Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Space Project, Robbins Health Learning Centre, June 20 - July 2, 2008

As a gesture to present works to a general public The Space Project was the most uplifting exhibit I saw affiliated with The Works this year. Not part of the downtown hoopla, but just on the fringe and the only exhibit that made any sense, curated works from Grant MacEwan's pool of talent takes over the new Robbins Health Learning Centre on the corner of 109 St and 104 Ave. Unaware that the building was even complete, as it's not a location I ever walk by and somewhat forgettable as you pass by in vehicles, the opportunity to check out the building was rewarded by a surprisingly diverse presentation of mixed and multimedia work. Not too many public lobbies will handle a 15 meter plus (?) walk-through of cardboard and television sets, but Brittany Baxter and Kurt Gallop's "The Maze" is not so much a maze, but a barrage that screams with urgency. The hum of the entire unit may be lost amongst the day-time crowds, but the interaction of the work with its drawn curtain and flickering lights proves that interactive installations can exist in public spaces outside of gallery spaces.

The floating core foam mounted photographs and poems were maybe too small, but floating throughout and over potential meeting spaces, their presence pressed home that this room was the right place to be in (which is a doubt I often feel with random art in random public spaces). From the 2D works, Nathan Winiskittolmes' photographs were of note, catching moments in between remembering and acknowledging, and of the 3D, the uncredited wooden mobile jigsaw profile rightfully belongs in that lobby of a learning centre. Admittedly, the work seemed far more mature than the rest, and I had to confirm with a security guard whether if this was part of the exhibition or always here, as the work fills the space the best by adding to its structural heights and configuring how you move around and towards it.

Though the theme of space was a loose parameter that didn't consistently justify itself, the show was superior in its presentation of a public art exhibition. Curated by Kim Meiklejohn and Nicole Lemieux and coordinated by Janine Edwards, it's consoling to see the next generation of Edmonton artists engaging with the idea of space and public art with no holds barred. I can only hope this repeats itself--and ideally during the school semester.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Twenty20: Harcourt House, June 19 - July 19, 2008 Review by Erin Carter

Stumbling up three flights of stairs and through the welcoming doors to Harcourt House, I was colourfully greeted by the mixed media members exhibition sale Twenty:20. Ranging from professional to amateur artists, I was expecting to see more of a professional show than being immediately confronted with pieces that didn’t say much to me. Some of the art seemed rough and not really “done”. I felt that a lot of studies members had done in classes ended up for sale.

Walking through, I noticed a few stand-alone cases that appeared finished, but found it difficult to find them amidst the mish mash of bright colleague-y bits. For example, I couldn’t stop staring at the fine details in Edie McIntyre’s two wax-based portraits. As the two faces followed me through the second room, my eyes were guided to mix media pieces using wood, wax, paint, and found items. I was grounded by the fact that Harcourt House celebrates continuous education in the arts, but I found that the majority of art pieced on the unmatched puzzle of walls leaned on the side of artists in progress.

Harcourt House is a major supporter of home grown artists and it’s nice to see the opportunities they give out to their members, i.e. an art sale and a chance to get their work into the public eye. The majority of the prices for some of the compositions were arguable, but there were a few diamonds in the rough.

Erin Carter is Prairie Artsters 2008 summer intern

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Works 2008 Review*

Hitting downtown starting Thursday night, all day Friday, parts of Saturday and briefly on Sunday, my experience of The Works Art & Design Festival once again fizzles and splits after the first weekend. As the premiere festival in showcasing “international” art and design in Edmonton, I am continually saddened and perplexed as to how we continue to tolerate mediocrity. Art in big plastic tents, exhibitions low in production value and works that belong more on a fridge than a wall: I’m at a loss as to where our value of art actually sits.

I’ll state off the bat that my favourite experience of the weekend was an exhibition in direct contrast and completely separate from the festival. Art and Life in the McLeod Building, which was perhaps what the festival once used to be—at least in theory—taking an empty street front space, polishing it up and filling it with challenging, quality art that has both a local connection and a global reach. Sculptures from Catherine Burgess, Sandra Bromley and Zimbabwean stone works from the Mark Kumleben Collection were aided by the grandiosity of the space, and its sheer rawness and elegance was so simultaneously uplifting and frustrating that it left me to wonder what The Works was about anymore. As an ideal example of bringing a spark of art to downtown life, the glow left by Art and Life already outlasts anything I have ever experienced from the Works.

Starting on Thursday, Harcourt House’s members show kicked off my journey by easing in with the festival’s “art around town” exhibits. With a BBQ in full swing at Harcourt, a rooftop patio party at Latitude 53 and a party crowd gathering at the ARTery, it was a good feeling to see diversity coexisting. But formally, the work at Harcourt was considerably more amateur this year, and this was a point of discussion brought up to me as I stepped into the ARTery later that night, which is organically becoming the best (non)-artist-run centre in the city.

