Gallery Girl meets Brittany Shepherd

If you follow Shrittany on Instagram you will be familiar with Brittany Shepherd’s unique perception of the mundane objects that our an integral part of our daily lives. Zooming in on found objects and imperfections, her work asks us to question our own understanding of items that are often overlooked. An artist and curator based in Toronto, Shepherd’s predominantly photographic work deals with observation, and the relationship between private and public space. In addition to her artwork, Gallery Girl spoke with Shepherd about her recent exhibition Facades at Bunker 2 and her curatorial project The Table.

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Facades, Brittany Shepherd at Bunker 2, May 10 to June 3 2018. Courtesy the artist.

‘I don’t think there was a moment where I decided to be an artist. It’s more of a natural affliction’, explains Shepherd, who began her artistic career as a child painting with her grandmother. At high school she apprenticed with a portrait painter, but after being introduced to gender and queer theory as well as racial inequality at Inglenook, an alternative arts high school in Toronto, she found that photography served as a faster means to an end. Unable to afford to study art at university, she began working at galleries and curating, living paycheque to paycheque in what she describes as ‘a bit of a wild life.’ However, this experience left Shepherd without the time to make her own work and subsequently took a loan out to study at OCADU (Ontario College of Art and Design). ‘Going to school allowed me to calm down, buckle down and get serious about what I wanted to do’, she explains, ‘I didn’t take my time there for granted and I worked really hard to take full advantage of the library, rental cages and facilities, knowing that my time there was precious.’

 

Shepherd’s work often causes the viewer to look closely at everyday objects that are seldom considered for their aesthetic value. Amongst her images one will notice lipstick stains on napkins (Still Life, Lipstick, napkin, glass and silicone, 2017) and discarded rubber gloves (Phantom Limb, Polyurethane, 2018). ‘I used to refer to myself as a “noticer”’, explains Shepherd, ‘Before I got my iPhone and could document everything I used to point it out to whoever I was with.’ And, like many young contemporary artists of today, technology and Instagram in particular, acts as an extension of Shepherd’s work. ‘I see my iPhone and my Instagram as a field sketchbook, almost like an ethnographer’, she says.

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Facades, Brittany Shepherd at Bunker 2, May 10 to June 3 2018. Courtesy the artist.

During her most recent exhibition Facades at Bunker 2 in Toronto, Shepherd displayed a number of photographs that touch on the fragile barriers that our present in our lives. The press release opens with: ‘I’ve heard there aren’t any scientific distinctions between pigeons and doves. In ancient texts these words were used interchangeably as synonyms. Once cherished as a sacred symbol and messenger, the pigeon has fallen from grace with the invention of the dove.’ In just one sentence she again asks her audience to reconsider how they interpret the definition and understanding of an object, or in this case an animal. She also questions our perception of beauty, where a dove is associated with cleanliness and purity, while a pigeon is always deemed dirty. Within the work we see mannequins dressed in lingerie, photographed behind a thin sheet of plastic that has been torn, rippled paper and doves pictured alongside acrylic nails. It is as though Shepherd is showing us that ‘beauty’ fades, it changes, goes out of fashion, decays, gets old and dusty and then ultimately forgotten.

 

The title, Facades, suggests that there is some kind of outer shell that is going to reveal something underneath. Yet Shepherd breaks these down, showing us that the walls are paper-thin and can be easily broken. Within the exhibition’s text she adds: ‘Images fall victim to outside forces like Cinderella’s gown at the stroke of midnight. In a world of fragile veneers midnight can strike at any moment.’ Thus, the photographs include nail styles that may be classed as ‘tacky’ now, but were once the main fashion, as well as hairstyles that seem dated. Even in the act of putting these images on display in an exhibition within frames, Shepherd puts a physical facade of glass in front of the work. But she also draws light on what has been overlooked, with her text explaining: ‘Sometimes a mask can reveal more than it hides.’

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Facades, Brittany Shepherd at Bunker 2, May 10 to June 3 2018. Courtesy the artist.

A facade causes a barrier, it seems that Shepherd is consciously trying to knock this down within her work. Not only does she do this through her own work, but also through her curatorial output: The Table. ‘My personal work often addresses the social through notions of public and private space, perception, class and the implication of the viewer’, she explains, ‘So I see The Table as a natural extension of my own practice.’ The Table is an exhibition platform that Shepherd started in her studio/apartment around a 5×7 foot table built by her father. After struggling on her own for so long, she wanted to find a space to share with her local artistic community. ‘There isn’t a limit to what can happen here as the artists invited to take over the space have free reign’, explains Shepherd, with The Table hosting private installations, readings, performances and collaborative events. The Table was inspired by a number of socially oriented moments in art history, which include Allan Kaprow’s Happenings of the 1950s and the 1970s artist-run Soho restaurant FOOD. Describing the exhibition space as an inherently political site, Shepherd explains: ‘It is important to me that it [The Table] exists outside of an institutional setting as a way to enact the politics behind it, rather than to represent them.’ Thus, while The Table is private due to spatial restrictions, it also functions to create intimate engagement and participation amongst the guests, helping to keep operational costs low.

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Facades, Brittany Shepherd at Bunker 2, May 10 to June 3 2018. Courtesy the artist.

The exhibition documentation resulting from The Table comes almost completely via social media. In the digital age there is a blurring of private and public life – something that Shepherd also explores in Facades. At The Table, guests are encouraged to send any photos and videos they take for inclusion on social media and the platform’s website. Unlike expected white cube installation views, there is no standardized method of documentation, allowing a more creative afterlife for each artist’s contribution to the project. Shepherd explains: ‘I was thinking about how important exhibition documentation has become and how a lot of people will skip out on going to physical gallery spaces because they can always see it online later.’ The Table is an unconventional, private space with a unique layout, meaning documentation has always been varied, and has so far included live streams, videos and scans of the ephemera surrounding the table. ‘It follows the history of conceptual art’, explains Shepherd, ‘In which the work became the scraps of ephemera from the evening.’

Brittany Shepherd is a self-confessed “noticer”, a characteristic that has shaped both her artwork and her ability to help other artists make and exhibit their work through The Table. ‘I’m always interested in what is going on around me’, she explains, ‘It’s very inspiring to work closely with other artists and get to see where everyone else is coming from.’ Through digital and physical means of documentation she blurs the lines between public and private while also questioning how we qualify aesthetic value.

Facades took place at Bunker 2, 346 Campbell Avenue, Toronto, Canada, 10th May – 3rd June 2018

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer and curator. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and has written for After Nyne, Arteviste, Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, ReOrient and Suitcase Magazine. Lizzy recently curated Perpetual Movement as part of Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival 2018 in London, which was featured in Vogue Arabia and The Art Newspaper.

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