Sunday, July 27, 2008

Visualeyez 2008 In-Review

Visualeyez continues to persist as an endurance performance in and of itself. Running for a week long with performances and schedules stretched with little momentum, I am left wondering if it would fare better if staggered into a compact three or four days of performances and discussions.

A strong ensemble of artists gathered once again, and as a collective they supported each other’s works and process amidst low public attendance and feedback. The works performed ranged from physical feats and emotional discharges, all in the name of justice, which looking back, is irrevocably linked to a conscious release of words, time, and ritual. Justice was therapeutic, a means to cleanse, and often times, a means to distinguish what has been wiped clean.

As an active audience member, I am left recharged from interacting with engaged artists that challenged, alienated, and evoked strong ideas and perceptions. As a general member of the arts community, I am left frustrated with the lack of organization in relation to schedules, the tardiness of the lineup details, and the isolation of the festival. As potentially transcending all disciplines from experimental acoustics to movement arts to theatre, performance artists clearly do not have their own set of audiences by its very nature as an adaptable and reactive medium. With that in mind, certain performances would have done well outside of the gallery space, engaging with the rest of the city and its citizens by simply being and intervening in their spaces, rather than expecting them to come into yours.

Visualeyez undoubtedly deserves more recognition and time from the larger community, but it also requires greater vision from the organizers regarding its ongoing purpose and the execution of that purpose.

For detailed engagements of each performance, please read festival animator Shawna Dempsey’s reports from the front line at

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Prairie Artsters - A Year on the Prairie*

This past week marks the one year anniversary of this column, and there’s no better time to reevaluate what all has been said and done.
Sprouting from the infancy of Prairie Artsters online, I was invited to this print column in order to explore and share Edmonton’s visual arts community beyond gallery exhibitions. Although neither editor David Berry nor I were quite sure what to expect every other week, I would surmise that through consistency and presence we have already surpassed any expectations either of us held.

From personal musings on art making, art writing, to studio visits in communities across Alberta, my underlying intent was to humanize the form, to open up discussion on why art could possibly matter and mean anything to anyone beyond individualistic intentions. I wanted to talk to artists about what they did and what it means to them formally and contextually. Most importantly, I wanted to document the pivotal and not-so-pivotal blips in the progression of any single artist and community. As Edmonton remains so ephemeral, so transient, with a constant flow of people coming in and leaving, I needed to find some common ground to tie it all together and to be able to look forward as well as look back.

This past year has been filled with reviews, interviews and studio visits, many of them beyond the Edmonton region, which opened up some much-needed contrast. As a mid-sized city with a limited but lively artistic presence, this city remains an anomaly of equal amounts action and perseverance. From the encounters within the city, I have befriended many individuals and antagonized some, and seen many of them move on and a few return. I have been astounded as to how many brilliant artists currently live or have lived in this city, and how removed they are from the city itself in terms of participation. I feel many have stayed and looked elsewhere, working quietly and separate from local engagements.

Looking around today, it would appear that for the next group that stays, there is some intangible badge of honour in remaining and seemingly fighting for their claim to be here. There is a recognition that things here can be easily improved, and there is an entitlement to improve it. I do not know if Prairie Artsters was born of that sentiment, only that I see it beyond just the arts. Whether this idealism can be credited to the lightened burden of prairie isolation through travel and the internet, important contemporary artists are staying, if not coming, to do their work, and that is the first step to building a conscious city.

Coincidentally, as I began reading Gaston Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space” last week, “The Home Show” opened at the Nina Haggerty Centre. Focusing on the theme of home as expressed by the two seemingly disparate groups of the Alberta Society of Artists and the artists of the Nina Haggerty, the show united under a shared conveyance that “home” is a place of memories, comfort, safety, and daydreams. Bachelard contends that your home is your first corner of the world, and that every nook and cellar, step and corner, permeates an embodiment that equals our souls, if only we choose to pay more attention to it. Staying in this adopted hometown, at least for another year, I invite you to pay more attention with me.

*First published in Vue Weekly, July 24 - 30, 2008

Notebook launch #6*

Featuring a stronger collective of artists with every passing issue, Notebook Magazine, now in its sixth issue, has certainly come a long way. Beginning as a side project for Steven Teeuwsen, who charged ahead a year and a half ago with camera in tow and magazine publishing at bay, Notebook is now printing more than 1500 copies per issue and beginning to distribute nationally through Magazines Canada.

What began as a project stemming from ex-pats in Taiwan, where Teeuwsen lived on and off for three years teaching english, Notebook has grown into a full-fledged arts collective, showcasing the activity of Edmonton’s visual arts community.

Cover Image courtesy of Notebook

Pushing itself as more of a presentation and collaboration of new works than an editorially driven publication, Notebook has hosted works and exchanges between their pages by the local likes of Andrea Lefebreve, Ashley Andel, Jenny Keith Hughes and Fish Griwkowsky. Although not all the artists stay, there is at least this full colour testament to their contributions to Edmonton’s artistic community. With artists interviewing each other and ongoing collaborations unfolding between the issues and possibly online, Teeuwsen couldn’t be happier about the direction of the magazine and its content.

“People are excited that it’s a local project, that this work is getting done around the corner,” he says. “A lot of people feel like Edmonton doesn’t have it going on as far as arts and culture, but people keep coming back because it’s inspiring to be part of a city to have this going on.”

