White magic in name of art

EMMA LEE Canadian artist Mary-Colleen Rabb photographs white toy figures in unusual landscapes to explore the human condition. EMMA LEE spoke to her ahead of her first solo UK exhibition at Norwich Arts Centre, which began this week.


The photograph shows a group of miniature plastic golfers playing on the top of a brightly frosted cake. In another, a plastic skier zooms down a felt-tip pen.

Canadian artist Mary-Colleen Rabb's works are bold, striking and playful - and showing me around the Café Gallery at Norwich Arts Centre, where she is in the process of setting up her first UK solo exhibition, she turns the tables and asks me what I think her works are about.

"I know what I think my work says, but I'm always really interested in what it says to other people," the 27-year-old says.

"I've been using the white figures for six or seven years. They represent the human condition.

"They draw your attention to objects you would usually pass by. They're made of plastic and they're about half an inch tall, not very big at all. They're originally from model train sets so they are taken out of the world that they were designed for and put into a different context."

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Rabb, who is originally from the Ontario province, came to Norwich just over two years ago to do her masters degree in fine arts at Norwich School of Art and Design.

Almost 30 pieces make up the Little White Art Show, a mixture of photographs and sculptures, reflecting her influences, including advertising, popular culture and Greek mythology.

A work called the Muses Wait, which she created for the Salthouse 2005 exhibition, is on display in the Arts Centre foyer. It was inspired by local churches and their religious background, and incorporates myths from the past as well as Christian beliefs and traditions.

"The girl on the chair [titled A Wonky Wonderland] is probably my favourite because I took a long time making her and put blood, sweat and tears into her. You interpret her differently according to the place that she's in - the story changes," Rabb says.

"The arts centre is a church, so it has a different feeling than if it were exhibited in, say, a school. The figure is looking down on people - but who is she? Is she an angel? The chair is deliberately cartoony and wonky because I wanted an Alice in Wonderland feel."

Another sculpture, a figure of a man sitting on the top of a matchbox, which has been painted on to the gallery wall, explores the changing perception of smoking.

"In the 50s smoking was advertised as being cool and glamorous - as if it was good for you," she says.

"Now we know that isn't the case.

"A few of the works feature products you can buy in the arts centre - like matches - and I want to see whether sales of those products go up during the exhibition.

"That's a bit sneaky of me, but I'm really interested in the power of advertising. Is seeing a picture of something enough to make you want to buy it?"

Each of the pieces is accompanied by an information panel.

"I want people to go away, maybe having learned something new," she says.

"I hope that they get something out of looking at my work, that they find humour in it - anything."

Rabb has been creative from a very early age.

"I started having drawing lessons when I was five. I had to decide whether to go into geography or art. I have always been better at art and found it more interesting."

After finishing her degree she has collaborated with a group of artists on a number of exhibition projects, including a mobile art library where people could rent a painting, photograph or sculpture for their home or office during the Norwich Fringe Festival in September.

As well as working on her photographs and sculptures, she works in the darkroom at Norwich Arts Centre.

But in the summer she and her fiancé, a historian, are moving back to Canada.

"I don't know what we're going to do when we get back yet," she says.

"I really like Norwich. It's very different from where I'm from. Norwich has so much history, but Canada is a really young country. I like it here, but I'm missing home and I have to make a break for it."

Wherever she ends up, it will be easy for her to take her work with her.

"I work with the little figures and my camera because I've travelled around a lot. You can't take much equipment with you and they're easy to pack up," she says.

The Little White Art Show is at Norwich Arts Centre Café Gallery until February 15. It is open 10am-5pm Monday to Saturday and admission is free.

www.norwicharts centre.co.uk

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