On Friday, the first stop was at Latitude 53 to go through Judy Cheung’s Mind of a City step by step. Cute, and preoccupying, the result was, however, not worth the effort. Continuing on, I had to stop at the McLeod Building again to show the space to Gerry Morita, Artistic Director of Mile Zero Dance and my art fiend* for the day. Crossing the river to see the shows at FAB Gallery and to see the Japanese woodblock prints at the Telus Centre, the woodcuts were treasures hidden inside this highly underused building of odd hours, and the poor misuse of space would be the defining lesson of the day, challenged only by the lesson on how poor quality of sound ruins an experience.

A solo jaunt back downtown across the bridge and through the legislature grounds, I came up onto Jasper Ave to be stopped dead in my tracks by one of The Works artists, furious over the presentation of her work and struggling to decide whether to pull the work or not. Wishing her the best of luck, I soon found the excellent prints at Manulife Place that were unfortunately washed out against the granite walls; the large abstract paintings in Scotia Place that left me indifferent; Lylian Klimek’s sculptural interventions inside the Bank of Montreal that made me smile and look suspicious; the exhibitions upstairs and downstairs at the Milner library that left me wondering if the festival is just actually community art on steroids; and a stroll through the square, through the tarped rooms of art and over to City Hall to see and touch the bird tubes outside and the panels of stellar buildings inside. Seeing the work en route through downtown isn’t too bad, but if I had come specifically to see any of the exhibitions I would have been severely disappointed. Later that evening, after the AGA opening, we headed to SNAP, catching the tail end of Karen Trask and Kyla Fischer’s opening, which was worth crossing Churchill Square for.

Saturday night I attended the under-attended The Works Opening Night Party. The first band, Jane Vain and the Dark Matter, was actually pretty good, but the sparse, restless crowd mostly stood outside in the gravel parking lot for the majority of the evening. Looking around the room after Terrence Houle’s performance of “I’ll See you Again,” the room was only thinly lined with AGA staff and guests, Works crew and volunteers and the performers themselves. Feeling nothing, I left before the DJs started.

And as I write this on a very rainy Sunday afternoon after listening to talks by Estonian new media artists curated by Shawn Pinchbeck, a talk that touched upon their social and civic conditions through media interventions as contemporary artists, this festival’s unmannered array of works and unqualified water theme trickle through my head as I’m left exhausted in hope and simply horrified at how our public art festival has slid into a mishmash of disconnected lobby art.

*First published in Vue Weekly June 26 - July 4, 2008
**Corrected from print publication

Prairie Artsters - Shouldn't we be taking this seriously?*

After the last round of open studios for “Making Artistic Inquiry Visible” down in the Banff Centre for the Arts, the lot headed over to the nearby pub for burgers and beers and fractured conversations. Familiar talks circled the residency thus far, stories from the last time some of us saw each other and how some of us know each other. The conversation sparked though when the state, or non-state, of Canada’s art world ignited. Peter Hobbs, one of the resident artists working on exposing the queerness of the Rockies, stated flat out that Canada had no active art world and proposed the challenge of naming 200 contemporary Canadian artists. Hobbs, who splits his time between Canada and the United States, may have been flippant in his rhetorical challenge, but it was certainly taken on by a handful of us. With the team of Robin Lambert, Anthea Black, Nicole Burisch, Jennifer Bowes, Lucy Pullen and myself, and without our dependency on laptops and the internet readily handy, pen and paper appeared, and names started flying across the table. Criteria had to be living Canadian artists known nationally, if not internationally. Going from region to region, discipline to discipline, we rattled off people we knew, knew of, saw, wrote about, wished we could write about, exhibited alongside and anyone else at the forefront of our mental libraries.

Taking on the challenge because it didn’t seem that hard, the group quickly withered down to just a few of us still squeezing out names and repeatedly asking “Did we put down Attila Richard Lukacs yet?” Hobbs smirked on, his point readily made, as we ended up with 160 names spelled poorly and phonetically. Okay, so how can an art world exist in a country where its artists aren’t even known across its borders, whether due to regional isolation or to our lack of gumption in furthering ourselves beyond our own community circles. An artist known for his low brow camp aesthetic, Hobbs approaches his work with serious intentions. Eloquent and intelligent, he can talk about his work while maintaining both the integrity and humour in his work. The off-the-cuff challenge he proposed revealed some very serious subtexts that would appear again the next night.

Coming back for “Art Fight” confirmed some underlying assumptions about Edmonton’s emerging arts community. Not taking itself seriously at all, the evening itself was dismal: poorly organized, with injuries, locked keys, stubbed toes, fatigue and not even artist compensation for the 12 hours spent leading up to the fight. The most interesting part of the whole thing occurred afterwards, as the judges argued amongst themselves and grievances were aired online for further discussion. Many thought the judges, primarily myself and Todd Janes, Executive Director of Latitude 53, were too serious in our approach. In turn, I felt the event was disrespectful in its nonchalance and consequently whiny in being confronted with critique. Making work, exhibiting it and being able to qualify and contextualize it, whether for a small audience or for an international audience, is how an artistic community develops into an art world.

