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By Nisha Maxwell

Holly Gaboriault, known as Madame Meow, draws us into a complexly tiered world. Aesthetically the work captivates through medium, color and ingenuity. Its historical references inform by a combination of cultural myths while Victorian scientific innovation overlay the scenes. There are reappearing characters in each of her paintings and the show comes across as a unified narrative. Most interesting of all, the cultural signifiers that she uses meld to create an accurately relativist view of the way that humans view cultural interaction in this globalized era of overstimulation.

Gaboriault lives a bit of a dream. She makes art, gardens, walks her cats on leashes and describes her studio environment as “Mexican music in the air and steaming cups of mango tea.”

This is not to say she’s impractical. Gaboriault is a working artist, who is actively commissioned for everything from business cards to murals, and serves as assistant manager at a French restaurant around the corner from her house.

But her dreamy lifestyle shows in everything she touches. I’ve come up with globalized surrealism as the most accurate description for her work. Gaboriault shows us a world where Japanese panda bears become pastries from NYC and Alligators communicate with various other creatures over the telephone; females have iguana and sparrow heads and dress only in designer gowns; courtesans hide in the trees, watching Tahitian women walk by.

The show at AS220’s Open Window consists primarily of Gaboriault’s painting work, which incorporates other mediums, especially collage and sculpture. Her individual works usually vary between collage, painting and sculpture she has recently combined the three mediums. Gaboriault draws inspiration from multiple cultures and historical periods, primarily the Victorian era, Javanese puppetry, Tahitian folklore (in the case of this show) and Japanese culture. Many other references are entangled, but these particular themes are consistent.

The first glaring trait of this body of work is the distinct characters that emerge. It felt like Gaboriault had invited me to a party of all of her most intimate, international and eccentric friends. “If you asked me who each character in my paintings is, I could tell you what he had for breakfast and where he went to college. To me everybody’s got such a light behind them that they are alive in the piece and could be alive in other pieces,” she explains.

Her paintings function almost as comic strips due to their fidelity to specific characters. “What I like to do is take them from a painting and carrying them through. […] As long as you have that one little string that you can thread through your work – no matter how thin and how stretched, you can always put that thread out there as long as everything connects to it. That’s all I can do it just connect everything so it looks like the same hand has touched everything,” she said.

Exceptional to this work is that the references are not clear-cut. They are blurry signifiers, but have all melded into a brightly colored soup of world versus specific ethnicities. The ambiguity of these cultural representations obligates the viewer to look more closely. “I never say that any of my pieces are entirely one thing or the other because these characters become a whole other folk tale that is created in my head,” she explains.

Her piece that is most in demand (three separate collectors vying for it) called Carry the Sky on Your Head was inspired by the Breath, Eyes, and Memory, by Edwidge Danticat. The line is from a Guinea creation myth that explains some people having more difficult lives by it being their responsibility to hold the sky up with their heads. She gessoed and stretched the work’s canvas in her studio in 2001 and has lugged the huge painting to every apartment she’s moved to since. The piece is a colorful portrait of a Tahitian woman with neck stretching rings carrying a heavy bundle [editors’ note: Tahitian people are not known to practice neck stretching]. Two Japanese courtesans from a previous painting sit in the tree above her and watch her pass. Gaboriault says they are protecting her. “Even though she’s a little constricted, she’s strong and can glide through,” Gaboriault says.

Gaboriault is scheduled for a show in AS220’s Main Gallery for July. It should be a whirlwind of color and cultures.

AS220's Open Window

Holly Gaboriaul

Holly Gaboriault's work was on view from April 5-25, 2009 at AS220.

All images are courtesy of the artist, AS220 and David Hilowitz.


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