Stressing that the magazine makes visual arts more accessible for those who don’t get out as much, especially into galleries, the bright glossy pages serves as a celebrated record of lesser-seen Edmonton arts and culture.

As a full time endeavour by Teeuwsen as managing editor, art director, ad sales and the guy you see behind the table at every farmer’s market and craft fair in the city, he remains extremely awed about the project and its process.

“I’m so happy to be doing this, and it is sometimes quite stressful, but I used to be quite stressed at a job I didn’t care about. Now I’m doing exactly what I want to do and I’m setting up my own days and I’m so happy to be doing it full time,” he says, but admits that he is still learning a lot about ad sales, layout and distribution. “I’m just hoping it keeps on growing. If I saw something like this coming in from Vancouver or Calgary, I would certainly pick it up. I have a fairly strong base in Edmonton and we’ll just see how it does nationally.”

*First published in Vue Weekly, July 24 to 30, 2008

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

PROFILE: "This Land is His Land: Peter von Tiesenhausen"*

As you walk through Peter von Tiesenhausen’s land, artwork emerges as if summoned from the ground up. Ships and nests made of willow branches appear along well-worn paths. Statues carved from logs stand watch from between the trees. In Tiesenhausen’s studio, small canvases that resemble the cracked earth of recent droughts are propped across the window sill and sketches of aspen trees (drawn with aspen ash onto aspen pulp paper) hang along the wall.

Philosophically and aesthetically, it’s clear that the landscape and the art are inseparable, and since 1997, the Alberta visual artist has pursued this argument legally as well, taking the unprecedented step of copyrighting his land as a work of art.

Tiesenhausen made the decision after years of legal battles with oil and gas companies that wanted access to the deposits of natural gas that sit just beneath his 800-acre plot of land. Under federal law, Alberta landowners have the rights only to the surface of their land. The riches that lie beneath are generally owned by the government, which can grant oil and gas producers access so long as the companies agree to compensate landowners. This compensation is usually for lost harvests and inconvenience, but, Tiesenhausen reasoned, what if instead of a field of crops these companies were destroying the life’s work of an acclaimed visual artist? Wouldn’t the compensation have to be exponentially higher?

“I’m not trying to get money for my land, I’m just trying to relate to these companies on their level,” says Tiesenhausen from his home near Demmitt, Alberta. “Once I started charging $500 an hour for oil companies to come talk to me, the meetings got shorter and few and far between.”

Tiesenhausen is in a unique position to understand both the realities of industry and the value of the natural world. As a young boy working on the family ranch, his daily job of surveying the cattle left him with an intimate understanding of the family’s land. He left school at 17 to work in the oil fields and eventually found himself in the Yukon in the early ’80s, digging away at surface gold mines. Before he committed to being a full-time artist in 1990, he worked crushing boulders in Antarctica while building an airstrip through the permafrost.

Today, Tiesenhausen is an artist, an active member of his community and a somewhat reluctant environmental icon. “I’m just a guy that likes to have an exciting life,” he says earnestly. “I went to the gold fields, worked in Antarctica, but what I found was that staying at home and making art was the most exciting my life ever got.”

In 2003, he presented his copyright argument before the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board, which told him that copyright law was beyond its jurisdiction and he would need to pursue that in the courts. So far that hasn’t been necessary. The oil and gas companies have since backed off, even paying for an expensive rerouting of pipelines, and have yet to bother testing his copyright.

This fall, Tiesenhausen will get a chance to comment on the oil industry through his art, rather than the law. He’s been invited to the Gallery Lambton in Sarnia, Ontario, to create a yet-to-be specified new work in response to the 150th anniversary of North America’s first commercial oil well.

Image courtesy of Peter von Tiesenhausen

*First published in THIS magazine July/August 2008

Saturday, July 19, 2008

"Bending Moment" Royden Mills, Shaw Conference Centre Dream.big Centre, REVIEWED by Erin Carter

Each year a local artist is selected to showcase three or four sculpture works in front of the Shaw Conference Dream.big centre. This year’s local artist is Royden Mills and he is showcasing four pieces on the North wall of the Shaw Conference Centre on the Plaza walkway. Mills received his Masters in Fine Arts from the University of Alberta, a diploma in Architecture from NAIT, lived in Japan for two years, worked on various arts committees and has taught sculpture and fine arts in and around Alberta for the last eighteen years. Bending Moment is Mills abstract portrayal of the moment of awareness.

The four statues of worn metal stand tall amidst the concrete backdrop of downtown. A twisted, warped, and overflowing feeling shines through, but I still don’t know if I’ve become totally aware of all the things that have been hidden from me. The thing with abstract art and me is that I have to read up on the artist, get a feeling for what he/she is about and then go and look at it. Still, after all that research, the message the artist is trying to portray loses me a little. I feel this way with all abstract pieces. Maybe my mind doesn’t work in these scenarios, or maybe I should just sit back, relax and enjoy the visions in front of me that I know I could never possibly create.

Mills' use of texture and metal was something I had not seen before. In one particular piece it looked like a gigantic larva was about to explode all over the sidewalk. Maybe this larva was meant to depict the bottled up emotion of humanity or maybe it was just a larva. Hidden compartments in what looks a little like a mini grain elevator made me feel explorative as well as reminiscent on the forlorn prairies. The twisted metal trying to escape the heavy anvil it is attached to begins speaking to me. And are we not all attached to something that we’re trying to get away from? Maybe I do understand abstract art…it’s just going to take some time in understanding.

