Wendy Coburn Fable for Tomorrow

Feb 16–May 14,  2022
    Wendy Coburn, Fable for Tomorrow, (bisque-fired clay), 2008. Courtesy of the Estate of Wendy Coburn and Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto.
Wendy Coburn, Fable for Tomorrow, (bisque-fired clay), 2008. Courtesy of the Estate of Wendy Coburn and Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto.

In this first survey exhibition of work by the late Wendy Coburn (1963 – 2015), Fable for Tomorrow examines the breadth of her practice as an artist who demonstrated tremendous facility with sculpture, installation, photography, and video. The exhibition’s title draws from a sculpture of the same name, comprised of two porcelain “piano babies,” arms up, seemingly in alarm, with silhouettes of insects crawling over their tiny bodies. It is also the title of a chapter in conservationist Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book Silent Spring, which was published in 1962, the year before Coburn’s birth in Burlington, Ontario. Carson’s early warning signal begged readers to confront increasing levels of toxic chemicals in their ecosystems, and alerted them to the consequences. Coburn’s delicate sculpture similarly rings a warning bell about 21st-century ecosystems in peril, using her trademark combination of humour laced with unsettling undertones to broach complex and oftentimes uneasy subject matter. Fable for Tomorrow becomes a tale for the future, as it traverses four decades of an intense and focused practice.

Wendy Coburn, UHAUL Suite, 2012. Courtesy of the Estate of Wendy Coburn and Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto.

Coburn often incorporated images of animals in her sculpture, playing on their metaphoric potential. Still Life After Fabritius (2007) is a material realization of The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, from 1654. A delicate sculpture of a bird anchored by a fine chain to its perch, it is an uncanny rendering of the painting, and underscores the artist’s intense respect for the animals with which we have co-evolved. Coburn also worked with iconic imagery to cannily resituate common assumptions surrounding gender, sexuality, and the body. Spirit of Canada Eating Beaver (2000) and Leda and the Beaver (2000) are homages to the well-known Canadian filmmaker and sculptor Joyce Weiland, and indicate how Coburn could bring nationalism, queerness, and interspecies relationships together with her quick wit. The artist used her own body as the model for these works, and her novel approach to self-portraiture is woven throughout the exhibition.

Wendy Coburn, Anatomy of a Protest, (video still), 2014. Courtesy of VTape.

A devoted and much-loved professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD U), Coburn was aware of the machinations of the institution, as evidenced in the drag portrait Ideas Take Time (Dr Westford Coburn Professor of Art History) (2002), where she riffs off of a fundraising campaign. In contrast, Self-Portrait with Blonde Wig (2002 – 04) presents a seductive, femme side of Coburn. In the expansive UHAUL Suite (2012), U-Haul moving vehicles come and go against backdrops of spacious skies. These photographs perform a deft sleight of hand, acknowledging the pain of love, but also the humour in the performance of moving house. Much of the artwork in this exhibition exists within this difficult threshold between humour and sadness, while making cogent observations on the limits of societal norms.

Wendy Coburn, Ideas Take Time (Dr Westford Coburn Professor of Art History), 2002. Courtesy of the Estate of Wendy Coburn and Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto.

While many of the works featured in Fable for Tomorrow reference Coburn’s relationship to Toronto’s queer community, Anatomy of a Protest (2014), her final body of work, directly addresses gendered violence and victim shaming. It is a visual document of Toronto’s first SlutWalk, thereby situating local issues connected to these issues within the transnational movement to end rape culture. In this multimedia exploration, Coburn adeptly draws attention to the politics of resistance and the strategies utilized by agencies of the state and the media to squash grassroots protest.

Fable for Tomorrow displays the career of an artist who, with both wit and deep empathy, reveals the complexity of the human condition.

Curated by Andrea Fatona and Caroline Seck Langill. Video programming by b.h. Yael and Rebecca Garrett

Wendy Coburn (1964–2015) was a Toronto-based artist and art educator whose studio practice included photography, sculpture, installation and video. Her multi-disciplinary work engages concerns such as human relations to land and ecologies, power relations and the construction of differences, popular culture, mental health, gender, whiteness, nationhood, and the role of images in mediating cultural difference. Her work has been exhibited and screened in galleries and festivals internationally. At OCAD University, Coburn developed the groundbreaking course “Making Gender: LBGTQ Studio” which seeks to foster greater awareness and understanding of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer cultures and subcultures.