Once upon a time in the enchanted kingdom of Canadian artist Rebecca Munce’s creation, lives a motley band of shapeshifting symbolic characters. We encounter princesses, heroes, gods and demons caught up in strange quests ranging from the monumental to the mundane. In this intensely personal fantasy world of archetypes, pictographs and mythopoetic fictions, accepted orders are inverted and narratives reframed. We re-meet characters we thought we knew and see sides to their nature that have previously remained hidden. In her most recent body of work, Rebecca delves into stories about conflict, transformation and complications of heroism. Instead of triumphant victors, we see knights lost to the chaos of random violence and victim to incomprehensible fate. Rebecca is interested in the theme of metamorphosis and in the space opened up by the “in between” – between good and evil, righteous and vile, perception and ignorance. Are all knights chivalrous even in their gruesome battles? Are all princesses chaste and pure? Are all beasts beastly simply because of their nature? Rebecca’s work playfully undermines these tropes by imagining these archetypes anew. In her work, princesses summersault and knights are ungainly. Beasts are just trying to be their beastly selves without anyone paying them much heed. Casting artistic spells, Rebecca’s vibrant colour choices and whimsical mark-making style reveal the fallibilities and absurdities of these symbolic characters, transforming them from archetype into individual; granting them agency. Working mostly in ceramic sculptures, drawings and oil pastel etchings, Rebecca balances naivety and deep insight, allowing for both a visual and emotional rawness.
Rebecca lives and works in Montreal, Canada. She has participated in numerous group exhibitions and residency programmes in North America, Europe and other parts of the world. In this interview she tells us more about her unique approach to working with symbols and world-building as well as living vicariously.
AMM: Hi Rebecca! Your art has a wonderful childlike quality to it – to start us off, can you tell us a little about yourself as a child?
RM: I think as a kid I oscillated a lot between shyness to gregariousness. I liked to spend a lot of time alone making up stories, hiding out in the hydro field that our house in Toronto backed on to. But I also really enjoyed theater, dressing up in costumes and feeling transformed. When playing as someone else my shyness and sensitivities seemed to fade away. As soon as that role was done I retreated so to speak. So I always had these areas of make-believe, some performative and some only for myself.
AMM: When did you first become interested in symbols and archetypes and how did this find its way into your art?
RM: It’s hard to say when that actually came about in my work, I have always drawn objects and figures in a repetitive way. Symbols developed I think as a way of repeating those images with also a sense of embedded meaning that expands past the individual work, relating to my other works and beyond. As these images accumulated I became more interested in internal world building and language building, which for me is how a lot of symbology and archetypal logic works. Ultimately I think it came from a desire to have my own coded language, my own familiars to communicate with. I like that these symbols and archetypes get to live many lives, something I don’t know if I’ll be able to do.
AMM: A recurring cast of characters play out different narratives in your works. Can you tell us about some of the main figures – such as the hydra, Diana and knight figures – and what they represent?
RM: All these figures mentioned have deep backgrounds and a certain mythical weight. To be brief, the hydra originates as a bestial biblical figure, and is associated with the end of times as the fantastical Book of Revelations illustrates. Diana, or Artemis in the Hellenistic tradition, is a divine being that presides over nature, hunters and the protection of the innocent. Knights are humans born into privilege, striving towards continual nobility and other expressions of heroism. For me these characters play out in three categories, the divine, the earthly and those who find themselves somewhere in between. Sometimes it is hard to determine who is the subject and who is the subjugated when these characters interact. Though these characters come from certain backgrounds that insist on a stance of good or evil, I don’t try to adhere them so strictly to such a role. I wonder how our viewing of a knight changes, when they are seen face down in the mud, having tripped over a flower. Is there any sympathy for a beast, when swarmed by glory-thirsty knights? What does Diana represent when she’s been forced out of divine solitude and into a storm of human conquests? Hopefully in these interactions some contemplation over power dynamics occurs.
AMM: How do new characters evolve? Do they mutate from other figures or appear quite suddenly. Is this a process you’re in control of or is it in some ways in control of you?