Erin Carter is Prairie Artsters 2008 summer intern

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Visualeyez preview July 18 - 28, 2008*

As the Vancouver Art Gallery kicks off a major retrospective of internationally renowned Canadian performance artist Rebecca Belmore and Mountain Standard Time revs up for their annual performance art festival this fall throughout Calgary and Banff, Edmonton’s own performance art festival kicks offs for a week of performances, discussions, interactions and interventions.

Part festival and part residency, the ninth annual Visualeyez performance art festival returns with some notables from the performance art world. For one, Paul Couillard, founder and curator of FADO Performance Art Inc (Canada’s only artist-run centre devoted to the form) will be creating one of his relational endurance pieces over the span of 24 hours on the treatment of incarceration within the Alberta justice system. UK-based Kira O’Reilly, best known for wrapping her body around a dead pig on stage for four hours, will also be here continuing her investigation into bioethics and the manners in how we treat each other and how we treat other living things. West Coast-based Margaret Dragu will be available for a series of one-on-one performances available only through reservations made through Latitude 53. Shawna Dempsey, infamous Winnipeg-based multimedia artist, will be this year’s festival animator, and along with Canadian-based artists Karen Spencer, David Khang, Robin Brass and Alexis O’Hara, the theme of justice in Edmonton, AB, will be explored through the less-filtered and visceral medium of performance art.

Todd Janes, Director and Curator of Visualeyez, (programmed out of Latitude 53), chose the theme of “justice” based on the many conversations he seemed to be having over the past year.

“I think certainly within Alberta and throughout the world, we hear a lot of talk about what isn’t ‘just’ or ‘bringing people to justice,’” says Janes, who admits he himself has a fairly strong sense of the word. “But people wish to use [the word ‘justice’] in a very universal way and people interpret it very differently. I intentionally left it open for the artists to explore and for audiences to engage in and hopefully walk away with their own paradigms challenged.”

With interpretations of the theme ranging from dealing with Aboriginal rights and the reclamation of language (Brass) to confronting embedded threads of racism, nationality and political leaders in North and South Korea (Khang), this year’s performance artists will be offering both new, untested works and older pieces remodified to suit Alberta’s political climate.

Leaning perhaps more on the residency side, with artists convening to experiment within a loose theme, Visualeyez sits precariously between an interventionist convention and an under-attended festival in a fest-blitzed city that’s more about being outside than anything else.

As Alberta’s social and political policies and actions are offered are up as musings for international artists, from our environmental sanctions to human rights, Janes relates, “Alberta as an entity has a very different perception of itself and what justice is. It’s different from the rest of Canada and the world. A story like boycotting oil because it’s dirty—that all has to do with justice and seeking a balance of justice.”

Although performance art as discipline and statement rose to esteem in the ’70s, caused partly from artists responding to the global political upheaval of the late ’60s and challenging the boundaries more fervently across visual arts, theatre, dance, poetry and filmmaking, the form as a whole has remained peripheral in terms of its relation to the vibrancy of an artistic community. There is a general sentiment that the health of any arts community is measured by what it can accommodate—including sustaining fringe non-capitalist arts along with the major cultural staples. Looking at Edmonton, there are only a few notable and repetitive performance artists on this year’s line up, including a very similar line up to last year, including Tanya Lukin Linklater, Lance McLean, TL Cowan, Julianna Barabas and Janes himself. Although Edmonton has been recognized as a destination for populist theatre, modernist architecture and visual art, and an eclectic music scene, a growing base of contemporary dance along with improv and experimental theatre is potentially forging new ground for a greater appreciation and tolerance of diversity in the arts.

Differentiating the point of sustaining performance art from sustaining performance creation, Janes cites that it is the responsibility of the overall community to nurture and grow the form: whether it’s getting involved, educating and/or funding, the responsibility of how performance art exists within our city has to be beyond just one festival’s scope.

*First published in Vue Weekly, July 17 - 23, 2008

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

(Re)Searching for the Unheard: Cherie Moses's Archive of Lesser Heard Voices*

In Cherie Moses’ 2005 sound installation, “Songs of the Mothers,” gallery audiences stepped into an intimate interchange between three generations of Chilean immigrant women speaking tenderly and openly about the everyday matters affecting their lives. Flowing seamlessly between English and Spanish, the women were instructed to speak as if they were speaking to their children for the last time. The result created an experience akin to being inside somebody else’s deepest thoughts, listening in surround acoustics to a never ending chain of overlapping histories echoing in a dark and seemingly timeless space.

As a visual artist, Moses specifically chose to create an architecture of sound instead of presenting a visual, insisting on an aural-based experience that reverberates the cadence of lives lived. At the time of the recording, Ida, Llanca, and Paz, who are real-life mothers and daughters, were 97, 69, and 37 years old, respectively. Their stories, told in weaving waves of reserved resonance, crest and fall like the heave of an impassioned musical composition. Their unscripted interviews touch upon wide ranging topics such as as Chile, love, danger, and Canada--exposing multigenerational differences and sameness that are then edited with and against each other. The fluidity between Chilean and English melds new thoughts with harboured memories, leaping across cultures, space, and time in a contemporary transnational reality. Observing the growing influx of immigration in Alberta, Canada, a province whose history remains strongly attached to the settler and pioneer history, Moses identified a need to preserve these stories by non-dominant communities that would otherwise be lost.