We can only hold up the size and location of Edmonton as our excuse for only so long, as sooner or later, we’ll have to start taking ourselves seriously before anyone else does.

*First published in Vue Weekly, June 26 - July 4, 2008

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Art Gallery of Alberta, summer exhibitions, 2008

Spanning over 100 years of Aboriginal representation in Canada, the three concurrent exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Alberta this summer enter into the ever fracturing issue of identity. From the 19th century portraits by Russian aristocrat Nicholas de Grandmaison to the mid twentieth century works by the “Indian Group of Seven” to self-reflexive works by an entirely new generation of Aboriginal artists, the issue of identity and representation seemingly circles itself at least once.

Image credit: Nicholas de Grandmaison "Native Portrait (Sun Chief, Siksika)" n.d.
Pastel on paper

Grandmaison’s portraits continue to be cherished for their technically skilled draftsmanship, but are increasingly towards the vein of museumological artifacts. Grandmaison was an important resource of documentation in southern Alberta history, but only in contrast to these other exhibitions (that were not entirely planned in conjunction) does this work really shine in its ongoing importance. As a point of departure, the idyllic portraits are on the lighter side of the scale when it comes to exoticizing a culture, but through a legacy of exploitation and colonial relations, popular perception of Aboriginal identity has unfortunately morphed into stereotypes.

Image credit: Norval Morrisseau, "Bird Speaks To These Children," 1981
The Collection of the Art Gallery of Alberta

The contemporary works collectively entitled “Face the Nation” directly play against these stereotypes and more often that not, place themselves as artists directly into the role of subverted. Unlike the aesthetic from “Red Tile” which began with telling the stories and symbols from silenced cultures, and rechanneling them for a new generation that have been disconnected from their roots, “Face the Nation” goes all the way back to the early days and interactions between Europeans and First Nations. Walking through the gallery from Maria Hupfield’s re-imagining of Tom Thomson’s connection to the land to Terrence Houle’s staged performances as traditional and nontraditional roles as a contemporary Aboriginal male, each of this new generation of artists are taking back and taking on the role of both subject and director. Whereas the artists of “Red Tile” mostly negated figurative representations for traditional and mythological aesthetics, the next generation has clearly decided to revisit the troubled stereotypes and in so doing risks the act of perpetuation in its goal of total subversion.

Image credit: Dana Claxton, Boy Boy Gotta an Indian Horse, 2008

Holding a panel on the question of contemporary Aboriginal aesthetics with panelists Kent Monkman, Gerald McMaster, Joe Baker, and Candace Hopkins, the tone was immediately set that each esteemed panelist was of distinct heritage. The question of hybridity never did surface, even though the work is certainly referencing and assuming European traditions, nor was the difference between Canadian and American Aboriginal representation acknowledged. In Canada, Aboriginal artists are seen and discussed as contemporary Aboriginal work. But on the world stage, Canada’s Aboriginal artists are actually representing Canadian aesthetics. From Ed Poitras to Annie Pootoogook, it is not an Aboriginal aesthetic that we need to ponder, but the possibility of a national aesthetic that fully embraces all of our past, present, and future identities.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Studio Visit 2008: Jennifer Bowes, Grande Prairie and Banff

Image credit (Left): "Cradled Silence," Jennifer Bowes

Bits of knotted yarn, bags, some pressed in ink, cut into bits and fringes, along with a traditional spinning loom, lie scattered in one room. Down the hall there is the indefinable smell of clay, as a life size head sits wrapped in wet burlap and a row of a dozen and more smaller porcelain heads, each with two distinct faces, line the length of the windowsill. The adjacent room holds old paintings and drawings from yesteryears, and downstairs, the kitchen table/work table is covered with small figurines in midst of formation, a project and correspondence with Eric Cameron unfolds, and meticulous sketches look on from every available table surface possible. Freshly made venison stock is simmering on the stove and an apple pie made from scratch is prepared in no time. A rope of knotted plastic bags stretches five feet from the kitchen counter to the table, and Jennifer Bowes has been up for hours working away on seemingly everything.

Image credit (Right): Detail of Woven knots

Staying with Bowes during my community visit in Grande Prairie, I was exposed first hand to the obsessive compulsive nature of the active artist. Keeping her hands perpetually busy should come as no surprise, especially after being in awe of Bowe’s “Suspended” during the 2007 Alberta Biennial. In appearance from a distance, “Suspended” at first appears to be an enormous knitted garment, whole in form, but pale and abstract; but getting up close, you stare in wonder at the thousands of strips of shredded text, mostly still in full sentences, making up this billowing colossal malleable mass. Meticulously cutting and reconfiguring the paper body of a book, ten books to be exact, into something resembling more of an oriole’s nest than an object of literature, Bowes’ work remains in contention between the arbitrary contexts of texture and craft art.

