Review: Ed Pien at PFOAC

Ed Pien working in his studio. Image from Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain.

Ed Pien working in his studio. Image from Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain.

This review was first published on Rover Arts ( in December 2012.

Ed Pien, Under Water. At Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain (PFOAC).
November 28, 2012 to January 26, 2013.

With remarkable precision and attention to detail, Ed Pien creates a shimmering, hypnotic undersea realm in his current exhibition entitled Under Water. The solo exhibit at Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain showcases eight of Pien’s recent papercut works — astoundingly intricate cutouts of 3M reflective film and shoji paper that depict marine life deep beneath the waves — and scores of ink and gouache drawings from his Deep Water series. Together, the works present a visually compelling atmosphere that highlights the intricate connections between water and humans.

Pien’s papercuts have an extraordinary presence, arising not only from the dream-like scenes they depict, but from the nature of the materials used and the workmanship involved in their creation. The works portray sea flora and fauna, including mermaids and mermen, floating within a shadowy web of sea grasses. Many of the papercuts share an ornate, lacy quality, which is amplified by the iridescent sheen of the 3M reflective film Pien uses to create most of these works. The largest of the papercuts, Bloom, recalls a chinoiserie screen in its delicate, repeating silhouettes of crustaceans and sea plants. The striking beauty of Bloom is undercut, however, by the slightly monstrous appearance of the creatures represented in it, as well as by the asymmetrical details of several of the designs. Although the left and right sides of each design initially appear to be mirror images, a longer, closer look at their shimmering surface reveals the evidence of Pien’s hand in each.

Pien creates an interesting push-and-pull experience for the viewer, between the desire to look closely, even to touch, and the need for distance to appreciate the forms that emerge from the tangled web of lines. In moving back and forth, one’s eye is caught by the sheen of the reflective film that glitters and ripples across its surface. The texture of this material recalls galvanized steel, a resemblance that creates a fascinating tension with the seemingly fragile forms depicted.

Under Water continues its deep-sea exploration in a series of drawings entitled Deep Waters, shown in a room adjacent to the main gallery. These drawings, previously exhibited at the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris in 2001, create a compelling counterpoint to the large papercut works. Whereas the papercuts appear carefully planned and deliberately executed, Deep Waters exudes a stream of consciousness quality. Arranged in a series of frames in one corner of the room, the drawings read as a kind of mythical graphic novel in which human and amphibious forms emerge from and dissolve into one another. Entangled flippers and human limbs morph together, then twist apart, from one panel to the next. The tentacles of an octopus-like form slither across three separate drawings. Tears flow from the eyes of a figure in one drawing into the mouth of another in the neighbouring frame.

The works in Under Water demonstrates Pien’s skill and appetite for drawing, whether in traditional form or through exploratory, sculptural media. His dexterity with line envelops viewers in a surreal, almost magical space where the imagination roams free.


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