Arts and Entertainment

From the Outside Looking In: Shary Boyle

Shary Boyle deep dives into the complexities of the human identity in her solo art exhibit, Outside the Palace of Me.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Sandra Lin

Stepping through the dark blue curtained entryway of Outside the Palace of Me at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), viewers enter multidisciplinary artist Shary Boyle’s theatrical mind and a deeply profound investigation of the self. Outside the Palace of Me, Boyle’s first solo exhibit since 2013, masterfully analyzes the nuances of individual and collective identity through art of various mediums, including sculptures, animatronics, paintings, and performance. 

Boyle was born in Toronto in 1971 and was curious about her impact on the ever-changing world since adolescence. Her fascination intensified when she began her career as an artist in the 1990s. In a virtual tour of Outside the Palace of Me, she declared, “My whole practice is about wishing to communicate [and have] conversations [...] I process the world through my art.” This sentiment is reflected in the exhibit, which tackles everything from white privilege to gender to sexuality. Outside the Palace of Me is sectioned into 12 subsegments spanning MAD’s fourth and fifth floors, exploring different themes that are interwoven to form a cohesive and impactful message about human identity.

The exhibit begins on the fifth floor, where two striking female animatronics immediately demand museumgoers' attention. The first, Judy (2021), a disarmingly realistic life-sized wax figure of a four-armed woman dressed in black stagehand clothing, stands juxtaposed against a large swirling red and blue circle. Judy is Boyle’s personal examination of womanhood. The piece's title alludes to the ever-present violence against women by referencing Judy, a character from the traditional British puppet show Punch & Judy who is abused by her husband. Meanwhile, the stagehand attire symbolizes that women, much like stagehands, are responsible for working behind the scenes and ensuring that everything runs smoothly but often receive little recognition for their efforts in the domestic sphere. Each of the Judy animatronic’s arms controls a puppet; her lower right hand twitches as she controls a marionette of a pale, furrow-browed “crone” whom Boyle dubs “the worrier.” Her other limbs hold hand puppets: a woman in vibrant pink colonial-era domestic clothes, a curly-haired activist with a cigarette dangling from her lips, and a witch with green skin and a pointy hat. The puppets are representative of the tropes that women are often pigeonholed into: the overly anxious woman, the obedient housewife, the aggressive feminist, and the wicked antagonist. Judy's overgrown nails and long eyebrow hair signify the achingly long time it takes for progress toward gender equality to happen, placing her as a stoic witness to the female experience.

The second animatronic, White Elephant (2021), faces Judy from the opposite end of the floor. This animatronic, a seated woman with long, spindly, disproportionate limbs and a wide-eyed stare, towers over viewers at nine feet tall, quite literally making her the elephant in the room. Everything about her, from her skin to her tight cardigan, is chalky white. Initially, she seems odd at best, unnerving at worst—until she lashes out. Her head, programmed to move sporadically, makes a sudden 360-degree turn, startling viewers and adding a threatening undertone of violence to the piece. White Elephant is Boyle’s exploration of what it means to be white and her own whiteness. The woman’s lanky limbs and strange proportions reflect the disproportionate amount of power and privilege that white people often have, while her whirling head represents the legacies of violence inherited through whiteness and the refusal of many white people to discuss the history of systemic racism that they benefit from. She sits untouchable upon a white pedestal, complacent with the intergenerational cycles of violence and exploitation that she perpetuates. Boyle acknowledges that White Elephant deals with a controversial subject, but says, “It is a really complicated thing to deal with [white] guilt and shame, not to be defensive and not retreat, but go forward and try to keep open, and learn and change things for the better.” Similar to white guilt, White Elephant is uncomfortable to confront, but its presence is impossible to ignore.

Between the two female animatronics, 10 much smaller sculptures spanning a wide range of themes are displayed in a neat row against the wall. One such theme is the gender binary, which Boyle challenges in Oasis (2019), an elegant nude porcelain figure possessing both male and female anatomy. Oasis is inspired by Boyle’s personal experience with queerness and her struggle to classify herself on the gender spectrum. Boyle also takes on the intense internal struggle of self-construction in The Painter (2019), a faceless porcelain woman who stares into a mirror bearing a face painted in black ink. This piece prompts interaction, as viewers must view the sculpture from different angles to fully understand it. Furthermore, its self-reflective nature encourages viewers to gaze at themselves in the mirror and think about how they “paint” themselves. Each of the 10 sculptures is extremely detailed, drawing viewers in with its aesthetic value and craftsmanship and encouraging them to linger by evoking introspection.

On MAD’s fourth floor, the second part of the exhibit is dimly lit and dominated by Boyle’s video projects. Viewers are met with several of Boyle’s mixed-media projection films, an art form she has been mastering since the late 1990s. Throughout her career, Boyle has created over 500 short projection films, experimenting with shadow puppetry and acetate-based ink drawings. The projections, each only a few seconds in length, depict unsettling subjects, including a bug-eyed siren and a humanoid bat. However, the star of the show is a nearly-15-minute performance film, The Trampled Devil (2021). The film chronicles the journey of Saint Michael the Archangel as he circles through multiple forms—the Bat, the Devil, the White Witch, and Warbanks (a satirized version of Andy Warhol)—in a quest for identity and wisdom. Boyle herself performs as all versions of the Archangel, with the entire performance taking place above the sawed-off feet of a wooden statue of the Archangel battling a demon. Donning handmade masks and costumes, Boyle writhes, dances, and flails to embody these different identities and understand each character's morality, from the innocent Bat to the cruel, capitalistic Warbanks. Ultimately, The Trampled Devil embraces what Outside the Palace of Me is really about: the trying yet extraordinary journey to finding one's true self.

The exhibit ultimately serves as a well-crafted and well-curated analysis of the various facets of the self, leaving viewers feeling simultaneously disturbed and seen. Outside the Palace of Me’s subtle yet powerful pieces provoke powerful self-reflection on how people construct and interact with their identities.