Image credit (Left): "Suspended," Jennifer Bowes, 2007

Starting out in drawing, then printmaking, Bowes was first renowned as a figurative painter. It was in Italy where the texture of wall reliefs and the wear of age in buildings struck her, urging the contemplation of endured space and the inbetween distance and time passed between the act of making and that of reacting. This contemplation would inform her work for her MFA exhibit, “The Dream of Scipio,” a book of over 100 pages where each line of text was double stitched in white thread rendering it illegible. Taking over 600 hours to complete, the book becomes heavily texturized, proposing an aerial view point if not a tactile one, re-inscribing the act of reading and interpretating with our hands more than our minds. The sense of touch triggers points of memory, prompting another entry point into the text beyond the hermeneutical. Bowes sees her work as a colloboration with the writer, imposing a silence to the words that can now be accessed haptically.

Image credit (Right): Detail from "Suspended"

Her imposition on mundane objects often results in textured works of tantamount time. From knotted rubber gloves colle printed and embossed to her latest series of individually carved double sided heads, there is a circular passage of time revealed and collapsed. Visiting Bowes again during her residency in Banff a few months later, everything seen scattered in her Grande Prairie home has been packed up and relocated to her studio in the ceramics department. The focus has considerably shifted into the completion of 200 carved porcelain heads and 400 individual faces. A return to figurative, the idea of the double sided heads came from an Italian window shutter that had handles with one female head diagonally flipping into one male head. Functional, yet ornamental, the heads are taking on a new direction after being glazed and fired in the Raku kiln where veins now appear. With slight variation, each seemingly repetitive motion--whether in knotting, knitting, or carving--is in fact a new point of connection. Bowes references her method of working as influenced from the motions in walking and hiking, a perpetual repetition and rhythm of breathing. Citing walking as the best training possible, especially to the top of a mountain, the metaphor is apt in capturing the relation to her own art objects; where from a distance the mountain as object is desired, and with each step taken and each moment passed, the process leading you to the mountain creates a very different connection and understanding of the mountain and the experience of that object. Driven by the pure pursuit of reaching her own individual limit, Bowes’ art work offers dual points of contemplation and understanding in past as also in present.

Studio visited March 23 (Grande Prairie) and June 13 (Banff), 2008

All images courtesy of the Artist.

Virulent, McLeod Building, Curated by Ania Sleczkowska, June 12 - 26, 2008

Presented by Art and Life, and featuring works by Sandra Bromley, Catherine Burgess along with Zimbawean sculptures from Mark Kumleben's collection, Virulent proves to be true in the exhibition's title, culling an infectious power over its viewers. The pairing of Bromley and Burgess, who collaborated on the Big Rock sculpture just down the street on Rice Howard Way, along with large stone-based sculptures perched on top of natural trunks, Virulent presents an sobering holistic feeling inside of this forgotten historical storefront.

Carefully guiding the viewer first to a piece by Bromley, who continues to persevere as a globally active social artist, the face and body of a living individual is transfer ed onto a scorched door and frame, just barely separating you from objects of media and entertainment, the source many of us receive our global information from. Haunting in its conception, the work faces Burgess's "Forgive," an elegy perhaps on the dance surrounding the basic necessity of water, as a spiraling bronze tube arching from a colonial era water jug and pedestal streams into a gathering wash basin on the floor. As you move down through the room, with its aged marble floors, 20 ft ceilings and original crown mouldings, sculptures from the private collection of Kumleben, a doctor based in Africa, stand perched in a half-enclosed formation. Grand in conception and formally symbolic, one piece in particular, "Pregnant Lady," emanates a conceptual elegance through its glistening serpentine stone that is darker than night and yet radiates a glow from within.

Burgess' "Have" continues her use of space and dimension that creates a liminality with the simple frame of wrought iron. A round empty basin pot mirrors its antithesis, a void sinking in or growing out from the ground, and you can only wonder if leaping into one you will come out the other. Standing guard along the back are key pieces from Bromely's "Collosi" series, saved and imported from gardens in England, the core of great oak trees have been hollowed, and the trunks re-configured and consequently re-born.

With stellar works exhibiting alongside each other, the most impressive part of this entire exhibit was still the space. With plenty of natural light in the form of a skylight and east facing front, their use of floor based spot lights added to a haunting intimacy. The McLeod, formerly a Vespa shop, soon a hair salon, was the grandest art space for the shortest period of time. Lasting just two weeks, it breaks my heart to see people walk by on the street level, and to know that this place will soon be yet another inclusive high end low pedestrian business. Located directly from the front entrance of the Westin, near the central public library, art district, City Hall, public transportation, and the general downtown business and shopping corridor, with so much potential revealed through this exhibition, the McLeod would have made the perfect artist-run-centre that never was. As smaller galleries and art spaces continued to be pushed out and away from the general public, let's not forget the importance of aesthetics and history when we talk about the need for space.

Image credit: W. Rydz, 2008

Sofra Displays The Taste of Elsewhere*

Although most restaurants adorn their walls with art to aid the digestion and experience of their patrons, not many will actually have art openings where they clear out a section of the floor and operate outside of regular business hours. Sofra Authentic Turkish Cuisine opened its doors this past Father’s Day afternoon to celebrate the first ever art exhibition in its short two-year history. Featuring new works by local artists Cesar Alvarez, Alison Service and Kelly Johner, the exhibition focused on works inspired by travels from abroad, honing in on the senses of colour and light as filtered and experienced in far away lands.