Moses’ pieces open up the realm between the subjective and the factual. Relying on the subjective nature of memories, from her interviewed subjects to her own memory as both editor and interviewer, the presence of the artist as archivist comes into light. Of her role as a facilitator and an artist, she says, “When I edit, I gravitate to those bits that resonate beyond the personal experience to a larger universal idea as much as possible. I look for thoughts that I cannot only hear, but also see. I am after all a visual artist, listening and constructing images as I listen.” Recognizing that all history and archives are intimated and manipulated, Moses approaches her work no differently in its finely tuned intonations and rhythmic tempos, openly affecting how these women's’ histories will be remembered.

Using the archive system as both an artistic procedure and practice, but creating alternate routes of access, Moses’ work challenges the dominant structure of how and who uses technology. Working with technology as an artist and a visual arts teacher, she is very aware of the power dynamic inherent to technology and technological interventions based on who is privileged to use and access it. As a professional artist, Moses has access to both the resources and equipment to edit down 150 tracks using the latest forms of ProTools HD in her creation of a 5.1 surround sound DVD on a 3 speaker channel. Three distinct speakers are layered over one another for a lulling chiming affect--at once reminiscent of oral storytelling and yet highly digitized in execution.

Acknowledging the use of technology, in archives as well as institutions such as art galleries, tends to perpetuate a privileged voice, Moses inverts the archival process to not only preserve these lesser heard voices, but do archive their histories with a artistically tailored framework that consequently mythologizes those speakers into larger-than-life characters. Although the works with their corresponding notes, scripts, instructions on types of amplification and speaker installations currently remain with Moses, she intends them to eventually be accessible for continued research. Due to its very nature, the question arises whether this belongs more in a public archive or an art archive, but the artist also remains open to the idea of private and public collections.

Currently, Moses and collaborator Brenda Jones are exploring the preservation and creation of archives between an intrinsically technological method of editing and an Aboriginal tradition of oral storytelling. Reflecting Jones’s bicultural European and Ojibwa heritage, her role as a mother, a community leader, and her long and losing battle with severe health issues, the project “Otterwoman Breathing” aims to archive the breathe of Jones, Otterwoman. Seeing herself as a bicultural woman living in a postmodern world, Jones’ heavy, raspy timbre lends itself to the weighty thoughts and emotions spoken. The voice of Jones, in both sound and in message, becomes the desired archived object.

Acknowledging that the project is a method for Jones to let it all out to the universe and to leave a message for her children, Moses also notes that it is an archive of their personal history together spanning the past twenty years. “As long as I’ve known Brenda, she’s been a personality who has always had something to say, with an honesty that is authentic,” says Moses, as she shares excerpts of the work in its unfinished form. “She says what she means, with no fear that her life is fragile.”

Editing down hours of digitized recordings from three different interviewees, one of Jones/Otterwoman, one of her elder, and one in Ojibwa, Moses has been entrenched in whittling down audio clips that resonate of memory and narrative. Noting that all archives begin with the presupposition of what you want future generations to remember, including a natural disposition to edit down life into a manageable and categorizable history, “Otterwoman Breathing” has been in the making for two years and remains deep in process. Part of the process has also been the difficulty in finding a suitable Ojibwa speaker and translator as the traditionally oral culture has greatly deteriorated, but the major hurdle of the project has been the emotional endurance required of Moses to edit through Jones’ personal message. “I can honestly say this is the most difficult project I’ve ever done, because I have to get it right,” says Moses emphatically. “When I first started doing this, her elder, Geeseesoukqua (who is the second voice and tells of Otterwoman’s history and namesake before Jones’ life) asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And I replied, ‘I’m doing this so her story does not get lost.’ Because otherwise, her story will go when she goes. This is her story, and it wouldn’t be the same if she wrote it down, because you need to hear her and you need to hear her breathe.”

Spinning the archive system through her artistic practice, Moses is doing so precisely because a public archive would never do it this way. Recognizing how an archive is constructed directly affects how the archive is read and understood, her nonlinear intimacy begins where a personal story may end, and in so doing places the audience into the role of the researcher. “We are inherently biased. There is no absolute empirical truth in what I do. The truth becomes a collection of ideas, emotions and judgments in the listener,” Moses says. On memory in the traditional structure of archives, she shares her uncertainty, “I imagine one thinks those archives are more factual, yet I find the truth to lie between the cracks somewhere between fact and feeling. When I view archival photos and letters I find them to leave a good deal unsaid. They are also chosen from the subjective view of the researcher who is also constructing an idea of that person's life and work. I have no desire to push for objectivity as I do not believe it exists in this endeavor. The context is as varied as the sensibilities and the memories are fallible. The position of the subject is variable and so too the perception, but this would never stop me from recording what people choose to remember and how, because this is the heart and soul of life as I know it.”

*First published on, Issue 12. Guest Edited by Lianne McTavish.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Exhibition at the Sugar Bowl: featuring collaborative work by Eric Duffy and Charlotte Falk. REVIEWED by Mandy Espezel

On Sunday afternoon, I walked over to the Sugar Bowl to take a look at their current exhibition. Displayed on the brick walls was the work of local artists Eric Duffy and Charlotte Falk. The collaboration between the two had produced six 20x20” images that were a combination of Duffy’s photography, gel transferred onto un-primed board; and Falk’s painting, thick and abstract.