RM: Great question. New characters are usually mutations from older ones, sometimes they grow extra limbs or possess a new body of an insect. In this way the new and old share a sense of belonging. I try not to be too tactical about who appears or disappears. I like to think about my practice as a personal archive which portrays certain eras, the time of the hydra, the time of the somersaulting princess etc. If some characters want to stick around for a while I let them. For me, repetition of figures over time has always pointed to a combination of control and lack of control in the author.
AMM: Talk to us about dreams: many of your artworks depict dreamscapes and dream states. Are these related to your own dreams or more of a symbolic universal dream world or collective unconscious? In what ways does your art reflect your own personal psychology?
RM: My initial attraction to mythological or “dream-like” creatures came from their ability to reveal psychological states not physically expressed by human forms. It’s a place of accuracy and comfort for me, showing a truism that is not immediately revealed as my own. So yeah there are plenty of interactions of subconscious desires and fears at play in my work. I’m attracted to alternate spaces, states of being and their ability to show what I have a hard time expressing through “realistic” means. Dreamscapes have a relation with this but it’s not a sole source. I do align most with the idea of an internal world, that speaks also to collective experiences.
AMM: Narrative is very central in your work. Does each drawing depict a self-contained narrative or an episode in a larger story? What might that story be?
RM: It’s a bit of both, each drawing depicts a particular moment or instance that can stand alone, but with repeating figures being woven throughout multiple works, a loose relationship is formed. I’m not too strict about how this collective narrative is viewed. However it is important to me to convey that these characters are having many experiences, dying and returning again. Recently these stories have been about conflict, transformation, voyage, and complications of heroism.
AMM: You mix together motifs and pictographs from different mythologies and symbolic systems. Please tell us about the sources you mostly reference from and also how you combine these motifs in the self-contained world in your art.
RM: My sources like you said vary, I’m influenced a lot by medieval engravings ranging from the 5th century all the way to the 14th. I enjoy the eschewed linear perspective they often possess, as well as unique creatures. This is a large time period but they often express concerns with the physical body and its transformability through mental or spiritual change. The belief that the physical body was directly related to the mental spirit was quite present and made for some fantastical images I love. I also gravitate towards gothic architecture, rose windows and plate tracery in particular. Icon paintings, their scale and demarcations of space are also deeply interesting to me. Aside from mythologies that come from Catholic/Christian traditions, Greek mythology, in its wonderful cosmic storytelling, has always been a staple for me. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is still one of my favourites.
Honestly the act of combining these influences is one of catch and release, I don’t adhere too closely with one reference and instead consider my own world or the world I want to play in. They are often utilized in accordance with my own experiences, standing in as actors that play out a scenario or feelings I’m dwelling on.
AMM: You use very vivid and unrefined colour in your work. Please tell us more about this.
RM: Haha sure, the colour I use is definitely vivid and unrefined at times. I think this is related to a desire to return to adolescent sensibilities. I like the colour to feel searingly primary and childish, often in opposition to the heaviness of subject matter in my work. When you aren’t mixing colour you do find yourself to be in a strange position of restriction. The colours provided force you to make bizarre choices, I like to lean into this relationship with materials. The found rather than formed quality of these colours is humbling in a way that is attractive to me. I’m not an icon painter, I am more a kid drawing in earnesty. I think my formal choices give me permission to be honest, and not be entirely seduced by my subject matter.
AMM: In what ways does the deliberately naive and whimsical style of your mark-making relate to the imagery in your work?
RM: Like colour choices it’s a way of expressing some unknowing, absurdity and vulnerability. A lot of the subject matter I portray has been traditionally done with a different formal approach. Portraits of royalty or mythical creatures are often conveyed with a largeness in stature; the limbs are strong and the armor looks impenetrable. There’s no questioning the strength of these beings. I like to question it, I want to see the futility in combat, the vanity in the many feathered Prince. I like to imagine such a person worried about getting their pants dirty and tripping over their own boots. I’m attracted to portraying these figures as human, with wonky lines and a state of being that gives more room for the experiences they have.
AMM: Recently you’ve been working in oil pastel etchings. What has been your experience of drawing in this reductive as opposed to additive way?
