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Issue 138

Megan Hepburn: Banana Dust
by Steffanie Ling

What would provoke a painter to dabble in perfumery?

In 2010, Megan Hepburn received the Joseph Plaskett Award for excellence in painting, and in 2015 she was shortlisted for the RBC Painting Competition. Her abstract oil paintings employ vibrant colours that add subtle movement and drama to otherwise dark and arrested palettes. The works lead you to humid environments in shades of green, and dimly lit, sophisticated spaces with purple, red and deep warm tones.

When Hepburn and a number of other painters were surveyed for a feature on Canadian painting in Editorial Magazine, the first thing they were asked was to describe the landscapes in the places they grew up. Hepburn’s reply was still life, Impressionism, bored teenager and maybe a bit of Emily Carr too:

I grew up near Brisbane, Australia, [and] Toronto and Vancouver. The landscape[s] [were made up of] oceans, fish, wet pavement, magnolia, hibiscus, huge trees, leaves for umbrellas, stump houses, lizards, torrential rain storms, slugs, spiders, spider webs, trucks, quiet people, primary coloured toys, jungle gyms, oversized t-shirts, shorts, friends’ pets, cliffs, swimming pools and the smells I hate the most: skunk and wet dog rain coat.

Recently, Hepburn started a perfume line, Cracher Dans La Soupe. For her exhibition at Spare Room, Banana Dust, Hepburn presented three olfactory works that attempted to recreate the smells she encountered in three different areas of 222 Georgia Street, a studio building in Vancouver’s Chinatown where Spare Room is located. Each perfume is made with natural materials and housed in one of three “olfactory tubes.” I initially thought this was some sort of specialized terminology in perfumery, but it actually refers to three curtained booths within the gallery space. Each houses one liquid perfume, alongside a set of three solid perfumes. Each central liquid perfume is named after a specific spot in the building. Studios Main Floor, 222 East Georgia St, 20:27 Friday, 22/12/2017 cites industrial house paint, wax and citrus cleaner, and turpentine and mineral spirit; Storage Room (osb), Main Floor, 222 East Georgia St. 21:44 Friday, 22/12/2017 portrays stale incense, rat piss and moldy food; and Basement Storage (Central), 222 East Georgia Street, 20:59 Friday, 22/12/2017 calls up plastic cardboard, dusty old wood and PVC flooring. The solid perfumes parse the particulates of that zone, as well as speak to the age of the building, the challenges with maintenance that come with it, and ultimately the indifference such variations make to the people who work there.

222 is a kind of unofficial institution, the junction of artist-run culture and studio life in Vancouver. The place is peppered with storied objects – furniture that belonged to artists who went post-studio, became curators and ditched a lamp in the basement (a trove of post-exhibition and ex-tenant bric-a-brac). The ground floor is mainly occupied by painters, and the second floor by designers and bookish types. The building has its own Instagram account (@222oohhhhh). Hepburn doesn’t have a studio here and is therefore perhaps more sensitized to the human (and occasionally animal) activity that gives the building much of its personality. The odours she creates are ones she returns to in memory – cedar, pine, moisture on cement, rotting vegetables – and also reflect a recurring motif of general dampness that is palpable in many of her paintings. Between her remarks in Editorial Magazine and Banana Dust, one can discern that Hepburn’s personal history of smell went from “the smells I hate the most” to “while objectively unpleasant, these odours are comforting to me.” Scent clearly resonates with the way she registers atmospheres, and with her concerns about the impossibilities of representation, both of which circle back to her occupations with abstraction. Goat Hair (2015), a discrete oil painting with loose strokes of grey and pale yellow (which was exhibited in a group exhibition last year at Access Gallery, downstairs from Spare Room) is an example of Hepburn’s abstract evocations: looking at it, you run through everything you might know or think about goat hair, and the work’s title is suddenly and immediately manifest. Scent panders very much to this same kind of associative reflex; it’s an internal, psychological exercise. With the added layer of language in the pieces’ titles, Hepburn’s scent works prompt us to see something episodic, a story or place.

A smell is perhaps the most literary of senses because it often requires description and that description often relies on a confluence of experiences that architects narrative potential. Every occasion of naming and describing a scent is both an abstraction and a conjuring. When that confluence of experiences mingles with language, it becomes hearsay, a dramatization, an adaptation of that lived experience. You’ll never be able to accurately imagine how this building smells, and the perfumes don’t always have a forthright power of suggestion. Duplicating the scents fills in an exciting gap in the formation of social memory. The exhibition’s title, Banana Dust, refers to Hepburn’s “utopia of natural perfumery” because the scent of fresh banana cannot be reproduced with natural materials (though artificial banana has become a scent unto itself). As she describes in the exhibit’s press release, an orange may turn to dust in southern Spain, retaining much of its fragrant intensity, but a banana peel wouldn’t smell like much of anything, nor could it turn to dust in dank Vancouver.

Perhaps luckily for manufacturers of synthetic banana, naming is a force that pushes beyond the threshold of artifice and enters our consciousness in its own right, openly asserting the fakeness of a simulated sense. Giving something a title, or a name, is indicative of a mission or goal – to show goat hair without goat hair, to taste strawberries without strawberries, to go to the storage room without going to the storage room, and to smell 222 without 222. Everyone knows that Vancouver does not allow new and old to co-exist for long. Without necessarily trying to replicate the odours she encountered at 222, Hepburn has created perfumes that become signposts for a foray into scent archiving.

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