“Tertium Quid is this idea of pairing together two images that create a third unknown image or a third idea,” said Canadian artist Allyson Glenn about the title of her latest exhibition, a pencil-drawing series at McKinley Arts Center. Tertium Quid features seemingly random images—some grouped together, some framed individually—that depict houses in varying degrees of destruction, crows flying over cats, a person standing above a gaping hole, and an animal baring its teeth.
“When I started to put together the work, I started thinking that I didn’t want to just show [painting] studies, but I wanted to create something entirely new—and the idea came to mind to use montage theory,” Glenn said. “The idea was generated from seeing a scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s [1925 film] Battleship Potemkin called the Odessa staircase scene.”
The scene Glenn refers to is known as one of the earliest montage scenes in film history. Over a seven-and-a-half minute sequence, cameras follow a Russian-Ukrainian battle onto the steps of the city of Odessa, cutting from shots of fighters to anguished faces to artillery. Spliced throughout is an image of a carriage rolling down the steps with a crying baby inside. The whole thing is meant to draw out time and elicit an emotional response through “cuts” rather than acting or narration.
Outside of film, montage and tertium quid are go-to techniques for graphic novels. But how do the devices work when you’re not flipping through a book, reading pictures like words? How do Glenn’s drawings hold up?
The answer depends on who’s looking. Since the McKinley Gallery is a hallway and walkthrough space, the metaphors are easy to overlook if you’re in a hurry. If you’re not, however, and you get a chance to sit with the work, it starts to rake at your subconscious.
Crows, cats, gaping holes, and burning houses turn into thoughts about hidden enemies, primal instincts, and the double-face of destruction.
But Glenn’s take on her own work is purposefully ambiguous.
“If it’s the case that [viewers] go through the exhibition and have a totally different idea for the story, I’m OK with that,” Glenn said. “Sometimes there are things that have multiple reads.”
No matter what narrative you take away from Tertium Quid, chances are the artist has a backstory that’s just as dramatic. While some of the drawings delve into universal truths about the human-animal condition, other images are more specific to Glenn’s own life.
“We had bought a house, and within six months of owning it, we discovered this oil spill from a tank that had existed in the house way before we lived there,” she said. “It was a very long process to get it fixed.”
It’s the kind of experience that makes a person question their reality.
“You have to think about what it means to walk away and leave it to the next set of people,” Glenn said. “Or what does it mean to take care of it and be responsible for it? And then in making those decisions on a daily basis, other things come to mind like, ’Should we really own another car?’ or, ’Do we really need to use these kinds of resources?’”
Glenn’s next series takes her to Andalusia, Spain, where she will spend more time thinking about the lessons of oil spills, human-animal patterns, and our interface with the environment.
In movie terms, it’s the realization after the montage.