Exhibition Text, Mesomonuments at Artspeak

Mesomonuments October 30 – December 12, 2020

Text by Artspeak curator Bopha Chhay

Mesomonuments [1] is an exhibition that features Mesomonuments: Ex-situ (2020) and Mesomonuments: Scrap Figures after Elza Mayhew (2020), two bodies of works by Nanaimo-based artist Jesse Gray. Gray’s process of gathering, sorting, accumulating beach plastic and maritime debris from beaches in and around Nanaimo, the territory of Snuneymuxw, Stz’uminus, and Snaw’naw’as First Nations, and elsewhere on Vancouver Island, requires a specific attentiveness to the surrounding environment. Mesomonuments brings together work that asks us to look at and consider societal refuse and detritus as a way to question our idealism around progress and exponential growth.

Several months ago Gray began a study of the sculptural works of Victoria-based sculptor Elza Mayhew (1916-2004). Known for her sculptures, Mayhew’s body of work was dedicated to the Modern form, primarily in bronze. Many of her sculptures can be found in public spaces across Canada. Alongside her monumental bronze sculptures, Mayhew also produced smaller freestanding sculptures as well as miniatures in bronze, aluminum, and compound stone. Mesomonuments: Scrap Figures aftter Elza Mayhew is a continuation of Gray’s work from over the past several years. Frequently mimicking modernist forms by reassembling discarded beach refuse in her compositions, Gray’s work can be seen as a subversion of modernist history and ideas of industrial progress. The material transformation here described by Gray is crucial to her conflation of modernist forms with the material of beach plastic in highlighting the ways social meaning and value is ascribed to these materials—‘the original model is incinerated and replaced by molten metal, thus the pieces I cast will transform the incidentally everlasting (plastic) into a deliberate permanence (bronze).’[2]

Mesomonuments: Ex-situ consists of a series of beach plastic cast in bronze. These include familiar mass-produced objects, such as cigarillo butts, bottle caps, shotgun wads, stir sticks, bread bag tags, amongst other plastic debris. Through Gray’s process of lost wax casting, the beach plastics are transformed from mass manufactured to fine handmade objects. Their bronze form captures the nuances of their prior individualized utility—although manipulated by hand, weathered, chewed, and consumed. The debris, much of which is produced for single use to be discarded, is given a value not initially attributed to these objects. The accumulated groupings as multiples, and their proximity to one another, form a sort of anti-monument, pointing to the ruins of capitalism.

Over the duration of the show Mesomonuments: Ex-situ will continue to take shape, quietly morphing, its edges shifting, as parts of the work leave the space intermittently. Gray’s objects are meant to disperse, whether into people’s pockets, personal bags, or into people’s homes. In previous iterations of this work, Gray returned the bronze cast pieces back to the beach for people to find. As part of Mesomonuments visitors to the gallery are invited to take a piece with them. This gradual distribution stretches the physical boundaries of the institution, highlighting the significance of the anti-monumental in Gray’s work and practice. The distribution of the works is also a reminder of the initial dispersal of the plastic refuse washed ashore, and Gray’s process of observing, collecting what had been discarded and shored up.

Mesomonuments is anti-monumental in ways that commemorate the way things move beyond the standardized utilitarian intent of the object. Fundamental within Gray’s practice is a series of relations grounded in place as her work traces the movement and histories from industry to utility, to the shore and a convergence and continuation from the mass-manufactured to the handmade.


1 Meso in the title of ‘Mesomonuments’ refers to the ‘Meso’ as in ‘middle’; and also the way that marine debris scientists quantify plastic pollution into Microlitter (<5mm) Mesolitter (approx 5mm-2.5cm) and Macrolitter (>2.5 cm).

2 In conversation with Gray.

Jesse Gray would like to acknowledge the support of Canada Council for the Arts, BC Arts Council, Jesse Birch, Linden Gray Birch, Karen Birch, Shane Phillipson, Sarber Jewellers, Bopha Chhay, Erik Hood, and Artspeak.