Sunday, August 23, 2009

Clark Ferguson: In Search of Desire, REVIEWED by Noni Brynjolson

For the past month, the offices at Plug In ICA (my current place of employment) have been permeated by the abrasive howls of a hypnotized Matt Mullican. The video documentation of a performance features Mullican pacing around on stage, repeating nonsensical words ad nauseam and performing irrational actions that are usually constrained by one's consciousness. The piece is conceptually interesting, but hard to watch for more than a few minutes, let alone listen to for eight hours while trying to work. Looking for a respite during a recent lunch break, I visited Clark Ferguson’s exhibition down the street at Platform Centre for Photographic + Digital Arts. Consisting of three videos with accompanying photographs and models, the works in Ferguson’s In Search of Desire are both entertaining and engaging. 

Ferguson, who describes his age as “twenty-fourteen,” brings a teenage boy sensibility to his work. It’s as if he and his buddies were sitting around in his bachelor pad one day, and hatched a plan to make an awesome video out of whatever they had lying around. How else would Ferguson have decided, in “Teenage Wasteland,” that it would be a good idea if he created a harness that he would hang upside down in, in his underwear, while twirling his condom-covered fingers around and around in front of a photograph of his bedroom to look like seductively dancing legs? The finger-leg dance cuts to shots of Ferguson looking guiltily seduced, and we only find out at the end that he has been seducing himself with his own hand (masturbation, which Graham and Jaimz Asmundson discuss avidly in an essay accompanying the exhibition). 

All of Ferguson’s videos deal with male sexuality in some way. Ferguson has described himself as “not gay but not quite straight.” This resistance to heteronormativity results in a complete lack of females, female body parts or other objects of desire. It’s about the search for Ferguson, not the catch. In “Dead Meat,” a hunky blonde boy goes on a journey from the wintry prairies (Ferguson lives in Saskatoon) to the desert. Arriving at his destination, the boy sheds his clothes, which turn into animals - fur hat bunnies, pants owl, leather jacket raven. The pants owl beckons him forward, and the boy pushes his head through a slit where he sees a glass of water, the form his desire has taken. He asks in a typically dudish way, “is that a tall, juicy, glass of water?” To which a voice tells him that the water is not actually there, but is a metaphor meant to teach him about “self discovery, life, and...stuff.” 

Image Credit: Platform Centre for Photographic + Digital Arts

The third video is “The Ratspectacla,” possibly my favourite because of the absurd plot, hilariously lo-fi aesthetic and catchy soundtrack . The video again features constructed models and inserted photographic cutouts that simulate reality. It begins with a miniature circus designed for rats. Then, Ferguson and his friend Darryl realize that they’ve lost one of the rats, which becomes human-sized and starts to chase them. The climax comes when Darryl enters a room with a table filled with cream covered donuts. The rat finds him hiding, and starts to eat him. Cream erupts out of poor little Darryl, filling up the screen in an obvious reference to ejaculation. Like “Teenage Wasteland,” “The Ratspectacla” ends with Ferguson revealing his magician’s hat of tricks, and we are shown the models he has used in creating the giant rodent-filled fantasy. 

Conceptual artists such as Matt Mullican have produced valuable works examining language and the subconscious. It seems as if the work that Ferguson makes is miles apart, and more influenced by the aesthetics of music videos, popular culture, home video and even comic books than by serious aesthetic concerns coming from the art world. Ferguson certainly connects his work to larger aesthetic ideas, though, by examining the mediated ways in which spectacle is constructed. Engaging with an audience is essential to Ferguson, and he has succeeded in doing this with these works. I’m sure his videos could play on Much Music, or the Comedy Network, and get a positive response. However, In Search of Desire is not just about entertainment and visual appeal, but also deals with desire and male sexuality in an honest, inquisitive and very personal way. 