The show was themed around the image of a bird, specifically an owl named Cecil. The artist’s statement informed me of this, but of little else, unfortunately. For instance, there was reference to WWF, the World Wildlife Fund, but I was left uncertain as to the motive behind the show and to the significance of using the image of Cecil. Are these artists trying to bring awareness to an endangered animal, or is the image of an owl being used solely as a figurative photographic element in contrast to the painterly/abstract mark? I think that any strength the owl imagery could have held as a metaphorical association was limited by declaring that this was in fact an individual animal, with a name; perhaps being used as a formal element.

There was, however, consistency within the construction of the work; the owl reference and the abstract painting. You could tell a real attempt was made to have these separate elements co-exist and interact, to create some sort of relationship between them. But the end result seemed only to enhance the fact that two different artists participated in the making of these images, and that they did so in two different mediums. Duffy’s gel transferred photos, though lovely, never really exist in the same field as Falk’s thick and expressive paint application. They did begin to become cohesive when the image of the owl was almost completely obliterated, and only the white silhouette of a wing is left to signify what the literal image could not. The most convincing element that tied the images together was actually the title. I sat underneath Owl and Sky 04; a predominantly blue piece.

Remaining most unusual about the work for me was how drastically different it deviated from the style of painting that I associate with Falk. Usually, her images are watery and ephemeral. Soft focus paintings of girls and horses that I would not call pretty, but still emotive in quality. The painting done within this collaboration is much more aggressive and instinctual, without much resemblance to her previous paintings. Accentuating this fact was the presence of one such image, Ghost Blues 01, a large, liquid painting of a horse. Though out of place in the exhibit (being the only work presented that was not part of the pairs collaborative efforts) it’s still the most successful work in the show.

Mandy Espezel is an artist and writer currently based in Edmonton, AB.

“The Home Show” Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts. July 11 - August 22, 2008

As a collaborative effort between The Nina Haggerty Centre of the Arts, The Alberta Society of Artists, and The Art Gallery of Alberta, “The Home Show” explores the multifaceted interpretations of the idea of “home.” From architectural renderings to memory-based representations of home life, the show as a whole offers a variety of skill levels that breeds some notable contrasts.

From the moment you walk in, the exterior of buildings confronts you. From drawings of the new Nina Haggerty Centre soon to be constructed on 118 Avenue to the variations of mid-century stucco bungalows lining the east wall, “home” (at first glance) is where your stuff is. But as you start winding through the interior of the gallery through the paintings, drawings, ceramics, and light constructions, the seemingly simple concept of home opens up to sources of estranged familiarity. Ideas of safety, comfort, loneliness, fetishes, and community emerge and blend. From the professional artists of ASA to the less professional artists of the Nina Haggerty, many of the same sentiments were equally shared and represented.

As a curated show by Chris Carson from the ASA Fiona Connell of the AGA’s Trex program, and David Janzen from The Nina Haggerty, the collaborative theme does appear less consistent. ASA continues to boast an impressive list of past professional members and Nina Haggerty is championed as a drop in art centre for mature artists with developmental disabilities, and it would be unfair to call this show a true collaboration. Many of the ASA artists created new works specifically for the exhibition while all of the works chosen from Nina Haggerty were already in existence. In turn, the works from artists of the Nina Haggerty appear more directly about home life in the form of family, windows, and friends. On the other hand, ASA, Alberta’s oldest professional artist society, offered a larger number of still-life objects that signify the idea of home, filtered through a more conscious thematic tone.

It would have been interesting to see “home” as represented by artists new to Alberta compared and contrasted alongside these works, it is hoped that this traveling group exhibit will open up a greater discussion on what “home” means to Albertans and to Albertan artists of all denominations.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Special guest post by Ted Kerr, Keith Haring, "Crack is Wack" Brooklyn, NYC

In order to take a photo of it and get a sense of its full effect, I climbed a 12-foot fence in a foreign city and trespassed on private property that was under construction to get close enough to Keith Haring’s Crack is Wack mural.

Image credit: Keith Haring, "Crack is Wack" 1986.
Photo credit and collage: Ted Kerr, 2008

Ever since I had seen it in the new documentary called The Universe of Keith Haring, I knew I had to witness the mural first hand. Created in 1986 as an attempt to give something back to the urban community that so enthralled and inspired him, Haring created the mural that was then the cornerstone to the Crack is Wack playground that was at a time populated with basketball nets and park benches.

Fast-forward to present time and the mural is barricaded by two wire fences with park bench and basketball net skeletons rusting in the under construction park. Bordered by a highway, a car lot, and a bus garage, the playground was once an oasis for garage employees on break who according to a guy I ran into on my way to see the mural, just “shoot the shit on their breaks instead of shooting hoops.”

Like most good public art, the mural was a draw for me; an icon to a physical place that I wanted to visit, that I wanted to witness first hand, a type of Mecca that would be worth the journey.

Not normally prone to trespassing or climbing fences, I made the exception in part out of respect for Haring’s art-meets-punk-meets-why-not-attitude; also, because having come all the way from mid-town Manhattan (not to mention Edmonton, Alberta,) I thought I owed it to myself to take the risk.