RM: It’s been a really interesting change. The layer underneath is usually made of different colours, for that reason the process of reduction is not always predictable. Carving away at a surface is always surprising and feels a lot more physical. I think I became interested in this approach to align a little more with the medieval engravings I’m inspired by. Currently I am working with different reduction tools, which has been a lot of fun.
AMM: Take us inside your studio: What does it look and feel like? Do you have any daily rituals that feed your creativity?
RM: My studio is in an industrial building that is occupied mostly by musicians. You can often hear people practicing in the evening, sometimes the reverberation is so strong I feel the concrete floor under me vibrate. It’s nice. I have most of my drawing materials on the floor, encircling a blanket I sit on when working. The desk I brought in to change that habit is now crowded with miscellaneous things and mostly unused. The only ritual I do in the studio is take off my shoes, which has ruined most of my socks.
AMM: Do you generally have an idea of what you want to create when you start a new work or does the drawing evolve as you work on it? What’s your process of working?
RM: Usually it depends on scale, smaller works I know will be moments or interactions and large works tend to be more like maps, holding many moments. From there the drawings evolve as I work on it, I don’t usually have strict plans. Sometimes I want to see a particular interaction like a captor and captive, or some soaring figures but beyond that I’m in parlance.
AMM: You’ve recently had a solo exhibition at McBride Contemporain titled Wandering Fortress. What ideas and themes were you exploring in this body of work?
RM: In Wandering Fortress I wanted to explore demarcated spaces through bubbles, arenas, storms, wheels and fortresses. I was interested in the narratives that occur within them, often particular and unusual to the outside world. Some embody sanctuary, others chaos. The arena as an example, calls for the people who enter it to play out a certain narrative. Suddenly you’re fighting to the death, trapped in this magic circle you travelled into. It’s pretty theatrical, and I find it interesting how certain lines in the sand, or a brick circle, can mean so much. These spaces became their own worlds, little cosmoses that have similarities between them but perhaps a lack of awareness of each other’s existence. It was an interesting show to see all together, that’s for sure.
AMM: Do you feel like this exhibition closes a chapter or lays the ground for further exploration in your work?
RM: I don’t think that exhibition closed a chapter completely on the ideas I was exploring. They are still interesting to me, and worth further exploration. I’m particularly interested in continuing the ceramic work I did in Wandering Fortress. I really loved making those fortress mountains! It’s something I’m working on currently alongside some drawing with new characters.
AMM: In Wandering Fortress you have a large drawing depicting a chaotic battle in a sandstorm between multiple forces. This felt like a depiction of what 2020 has been like. How have you been coping with the effects of the pandemic? Has the uncertainty and general chaos affected you creatively?
RM: Haha, I feel like the essence of 2020 has been around for a while but it’s definitely in concentrated form this year. I don’t mind being alone for long stretches at a time but I’ve found there is value in changing habits, so I reach out to others more often, talk a lot on the phone and go to therapy. Creatively I’ve been leaning on my practice to sort out how I feel at times, and writing more.
AMM: When you’re not making art, what are some of the things you enjoy doing?
RM: I enjoy staring at and worrying over my plants. I like cooking a lot, but of course not everyday cooking, just impossible elaborate recipes that no one has time for. I do find myself picking up a lot of new hobbies right now with the amount of time I’m spending alone, like slowly learning Italian and crocheting grocery bags. Who’s to say how long that’ll last though, it’s just fun to try new things.
AMM: What are you watching, reading, listening to right now?
RM: Right now I’m reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer which has been really great. I tend to rewatch a lot of old sitcoms, because I find predictability to be relaxing, not one for high suspense TV I listen to a lot of podcasts in the studio, usually about history, comedy or occult topics.
AMM: Mindful of the prevailing uncertainty in the world, do you have any projects coming up? What’s next for you?
RM: Definitely uncertain, I was supposed to be at the Road Books residency in Ireland this summer but it’s been deferred due to the pandemic. I’m also going to be showing in Maison Modèle, a benefit exhibition by Centre Clark in Montreal, March 2021. Like most though I’m just staying safe and focusing on my work.
Find out more about the artist: www.rebeccamunce.com
Inetrview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.