-N.B. Winnipeg

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Prairie Artsters: Infinite Fest*

More apparent in August than any other month, the city of Edmonton transforms into one festival weekend after another. Seemingly, nothing else happens but festivals: everything is either closed or in-between. Everyone is out of town or taking a serious stay-cation to enjoy the one month of pure bliss. It's hard to complain about the umbrella mentality of festivals when everyone is out in the sun and having so much damn fun, but it's hard going if you're just trying to find something new to write about. As a result, here is all that I can surmise from this past month as organized per weekend festival:

Heritage Days

By far my favourite festival of the summer, Heritage Days is the ultimate conglomeration of cultures, where each nation's best exports in the smells and sights of food and dance fill out all of Hawrelak Park. A friend and I used to take the festival extremely seriously, mapping out countries explored and yet to explore, and charting an ongoing rating system of places visited. Pressed for time this year, I bypassed the line-ups for tickets and food and just took in the performances. With the highlight of an all-female Cuban band just in town for the festival and sporadic performance pavilions showcasing hokey to brilliant ensembles, it's really the only place I can think of where anyone and everyone can watch dance from Uganda to Bolivia, eat gelato, tamales, pick up a Nikola Tesla t-shirt and devour meat and mangoes on a stick—often all at once.

Edmonton Folk Music Festival

A reunion occurs every year at Folk Fest as you run into those good people that you only ever see on Gallagher Hill. As the mecca of volunteers descend for Folk Fest with people streaming in or coming back for the sole purpose of the festival, Folk Fest is and always has been a great extended long weekend spent catching up between the beer garden and a tarp.

Missing it this year, I felt the constant stream of texts, mobile uploads and Facebook/Twitter updates kept me more than-in-the-know of what was going on from one end of the hill to the other. Although the music should be primary, my clearest memories from Folk Fest exist in moments where everything comes to a meeting point: often sitting on the hill, looking towards the downtown skyline as you feel completely engulfed by the people, the music, and you're happy.

Edmonton International Fringe Festival

Rarely a Fringer, this August week is often spent staying clear of the Strathcona area. Catching only one or two theatre shows a season, the Fringe has become increasingly overwhelming for someone who just wants to drop in and take a chance on a random show. With no more tickets at the door, it's not really a fringe environment, but with Bring-Your-Own Venues sprouting up across the river, North America's oldest and largest Fringe looks to be gaining back some of its grassroots practice.

Deciding to catch just one show this year, I went to Grandma Rosie and Lily's Grandpa Sol on its opening night at Acacia Hall. I first heard about the show earlier this summer in Winnipeg, where individuals I just met raved about this one-woman puppet show. Then a friend in Saskatoon e-mailed, saying that I should really go see this show that's coming to Edmonton, this puppet show by her old friend Lana Schwarz from Melbourne.

Charming, funny and just twisted enough to be slightly magical, the one Fringe show I saw this year was worth it, but leaving the theatre at 12:30 pm on a Thursday night, I realized that I only go to support the people behind the show and that I'm not there because I'm interested in the form or art of theatre.

*First published in Vue Weekly, August 20 - 26, 2009

-A.F. Edmonton

Friday, August 7, 2009

Lyndal Osborne, Ornamenta, July 30 - August 29, Harcourt House

As previewed earlier this year for this touring show by Lyndal Osborne, I came to see the realized results on the freshly stripped floors of Harcourt House Gallery. As the first show to exhibit on the bare marine-coloured concrete floors, Ornamenta significantly draws your attention to the floor space to view Osborne's re-imagination of the genetically modified harvest.

Drawing a range of audience members from curators to farmers to her artist talk, Osborne's approach to art has increasingly turned towards an installation-based method that renegotiates fine art techniques into an often political contemporary practice.

Image credit: Detail from "Garden" Lyndal Osborne, 2005

Taking meticulousness to a whole new realm, the organic discards from Osborne's personal refuse has been painted, dyed, chine colled with lithograph drawings, painted, paper mached, and distorted beyond natural perception. Transformed to habitat in Osborne's modified ecosystem(s), these estranged roots, seeds, and pods are at once wondorous and alarming--much like their symbolic counterparts.