I think in part the reason I felt so comfortable climbing the fence and potentially breaking the law was that Harlem on that particular Sunday morning with the vast grey sky and uninspired buildings in the background reminded me of downtown Edmonton before the revitalization, years ago when the city felt like mine. I would spend weekends just exploring the possibility-filled blight, dreaming of all the things my city could become. While exploring I would often find myself on the wrong side of a No Trespassing sign with little to no ramifications.

With my digital and Polaroid camera in tow I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to get up close and capture the mural, as well as indulge the feeling of nostalgia I was enjoying.

After a few walks around the grounds ‘casing the joint’ for surveillance cameras and points of access I decided to climb the side closest to the highway. Climbing up and over I quickly found myself barrier free and a few feet away from the mural. Once inside the abandon playground I once again was reminded of the abandoned lots of Edmonton's downtown east side, the urban beauty of weeds poking through neglected sidewalks and abandoned mattresses pregnant with last night’s rain.

Fenced in by yet another fence, this one with an opening, the mural was pristine in holy appearance. The pylon orange, deep black and almost glaring white shocked the grey cement, air, sky and mood. It punctured through. Populated by chasing snakes, Haring’s famous freestyle human figures and loopy scripts spelling out the name of the mural and a suggestion that Crack is Wack- the mural hummed energy. I walked around it a few times, waiting to allow myself to fully ingest with my eyes. I wanted to savor my ignorance of its brilliance. I wanted to hold out on discovering all of it for as long as I could. Finally when I started to get a little nervous about a security guard seeing me or some stranger having to be put in a bad position of reporting me I began to take photos. I started with my digital camera, backing up so I could get all of it and the lush over grown trees that surrounded it into the photos. From both sides I tried to capture it. Once satisfied I brought out my Polaroid with only one photo left. I stood with my legs apart, steadying my hands and pressed the button.

I waited under a tree for the photo to revel itself. Coming out almost more brilliant than it was in person I decided that it was my time to go.

With no trumpets or sirens I climbed the fence once again, this time finding myself further away from the mural, but feeling closer to the spirit of Haring.

As an artist he embodied so much of what I strive to understand and make connections with: queerness, community, art, HIV / AIDS and social responsibility. At the height of his fame and near the end of his life, whenever his art was invited to a new location in the world he insisted on creating a public piece for the local communities. From church walls in Italy to hospital cafeterias in Middle America, Haring’s work populates the western world.

With the orange beckon of art, hope and possibility glowing behind me I began my short trek back to the subway and longer journey eventually back to Edmonton.

Back home I realize a part of me is sad at what banality and mundaneness has taken the place of utopian maybes in downtown Edmonton, useless overpriced grocery stores and uninspired condos…but I have hope. With a strong Public Art Recommendation Plan to go before City Council in the fall there is still time and opportunity to create icons of interest in downtown Edmonton for the explorer still inside of me. If I realized one thing on my way to Crack is Wack is that cities should be filled with countless personal journeys that allow you to feel a part of something that includes you, but is bigger than yourself. Public art creates a reason for these journeys--provides a destination, a reason to pilgrimage. As Edmonton continues to evolve I look to the added layers of public art, new cultures, and civic debates to enhance the awesome medium sized city we currently have.

Ted Kerr is an Edmonton-based writer, artist, and activist.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Prairie Artsters - A Different Type of ARC*

Last week, I stopped by the new Common Sense Gallery, purported as Edmonton’s newest artist-run centre, and received a tour of the new North Edmonton Sculpture Workshop.

Almost immediately, it was evident that Common Sense is not actually an artist-run centre in any official sense, but a space run by artists in the old-fashioned sense. To clarify: ARCs have defined themselves as alternate exhibition spaces in relation to commercial art spaces, ie, ARCs are geared towards exhibiting works that are not created as commodified products, but exist as venues for investigating and developing dialogue and practice.

My visit to Common Sense coincided with the new book on artist-run cultures (Decentre, YYZ Books), and between flipping through Decentre’s nauseating navel gazing, I could only wonder how much this independent warehouse cost at the peak of last summer’s market. Owned by Ryan McCourt and occupied by fellow steel sculptors Rob Willms and Andy French downstairs, and painters Nola Cassady and Julian Forrest upstairs, the reconstructed building is essentially an artist’s wet dream in our space-deprived city. As talk of artist spaces rests on the lips of every arts organization, is this an example of the dream realized?

Toured around by a hospitable French, we walked through the former small appliance repair shop where McCourt apparently played as a child and currently plays as an adult. Continuing as a privately funded venture with cheap studio rent, the now privately owned NESW is certainly more impressive in size and facilities than existing local ARCs and arts initiatives such as ArtsHabitat. Just north of 104 Avenue and tucked away in the strip of industrial warehouses, the space resounds as a workshop first and foremost with a viewing space currently housing Mitchell Smith paintings. The gallery is blatantly straightforward with concrete floors and exposed structural steel beams. It resembles a chic commercial gallery space in both form and function: the space is available for viewing by appointment only, with business cards and “Common Sense” T-shirts, but no curatorial vision beyond selling the work.

Working with the building layout, French cordially points out that most of the features and spaces dictated the final outcome of the project. With small nooks, such as the upstairs reading lounge, downstairs video viewing room, Shady Gardens (a small interior balcony overlooking the work bay, just big enough for an ongoing game of Scrabble) and dartboard alley, along with functioning makeshift kitchens upstairs and downstairs, a common room plus three to four east-facing painting studios up in the Ladies Zog, and of course the heavy metal work bay and storage yard, the space is a functioning entity onto itself, in need of no one else.

