Manon Labrosse and Sharon Van Starkenburg at the City Hall Art Gallery

Maureen Korp

Re-wilding (Retour à l’état sauvage), a new exhibition in the City Hall Art Gallery, shows the work of Manon Labrosse and Sharon Van Starkenburg. The title honours a contemporary conservation strategy aimed at restoring degraded environments – the places where most of us live today.

Manon Labrosse. “Re-Wilding,” 2023
Photo: David Barbour

The large murals of Manon Labrosse together with a few smaller studies fill the first room. Each is a timeless moment of earth energy insight, clarity. In the second and third rooms are Sharon Van Starkenburg’s historically sited installations. They are deeply layered, dated in human history, disguised in mythic iconography.

In their work, the artists are presenting viewers with a question-answer dialectic: How do you know nature? Theoretically? Experientially? A small copper work by Manon Labrosse entitled “Do you want to see yourself in nature?” (2023) asks a key question. In her large murals, the earth is alive, the primal source. “Look at the Sky” (2023), a work of greening energies above and below ground, curves into a skyworld. On the same wall, a second mural pulls us into yellow curving energies moving about an empty white mid-region. The work is entitled “because she is nowhere definite, she could be anywhere” (2023).

When one actively begins to see light and shadow, it becomes easier to see more. Even in this room, the sunlit shadow grid of the window moves across the gallery floor.

Manon Labrosse’s murals are not of any particular time or place. They are apparitions, the hypnagogic recall of experiential moments when one felt intensely the respective energies of sea, sky, and land; in that moment, one knew that the place was alive. The largest mural in the room is entitled “Re-Wilding” (2023). It is an active landscape of energies curving about a pond, a goodly lot of vegetation, and even a long-tailed critter. We look up, down, and sideways to see it all. With smaller work, as in the panels of “Metempsychosis 1, II” (2023), or that of “Pond” (2023), we are pulled in even closer to see more. All is part of the whole.

Sharon Van Starkenburg.
“Metamorphosis,” 2023.
Photo: David Barbour

In the next two rooms, Sharon Van Starkenburg’s work takes us along trails of time-factored ideas, understandings, and perspectives, all of which wrapped thickly in doctrine and story.

The artist has searched her histories well. When a people are conquered, colonized by another, what happens to the stories of both groups? In “Guide to Re-Wilding” (2023), three mixed-media collages present several possibilities. The series can be read left to right historically, or perhaps reversed is what may be the case one day. In “Desire Path,” two figures are hidden in the sticks, a built house in the distance. In “Secret” people are seen feasting. On what? Human teeth are in the tapestry. “Benediction” is a landscape. The church is X-ed out, its cross lost. Is it now a sun symbol? Green hearts grow in the messy vegetation.

Do we understand the earth as Gaia? Grandmother Earth? Mother Earth? What about Adam and Eve? In “All that we need to remember” (2018), the questions multiply. The artist depicts two young women in uniform bending over an outstretched hand. They are pledging something in blood as they sit there in the forest, in the dark, with apostolic flames over their heads. What message have they vowed to bring us?

Can we learn from the world’s surrounding, without the set creeds of human history? No easy answers are seen in Sharon Van Starkenburg’s paintings. The two figures facing one another in “The Supplicants” (2022). They stand in the forest. One is a wolf with a stitched carcass, the other a bare-legged, somewhat human figure. The feet are roots, two hands greening. There is a feeding dish between them.

What we look for and can see in the worlds surrounding is culturally denoted, identified, and storied. What were the stories told in different times and places? What was forbidden? How can we see more?

Sharon Van Starkenburg. “Sun Dog,” 2021.
Photo: David Barbour

“Sun Dog” (2021) is Sharon Van Starkenburg’s portrait of a woman shielding her eyes while trying to see more in the glare of the sun.  A “sun dog,” also known as a parhelion, is an optical phenomenon of auras sometimes seen in a frosty sky beside the sun. An old story of the Greek god Zeus walking his dogs across the sky is the source of its name. The painting is found in the small back room of the exhibition among multiple small paintings of children and beasts. The animals are all trying to teach us ways of seeing. Look and look again.

“Metamorphosis” (2023), a tabletop mixed-media composition, gently reminds us what is, was, and will be. Here are hillocks of green moss, forests, edged with baby teeth. Energies transform. Nothing is lost.

Sharon Van Starkenburg. “Guide to Re-Wilding,” 2023. (Left to right) “Desire Path,” 2023; “Secret,” 2023; “Benediction,” 2023.
Photo: David Barbour


Continuing exhibition until November 19, 2023

Re-wilding (Retour à l’état sauvage) – Manon Labrosse and Sharon Van Starkenberg

City Hall Art Gallery
Ottawa City Hall, first floor
110 Laurier Avenue West
Ottawa, ON K1P 1J1

Free. Wheelchair accessible.
Open: Daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.