What's here isn't good enough: Get lost in this artist's fantastical universe of work

For artist Diana Lynn VanderMeulen, there's political barb implicit in her escapism.

For artist Diana Lynn VanderMeulen, there's political barb implicit in her escapism

Diana Lynn VanderMeulen. (Cotey Pope)

In the landscapes of Diana Lynn VanderMeulen, the hills are iridescent like an oil slick or the underside of an oyster shell. Clouds there glitter as if covered in the chrome scales of a herring fish, and the sky is some sorbet colour of twilight. "An artist is a type of tour guide," she says. And her cosmic badlands intend to shuttle viewers far away from the drab backdrops of the everyday.

I first saw VanderMeulen's handiwork at Unsound Toronto 2016, where, alongside a team of artists, she'd installed a four-poster bed dripping with streamers and big enough for 40. From that introduction, I understood her main creative outputs — even the 2D work I'd encounter after — as environments. She makes places for people to visit.

THE SHIMMER OF A PETAL, NOW A MOUNTAIN SPRING, 2018. Digital & Mixed Media Collage. (Feminist Art Gallery)

When I meet the 29-year-old artist, she's finishing a collage mural on three sides of the Feminist Art Gallery's exterior. A mountain range, cut from mirror-silver mylar and vinyl printed like purple agate, rises from an extraterrestrial lake. Titled "The shimmer of a petal, now a mountain spring", the mural is part of Younger Than Beyoncé Gallery's three-venue exhibition, "Architecture of Care". It overwrites the built environment and fancifully reconnects the neighbourhood with the waterfront to the south. Larger than a poster or a print, it represents a greater, more life-size slice of VanderMeulen's fantastical universe — nearly big enough now to step into.

Her art-making practice is a playful process of collage that spans multiple disciplines and media. She cuts from nature and travel magazines. Maybe she paints around that. Then, the image is manipulated digitally. That product might be printed as some component of a sculpture or an installation. And a detail of that installation could be photographed to be re-collaged elsewhere. She points out a swirling pinkish hill near where her ladder is set up: that's a digital collage comprised of hand-cut works, sculpture and other photographed material. A recent trip through Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea in Southern California inspired a series of graphite drawings which, in turn, became the set for a photo spread in the latest issue of Milkweed Zine.

FANTASY LAND, 2018. Milkweed Zine for CONVERSE x JW Anderson. Photos: Mariah Hamilton. Set: Diana Lynn VanderMeulen, Styling: Basia Wyszynski, Makeup: Christine Jairamsingh, Grooming: Ali Columbus. (Mariah Hamilton)

With a prickle of self-deprication, VanderMeulen calls herself "a background person." She sometimes fears her art is "missing something" because it requires the activation of a participant. She tells me that she moonlights fabricating film sets and photobooths. The through line is apparent: "It's all so people can imagine themselves somewhere that isn't here."

There is a political barb implicit in her escapism: what's here isn't good enough. Her sci-fi imaginings are a rejection of the status quo, argued in Martian gulches, gemstones, and beetle shells. Fantasy, she says, can also be a profound way of speaking about trauma.

I've always felt, that in my past life, I wasn't human. Maybe I was a sensitive plant or a bug.- Diana Lynn VanderMeulen, artist

When she was 18, her father passed away after a farming accident. Quickly, they shut down the family farm, and the following year, she moved to Toronto for university. "I'm only understanding that trauma now — losing your home, losing some sense of family also." Her art is a response, she reckons, to feelings that "I don't belong and that I need to make my place." The question driving her practice: where is your home? "Maybe your home isn't anywhere specific," she says. "Maybe it's inside of you." The landscapes, for her, represent places of belonging. She sees herself reflected in them.

"I've always felt, that in my past life, I wasn't human. Maybe I was a sensitive plant or a bug." She thinks a lot about the bottom of the ocean, she tells me, and what the landscape looks like down there. The notion impels her aesthetic, channeling different lifeworlds. "I like thinking about the things here, like the butterfly wing or the flower petal, that we just miss because we're looking at the pavement or at the new condos," VanderMeulen explains. She's made those her building blocks — all the miraculous items that go unnoticed because they don't occur at our scale or in our rhythm. "That's partly why I like collage," she says. The world is mostly just a small pop of colour, "but you can take your scissors, cut out the pops and put them all together."

If the mural is an enlargement of her current practice, the next project is a full evolution. She's currently working on a VR app that will let viewers step through the picture plane and into her universe. "That's always been my dream," she says. "I trained in drawing, painting and printmaking, but that square wasn't enough of a world."

In VanderMeulen's virtual space, the viewer slowly cruises a dreamscape, tucking beneath shimmery peaks while daisy-shaped orbs sail by. Her partner, artist Ted Gudlat, calls it "a lazy river, but on a different planet." It is a fantasy, finally, so big and complete that it can carry you away.

To see more work, visit Diana Lynn VanderMeulen's website. Younger Than Beyoncé Gallery's Architecture of Care exhibition is on view through April 20th at Feminist Art Gallery, The Public and Margin of Eras Gallery in Toronto, ON.​


Chris Hampton is a Hamilton-based freelance arts and culture writer. His work has appeared elsewhere in The New York Times, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Canadian Art. Find him on Instagram: @chris.hampton


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