Much like the five large-scale works by Peter Hide currently up at the Royal Alberta Museum, and presented by NESW, the works on the outside foyer stand isolated and each unto their own, abstracting references that are no longer present and dominating a vicinity without acknowledging its surroundings. Practical in filling the needs of a specific group of artists, the space—as the work—is removed from the temperament of community and practice. It is almost unfortunate, as seeing the colourfully welded sculptures once outside the Shaw Conference now sitting in industrial isolation, the work finally made an impression by existing amongst its own contemporary reality.

*First published in Vue Weekly, July 10 - 16, 2008

Monday, July 7, 2008

Latitude 53 June 13 - July 12, 2008, REVIEWED by Erin Carter

Mind of a City Judy Cheung

Maybe that job you took didn’t suit your needs so that’s why you quit after two weeks. Or maybe you don’t even know what your needs are right now. If not Judy Cheung Mind of a City exhibition at Latitude 53 might have something to say about your inner turmoil.

Pop psychology for the confused and lost, thinking “outside the box”, prioritising your core values and developing skills are placed in a funny way within Judy Cheung’s installation. These are developmental processes that most of us are taught in Junior High health class. I enjoyed the Myers Briggs personality description that was translated from other languages. It’s funny how we all get so caught up in categorizing ourselves we forget how to truly just be ourselves. These are the thoughts that Judy Cheung shed some light on while I was walking through her show.

I had a hard time reading the core value etchings on the translucent bars of soap but I thought it was ironic that these etchings were on clear bars of soap. If we wash ourselves with our own core values, and the etchings disappear, does that mean they will sink into our skin and activate our “core values”? Sometimes choosing the right value is easier than acting on the right value.

With a smile on my face the show ends with a feather chaise and the words “dream here”. It’s easy for me to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of city life and maybe we all need a friendly reminder that dreams are important, even if those dreams land on the seat of an angelic chaise.

Fancy Corissa O’Donnell

I miss the good old days when we could go to a fancy saloon and look at framed yellowing pictures of our great great grandma’s posing (in the nude) for an artist. You know those days when porn was tamely hand drawn and ladies blushed at the prospect of getting caught in only their corset. Wait a minute…I think Corissa O’Donnell may have captured that moment of old time purity in her vintage framed portraits of lovely ladies. Fancy is the name the exhibition and ladies are the focus.

With incredible detail Corissa O’Donnell has drawn women who are not the clichéd beauties of today’s Hollywood influenced life. I’m glad to see these topless women boldly staring back at me and basically saying, “what the hell are you staring at.” No matter what shape, size or look every portrait O’Donnell has drawn captures the beauty of femininity without the gaudiness of pornography. It’s nice to see that mass production hasn’t destroyed the beauty of the feminine curves.

Launch Pad

Multiple artists submitted to Launch Pad, which is an exhibit that consists of munny dolls, dunny dolls, super munny dolls and long boards. Kid Robot distributes the do it yourself munny/dunny dolls. These dolls stand anywhere from 4-24 inches in height and can be painted, carved, melted into anything your heart desires. Some are calling it the next wave of graffiti art that can be purchased. Looking at each piece in Launch Pad I was pretty amazed at the creations people were pulling off with these little plastic creatures.

I’ve heard about the munny dolls before but I didn’t really know what the rage was about. One of the statues was wrapped in decoupage Chinese newsprint and looked like a Chinese warrior. There were others that looked like they were straight out of a video game and were just waiting to come to life and kick some butt. This is the new wave of Knick Knack and I want one.

As I finished up with the three shows put on by Lattitude 53 I felt a wave of light heartedness wash over me. Fancy, Mind of a City and Launch Pad were three incredibly different exhibits that had one continuous feeling of surprise. I went there not knowing what to expect and walked out with expectations met.

Erin Carter is Prairie Artsters 2008 summer intern.

Friday, July 4, 2008

REAL: The Elephant in the Abstraction Room*

The fundamental problem with viewpoints such as those in Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary My Kid Could Paint That is the entire negation of the painter’s path from process to product. The documentary, like so many byproducts and pop cultural jokes about the purported randomness of modernist abstraction, assumes that because it looks like a few drops of paint splashed and some unruly strokes of paint smeared, anybody or anything with limited motor skills can surely slap it together. Only, engaging in a conversation with their predecessors, the abstract expressionists were painters exhausted with the look, feel and temper of painting before them. They were also highly skilled painters formally and technically, obsessive with surpassing their own limitations and passionate in arguments with and amongst themselves. Preoccupied with the abilities of communicating within their medium, the movement of abstract expressionism resulted in soliciting the primal and the emotive—subjects that apparently remain plagued by those who seek its form and function.

Sixty years after the emergence of the abstract expressionist movement, its spectre has returned to become the predominant focus of REAL. Curated by Marcus Miller with the possible intention of linking abstract art back to the real lived-in world, the exhibition certainly provides samples of work that illustrate how the reality of the world can manifest into works of art. A sample of Maria Madacky’s latest meticulations—even if they are completely un-expressionist—are works pulled from a larger series contemplating the span of hands-on work over time as marked by the imperfect physical traces of rust and wear. Abstract in the technical sense, it is by the far the most interesting work in the exhibit.

