Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The End is the Beginning is The End: Saskatchewan’s Offer of a Province-Wide International Art Project*

SASKATCHEWAN. One third of the “prairie pass over” zone buttressed by boom & bust Alberta and frigidly quirky Manitoba, Saskatchewan locates itself in the dead centre of Canada. With just under 1 million in population spread thinly over almost 600,000 sq. km, limitless open space and the always-present horizon are often the only company one keeps in the land of living skies. The province’s isolationist tendencies brews up nuggets of community with a large and vocal First Nations population; perhaps not unrelated is its notoriety for being the birthplace of Medicare and the New Democratic Party. Culture-wise, Saskatchewan was home to the first artist-run centre for photography, created the first arts board in Canada, and of course hosted the famed Emma Lake workshops in the 1950s. Attended by such notables as Clement Greenberg, Anthony Caro and Barnett Newman the workshops live on today as an extension of the University of Saskatchewan. Building on its legacy of resilience, key members of Saskatchewan’s arts scene are devising a large-scale project that seeks to resolve every facet of the Saskatchewan identity and launch it onto the international sphere.

Photo credit: Amy Fung, 2007

Entitled, Beginning of the End – End of the Beginning, the massive project will take place in Saskatchewan’s three largest cities as well as rural sites throughout the province. The brainchild of Felipe Diaz, Executive Director of the Saskatchewan Filmpool Cooperative and interdisciplinary artist Kim Morgan, the project stemmed from their graduate days at the University of Regina. One result of their seminal conference, Crossing Over: negotiating specialization in an interdisciplinary culture (2002) was the realization that major gaps existed in the construction and maintenance of Saskatchewan’s cultural community. Saskatchewan’s isolation from the rest of Canada’s cultural scene was one thing to overcome, but isolation within the province between communities and disciplines was also blatantly apparent. Up to now, the province has been short on the mounting of interdisciplinary and multiorganizational events. Fueled by the conference, Diaz and Morgan took on the task of creating a project that would break down Saskatchewan’s ingrained tendencies and help to launch a pan-arts community within Saskatchewan.
Staying true to the cooperative spirit of the province, Diaz and Morgan formed a curatorial collective consisting of academic and independent curator, Elizabeth Matheson; Director and curator for the Art Gallery of Prince Albert, Brenda Barry Byrne; and, interdisciplinary artist and curator, Adrian Stimson. As the first ever international project funded by the Saskatchewan Arts Board, there are high hopes and even higher obstacles for the projected August to October 2010 event. Although skeptics might balk at the idea of an international art project happening in the midst of the province’s characteristic emptiness, the curatorial collective is more than aware of Saskatchewan’s marginalized identity–and it plans on using it to their full advantage.

From her home in Saskatoon, Matheson explains that Beginning of the End -- End of the Beginning will not just be another international exhibit in the vein of the biennial, but a sustainable project for Saskatchewan that is being offered to the global art scene. Speaking about representing Saskatchewan and Canada on the international level, Matheson matter-of-factly says, “Canada is not known for any contemporary Canadian art scene. International artists don’t see Saskatchewan as marginalized in Canada, but simply a part of Canada. I remember attending a seminar in Sao Paulo in which most of the artists and curators from various countries meeting were not familiar with Canadian contemporary art, let alone defined in terms of specific regions. This experience led me to think about what happens when particular national art scenes–when left to focus on themselves for too long–end up defending geo-political positions they took up years ago. Delving into these types of issues may be an opportunity to bring forward new ideas and envisage other ways for contemporary art to unfold other than by separateness and regionalism.”

Essentially, the curators plan on removing contemporary Saskatchewan from its seclusion by framing it against a contemporary international community that does not root itself in regionalism, but transnationalism. Canada to many, is a country to be explored; and on an international scale, the micro-macro relationship of Saskatchewan to Canada holds more truth than may be commonly thought. With such a low population, Saskatchewan lacks (and the same can be said for Canada in relation to the world), the sheer numbers to stimulate a highly active internal art scene, sparsely populated it faces the constant threat of the brain drain. Like Canada, Saskatchewan is also perceived by outsiders to be more a land of resources than cultural production. Diaz, who remained in Regina after grad studies, believes in the importance of creating a sense of direction and purpose for the arts community and consequently changing the way Saskatchewanians perceive themselves.