Building upon Osborne's persistent research into GMO's by bringing together Garden and Archipelago, curators Linda Jansma and Virginia Eichhorn allow for the artist as researcher to continue on a line of thought by encouraging the works speak back to one another.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Allyson Mitchell: Ladies Sasquatch, REVIEWED by Noni Brynjolson

Do Sasquatches really exist? Are there actually ape-like beasts lurking in forests, occasionally sighted but always escaping scientific discovery? Or do they belong in the space of myth, folklore, religion, popular culture? Linda Nochlin asked “Why have there been no great women artists?” It could be said that Allyson Mitchell’s current exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery revolves around the question, “Why have there been no women Sasquatches?” Mitchell’s show features a cast of lesbian feminist monsters. Attractive, yet intimidating, their presence loudly declares an intrusion of different (scary, to some) voices into public discourse. 

To visit the Sasquatches, one has to pass by several different areas. In Canada on Canvas, one might spot numerous Masterworks by the Group of Seven. Next is Four Centuries of Silver, a beautiful show of gleaming, delicately crafted objects. Ladies Sasquatch is tucked away in a small corner gallery, much like a cave. The juxtaposition between the fine silver and the Sasquatch room is quite amusing - especially because the first thing that greets you is a pink, fuzzy, stuck-up Sasquatch bum. Mitchell was certainly aware of the way this placement would bring up questions surrounding gender, material, and craft-making - not to mention gallery politics and the clashing of histories and disciplines within a large institution such as the WAG.

Image Credit: Winnipeg Art Gallery, Installation view, 2009

The female monsters Mitchell creates are made of taxidermy fur, kitschy bathroom mats, afghans and other discarded domestic materials. They are simultaneously hideous and sexy; monstrous and feminine. They are also hand-built, crafted, embroidered and dressed up by Mitchell. Each one has a wig (arranged by Mitchell in “classic lesbian” styles), some have tattoos, and all unashamedly flaunt their furry sexual parts. The figures dominate the gallery space, appearing to be deeply engaged in conversation around a campfire which casts menacing shadows on the surrounding walls. 

The creatures were inspired by Mitchell’s vision of radical feminism. Mitchell, who has a PhD in women’s studies, coined the term Deep Lez to refer to her personal philosophy, which “acknowledge[s] the urgent need to develop inclusive liberatory feminisms while examining the strategic benefits of maintaining some components of a radical lesbian theory and practice.” Mitchell was inspired by visiting the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, an event completely organized and run by women. Watching them work together, free from a society in which many felt powerless and unaccepted, Mitchell was moved to create an homage to their strength and solidarity. 

At a discussion at the WAG that accompanied the exhibition, the existence of Sasquatches was brought up. Joining Mitchell were two Aborginal women: Lynnel Sinclair, a Sasquatch researcher, talked about the numerous sightings she had had in the Manitoba wilderness, while artist Melissa Wastasecoot discussed the role of the Sasquatch within Aboriginal spiritual traditions. The talk brought a new dimension to Mitchell’s work, one based on systems of knowledge, power and belief. While I will forever remain a skeptic about entities that lack convincing documentation (Sasquatches, God, Aliens, etc.), it was still intriguing to hear stories of Sasquatches placed within cultural and spiritual contexts.  

Both Sasquatches and lesbian feminists have eluded scientific classification - neither fit neatly into rational, western (historically masculine) systems of knowledge, but instead belong to different, and marginalized, discourses. Mitchell’s Sasquatches appeal to one’s sense of play. The inclusion of a soundtrack makes it seem like you are entering a bonfire party at a girl’s camp. But they are not toys, they have sharp teeth and an intimidating presence. You can enter their circle, but you’ll have to check your disbelief at the door if you want to join the conversation. 