The most contentious work (and, not so coincidentally, the most hyped) is the collaboration between unlearning painter Tim Rechner and Lucy, the captive painting elephant of the Valley Zoo. I cannot speculate on the thoughts and emotions running through Lucy, as I only know that she’s the only elephant remaining in the zoo and has been living in captivity since 1977 after falling into a gem mine as a two-year-old. I can, however, speculate with confidence that Lucy simply has no artistic intentions, but just enjoys the act of what we call painting as it supplies some of the little movement and stimulus afforded her. With their sad eyes and the not entirely disqualified rendering of heightened sensitivity in Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone, it is all too romantic to pair this melancholy creature with another and call their creative collaboration “art.”

The work is real, and the idea by itself is worth reconsidering, but within the group show featuring real artists, the worth of Lucy’s efforts comes off more like a backhand to her co-exhibitors and an all-too-brief excursion with this unwitting animal. The purpose of the exhibit seemingly implodes upon itself, playing up the skeptics’ sentiments that surely kids and animals could paint these nonsensical prints for purchase. The worst part is that I feel for Lucy in the same way I felt for the little girl who just liked to paint sometimes for fun. Exploited for its creativity by an overseeing product-driven mentality, the value of Lucy is the real elephant in the room.

Photo courtesy of The Art Gallery of Alberta

*First published in Vue Weekly, July 3 - July 9, 2008

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Worse Things Have Happened to Better People, Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts. June 20 - July 4, 2008. Guest Reviewed by Mandy Espezel

I would like to mention that attending the opening reception of Worse Things Have Happened to Better People, the 2008 staff exhibition at The Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts, was my first visit to the organization. I was vaguely aware of its role in the Edmonton community as a place for individuals, who might otherwise not have the necessary access or support, to receive an opportunity and space to participate through a creative outlet. As I had never actually visited the centre, or taken in any of the previous exhibits, I was, however, familiar with the work of at least a few of the artists/staff members who would be exhibiting, and felt this was the perfect chance to go and learn about an important local arts-based institute.

Before heading out, I asked a few friends how to reach the centre (I am not originally from Edmonton, and am still sometimes unsure of how to get around), and was told a number of conflicting bus numbers and routes. So my decision to walk down 97th Street in the baking hot sun was made. I was very grateful once I arrived to find an oasis--an air conditioned building filled with people who appreciate art and its making.

Once there, I was immediately befriended by one of the members of the centre, a very kind man named Paul, who decided to give me a tour of the building. I was shown where they have wheels for clay, two controlled with the feet, and one by hand. There were shelves packed with clay sculptures and bowls, in various stages of completion. He showed me his own work, some beautifully hand formed clay bowls, glazed into a deep shimmering blue. There was also a large and well used press for printmaking, and many tables for drawing and painting. Everywhere we went, the walls were coated with the proudly displayed work of the artists who attend the centre.

We made it back to main gallery, and I was given descriptions of all the Lead Artists work, with Paul pointing out to me how affordably priced the art was (followed by some subtle encouragement to perhaps purchase one of the works, since they were priced so reasonably). Once he was sure I was well educated about all the artists and what they did, Paul left me to take in the show for a bit. It was perhaps the kindest welcome to an art opening I’ve ever received.

And the exhibit was no slouch either. Many prominent and active local artists had their work on display. There were a number of landscape-inspired paintings by Brenda Kim Christiansen (who completed her MFA only four short months ago). Jewel-like in their transparency and richness, these paintings appear like small liquid gems. Their relation to our changing and degrading landscape roots them with a kind of memory, a collective understanding of what we could loose.

There were also the fabric/ceramic sculptures by Stephanie Jonsson, who is currently completing her run as Artist in Residence at Harcourt House Arts Centre. Often described as reminiscent of underwater plant life, sexual anatomy, or other-worldly forms, these sculptures make a powerful visual impact while maintaining a level of descriptive uncertainty. The viewer is never completely sure of what they are seeing. Any reading of subject or meaning becomes more a reflection of an individuals' own assumptions, rather than a direct commentary or declaration from Jonsson herself.

Also of note was a lively drawing by Nicole Galellis, with twisting vibrant lines of intersecting color; some endearingly tiny paintings of houses by Dave Janzen, and one surreal and unexpected all white sculpture by Paul Freeman, again a very small piece. Most of the work in the show was of a smaller scale, perhaps to accommodate the amount of people who were included. There were no large, attention stealing pieces; it looked as if a great attempt was made to be as cohesive as possible, considering the wide variety of subject and styles present. If this had been a group show outside of Nina Haggerty's educational staff context, the exhibit would not have necessarily worked for me as a whole; but as there was that essential community context exhibiting the quality of individual works, I think it completely fulfilled its objective as a very thoughtful display of artwork made by a community of working artists endeavoring to encourage others. Definitely worth the sun baked trek.

Featuring work by: Marta Beranek, Jon Corbett, Paul Freeman, Cindy Fuhrer, Nicole Galellis, Dave Janzen, Steph Jonsson, Cynthia Sentara, Sue Seright, Davey Thompson, Brenda Kim Christiansen, and Lorraine Shulba

Mandy Espezel is a 24 year old artist and writer who currently lives and works in Edmonton, Alberta. Originally from Fort McMurray, she moved to the city to attend the University of Alberta, and graduated with a BFA in 2007. She enjoys making, looking, writing, and talking about art in its many forms.