“Art does not seem to be a priority for many people in our province,” Diaz declares. “It is seen as a luxury that distracts from the necessary goals of survival, but Art is not a luxury, Art is not a distraction, it is a necessary part of our survival and identification as a positive, forward moving community. Maybe this has something to do with our depression era ethics, maybe it has something to do with our ‘homesteader’ thinking, or maybe that wide open horizon makes us more cautious because we can see things coming from far away. Whatever the reason, the implication is that Art does not enter the psyche of Saskatchewan people, except as an imposition on the real work that needs to be done.”

At the present moment, Beginning of the End – End of the Beginning remains in a research and community outreach phase. Plans are to invite 40 to 60 national and international artists to come to Saskatchewan to partake in residencies and the mounting of large-scale public works. Undeniably, there would be immense appeal for an artist from a densely populated city such as Mexico City or Mumbai to come to the Canadian prairies and be given an entire ghost town, stretches of highway or an abandoned hospital to mould at their whim. Echoes of the Münster Sculpture Project, a once in every 10 year occurrence, come to mind, with the promise of grandeur in site specific public projects and the event’s location away from a major urban centre. The curatorial collective also aims to have a positive effect on Saskatchewan’s arts community by offering working residencies between the international artists and local artists.

Stimson, perhaps the most widely known member of the curatorial collective for his famed performance character Buffalo Boy (2004 ongoing), in mock reference to the historical Buffalo Bill, who wrestles with dualities of colonialism and sexuality. Stimson, who has performed at festivals like Burning Man in Nevada, thinks of the Biennial project as experimental:

“While we have an idea of how we as a collective see the project, it will expand as the project evolves, leaving many opportunities to be realized,” contemplates Stimson. “The theme, Beginning of the End – End of the Beginning creates a space for the unknown and transition. Perhaps we in Saskatchewan are ready to explore these spaces. Saskatchewan is a little quirky, in a good way, meaning that its isolation has created a unique space where the social meets the realities of reliance, reliance on each other for survival. This project could create new templates for curatorial collaboration.”

Byrne, the last to come on board and representing northern Saskatchewan, is also one of the founding members of SCAM (Small City Art Museum) collective. Bringing that grassroots mentality to the curatorial mix, she refers to how SCAM members pool resources and raise profiles of their institutions through dissemination and advocacy. Consisting of six curators from across Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, SCAM participants are all from similar size institutions serving similar regionalized populations. Byrne describes the Biennial curatorial collective as a new hybrid, fostering new ideas, breaking the paradigms of curation and discourse, but ultimately she says, “Beginning of the End – End of the Beginning is not just about exhibits of art and art-practices, but the spirit of the province, uniting land and people.”

As a project that has the potential to critically contextualize the work of Saskatchewan arts centers and Saskatchewan artists on an international stage, the liminality suggested by the idea of the beginning and the end promises to play itself out on the massive extension of highways and dirt roads found throughout the province. Travel, specifically driving across the land, will be a huge part of the experience of the project, stretching out to the never-ending horizon that is so defining to the experience of Saskatchewan. The mentality innate to moving across the province will be as important a context as the works themselves. The muse of the project is this experience of openness, one that conjoins sensations of freedom and fear, comparable only to finding oneself in the middle of the ocean, inspired by a landscape unlike any other in the world. Even the title, Beginning of The End – End of the Beginning, connotes a continual flatness that is at once hypnotizing and enticing.

Morgan, who has lived in many major urban centers in different countries, contends that she returned simply because she grew up here. “There is something about Saskatchewan that stays with you, where ever you are,” says Morgan, whose current research focuses on New Genre Public Art. However, under a newly elected provincial government that does not yet have an arts policy–yet alone a public arts policy, she points to the writer, Carol Becker, who was the keynote speaker at the Crossing Over Conference in 2002, and who has recently been appointed the Dean of Arts at Columbia University. A major point of reference for the curatorial collective are Becker’s theories on interdisciplinary practice, the artist as public intellectual, the artist as catalyst and the desire to bring different people together to create dynamic environments or multidimensional public spaces. All ideas the collective hopes to expand upon and activate.

Banking on the diversity of voices and backgrounds to develop a deeper investigatory approach to curating, Matheson in particular does not believe that the contemporary art created for this project will be only relevant to Saskatchewan, but holds the ability to take on the complex issues of transnationalism and regionalism using Saskatchewan as a meeting ground for artists to locate themselves. Creating affinities between the people, land, and art, using geographical vastness to situate new spatial exhibition narratives, the project makes the most of what already exists and invites the world to re-imagine the province with them.

