Review date
Toronto Star
Murray Whyte

Iris Haussler, The Sophie La Rosière Project, Chapter III: For years, Iris Haussler didn’t really have to contemplate what she might do for an encore because every exhibition she made was her last. It was the way it had to be: Haussler, who elevated subterfuge to high art, would slip into a new skin for each outing, crafting entire realities for her various surrogates to inhabit: Joseph Wagenbach, an addled, elderly German immigrant, whose tiny house in Trinity Bellwoods he filled with wax-effigy horrors; or Mary O’Shea, the teenage Irish house maid who in the 19th century filled the walls of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Grange with tiny objects — cries for help, across the ages.

Sophie La Rosière was born of Haussler’s vivid imagination too, but she’s sticking around, maybe because she’s a little different. In the past, Haussler would vanish completely, taking any notion of artifice along with her. So complete were her deceptions, for all any of her viewers could tell, what they were seeing was plain truth: remnants of real lives lived, actual traumas endured. The intention was to impart emotion, not knowledge. It’s very different, as she always said, to know something than it is to feel it, and unless you had a heart of stone, trust me: you felt it.

From the beginning, Sophie’s role was less an open wound than a narrative vehicle for some bigger ideas: about art, gender, and the marginal space occupied by women in the really big deal of Modernism. For a movement predicated on newness, the old boys’ club Modernism became looked pretty same old, same old. Sophie, a gifted painter able to move deftly across Modern movements — painterly, intricately woven textures à la Klimt, the thick and messy exuberance of Matisse — became tangled in frustration and heartsickness both (the object of her affection, a woman, represented another socio-cultural boundary not to be crossed), moving her to destroy her works and abandon her studio in the French countryside, never to return.