Sara Anstis’s odd subject matter is fluid and eye-catching, as opposed to the exhibition title Discrete and its homonym. Yet, the contrast is an apt beginning, as this is a presentation that merges the otherworldly with the highly real condition of living in a body.
For her degree exhibition at Gothenburg’s Valand Academy in 2016, Anstis exhibited an installation of plants and naturalistically rendered charcoal drawings in which bodies fused into new. Since then she has begun to draw with pastel, still nude bodies, but the use of colour seems to allow for more idiosyncratic figures and a more apparent eroticism.
The focal point in this exhibition is a wall painted in soft colours: purple, pink, and yellow. Small shapes on the wall look like fireworks, others simply look like strokes of soft pastel. This is backdrop for the framed drawing Venus at Her Mirror with Butterflies (2019). The unfazed goddess of love is kneeling, picking a flower with her elongated breasts; a small mirror reveals her buttocks clenching a butterfly net with its catch.
Similar female figures populate three of the other pastel drawings. Mother (2020) depicts another kneeling woman whose ankles are bound breastfeeding some sort of ferret; her legs are covered in scratches. As in several of the compositions, three trunks and branches function as partitions, allowing for the simultaneous depiction of day and night. This slippery simultaneity also describes the exhibition’s mood. Violence – one woman wears a crown of thorns, another has plucked butterfly wings at her feet – exists alongside harmony and freedom. The surfaces are fuzzy or prickly, textures which multiply across skin, textiles, and vegetation. This permeability and fluidity is of the body, between species, in time.
The seepage of bodily fluids makes me think of ecotheorist Timothy Morton’s concept of “weak holism,” in which “to be a thing is to be a perforated bag full of water, in which are swimming countless little perforated bags full of water, in which are floating…” In other words, the leakage is endless, there is always something else in what at first appears specific.
Four small stoneware objects are placed in nooks in the room. At first, they seem to be part of Anstis’s mysterious taxonomy, but upon further reflection indicate an anchoring in the real. Amid pastel dust under the painted wall, Eater (2020) looks like a plausibly like a carnivorous flower. I recognise the phallic shape of Geoduck (2020) from one of the drawings. The little lump precariously positioned on a radiator turns out to be a type of mussel native to the west coast of Canada, where the artist grew up.
In the book Survival Handbook, which Anstis edited in 2018, she describes some kind of survival workshop where the participants are about to butcher a sheep. As the group starts to skin the carcass, she realises there is too much potential in the image: “I feel it reaching out to me with jerky motions.” She retreats with her sketch pad. The scene suggests an intuitive image perception, which is what makes this small presentation achieve so much. In what I assume must be a self-portrait, Floating Head (2019), a head hovers against a green backdrop. Anstis’s blonde hair is swept back and tapers off, as if she were a genie from a bottle. After a while I sense the face watching me as I look at the exhibition, and the presentation’s themes of gaze and agency emerge in a new register. The rudimentary curve of the mouth is upside down, disapproving. When I turn away, I notice hands drawn amidst the strokes of pastel on the wall. I feel a sheepish look on my face, as though the artist were actually in the room.