Matka Las
By Luca Jesse Apel
rOGUE Gallery, Eastern Edge March 29-May 11, 2024

Reviewed by Violet Drake

Luca Jesse Apel’s recent body of work, Matka Las (Mother Woods) carves its story in wood across the four walls of the rOGUE Gallery. This exhibition is a welcoming whisper into the forests of cultural reconciliation between caretaker and child, history and memory, and identity and language. 

As you enter the rOGUE, Apel’s work immediately beckons you toward woodland wonders where your previous place in the world, beliefs of magic, and traditions of folklore are suspended and transfixed. In an instant, you are tangled between the thick gaze of five mythical creatures derived from Polish paganism: Rusalka, Latawce, Marzanna, Leszy, and the infamous Baba Yaga’s Hut. Each showcased on their respective pine slabs, the longer you stare into these carved portals, the more you will feel each deity’s opposing pull towards you: vengefully malevolent or whimsically protective.

Sprinkled in each corner of the gallery, and along the main wall separating the exhibit from the rest of Eastern Edge is a decorative gust of buttons and coins.Vegetation blooms from these protective memorabilia scattered throughout the exhibition. Below these intimate adornments rests a shapely stump, centring the forest as Apel’s creative home. His cultivated creative world is where we viewers lose ourselves the longer we stay.

Luca Jesse Apel, Matka Las exhibition detail, photo by Laura Sbrizzi

What I find so impressive about Matka Las is the grounded meeting of Apel’s incredible technical skill and expressive use of wood, decorative objects, and memorabilia, with his rigorous exploration of Polish culture, no matter how frayed that connection may be. At a sensory level, a light smell of wood stain fills the intimate gallery space, further gesturing toward Apel’s creative process and layers of delicate touch and hand work that have brought these carvings to life. Inspired by the artist’s own reconciliation with his hybrid identity, a feeling described as “neither Polish nor wholly Canadian” in his own words, Mother Woods is clearly a lengthy amalgamation of active artistic practice along with personal yearning. As I notice each layer of stain, and handcrafted textural stroke Apel brings forth in these dimensional woodworks, my body and mind are pulled into a magnetic curiosity for how these works came to be, and what these deities have come to embody throughout time and history. Each of these pine pieces weave stain, story, carving, and culture together as a spellbinding saunter through thickets, summoning creatures crafted for a reimagined childhood more reconnected to what might have been: within the artist’s own life as well as the viewer’s.

I encourage others to view Matka Las themselves, and to sit and witness what Apel has created here with hand and heart. I look forward to seeing Apel’s creative practice continue to grow and explore the edges of his own life and culture. Mother Woods is an invitation into just a part of Apel’s recent creative world, and also a reminder for us to stay curious about our own memories, identities, and desires.  

Violet Drake is a trans, queer, and disabled artist and writer from the community of Lawn on the Burin Peninsula. Now based in St. John’s, her practice blends together life narrative, digital collage, photography, and poetry. Her work has been exhibited and performed throughout Ktaqmkuk (colonially Newfoundland) including Eastern Edge, LSPU Hall, Memorial University, and more. Co-author of the award winning anthology transVersing, her recent work can be found locally and nationally in Riddle Fence, St. John’s Storytelling, Understorey Magazine, and Canada’s Drag Race.