Saskatchewan breaks down into agriculture, oil and gas and mining as the top sectors with the world’s largest industries for potash and uranium. Promoting itself as a province of affordable real estate, world class spas with the lowest green fees for avid golfers, Saskatchewan’s cultural GDP has consistently ranked on the lower end on the nation wide spectrum. Whether this will be a destination spot for arts professionals remains to be seen, but what is evident is that Saskatchewan currently lacks the infrastructure for tourism at the international level. Funding from corporate and crown companies (which are still actually owned by the crown) will be essential to the project along with independent and private sources for a multi-tier and sustainable investment.

A factor for any arts initiative today, Diaz notes that funding has become a part of their programming, “If our programming is about developing community, then we should consider that actively seeking funding from the community can be a part of its development. We must start to develop a community of sponsors and donors in our province and we are developing this program as an opportunity for business interests to invest in the cultural industry.”

*First published in C Magazine, Spring Issue 2008.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Seeing Through Modernism (by way of) Karen Wilkin’s “Life After Formalism” lecture, March 20, 2008

In the early heyday of my visual arts writing in Edmonton (spanning just over three years now), I couldn’t understand the overarching preoccupation with modernist formalism and the lighting quick defensive anger at any questioning of formalism’s contemporary relevance. And in many ways, I am still at a lost as to why there remains so much hostility in protecting an era that many have (or should have) clearly moved on from.

The era in question covers most of the 1970s and 80s--currently exhibiting as Seeing Through Modernism--a time when many local artists responded to the modernist art collection at the Edmonton Art Gallery. Backed by the praise and interest of Clement Greenberg, Edmontonian artists saw themselves as more than just isolated Western Canadian artists; Edmonton-based artists not only saw, but worked with serious fervor at being modernist formalists in the vein of an internationally heralded movement.

Over thirty years have passed and the interest in formalism and Greenberg have risen and fallen. The works curated by Dr. Anne Whitelaw present the many accomplishments of past EAG Chief Curator Terry Fenton, and places the works in a civic history that includes the responsive formation of Latitude 53 and SNAP Gallery. Looking at these works in the light of a historical retrospective, the Jack Bush’s and Douglas Haynes can be contextualized as significant moments in the formation of Canadian art history.

Only these works, along with all the others, are not just viewed in a historical context. They are highlighted as the pinnacle of an achievement that many today feel disconnected from--in both aesthetic and in quality. Robert Linsley’s obvious inquiry into why Roald Nasgaard is rehashing abstract Canadian painting bluntly suggests Edmonton formalists (along with Toronto’s third generation abstractionists) were a downright failure in furthering formalist art (Canadian Art, Spring 2008). In looking at this exhibition, into recent works by many of the same artists, and at the product of current U of A BFA and MFA graduates, Linsley’s assessment is bang-on. There is invaluable importance in remembering and acknowledging the past, but to grow as artists and as a community, Edmonton artists, along with the U of A, needs to start looking out before they bottom out.

Karen Wilkin, with her rolodex sharp memory and no punches pulled demur, began her lecture by first differentiating what she saw in the Modernism exhibit from what she remembers. As the Chief Curator from 1971 - 1978, only the second curator in the EAG’s short history, Wilkin basically formed all programming and collecting from the ground up. Through an ever expanding personal network and a passionate commitment to the artists she admired, Wilkin exposed and exhibited the best contemporary works (she could) of that time--and they were the best works to her own taste and judgment. That is what a curator does, a fact that has been washed out by peculiar funding bodies and hog-tied selection committees. But most valuably, Wilkin the curator saw the importance of bringing outsiders in to workshop and visit with local artists to create a common breeding ground of inspiration and activity.

Only thirty some odd years later, Edmonton is still very much creating works of that bygone era and of that aesthetic taste. Enough time has passed that colour field theory is once again in vogue, yet one here in Edmonton would never know it ever went out of fashion.

To an outsider coming in, a missing piece of the puzzle to Edmonton’s modernist history was always “Why here and Why now?” The answer boils down to whom Wilkin, then Fenton, basically knew and admired in a whirlwind combination of who they could get with bare funds and no reputation.