-N.B. Winnipeg

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Prairie Artsters: QuickDRAW*

Drawing on history: Midnight chalk drawing opens up a new chapter in downtown's social spaces

The Hotel Cecil sat boarded up, abandoned, squatted and forgotten for years on the corner of Jasper and 104th Street before it was torn down 101 years after it first opened. Once a prestigious hotelier on the then-western edge of downtown Edmonton, the Cecil was designed by architect Roland Lines (Alex Taylor School, Union Bank Inn) during a decade of immense urban development that included the inauguration of Edmonton as the provincial capital. Left off the official list for Heritage Buildings, the functioning hotel and bar eventually degraded into a seedy dilapidated dive before permanently closing in 2003 and being demolished in 2007.

As a prime location on the city's main drag, the corner of Jasper and 104 continued to ride the whitewashing wave of another boom of urban development. A glass tower with a street-level Sobey's took shape on the site with a design nod to the heritage district, but no physical trace of the Cecil remained. A transient town with a mentality of transient architecture, memories of public space blur, but the site of Jasper and 104 remains a meeting place of expectations.

Signifying the status of a somewhat urban density, the demolition and reconstruction of the new building was accompanied by the first "Make It Not Suck"—a DIY initiative led by a group of Edmontonians that saw many of our construction site scaffoldings wheat-pasted with pre-made visual works and text. As an attempt to mark the city with something other than construction-in-progress, the MINS group—along with and often in opposition to—the architects and developers were all staking a claim to the city they each called their own. A city expresses itself, but its expressions are regulated, or inspired, by a few.

This past weekend, gathering just north of Jasper on 104 at midnight, a group of friends and strangers arrived en masse with buckets of chalk and no greater plan than to draw on their city streets. QuickDRAW was the first night of Latitude 53's now annual event of drawing, and the Friday night event was proposed by local artist Sarah Patterson. The idea was to draw on the site of the next morning's City Market, connecting the act of drawing beyond just the gallery area. It was also a fine excuse to take advantage of our summer nights in an area that has been revitalized on the surface, but had yet to generate any real sense of self-sustenance.

"It's just to engage spontaneously with art and make fun in a non-destructible way," says Patterson, a tried-and-true downtown resident who regularly sees the action going on in and around the core.

With cars careening past that either apologized or honked, various individuals from a diverse background picked up a piece of chalk and drew whatever came to mind. Some came prepared with notebooks, others engaged with the street fixtures of stop signs and park benches, and others just freestyled large creatures real and imagined. Curious onlookers and midnight dog walkers looked on as if it was a spectacle, and the market shoppers the next morning smiled at the drawings that had been made for them.

Although QuickDRAW holds the same motivation of graffiti, which has been deemed illegal and unsafe in our city, nobody, not even the passing police cruiser, showed any signs of distress at this gesture to decorate public property for free. Perhaps chalk's temporary nature makes it more digestible, but when entire buildings can be torn down, pressure to remove spray paint seems more like a diversion.

As an event, QuickDRAW was neither here nor there, but as a concept, it marks an entry point for anyone to express themselves, as this city belongs to all of us. As Patterson continues, "It's accessible to anyone. Children do this all the time."

*First published in Vue Weekly

- A.F. Edmonton

A Three Day Tour of Winnipeg

Finally heading to the other edge of the prairies, I managed a short stay in Winnipeg to get a dose of the community. Although no studio visits were completed (but a partial studio move was endured), I did receive a gracious tour around Winnipeg's artist run centers and galleries courtesy of Shawna Dempsey.

First up was Platform Gallery, an artist run center that focuses on digital and photographic arts. Saskatoon-based Clark Ferguson's In Search of Desire was present on the walls inside the Artspace Building. First encountering Ferguson's short video "Farmer Jeans" last summer, the same glossy aesthetic remains present, but his brand of humour remains elusive.

