding to its enchantment.

The mark of a good artist can always be seen in their drawings, even in artists as diverse as Wainio’s fellow bunny enthusiasts Joan Jonas and Joseph Beuys. A drawing, The Artist (2024), is remarkable in its skill, range, freshness, social commentary, and psychological dimensionality. The central figure is pulled from an illustration of Puss and Boots by Benjamin’s favorite Johann Peter Lyser’s Der gestiefelte Kater (1834). The turd with eyes was inspired by Philip Guston, with overlays of Trump’s cap and gold sneakers done in the style of children’s drawings. Wainio’s drawing skill are superior and are echoed in all of her paintings. This is a stellar exhibition by a Canadian artist that New Yorkers are just now privileged to encounter, in this, her first exhibition in New York.

Image Credit:
Carol Wainio, The Fall, 2015
Acrylic on canvas, 78 x 120 inches
Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay