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Forgetting and remembering

By Amy Kenny

The work that comprises The Forgetting is based on something Suzanne Paleczny couldn’t forget about. When the Whitehorse-based artist was attending Emily Carr University in 2019, her parents’ memories were deteriorating. Her father had had dementia for years at the time, but then her mother started having trouble too.

Suddenly all the ideas Paleczny had wanted to focus on at school faded to the background as her parents became her focal point. She was on the phone with them daily, making sure they’d eaten, taken their medications, ordered groceries. 

“I spent so much time on the phone with them every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and I just couldn’t think of anything else,” she says over the phone. “And so I ended up starting to create work about it because there was no point trying to focus on anything else.”

Paleczny researched the mechanisms of memory, how memories form and why they fail. The resulting body of work makes up the bulk of pieces in The Forgetting, on display at the Yukon Arts Centre until August 25. 

The paintings are large, person-sized in scale. That makes sense, considering people serve as much of the subject matter. At first glance, you might miss that. The people in Paleczny’s paintings are fragmented, and rendered in bright, vivid colour that blend them into the backgrounds they stand in front of. 

The lines of her work are intentionally disorienting as Paleczny explores the role memory plays in identifying the self and what it might mean when those memories are gone. Who are we, her exhibition statement asks, if we can’t remember our own stories?  

“I feel like my practice is asking questions and I don’t necessarily come up with answers,” she says.

What she did come to was an understanding that when you no longer have the narrative in your mind, that traces your path from the past forward, you have to look to other things, like genealogy, DNA and your own body.

“Memory can be physical,” she says over the phone from Ontario, where she’s visiting her daughter and newborn granddaughter. “It can be the worn-out parts on your body that are based on what your labour was that you did all your life. So the history kind of inscribes itself on the body. It’s in your DNA. And so those (things), in a way, I felt became more important to me than … those other things we can’t hold on to.” 

Sharing the main gallery with The Forgetting is Neil Graham’s show, The Nahanni. In terms of subject matter, the shows aren’t necessarily unified, but his work is bright and geometric in a way that complements Paleczny’s. And, in a way, it’s about memory too. 

In late August of 2018, Graham paddled the Nahanni River. Every day, he sketched studies for what would become paintings. Initially he was interested in the landscapes. Graham wanted to record the rock faces and features that frame the river, but something unexpected caught his attention and impacted the paintings that came out of the adventure.

“What changed for me was I was with eight other clients and three guides and I was really affected by the human element,” he says. “You know, how we got along and the things that we did and how we went down the canyon and everything, so I included rafts and kayaks and canoes and people in what I was doing.”

In among the massive rock faces (some of which have actual faces, if you look at them a certain way) and roiling river water of Graham’s paintings, you’ll find small splashes of colour. The red of a raft, or the mustard yellow of a windbreaker. The people became as important to him as the landscape he wanted to highlight.

This positioning ties into one of the things that fascinates Graham about natural spaces and what he calls “rock gods” (“I really came to the conclusion that rocks are alive,” he says. “They just have such a huge lifespan compared to us that we’re like bacteria on their face, you know?”).

Humans, he says are infinitesimal creatures in a vast space. And nothing gives you more sense of that than seeing them in such spaces. 

“You’re just the guest, you know, on that river,” he says. “And, in fact, we’re just guests on this world. I think that we forget that sometimes.”

Both shows run in the main gallery at YAC until August 25. It is open Monday to Friday, 10am-5pm.