It was interesting, though not entirely surprising, to hear about the insular history then, and how Edmontonians came out of their shell only after big names from elsewhere deemed it appropriate to do so. Unfortunately we are still of that mind frame as we are not only looking in, but also looking back to that time when big names from elsewhere praised what we were doing. We formed an identity through mirroring what was displayed in our public gallery, but we have not grown past that initial instigation of external influences. There has been no life after formalism if you stayed in Edmonton, because art dies once removed from its own dialogue and context.

Seeing Through Modernism: Edmonton 1970 - 1985
runs until May 4, 2008 at the Art Gallery of Alberta

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Prairie Artsters studio visits 2008: Alex Janvier in Banff*

As the metal doors begin to open within the visual arts studios above the Walter Phillips Gallery, there are only two studios already open and waiting. Balloons float from their scotch tape base on two metal doors adjacent to each other in the back corner by the common kitchen. The rooms are empty, with traces of thin brush strokes along a wooden table marked with the outlines of past canvases. Connecting each wall is a perpendicular line that in a blur could pass as ongoing lines of brightly coloured ribbons. But up close, the line breaks up into dozens of new smaller works by Cold Lake-based senior artist Alex Janvier.

Image credit: Alex Janvier, "Beaver Castor," Mixed Media on paper.

Janvier has slowly and steadily become one of Canada’s most well known and respected working artists. Known for his sharp rhythmic strokes against a stark white background, at once acknowledging his landscape, his Dene and Saulteaux heritage and European training, Janvier was the subject of a much-lauded solo retrospective at the Art Gallery of Calgary in 2007 to coincide with his appointment to the Order of Canada.

Attending ACAD from 1956 to 1960, Janvier had been raised in the highly contentious residential school system in Alberta. Taking part in the community of St Paul’s art club, professional painter Carlo Altenberg took Janvier under his wing and encouraged him to go to art school.

“He must have seen something in me,” Janvier muses nearly 60 years later, standing inside the larger of his two Banff studios. A recent, well-ruffled copy of the Globe and Mail lies strewn across the couch, and the open air room carries the distinct atmosphere of having been heavily occupied. After a recent health issue that he does not get into, Janvier has returned to painting full time every day. Well into his 70s, but not slowing down, it’s obvious that Janvier is still exploring the potentials and possibilities of his craft.

From Altenberg, who also taught at the University of Alberta, to his European-based instructors in ACAD, Janvier’s techniques and aesthetics didn’t begin to formulate until his third year of art school, when he reconnected with his ancestral culture.

“There’s a rhythm in nature, it gives us so much and we have to give it back,” Janvier says, his eyes still sparkling. “To the youth today, I tell them to get back to the culture.”

As part of his residency, he has began painting in the shapes of traditional mandala drums, using an acid-free paper from St Armand, in Québec. Rhythm continues to be a reoccurring theme in his works decade after decade, a notion he doesn’t find very surprising.
“You never stop learning. Nature is not occidental,” he says.

Being officially selected to partake in a Canada/China cultural exchange in 1985 left an indelible impression on Janvier. Feeling a deeply rooted psychic connection to China, Janvier has started using chinese calligraphy paper and ink, which he sums up as much finer in comparison to the granular texture of acrylic and even watercolours. Exploring not just his history, but a collective transcontinental history, Janvier’s latest body of work also pushes his and others’ theory that the Bering strait was once a traversed land bridge.

As a face of Canadian visual art to the international community, Janvier’s recent turn to exploring transnational identity and aesthetics is just the latest path forged. Known within and outside of Canada as one of the country’s leading contemporary Aboriginal artists, Janvier’s appeal across intertribal and international communities is rooted in his awareness of rhythm as a concept for common understanding. From tuning into the rhythm of traditional dances and letting the movements of the legs sway his visual strokes, to the beat and syncopation of percussion alive in all cultural expressions, Janvier sees beyond boundaries and peers deep into his own inspiration.

“You’re enlightened to look at your background, at your history. That’s what becomes important.”

Alex Janvier, Banff Fiction Residency
Visited Feb 16, 2008

*First appeared in Vue Weekly, March 20 - 26, 2008

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Special guest post by Sheena Edmundson, Awakening Generations: representational gaps at the AGA

At the Art Gallery of Alberta there is a curious juxtaposition of two separate exhibitions currently showing side by side. “Generation” features nine contemporary artists from North America whose work supposedly incorporates the images, ideals and anxieties of North American youth. “Awakening” is comprised of artwork from ihuman (high risk) youth from right here in Edmonton. "Generation" is about youth, while "Awakening" is created by youth, but this is where the similarities end.

