Vanessa Maltese, Capacity for Self Control, 2016, oil on panel, painted steel, plastic hair clip, 65 × 65 × 2".

Vanessa Maltese, Capacity for Self Control, 2016, oil on panel, painted steel, plastic hair clip, 65 × 65 × 2".

Vanessa Maltese

Cooper Cole

Vanessa Maltese, Capacity for Self Control, 2016, oil on panel, painted steel, plastic hair clip, 65 × 65 × 2".

A bright scarlet, life-size aluminum cast of an overturned Converse All Star lay on the floor, somewhat incongruously, below four large, circular oils on panel in Vanessa Maltese’s recent exhibition, “Birds flew down to peck at the painted grapes.” The show’s title referenced the story of Zeuxis, the legendary Greek painter whose lifelike rendering of grapes fooled birds into trying to eat the fruit, according to Pliny the Elder. Between the ancient grapes and the modern shoe, Maltese let us know that she’s playing the art-historical long game. Perhaps the appeal of this richly allusive work, which evokes Renaissance tondi and Cubist collage as well as traditional textile arts, is that it provides endless strands to pull, all of them bearing fruit. One association recurred throughout my viewing of the paintings, the steel frames of which resemble giant embroidery or quilting hoops: Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott,” and specifically the ballad’s Pre-Raphaelite representations by William Holman Hunt and John William Waterhouse. These are full of round mirrors, looms, and tapestries in shades of orange, red, green, and blue, as are the works that filled Maltese’s show. (One of Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott canvases hangs in the Art Gallery of Ontario, around the corner from OCAD University, where the artist earned her BFA.) In the poem, the lady weaves pictures of the world she glimpses indirectly, through a mirror reflecting a view from her window. When she is tempted to look out directly for the first time, her mirror breaks, and she meets her untimely death when she leaves her tower. The tale offers an illuminating parallel to the artist’s meditation on the relation between art and life, her consummate craft, and her weaving of a mazy web of references.

The fashioning of images and appearances—and the inability to escape or get beyond them—is explored in Capacity for Self Control, (all works 2016). A red hair clip is attached to the panel’s red, scallop-rimmed, painted-steel frame, as though the painting were the mirror of (a) vanity. Its composition gives the impression of a bedspread patterned with tangled threads (or possibly shed hairs) that is folded back, promising revelation of flesh or soul. Yet it opens only onto additional layers of mediation, including what looks like gray striped fabric seemingly pulled taut as though by an embroidery frame. Maltese’s exploration of the tension between surface and depth—of lived experience as much as of space—continued in the Zeuxian tondo The Painted Grapes. A meticulously rendered outline of fruit and a rumpled grid pattern on a brick-red ground suggests a still life but also appears sliced into four paper-thin, overlapping, and slightly skewed wedges. The flat, patterned tabletop furthermore appears “crack’d from side to side,” like the Lady of Shalott’s mirror, revealing slivers of sky blue and, beneath it, the wood of the panel itself, thus holding in dialogue the Renaissance idea of painting as a window onto the world and the modernist prioritization of flatness.

Such elegant and erudite visual games also enlivened the other panels, which similarly oscillated between horizontal and vertical planes, and captivated the viewer through a network of allusions. Amid them all sat the crumpled metal sneaker. A solid white circle on its side stood in place of the company’s insignia and reiterated the paintings’ silhouettes. When viewed alongside the shoe, the steel rings encircling the frame of Aware of Surroundings evoked eyelets for laces and the rim of a basketball hoop—emblem and architecture of a modern courtly art of weaving and paint. Bringing contemporary fashion into play, Maltese toyed with our fantasies of presence and their Converse. The shoe prompted us to seek out its mate, as though finding its mirror image would lead us to the artist herself. It could be stumbled across in the next room, but the lady had, of course, vanished.

Alison Syme