Image courtesy of Chandra Johner

Alvarez, who exhibited meticulously cut steel slabs in his MFA sculpture exhibition last summer, reveals his softer side with a series of watercolours from Spain, Italy and France. Construction of form and depth of space continues to be a dominant theme in Alvarez’s work, with an inherent interest in unlocking the interior. An alleyway bends through light and stone and the obstruction of form reveals itself through bursts of diverse colours and condensed constructions.

Along the walls with Alvarez are the complimentary works by Service, who graduated with her BFA last year in painting and who also works at the restaurant. While Alvarez highlights the real, Service dilutes the form with an abstraction of idealized remembrance. Anonymous bodies, stylized and near, walking towards you and away, are infused with light in space and only mildly textured. Contrasted next to the people-less portraits of static buildings, the transient flow of blurry bodies makes sense.

Rounding out the exhibition and the scale of formal realism to formal abstraction, Johner’s wooden sculptures give weight to the room as an exhibition space. A perfect companion to the aged and sanded wood floors along with the Aegean colours of bronze and burnt orange, Johner’s sculptures continue to bridge the formalism traditionally alive in steel through the fragility of wood. Working with discarded oak barrel slats, which in their history have already been distorted by the hand of man by cut and singe, Johner is refashioning these pieces towards their imperfect presences.

Organized by Johner’s daughter and co-owner of Sofra, Chandra Johner looks to reach out to the arts community that already makes up a large section of her clientele. Much like her mother, she is up to the challenge of bridging two worlds, the service and the artistic, and with ambitions to exhibit more works by local artists, only time will tell if Sofra will appease the appetite of both food and art lovers alike.

Show runs until July 12, 2008

*First published in Vue Weekly, June 12 - 18, 2008

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Elaine Wannechko's Fluid Bodies, FAB Gallery, Reviewed by Erin Carter

Fluid Bodies gets right down to the dirty business of human excrement. The 20 digital images and two installation pieces want to talk about bile, semen, blood, vomit, miscarriage, feces and urine. As the final exhibition for Wannechko’s masters degree in drawing and intermedia, all of her images are shadowed and mixed with vivid coloured objects such as a lit up sky blue toilet contrasted with an open door into a dark room. The colour versus shadow effect is eye catching, but the image of what looked like blood (or maybe red wine vinegar mixed with olive oil) splattered across a drawer of utensils turned my stomach over more than once.

Image Credit: "Trace," Elaine Wannechko, 2007, Digital Image Ink-Jet Printed, 24" X 32"

As I walked through taking in each image and listened to the constant drip coming from one of the installation pieces, I realized the context of Wannechko’s seepage and I couldn’t help but continue staring. Even though I’m not a fan of brown stains I was challenged with the fact that judging imperfections is a much stronger feeling than enjoying a serene water painting of mountaintops in the mist. All of Wannechko’s pieces were stunning, seizing my attention as I began reflecting on how we are all trapped in our bodies and the only release we have is waste and imperfect excrement. Lured into Wannechko’s narrative I began to see what she’s trying to say through digitally imprinted images: we are all just human.

Image Credit: "Leak," Elaine Wannechko, 2007, Digital Image Ink-Jet Printed, 34.5" X 46"

The image of thick paste lacing the locks and doorknob to a front door left a feeling of entrapment in my throat. I didn’t want to touch or deal with that stuff but I also wanted freedom from that locked door. There were many images of shadowed rooms and locked cabinets, dropped or lost rags and cloth bags full of dirty brown leakage. As I went through each piece the nausea wore off and burning questions such as what is attractive versus what is ugly plagued me. She grasps the fine technique of making the ugly attractive, but still keeps the beautiful wrapped in mystery that keeps dripping.

Wannechko’s exhibit opened up a self- narrative that was not left on the front steps of the FAB Gallery; like how our waste binds our sexual identity as well as our secret lives. When I first walked in my lips curled like a little princess and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go further. Looking at smeared, bile coloured drips usually isn’t my thing. But as I went further I realized there was a point to all the gore and shadows and she made her point brilliantly. Beauty isn’t just the babe with blond hair in the corner--it’s more mysterious than that. This show is in your face with all the things that no one really wants to talk about, but with such brilliant colour contrasts you lose sight of the dripping goo and dig into meatier arguments.

Erin Carter, 29, enjoys the fine art of reading in the sun and writing in the back corner of a cramped bedroom. Music, art and the written word are majorly important to the enjoyment of her life. Erin will be writing on Prairie as a 2008 summer intern.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Art Fight, Saturday, June 14, 2008

Asked to be one of the judges for NextFest's Art Fight, as instigated by Adam Waldron Blain as part of the festival's evening cabarets, I half expected the evening to be part performance and part camp in its concept. The result was more disorganization than anything else, but I'm afraid there just wasn't much else.

