Walking into Erin Shirreff’s “Available Light” show at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, one is immediately confronted with a massive projection of the moon hanging stalwartly over the rest of the collection. The piece is titled, appropriately enough, Moon (2010). It is a thirty-two minute looped video of the moon in various degrees of illumination. Yet Shirreff changes our perception of the object: instead of waxing and waning, the moon’s light in this piece moves between shades of blue and grey. Here, one of Shirreff’s main themes emerges: the lightedness of an object changes its nature. It’s the moon, but it’s not.
Other pieces riff off of this dissonance. Ansel Adams, RCA Building, circa 1940 (2009) is again a projection of a photograph that loops through various levels of darkness and lightness. By referencing another artist, though, and using two media at once, Shirreff questions the permanence or even the legitimacy of ownership. Photographs, videos, and art are always changeable.
Though such playfulness may seem cheeky, Shirreff’s collection is really quite solemn and at times even unnerving. Her series of seven silver gelatin photos, for example, does away with any spatial frame of reference. The objects in the photographs could be microscopic or enormous, leaving the viewer disoriented. All we can see is the form and colour of the substance. If light can be considered synonymous with information – as in, to shed light on something – then Shirreff often deliberately leaves her audience in the dark. Central to her collection, it seems, is the question, what is the thing itself?
Her sculptures are equally deliberate; most are untitled, as though to suggest that the thing itself cannot be named. Shirreff crafted her sculptures out of ash, which again points to the mutability of the object. This medium, combined with the sharp shadows the pieces cast depending on one’s viewpoint, creates sculptures that are quite indefinable. One gets the sense that Shirreff accomplished precisely what she intended.
This is the artist’s first solo exhibition in Canada. She holds a BFA from the University of Victoria and an MFA from Yale University. Shirreff is based in New York. “Available Light” will be running at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre until January 2013.