Sophie Ronodipuro visits the MAC for Jim Holyoak and Matt Shane’s collaborative and immersive exhibition space

Written by Sophie Ronodipuro

‘The Hills Are Shadows’, which takes its title from Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’, is a collaboration between Canadian artists Jim Holyoak and Matt Shane at the Midlands Art Centre. This exhibition marks the 20th time these two artists have worked together, and their latest project is a testament to what looks to be their seamless working relationship and artistic style. 

When you first enter the large space, you’ll feel almost overwhelmed but in the best way possible. The walls are covered with expansive murals that tower over you. From floor to ceiling, Holyoak and Shane have used ink, graphite, dye and watercolour to depict a rich surrealist landscape that most people could only imagine in their wildest dreams. Maybe not even then. Two of these pieces are complete: ‘Quagmire’ and ‘The Who’s Haunts’, both of which were completed over several months in Quebec. 

The walls are covered with expansive murals that tower over you

Both works may at first glance appear to be a hurricane of tree’s, roots, buildings, and strange creatures crashing together to form a twisted landscape. But the beauty is in the details. The two artists frequently fit in their own little ‘Easter eggs’ into their pieces, ones which you would barely notice unless you look really carefully. Some examples include tiny drawings of their favourite books, or even something as random as ‘The Complete Guide To Handsoap’ on shelves. ‘Quagmire’ also features a very interesting piece of landscape that at first may seem like a mesh of trees and mountains but when viewed from afar transforms into a massive beached whale. It’s things like these which makes viewing their work an almost interactive experience.

Image provided by the Midlands Art Centre, depicting a section the artists work                            

The exhibition also includes several smaller works such as ‘Nodosaur’ and ‘Shipwreck’, which resemble the other two larger pieces in terms of their portrayal of dreamlike landscapes but just compressed into smaller scales. Interestingly, they’ve also included a collection of comics and doodles titled ‘When We Grow Up’. This collection feels like a whimsical break from the almost mind-blowing experience of the larger pieces, a breath of fresh air if you will.

But the main attraction in this exhibit is their current work-in-progress, ‘Shipworms of the Nodosaur’. This piece, which takes inspiration from ‘The Who’s Haunts’, was created on site at MAC during their residency in September and October. During the first five weeks of the exhibit, visitors were able to see Holyoak and Shane at work at select times. This again takes up a vast amount of floor to ceiling wall space and the ladder present is just another indicator of the physical work it takes to create such a large piece. Having its creation take place on site also adds another layer to the work, as not only is it just a piece of visual art but it also takes on a kind of performativity. 

A piece of visual art… it also takes on a kind of performativity

Yet having the piece made on site does have its downsides. It’s sparseness, empty spaces of white wall yet to be filled in by the two artists, stands out even more against the richness of the other already finished pieces. Some visitors may find their sense of being immersed in the other paintings almost vanishing as soon as they reach this unfinished piece. 

Despite this shortcoming, this exhibition is definitely a must-see for every kind of art lover. Artists always aim to transport their audience, so much so that even this intent has turned into somewhat of a cliché. But Holyoak and Shane have managed to create worlds upon worlds inside of one gallery room, thereby not only transporting us to these different worlds but perhaps even changing how we see our own.