Precious Sense

In advance of the physical opening of Sandra Brewster: Precious Sense (Feb 2 – Feb 19), the Hartnett Gallery is pleased to present the following exhibition preview.

Across video, drawing, installation, photography, and printmaking, Canadian artist Sandra Brewster has for years focused on the intimacies of black life and kinship in the African diaspora, keeping questions of time, place, and identity at the fore of her practice. Precious Sense is the latest installment of Brewster’s ongoing series, Blur, which she began in 2015. For its iteration at the Hartnett Gallery, the artist produced three new works that are shown alongside five earlier pieces. The exhibition’s video projection and eight portraits evoke the preciousness of mid-century home videos and old photographs, alluding to the migration of Brewster’s parents and their peers from Guyana to Canada in the late 1960s. For each portrait in the series, the artist asks her sitters to move while she photographs them with a slow shutter speed. She then uses a gel transfer process to move the image to sheets of paper. As a result of this process, the blurred gestures of her subjects are cut across by unpredictable cracks and creases on the new surface.

In varying degrees of recognizability, Precious Sense is a study of movement. The movement from one geographic location to another: what migrants leave behind, what they seek, what they encounter, what they think and feel. The movement of the sitter in front of the camera in Brewster’s Toronto studio, the intimate gestures shared between artist and subject. But also the movement of history. The ebb and flow of memory. The transmission of knowledge from one generation to another. The fluctuating layers of identity. The breathlessness of anticipation and contingency. In short, the preciousness, however impossible to capture fully, of becoming.

Featured Works

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Sandra Brewster, Blur 4 (2), 2016-2017. Photo-based gel transfer on paper, 34×25.5in (framed).

The titular effect of the Blur series is created through several methods. First, Brewster’s sitters perform movement as they jostle and shake their bodies in varying directions. Meanwhile, the artist photographs the fleeting nuances of these dynamic moments with a slow shutter speed. Brewster then uses a gel medium to transfer or stamp the photograph onto another sheet of paper. When the photograph is pulled away from the paper, new creases, divots, and smears will have formed. The result is not only a blurry image, but a blur between mediums, processes, and the artist and subject.

Sandra Brewster, Blur 10 (2), 2016-2017. Photo-based gel transfer on paper, 34×25.5in (framed).

The unpredictable and provocative results of gel transferring unfold brilliantly in Blur 10. The large and relatively blank area of paper on the left creates a sense of depth and space that is less obvious in the other exhibited works. The combination of this area and the figure’s active stance allows a partial narrative to unfold. As the unnamed subject turns away from the viewer, half of her face becomes obscured, her gaze untraceable. Where does she look? Who or what is she looking at? Like the other works in the Blur series, we’re meant to linger with this openness and opacity.

Sandra Brewster, Blur 24, (1/3), 2021. Photo-based transfer on archival paper, 39x34in (framed).

Sandra Brewster, Blur 20, (1/3), 2021. Photo-based transfer on archival paper, 39x34in (framed). 

Sandra Brewster, Blur 13 (2), 2016. Photo-based gel transfer on paper, 34×25.5in (framed). 

At times desired and at others unavoidable, the blur has been a regular feature of photography since the medium’s invention in the early nineteenth century. Film and printmaking can also produce similar effects. While blurs appear throughout the past two centuries of visual culture, it has a rich history in the work of black artists since the 1960s. Notable examples include David Hammons’s visceral Body Prints, Darrel Ellis’s distorted family photographs, Sondra Perry’s ecstatic videos Double Quadruple Etcetera Etcetera I & II, and Brewster’s Blur. In each, the black body is simultaneously visible and obscured, suggesting the presence and vitality of black life while also refusing its capture, consumption, and exploitation.

Sandra Brewster, Blur 9 (2), 2016. Photo-based gel transfer on archival paper, 34×25.5 in (framed).

In Blur 9 (2), Brewster’s experimentation with portraiture materializes explicitly. As the subject turns her entire body back and forth, the artist’s slow shutter captures the way movement causes blurs at the micro and macro levels. While the subject’s face effectively disappears, details and attributes, such as her hair and clothing, come to life in their vibrating presentation. In traditional portraiture, the face is highlighted as a signifier of the subject’s identity. Here, however, Brewster asks us to reconsider how we understand identity when that sign is withheld.

Sandra Brewster, Blur 16 (1), 2016-2017. Photo-based gel transfer on archival paper, 30x22in (framed).

Given the figure’s almost central position in Blur 16, a variety of genres come to mind: passport photos, fashion advertisements, social media profile pictures. In each of these, we expect the image to tell us something about the photographed subject. A passport reveals one’s nationality and where she has traveled; an advertisement suggests we can be like the featured person if we purchase her outfit; a profile picture represents who a person wants us to believe she is. Here, though, the subject shakes her head, denying the information we expect from these other examples. In other words, her movement disrupts her visage and undoes everything we expect it to contain.

Sandra Brewster, Blur 23, (1/3), 2021. Photo-based transfer on archival paper, 39x34in (framed). 

Sandra Brewster, Walk On By, 2018. Super 8 video transfer.

As the only moving image work in Precious Sense, “Walk On By” extends the kinetic gestures of the surrounding framed images. The definition and rectangular frame of the Super 8 format bring viewers back to the aesthetics of 1960s home movie making, yet the Toronto street scenes and the subjects on the move are unequivocally contemporary. The result is a seeming juxtaposition of historical moments, a melding of memory and the everyday. As Brewster explains in conversation with Canisia Lubrin, “The idea was to suggest that these folks, although you can tell they are from the now, that there’s something about them that has been here for a very, very long time….[t]his rootedness that we have here in this space.”

All images courtesy the artist and the Olga Korper Gallery.
Texts written by Matthew Omelsky and Peter Murphy.

Sandra Brewster is a Canadian visual artist based in Toronto, whose work has been exhibited nationally and abroad. Through her community-based practice, she engages with themes including identity, representation, and memory, centering a Black presence located in Canada. The daughter of Guyanese-born parents, she is especially attuned to the experiences of people of Caribbean heritage and their ongoing relationships with back home. Brewster’s meditations on being and place are expressed within her drawings, video, and photo-based mixed media works that range from 2-dimensional pieces to installations that incorporate the architecture of spaces.

Recent solo exhibitions include Blur at the Art Gallery of Ontario (2019/20), Token | Contemporary Ongoing at A Space Gallery in Toronto, Or Gallery in Vancouver and the Art Gallery of Guelph.  Brewster’s work is in numerous public and private collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. She was the 2018 recipient of the Artist Prize from Toronto Friends of the Visual Arts. She is represented by the Olga Korper Gallery in Toronto.

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