Certainly not a phenomenon confined to here, "Art Fights" expose the entirely arbitrary assessment of a piece of work as usually judged by popular opinion. It's rarely about the work at hand, usually created on site and in a limited time frame and budget, but the idea of an "art fight" is more about the people looking into the spectacle.

That idea got lost.

One of five judges alongside Todd Janes of Latitude 53, Josee Aubin Ouellette, curator of NextFest visual arts, Chelsea Boida of the loosely connected Institute Parachute and somebody else whose name and role elude me now, the "fight" was a match between Adam Maitland and Craig Knox, two artists I was semi-familiar with, but quite disappointed with by the end of the evening. With a lack of parameters beyond a flimsy set of scoring guidelines hastily scrawled onto scraps of paper including playfulness, concept, and taste, the "secret" ingredient of the fight was styrofoam tubes, which neither of the artist seemed to understand was suppose to be the central theme of the work. All product and no process, the works resulted by Maitland and Knox were respectively a comment on the disassociation of heads to torsos to guts in Edmonton's big city fun district and a carnivalesque shoot 'em up construction/performance of artists as public targets. Or at least this is what I could only assume as neither artist could verbally qualify their work and Blain did not help his peers in any way by clarifying their working terms and conditions. I wasn't expecting excellent work, or even good work, but I was expecting some worthwhile verbal sparring, as anything can be made to sound good if you know how to sell it. As probably the most important trait any successful artist will have, verbosity, or having the capacity to communicate, was simply not at all apparent.

As the crowd got restless with questions and the judges started snapping amongst each other, a five minute deliberation extended into a most ill-informed adjudication process that lasted until two of the judges left/quit. Knox emerged the winner, and there was almost a moment of anticipation before declaring a decision, but the state of nonplus in the room aptly reflected the stale state of critical art dialogue and Edmonton's general aversion to taking ourselves seriously.

After a morning of studio visits in Banff with artists processing and taking their work and profession in an admirably serious and passionate manner, Art Fight was even more of a rude awakening.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Exploring This Modern Love for consumerism*

Taking a stroll during last week’s installation process of Lisa Turner’s This Modern Love, the immediate impression was, surprisingly, “Is this really printmaking?” Bright colours, single iconic objects sitting on top of raw canvases, half appearing to be illustrations, with brush strokes visible in minor areas, this was unlike any printmaking exhibition of recent memory.

The iconic objects in question—potentially consumable, unmistakably identifiable—sat as rich screen prints on top of canvases instead of the traditional medium of paper. Objects rich in density and colour, some resembling a blender, a water bottle, kitschy popsicle makers and other post-war manufactured home wares, sat in rows as objects of desire and possibly as objects of confusion as things you seemingly wanted to purchase, but had no idea what their functions could be.

Image Credit: Lisa Turner, "Plastic Passions" 2008

There is undoubtedly an air of nostalgia to each piece, yet the works as a whole appear to be ambivalent about fashionable consumption and superfluous design. Though the contrast doesn’t appear to be fully fleshed out, individual pieces certainly stand out.

Printing directly on canvas instead of the standard use of paper, Turner first developed this method after seeing a series of Andy Warhol skulls done in a similar fashion.

“You can just roll on the screen ink as many times as you need to and sand into it,” explains Turner, who came to attend the U of A’s Printmaking program and has proved herself something of a black sheep. “I find with screen printing onto canvas, you get a much richer colour, and your scale can get bigger with greater density in colours. Just the way the ink lays on canvas, it seems more plastic. Typically in printmaking, you use so much paper to do so much proofing, that it’s become nice to just have one piece you could keep working on.”

Infusing a multitude of colours into her works, the outcome is quite unlike the usually tonal and extremely technical variations normally on trial and display as an MFA printmaking exhibit. Turner’s use of colours is impressively striking, comparable to a painting exhibition, as the colours morph the objects themselves, conjuring a past era of consumer culture while looking forward to a future generation of functional aestheticism.

Also as an exhibition of her obsession with random objects whose functions elude her, but whose formal constructs are fascinating, from a series of slightly variating bottle shapes that greet the viewer as they reach the top of the stairs, to unique figures found from the internet, This Modern Love combines her research interests in the iconic with the hyperrealistic repetition of pop surrealism.

“There’s a photographic and realistic quality I like, and the details are blown out, like illustrations of photos of things you would normally buy,” Turner says as I continually attempt to guess (wrongly) at each object’s objects origins and functions. As a transient pack rat, she acknowledges that she does collect random objects, but purges them as she moves from city to city. “You buy these objects thinking it’ll make your life easier, but maybe I shouldn’t collect all of these things where I have to continually wonder, ‘What is this object?’”

Regardless of the ongoing question and the impending re-locations, This Modern Love is an ode to pack rat sensibilities as much as it is a nod to broaden disciplines for pop appeal.