"Generation" is fraught with idle moments; its view of youth dated and wholly un-original. The most prominent piece is of two girls boorishly looking at porn magazines (perhaps self-portraits of the artist Eliza Griffith herself) and I can’t help but openly laugh at the cliché. These girls are the over sexualized playthings of the media machine and they fail to embody anything about growing up as a teenage girl. While this may have been her point, it has been done a thousand times before and doesn’t speak about how “over-sexualized” teenagers really feel about the matter.

Image credit: Eliza Griffiths, Another Perfect Day, 1997.

The theme runs strong throughout the exhibit: Janet Werner’s “Puppy and Pearls” top off the pre-planned, posed, and overly thought out youth “image” that plagues popular media. Her models are the poor little rich girls circa 1985 (think Molly Ringwald, not Paris Hilton) that always seem to have deep sad eyes and pink sweaters. As an exhibit, they do not stand up as works that investigate any images, ideals, and anxieties of North American Youth.

If anything, the exhibit laughs at youth. Take Jeremy Shaw's “21 Methods of After School Destruction,” a tongue in cheek look at post-Columbine anxiety (apparently, most teenage boys just draw out elaborate bomb making instructions for fun), and Justine Kurland’s “Boy Torture,” another pre-planned, posed work of photography depicting a gang of girls stripping a male victim. Again, hardly a likely afterschool activity for a typical teenage girl. Kyla Mallet’s “Legendary Teens” is the only artist who broaches the reality of youth experience through enlarged school room notes and portraits of suburbanized teenagers alongside trivial interview questions like, “What do you spend your money on?” and the obligatory “drugs, smokes and booze” responses. Still, the art is not hers; she just made it bigger and put it in fancy frames, which is what pisses me off the most about the entire "Generation" exhibit. It’s just so . . . contrived.

At the end of the day, it becomes glaringly obvious that these thirty something artists (and the curators) are out of touch with today’s young people. Which is why putting "Generation" in the room next to "Awakening"-- a room where every piece of art is clearly introspective and truthful--is wonderfully ironic.

Photo courtesy of ihuman youth society, 2007.

With only four walls and a few untrained artists to draw from, "Awakening" does what "Generation" fails to do: understand youth. There is passion in this exhibit, something revealing and unapologetic as soon as you walk in. If you really want to know about youth--their images, ideals and anxieties, Jacob Amon’s pieces come to mind. One in particular, Untitled, of inner city Edmonton where large scaffolds holding downtown apartments hang over the heads of abstract, colourful bodies in the midst of dance, art, creation and despair. These bodies, perhaps ihuman youth, are doing what real youth do amidst the idea of rising house and rental prices looming over them. Finally, some semblance of reality. Another one of Amon’s pieces looks like a small child with a gun over his back, looking on to a scary political landscape--here we know that Amon is indeed in tune with the world we all live in, and not some media-generated fantasy of teenage boredom.

One of the other pieces by “Shady” depicts white hands coming out of darkness, and in a stormy sky the words “Shady Vill” and “Mentally Ill” disappear into the clouds. It seems Shady is astute enough to have hope. Everything about the remaining pieces speak youth; the art like the people are sporadic and unstructured, rebellious and refreshing. There is poetry on the walls, there is a CD walkman with original beats from the artists, and there is no room for pretentious ponderings on what youths are REALLY trying to say. The youths in "Awakening" are acutely aware of who they really are and what they’re really about, and I think those other generations should take note.

Both exhibitions run until March 24, 2008, Art Gallery of Alberta

Sheena Edmundson, 23, is an intern at The Magazine Project where she has helped write, design, develop, and produce Asterisk magazine (to be released March 27, 2008). Part of her internship included a job shadow with Amy Fung where she was asked to write this review.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Holly Newman, Tree Dresses, various locations and times

Over the past year, I have every once in a while come upon a small frilly decorative fabric ever so gently attached to one of our downtown's pencil thin trees. Usually along a pedestrian friendly path, unlikely public dressings have been spotted in front of the Art Gallery of Alberta, along Churchill Square, and now, spotted throughout the U of A campus.
Larger than past reincarnations, bright dresses adorn mature trees along Saskatchewan Drive and directly on campus. Surprising, not-at-all alarming, the tree dresses exist between the realm of our city's DIY energy and our street's excessive traces of discarded clothing by those who have fallen between the cracks. But on campus, where history blends with theory before practice, the tree dresses appear more as memorials for a past we are not sure we can remember.
The handiwork of artist Holly Newman, a community minded artist with professional credentials that has not forgotten about why she makes art, it is really the spirit of these works that have grown into something so enchanting. A public presentation that is at once subtle, fleeting, and engaging, this is what I consider public art in one of its truest and purest forms.