(We would also run into visual artist Sarah Anne Johnson here and elsewhere that day. Johnson, whose works I first encountered during a Banff open studio visit, and where that work materialized into a show at the Illingworth Kerr, and whose reputation in the contemporary art world is steadily climbing with prestigious acquisitions and awards, would be an art star in any other scene, but in a city void of even hipsters, self-aggrandizing may be the only thing more socially awkward than the city itself.)

Next up was aceart, where Montreal-based Alexandre David's Over Here filled the space with a voluminous architectural sculpture made entirely of soft wood. At first appearing as an indoor skateboarding ramp, once on the ramp that ascends close to the ceiling in a gentle curve, the give under one's weight, the scent and almost flavour of the fresh cut wood, and naturally the reverberation of sound it causes within the space reveal themselves and reconfigure how we engage and organize space.

Speaking with artist and aceart administrator Liz Garlicki, I was also gladly informed about the center's series of critical publications, essays, and artist books that are an integral part to aceart's mandate to produce and disseminate dialogue from contemporary cultural producers.

In the same building, we stopped in on Urban Shaman, where Cliff Eyland had curated Manitoba-based artists Peter Prince and Jackie Traverse together for a mediocre painting show. While one or two mixed media canvases by Traverse shone with honest brutality, the show as a whole did not necessarily speak to each other, and certainly not to the viewer about why these works belonged with each other. As Manitoba's only Aboriginal artist run center, I was expecting more text and information from and about contemporary practitioners, but save for a darkened corner of books and a table over stacked with outdated postcards, there was no visible or accessible information about the center and its activities.

On to Plug In, where Pandora's Box was currently showing. Curated by Amanda Cachia, the show and tour was organized by the Dunlop Gallery in Regina, where I first saw it in its original presentation. Featuring ten international female artists from a multitude of backgrounds and disciplines, the show had far more room to breath in the gorgeous Plug In venue, but very notably missing was the Kara Walker short film (which was unfortunately replaced with editioned stills from her gallery in New York).

Brief stops were made at MAWA, a mentoring center for women artists where Dempsey and Lorri Millan have been working as co-Executive Directors for this past year. More of a resource space than a gallery space, MAWA seems to be an emblem of Winnipeg's cooperative spirit that espouses help and mentorship far more than competition and rivalry.

A stop was also made at Videopool, where a stack of Poolside publications, information about their various programming throughout the year, and a members' DVD catalogue later, completely affirmed its reputation as what a media arts center should be. As a meeting space for its members, Videopool is first and foremost a resource center that generates new avenues and accessibilities for distribution, technical facilities, archives, residencies, annual publications, funding possibilities, and programming initiatives. Attracting Andrew Harwood to step in from Toronto as the new Executive Director, he will follow a dynamic era led by Sandee Moore, who once again returns to her own artistic practice.

The final space visited was of course the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Sheltered entirely in tyndall stone since 1912, the WAG is just one more heritage building that continues to survive in downtown Winnipeg, though they continue to have their fair share of demolitions and renovations.

There primarily to find Allyson Mitchell's Ladies Sasquatch behind the silver antique selection, I was surprisingly taken a back by the Joe Fafard retrospective. Having seen his work countless times, the retrospective was the first time I have appreciated his work. With focus on his early works, which stand out in their curiosity, Fafard's impeccable note for the mundane detail is certainly on display as you walk by each pedestal. Placed outside of the market value context, Fafard's genuine compulsion with re-figuring ordinary folks and familiarities shine through, giving a face to the world he knows to a world that may otherwise forget.

- A.F. Edmonton

Anthea Black, Surrender No Surrender, July 23 - Sept 5, SNAP

Part working studio, part portfolio, Anthea Black's Surrender No Surrender presents a point of intersection for various interests: pop iconography, contemporary printmaking, leather culture, the power and development of limited edition printing, and queer art history making. Spread over four walls in the open studio space/gallery of SNAP, the show is rather antithetical to the status quo of printmaking shows, especially printmaking shows in Edmonton.