*First Published in Vue Weeky, June 12 - 18, 2008

Losing Ctrl over the art of remembering*

Ctrl-P, an online journal of contemporary visual arts, started in the Philippines two years ago. Responding to the lack of critical voices in the country, Judy Freya Sibayan and Flaudette May V Datuin took it upon themselves to launch a site devoted to collecting critical essays concerning contemporary visual arts around the world. Ctrl-P will be turning its focus onto Canada, specifically Edmonton-based artists, for its next issue (due out this summer on

Guest edited by Lianne McTavish, who joined the U of A’s Department of Art and Design last year, the issue will focus on locally archived artists that ran in conjunction with Sibayan’s project. Inviting Sibayan to the U of A shortly after starting with the school as a professor of art history, McTavish had been wanting to bring Sibayan to Canada ever since they met in Mexico during a conference on interdisciplinary art history. Spotting a petite woman with a larger-than-life presence, McTavish knew immediately she needed to bring this artist and academic to Canada.

“I was very impressed by her sophisticated and philosophical performance,” McTavish begins. “She conveyed a concept of how an archive works and functions, adhering to institutional formats as she undermines them; I felt that Canada needed to see her.”

Then a faculty member with the University of New Brunswick, McTavish finally found the opportunity to bring Sibayan in as an international visiting artist upon moving out west. By then, Sibayan’s work had developed into The Museum of Mental Objects (MoMO), an ongoing work and archive that opens and exhibits directly from the mind of Sibayan herself.

In a similar non-systematized manner as Ctrl-P, which does not publish on a regular schedule but pushes through downloadable issues as soon as enough material has been gathered, MoMO operates on a sporadic schedule that caters to being as accommodating to a viewing public as humanly possible. Accountable to none, including governing or funding bodies, board of directors or prestigious patrons, MoMO at first appears to be an anarchist in-joke gone too far, but unfolding the layers of institutional law and order in the project’s subtext, MoMO debunks every major foundation of how art has been approached. Existing only in the mind of Sibayan and other independent MoMO curators from around the world, and “exhibited” as a live performance of memory and storytelling, issues that plague institutions often bound by policies and mandates are made explicitly clear. Highly contestable issues include deeply ingrained systems governing authority over quality, relevance, economic value, demand for exhibition and collections and, most interestingly, who the artists are and how they are remembered and experienced.

“We’re putting forward the importance of collecting, from 19th century model of museums to the 14th century importance of retaining all letters and correspondences,” shares McTavish, whose research interests focus on Italian Renaissance as well as contemporary art from 1970s to present. “To put these objects in the forefront as the exhibit rather than the back room, there is an anxiety about what was being remembered and reveals how archives actually work.”

Proving that documentation needs to exist, whether as a resource or as an assessment, we only move forward by acknowledging the steps taken.

*First Published in Vue Weekly, June 12 - 18, 2008

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Nextfest Visual Arts Exhibits*

New festival sponsor, new curators, new artists, new venues: this year’s NextFest lineup has looked its strongest in years, with a range of innovative workshops and a multitude of events for each given discipline—the shake up and natural growth is certainly noticed within the visual arts portion.

Handed down by two part-time curators of previous years to one full-time curator this year, the change is notably reflected in the line up. Curated by Josée Aubin Ouellette, 16 NextFest venues featuring 19 emerging artists are scattered through the city in various businesses as a step towards building first-time solo exhibitions.

“I’m not sure how curation has influenced the festival before, and I don’t want to compare, but I never sensed curatorial control,” Ouellette begins as she takes a breathe during her 16th and last installation on a rainy afternoon inside The Artery. “But now after doing it, I understand the limitations of venues and submissions.”

With a drop in submissions and sourcing new venues, she cites the most difficult part this year was matching the right venue to the right artist. Pushing fellow artists to apply, then trying to find the right venue for them, Ouellette has carved out a strong lineup, varying in media range and formal practices that aim to go beyond art school exhibitions. Although an overwhelming majority of the artists are recent local graduates from the U of A, Ouellette points to the differences she is personally looking for in peers as well as her own practice.

“This is still an emerging exhibition, for sure, but there are differences in detail and self initiative,” she explains. “Everything from learning how to install to writing an artist statement, this is a professional experience that isn’t taught at the university. Being selected is different from making a body of work that will make for an interesting exhibition.”

Noting that the signature content of work seen at the emerging level are pieces not necessarily made with specific exhibitions or venues in mind and are often very object based, Ouellette also points out that they make for a good introduction, hanging in businesses that often are subject to the proprietor’s tastes and judgments. From The Cutting Room to Cafe Select South, Gravity Pope’s clothing store to EPCOR Centre, watch for new works by the likes of Nancy Schultz, Nomi Stricker, Leah Scott, Mandy Espezel and Erinne Fenwick, and must-sees at the Artery including Claire Uhlick’s webbed paintings and Caitlin Sian Richard’s cathartic installation.

Of her role as both emerging artist and curator, Ouellette simply relates, “A lot of these artists influence me, and I’m just going along the journey with them."

Until June 15, 2008

*First published in Vue Weekly, June 5 - 11, 2008

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Prairie Artsters in Regina: May 2008

In town for the Prairie chapter of the IMAA Conference, I was taken aback by the small town charm of Regina, Saskatchewan, having only heard that the city was a smaller version of Edmonton, had one of the worst neighbors in North America, and continued to brood in deeply embedded and unresolved issues concerning the First Nations population.

