Julie Oakes: Swounds
Curated by Christian Bernard Singer

One of the most difficult concepts to deal with is the correlation between a loving omnipotence and the reality of violence and death. This piece is a visualization of this sense of disconnect.”                      — Julie Oakes

April 10-June 26th, 2011

Click here to watch a video about this exhibition.

Click to watch Part 1 and Part 2 of curator Christian Bernard Singer’s interview with artist Julie Oakes.

Click here to watch the making of a Swounds bird.

Click here for the exhibition brochure.

Click here for The GLASS Quarterly Hot Sheet‘s coverage of the exhibition.

Click here for The Star‘s  coverage and interview with the artist

Julie Oakes has been using spiritual narratives derived from Eastern iconography in her recent series The Buddha Composed. Continuing with the spiritual, but turning her attention to biblical themes, Swounds is a series of seven installations, complemented by additional sculptures and works on paper, that address the fragility and individuality of each life.

Like a prologue that foretells of things to come, the Weeping Monkey lies in a pool of his own tears. Cradled in a pose that oscillates between vulnerable innocence and mischievousness, he cries gently and knowingly, acknowledging that suffering is part of life.

At the heart of the exhibition is Sparrow Swounds; a flock of nearly 120 glass sparrows suspended from the ceiling. Over the course of the exhibition, 23 birds will smash to the floor below while a pile of broken glass grows beneath the remaining flock. A recording of the hymn, God Sees the Little Sparrows Fall, sung by opera soprano, Neema Bickersteth, precedes the fall. “If God so sees the sparrows fall, you know he loves you too” is the pivotal prompt before the ‘death.’ Following the loss of three close friends to cancer, Oakes contemplated the seemingly unfairness of death and her anxiety of losing others close to her. The work acknowledges that we are all vulnerable to untimely death, the shattering affect that death has on the living, and that each person is unique and irreplaceable.


Another defining work to this exhibition is Ark, a painting of an immense ship. Animals are painted onto lines that follow the ship’s wooden architecture – stronger animals at the bottom supporting the lighter. From an oval portal around which a snake is coiled, an inclined lavender plane descends as a graceful arc to the floor on which are placed 28 pairs of hand-painted clay feet depicting many species. The number 28 alludes to the lunar cycle of menstruation and asserts a decidedly feminine slant on the traditional patriarchal story. A small female human black foot paired with a larger male white foot form the transition from ark to plane and the animals proceed on a ramp to arrive on the gallery floor.

Unlucky Bunny, located in the Bierstock Circular Gallery, evokes images taken from Dutch bounty-of-the-hunt still life paintings where rabbits were often depicted as hanging downwards — pathetic creatures with their feet trussed and lifeless eyes open, glistening wet as if they have wept for their own demise, like Shakespeare’s Ophelia. However, in this work, the hanging bunny appears as a spirit or ghostly image that hovers above a bunny with hauntingly human physical attributes that lies in a trickling pool of blood below.

The White Raven is inspired by a First Nations creation story from Puget Sound. Originally living in the “Land of the Spirits” the Raven grew bored and flew away carrying a stone in his beak, eventually dropping it in the ocean where it expanded and created the firmament on which humans now live. Meanwhile, the Sparrow Christi, splayed on a cross, seems to commune with his Maker as if in a state of acquiescent ecstasy.

The Curator’s Dinner, an installation of birds that fly above and through a triangular table-like portal to access the birdseed below, seems to wink at Judy Chicago’s most famous work, The Dinner Party. The remaining porcelain bird sculptures and installations capture the birds while courting, sleeping and dreaming, until finally in Bits of Beauty, birds again suffer untimely deaths as they smash into windows unaware of the glass barrier that prevents their passage through strange portals in our concrete jungle constructions. Oakes accesses the very moment of impact – awkward and tragic – yet in what she calls “the death of beautiful presence,” there is beautiful presence in death.

Julie Oakes is pre-eminently a storyteller who uses mythology as a vehicle for expressing contemporary issues. With a career spanning some 40 years, she is well known as a provocative, culturally critical, multi-dimensional artist who expresses herself through sculpture, painting, drawing, writing, video, and performance. Whether working with feminist, humanist, or spiritual themes, her work flirts with autobiographical elements.

Swounds make us face the tragedy of death, share in the ecstasy of beauty and the beauty of ecstasy in ways that acknowledges loss and beauty against the backdrop of a larger unknowable picture. At work here is an artist’s delicate yet deliberate hand that captures a full range of emotions without judgement.

Artist Biography: With a career spanning some 40 years, Julie Oakes is well-known as a provocative, culturally critical, multi-dimensional artist who expresses herself through sculpture, painting, drawing, writing, video, and performance. Whether working with feminist, humanist, or spiritual themes, her work flirts with autobiographical elements.

Julie Oakes has a Masters Degree in Visual Arts and Art Professions from New York University and a Masters Degree in Cultural Theory from The New School for Social Research in New York. She has been the curator for Headbones Gallery since it first opened in British Columbia in 1998 during which time she has published critical commentaries for over two hundred artists. With a dual career as an artist and writer, she has written for various periodicals including D’arte International and Vie des Arts. She has published three novellas and her novel HOOKS is soon to be published.

Most recently presenting The Buddha Composed at The Varley Gallery of Markham and Genesis at the Lonsdale Gallery, Oakes’ exhibition credits are extensive and her works are included in major public and private collections in Canada and the United States.


Click on the following links to read press coverage for SwoundsSpoke OnlineTheRecordThe Globe and Mail.