*As this is a community public presentation outside of any sanctioned spaces, I highly encourage public opinions.

Image credit: Holly Newman, 2008

"The Experiment, " Fish Griwkowsky and Tim Rechner, the ARTery, March 14 - April 18, 2008

If you can get past the unlikely aesthetic pairing of visual artists Fish Griwkowsky and Tim Rechner and settle into the experience of a purely optical illusion, "The Experiment" is currently warping the ARTery with new works by two of Edmonton's best artistic beards.
Not to get too flippant over any curatorial mandate, but these two bodies of work visually clash to the point where it's difficult to digest how the walls are holding themselves up. Rechner's wall to ceiling notebook sketches along with larger structures continue his new path of graffiti-inspired abstractions. Popping against the ARTery's back black walls, what became obvious is that Rechner needs to show his work against black backgrounds more often to stabilize and enhance all of the intertwined lines at work that continue to run throughout all of his pieces.
Griwkowsy's 3D photography, especially his large scale works, leaps out in an equally engaging presentation, but between switching from one process to another, from one overtly visually stimulating work to another, there is something lost between absorbing abstraction and distortion (and vice versa). To continue this flippancy, it is as if the viewer is caught in the midst of a visual grand standing dance off; both have their trademark moves, but you can really only watch one at a time and for a short amount of time. A solo show by either artist would have worked better, but in his own right, Griwkowsky's statues cascading down a hillside and the turning curve of the high level bridge are the strongest works. Bringing out the formal trickery through context of place and time, Griwkowsky makes it clear why 3D photography can be more than just a gag and pushes his work as well as his audience.
Together, Griwkowsky and Rechner are seemingly experimenting with very different subject matters; overwhelming, stimulating, it is undoubtedly the strongest visual exhibition the ARTery has yet to show. But it is because it has also been the riskiest. This exhibition really could have gone the other way, but the ARTery is the perfect venue to experiment. Overloaded, highly debatable, the best part of this exhibition may be its record as a stepping stone towards opening up the ARTery's exhibition possibilities.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Karen Trask, "Warm Snow," SNAP Gallery, February 28 - April 12, 2008

Snow as static, snow as a blizzard of images, words, and thoughts, "Warm Snow," by Karen Trask presents a light, minimal approach to the fuzzy abstractions that permeate our brains. From sculpture to video installations to word sculptures on hand made paper, Trask's reduced expressions are as soft and overstimulating as the static that inspires her.
Inside the tiny nook of SNAP's main gallery space, Trask assembles a peaceful world, a world riddled with white noise to where everything is blanketed and therefore soothing. The steady scratchy tone of static was all that was missing, faintly heard not sure if imagined or coming from one of the installations, but this exhibition just so faintly touches on all of the different possibilities, media, and outcome it begins.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Gillian Willans, “Hiding in Plain Sight,” FAB Gallery, March 4 - 22, 2008

Emptiness pervades each seat, corridor, staircase, dining room and driveway that follow one after another in Gillian Willans MFA exhibition. Conjuring the return of the same through shades of repetition, it is not only absence that pervades each scene, but the lingering specter of memories and presence that haunts the entire exhibit.
As I passed each series of clustered works, I wondered where this was all leading, how it was all going to tie together. Deserted private spaces, both interior and exterior, are reconstructed over and over again. Loose sheets, paired images, a painted shadow--inserted between the exterior of a house, several houses, awashed under blue, white, pink lit skies. Looking at each empty chair, at each seemingly abandoned house, the same empty chair caught in a different shade from the last, infused with another layer of thought and emotion, I wondered who inhabited these spaces--whose absence are we supposedly longing for?