To be fair, I was only in town for a few days, and from my observations, the downtown itself seems to be in a state ready for change, as was the “worst” neighborhood in question, streets lined with frozen meat shops and tiny bungalows ready for demolition, brown glass shards scattered every few meters, and an internalized isolation apparent in some areas more than others. A perfectly flat city for bicycling around, with a handful of coffee shops selling homemade cookies with jam, the art galleries and art communities would also yield one surprise after another.

The neighborhood shop and gallery on 13th Avenue, Mysteria, featured mostly regional artists in its ground floor retail space and upstairs gallery space including David Garneau, Heather Cline and a roster of exclusively Saskatchewan artists. Catching the Cathedral Arts Festival while in town, the crafty independent works along 13th Avenue would balance a lasting impression of Regina as a small town arts community (the amount of hippies and drum circles and fire dancing was eye brow raising) with visits to the Dunlop, Neutral Ground, and MacKenzie that realized their reputations as some of the finest public and artist run galleries in this country.

Image credit: Pandora's Box installation view, May 20, 2008, photo: Trevor Hopkin

The Dunlop Gallery inside of the downtown library has been a significant centre for researching and showcasing contemporary art works from around the world. The current exhibit, Pandora’s Box, continued to showcase high caliber international artists such as Laylah Ali, Amy Cutler and Kara Walker alongside Canadians Shary Boyle and Annie Pootoogook, amongst others including local artists in a thematic exhibition curated by Amanda Cachia. From Walker’s first video work with highly charged racial and sexual content in her famous shadow works, with shadow puppeteer transparently visible throughout the work, to an array of 2D works re-imagining the myth of Pandora through constructs of power and international identity and self-representation, the exhibition was certainly one of the most cohesive and daring programs I have seen in any public library. As a relatively small cube with high ceilings and a blacked out window directly inside the public library’s checkout counter, the Dunlop exists as a true public space devoted to challenging ideas, free to the general public as it should be, with even a small reading area stacked with relevant art books and magazines to peruse, marking an active and conscious step towards encouraging and building the public’s art knowledge.

Visiting Neutral Ground, one of the most notable new media arts centres in the region, international artist Chiyoko Szlavnics performed new recordings from research completed at the Heating and Cooling Physical Plant in Regina, field recordings of birds at Buffalo Pound Park and from other locations throughout Regina. From Szlavnics’s description that does accurately describe her live performance of sound and projection, "The electronics will relate to these soundscapes in terms of pitch/duration, contextualizing, re-contextualizing, or reframing the content of the recorded material through superimposition and/or juxtaposition. As a live work, superimposition might take the form of a single sine tone moving through the recorded material (like a line across a photograph or painting), or be very dense chordal material that masks the original recording. There will be an interplay between electronics and field recordings with changing degrees of importance/predominance of the two throughout the work." Although never too exciting or engaging to witness, this particular new media performance and artist did yield a worthwhile informal artist talk back connecting her work to the city and community that she continues to collaborate with over the years from her homebase in Germany.

Unprepared for the MacKenzie, complete and utter awe over the breadth and contrast of simultaneous exhibitions would inform the entire experience. Catching the tail end of Let Me Be Your Mirror featuring pieces by Nicolas Baier, Chris Cran, Adad Hannah, Ken Lum and others and inspired by Edward Kienholz’s National Banjo on the Knee Week, head curator Timothy Long propels the question of our collective self-reflexivity from 1960s North American pop culture and on to our current state.

Image credit: Kent Monkman Théâtre de Cristal (Montréal), 2006-07 Photo credit: Guy L'Heureux

Flowing into a retrospective on cherished landscape painter Dorothy Knowles and a display of works from the MacKenzie permanent collection that was relatively disappointing and expected from its early Joe Farfards to less popular prints and editions, the adjacent entrance of the permanent collection room led visitors to a back corner of the gallery featuring Kent Monkman’s Miss Chief: Shadow Catcher. Best known for his alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testikle, Monkman’s gorgeous Theatre de Cristal with a painted inscription surround the installation projects his short film The Group of Seven Inches from a ceiling chandelier inside of a crystal beaded teepee. Kneeling around the overturned buffalo hide that doubles as a screen to the inversion of colonial narratives and ethnographic portraiture, the viewer is fully immersed into Monkman's world. As Miss Eagle Testikle, a play on "egotistical," Monkman challenges contemporary Aboriginal visibility with grossly dark humour on how Aboriginal cultural has been visually portrayed and performed in art history’s canon. Organized by the MacKenzie’s assistant curator Michelle LaVallee, Miss Chief: Shadow Catcher was the stand out gem of the weekend. Visiting all four exhibits, in a layout that ran seamlessly from one gallery space to the next, including a back gallery space of textiles and ceramics, the MacKenzie seemed to encapsulate a region and its identity and politics into one succinct experience.