Opening up the perspective and entry point of printmaking as both form and as message, Black's working exhibition was coordinated in conjunction with Camp Fyrefly, a queer youth camp where participants were given printmaking workshops along with queer art history seminars by Black. From the opening image of Wonder Woman and Big Barda joining hands and forces, there is a focus of collaboration and intertextuality.

Image credit: Anthea Black, 2009.

Playing off the iconic DC Marvel character comics and their extensive character histories and their social historical relevances, Black also plays up their medium in the imperfect pasting and peeling edges. The creases may be seen as irritating to the perfectionist, but their presence emphasizes the action of putting up the works, which when combined with the history lesson provided by "I Saw This & Thought of You", remains the single most important fact in the entire exhibition.

- A.F. Edmonton

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Real Life, Ron Mueck and Guy Ben-Ner, June 20 - September 7, Art Gallery of Alberta*

The purpose of a themed exhibition should be to provoke a different understanding of said theme. Yet in squaring off London-based hyperrealist sculptor Ron Mueck and Berlin-based video artist Guy Ben-Ner, curator Jonathan Shaughnessy does not necessarily expand our perception of what constitutes his titular “Real Life.” Nevertheless, the contrast between Mueck and Ben-Ner does prompt questions about the ideal of the real in contemporary art.

Image credit: Ron Mueck A Girl 2006
Photo credit and copyright: National Gallery of Canada

In the main gallery, Mueck’s 17-foot-long figure A Girl lies frozen and alone, her giant baby fists clenched and her enormous newborn eyes struggling to open for the first time. Known for using scale to distort viewer perception of his subjects, Mueck crafts his sculptures out of proportion in order to elicit a psychological presence of frailty or dominance.

Demonstrating the monstrosity of birth and the beginning of life with A Girl, Mueck’s exaggeration of size and life situation swings to the other end of the spectrum with Old Woman in Bed, a diminutive sculpture (less than a foot in length) of an old woman nearing the end of her days. Situated in the room next to A Girl, the woman is seemingly curled up asleep underneath a swath of blankets. But upon closer viewing, her eyes and mouth are half-open, with heavy lids barely able to blink and thin lips parted as if taking a last gasp.

Paired head-to-head, it seems almost reductive to render death as diminishing and birth as colossal. And for all his visual realism and attention to surface detail, Mueck’s subjects are not about the realistic portrayal of life and death; rather, they address mortality through the rendering of the face and body—inspiring humanity rather than recreating it. Hyperreality, here and elsewhere, in fact reaffirms the power of the false, just as to appear real primarily asserts the power of apparition. Mueck’s sculptures are, ultimately, haunting in the way that they estrange us from the monumental and minute moments of real, everyday life and death.

The theme of real life is equally questionable in Ben-Ner’s video works, but in a wholly different manner.

Image credit: Guy Ben-Ner Stealing Beauty 2007

Shooting candidly in several Ikea stores over the course of two years and various countries, Ben-Ner and family created Stealing Beauty. It’s a satirical narrative framed as a television sitcom, one structured on the loose plotline of young Amir caught stealing at school. Ben-Ner’s directions to his kids and wife were edited into subtitles during post-production, and the artist also chose to include moments of the public finding his hidden cameras.

The discontinuity in Stealing Beauty is heightened by editing the same scene’s dialogue across many different Ikea showrooms, a move that goes beyond simple sleuth-style artmaking. Because Ben-Ner underlines the construction process behind the work, his piece ceases to be about real life. (Notably, his sound choices include the clanking of invisible dishes and the turning on and off of unplumbed showroom water faucets.)

As demonstrated in past works like Treehouse Kit, Ben-Ner is a master of playing the straight man in his own world of make-believe. Both then and now, his works mainly serve to exacerbate the absurdities of our everyday realities, rather than reflect them accurately.

*First published online at Canadian Art