Image credit: Gillian Willans, Installation detail, 2008

Doubling back from beginning to end the narrative emerged. The narrative arch does not operate within the standard sequence of time and space; each work lives, breathes, and feeds off the others. It is the compendium of absence and repetition that threads this show together beyond a painting exhibit. Willans is explicit in her title of investigating all the things “hiding in plain sight.” Only her investigation goes beyond the content of her works, but goes deeper into the form, digging gratuitously into the construct of still life painting and what lies beneath the concept of painting at all. It’s contestable whether this is still life at all, but there is the arrangement or construction of the scene, a creative non fictitiousness of life, and the exercise in capturing a segment of life has been infused with a coherent voice challenging us with looking beyond strokes and palettes.
There is one wall of the same, a double row of houses repeated over and again, flashing different hues, tones, memories. In contrast to the rest of the exhibit, which hangs in non structured tangents, this wall reinforces that every moment (in the Derridian differance) hinges its own meaning on another, in spite of their apparent sameness. Each and every single moment, captured as image, constructed as painting, remains unique in meaning--and it is this uniqueness, heightened in direct relation to its apparent sameness, that begins tracing out what truly exists in plain sight.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

"Should Easton Stay or Should He Go?" Prairie Artsters in Vue Weekly March 6- 12, 2008

I recently caught up with Anthony Easton fresh from his sojourn to Toronto, a city that has been very kind to the Edmonton/Fort Saskatchewan-based visual artist. Exhibiting in Fly Gallery as well as Art Metropole, Easton’s kitschy conceptual pieces have been highly praised for their bratty aesthetics and processed public appeal. RM Vaughn, respectable Canadian Art magazine critic, adores Easton’s work—and this is a fact Easton proudly boasts in pride as much as in defense.

Photo credit: Ashley Andel, 2007

Sitting in the back of Jasper Avenue’s Commodore Restaurant between bites of crumbling hamburger and sips of Fanta, Easton openly talks about his situation as an Alberta-based conceptual artist. If Joseph Kosuth was right in asserting that all art (after Duchamp) is explicitly conceptual (and I do believe he is) Easton is then fighting a moot issue (at least within Edmonton). Facing consistent contention from high brow and formal peers over the legitimacy of his artistic practice—to which Easton responds, “this high brow versus low brow shit is why Edmonton doesn’t grow”—his study and expression of Alberta is gratuitous to say the least. Easton’s penchant for explicitly pushing the boundaries of sexual politics dominates a majority of his work (a more theoretical exhibition is currently up for the month of March at Mandolin Books)*, but what lies deep within Easton’s inspiration is his unabashed curiosity in the identity and construct of Alberta.

A genuine country music fan and keen enthusiast for pickup trucks, Easton’s interest in an Alberta aesthetic carries no irony. Sitting here at the Commodore, a perfect aesthetic in Easton’s mind, he does not bat an eye at the mention of the nearby cowboy bar. “People don’t listen to country music at those bars,” Easton states flatly. “We’re weirdly unconnected to our culture here. A place like [that] is an erotic spectacle, something people here create so we don’t have to analyze ourselves.”

And analyze is what Easton does best, often with a humble grandeur. Displaying a very transparent bibliography for his work that includes idols like Hans Haacke, the sensational and sociopolitical German pop artist, Easton remains an anomaly in his home town. Investigating the “psychogeography” of Edmonton through non-romantic disseminations of Albertan culture, he favours showing his work in populous everyday spaces rather than galleries. Creating fleeting moments of sublimity in LRT stations and in random public spaces, it is easy and disappointing to see how Easton has been ignored by the majority of the art community. His recent guest curation at the Art Gallery of Alberta (The 1950s Ford Show) put him on the radar for a much larger audience, but he continues to prefer showing in spaces uncensored by gallery pretensions.

“My works are not ahistorical, and that is my problem here,” Easton says, before stating his exhaustion with engaging in an argument nobody seems to be aware of. And of course it is also his exhaustion that rubs people the wrong way. Frustrated, his respect in the east over his Alberta-inspired works have become a Catch-22: standing for a fight he can’t seem to sway so he can continue to work and be inspired or leave and be successful in a place for a body of work removed from its own context. It’s not that Easton creates only strong works one after another; he has created a modest body of work that is at once complete unto itself. The problem is the very place he creates his work in finds him a strange bird within the flock, and the smallness of the community is quickly revealed for better or for worse.

I can’t help but feel that Easton needs to change his world by tapping into one open mind at a time, and here’s hoping enough open minds find him here ... or elsewhere.

*Change from Vue Weekly publication that read the Mandolin show as a curation.