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Yechel Gagnon: The River in the Tree
Heather Hughes


The River in the Tree exhibition title was appropriated from a poem by Emily Dickinson  (1830-1886) to her friend, Elizabeth Holland.

“Friday I tasted life. It was a vast morsel. A circus passed the house - still I feel the red in my mind though the drums are out. The lawn is full of south and the odors tangle, and I hear today for the first time the river in the tree.”

Take a moment to picture it: “the river in the tree.” For artist Yechel Gagnon, it was these words by Dickinson describing the changing of seasons, from winter to spring that resonated with her for this new body of work. Dickinson’s abstracted language, so vivid, colourful and powerful, allows for multiple interpretations; the river can suggest the sap of the tree, a current, an energy or even the pulse that beats inside of the tree. Wood is a material that is tremendously sensual, warm, strong and often remains alive while it is being worked.  

Gagnon’s medium of choice has always been wood; particularly plywood. In her artistic practice, she explores, experiments and plays with the potential of a material that oscillates between the natural and artificial. Like an excavation, she carves, gouges and even burns the plywood, exposing the natural strata of the wood grain to reveal a new world, reclaimed through destruction. Gagnon believes that one needs to destroy in order to create yet creation and destruction are integral and cyclical to both nature and the creative process.

Gagnon’s sculpted bas-reliefs are composed of various laminates: tinted and exotic wood veneers, each providing depth as she exposes the various layers. Gagnon’s process is forceful – even violent, yet the resulting abstract and complex works are seductive, refined and even transcendental. Her works often alternate between micro and macro perspectives of nature while evoking aerial or topographical map-like views of the land.

Similar to the poem from Dickinson to her friend, The River in the Tree opens an artistic dialogue between Gagnon and Thomson’s work about nature and changes to the landscape. While Thomson captured natural and man-made transformations to the natural world in his paintings, Gagnon interprets an abstracted landscape by immersing herself into her materials, carving and sculpting the wood, allowing the material to speak. The exhibition shifts between Thomson’s vision of the Canadian wilderness and Gagnon’s contemporary process of art making. By grouping these works of varied materials and approaches, the viewer is brought into the dialogue on the symbiosis between the natural and the man-made; how they coexist and relate in nature.

The exhibition consists of several wood bas-reliefs of varying dimensions, an embossed paper work and a selection of Tom Thomson’s oil on panel sketches from the Gallery’s permanent collection. Gagnon’s largest work in the exhibition, a four by eight foot carved plywood bas-relief, makes a direct reference to the industrialization of wood, while simultaneously depicting a serene landscape scene. The burnt triptych exposes the large charred surfaces of the wood in contrast to the coloured undertones; controlled chaos for Gagnon as the scorched surfaces are the focus. Alongside the Thomson sketches, Gagnon’s purposefully “destructed” works can be interpreted on so many levels; echoing the burnt forests, the impact and negligence of humans to the environment, climate change or perhaps deforestation. The triptych places viewers around a smouldering campfire full of beauty, suggestion, and mystery, a fitting response to Owen Sound’s hometown woodsman, guide and beloved artist, Tom Thomson.

Gagnon’s delicate embossed paper work, The River in the Tree III (Beginning), is an ethereal echo of Thomson’s winter landscape Woods in Winter. While both works are gentle and quiet, Gagnon further references the living wood in Thomson’s work with the embossed lines and the very material of paper. The importance of Mother Nature, in all of her beauty and mystery continues to be a source of inspiration for artists of the past, present and future. Ultimately, this exhibition invites contemplation about beauty even in the face of destruction, whether natural or man-made.




©2001 Yechel Gagnon