In Search of Franklin
Review by Dr. Sherrill Grace
Since its disappearance in 1846-1847, the Franklin expedition in search of the Northwest Passage has grown from a disaster in British history to the subject of Canadian myth. The facts continue to be sifted and the story retold, most recently by forensic anthropologist Owen Beattie (Frozen in Time), also by Margaret Atwood, Mordechai Richler, Stan Rogers, and presently by Vincent Sheridan.
Sheridan’s title – “In Search of Franklin” – signals the narrative impulse and structure of this exhibition, and he is certainly retelling the familiar story. However, the conventions of mystery narrative demand causality and closure, and it is precisely this expectation of answers that Sheridan’s images evoke, then defer and problematize in tantalizing ways.
The show represents his personal response to the Arctic and to traces of disaster still there in isolated graves, bones, relics, and garbage on Beechey and King William Islands. In each of these etchings and relief prints, objects acquire talismanic force: skeletal ships hang suspended on beautifully worked surfaces that hint at possible maps or ice formations; the face and form of John Torrington (disinterred and photographed by Beattie) appears in several prints like a serene, presiding spirit.
The key to this work is the human skull, the memento mori that Sheridan uses to frame or focus a frozen scene. This configuration (cranial frame, facial aperture, frozen scene) creates a fine balance of intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic qualities. Look at it – through it – long enough and you are gazing with the mind’s eye on clues to the mystery of human nature, at reminders of our obsession with answers and of our inescapable mortality.
In “Journey with Franklin” (1993), the most complex etching in the show, Sheridan integrates the resources of medium and subject especially well. Here, the two skull sections floating side by side, each with its oval aperture, suggest disembodied, improvised snow goggles that both shield our eyes and focus them – on death, on the bare bones of story, on mysterious places already filled with looking. The print itself, created from a combination of techniques (aquatint, powder wash, cheesecloth over soft ground, chine colle, and drypoint), is on heavy hand-made paper, bled to the edge. The final illusion of texture and laying complements the subject by drawing the viewer into and around the image in a search for its secret “Franklin”.
The fifteen pieces in this show range in size from the miniature 4x3.5 inch etching H.M.S. Terror to the life size styrograph “Frozen John”, but all invite us to join the search. Each image captures a question; each repeats, echoes, connects with the others. What they withhold is the answer. The narrative meaning of Sheridan’s search remains hidden in his beautifully rendered fragments and haunting, partial vistas.
October 1994, The Vancouver Maritime Museum Exhibition