The buzz of Millennials set to rule the world has been slowly but steadily growing in anticipation. Millennials, that post-Gen Y generation of 20- to 35-year-olds who are destined (perhaps simply by time) to take control, have been coming of age for as long as MySpace and the iPod have been around.
A quick summary of facts and figures: in North America alone, this generation (mostly born after 1977) will not only be the wealthiest generation the world has ever produced, but also the most educated. On every level of economy and culture, the impact of the Millennials will be felt.
The City of Edmonton created a task force called NextGen in the hopes of retaining this next generation, convincing them to stay here and prosper—and in this port town, that’s not a bad idea.
Trickling down to the arts sector, which has been sitting as a malnourished industry isolated as a potential positive factor on the road to maintaining a well-rounded and attractive city, Edmonton’s visual art scene has mostly remained invisible outside of our provincial borders. Strangle held by the 1960s sweep of formalist modernism, the forefathers of the art scene (namely U of A professors—and well-respected artists in their own right—Graham Peacock and Peter Hide) should now be pointed out as that first generation of artists who forged a scene where there was nothing prior to contend with. Moving to Edmonton early in their careers from the UK in the late ’60s, their influence has continued to dominate our visual arts scene 30 years after they first broke new ground.
Local artists continually flee to greener pastures, where their art can grow without the unnecessary frame of regurgitated Greenbergian readings and where studio spaces are at least affordable. But for those who are electing to stay, the second generation is looking forward and not back for a movement it can call its own.
TURF, an exhibition of emerging artists from the Edmonton/Calgary region currently showing at the Peter Robertson Gallery until Aug 11, looks to address the future harvest of artistic talent. Billing the large assembly exhibition as an exhibition of emerging artists, the definition of “emerging” is as diverse as the artists represented.
“‘Emerging’ is just art lingo for price point,” explains Peter Robertson, owner of the commercial gallery that has a strong collection of contemporary Canadian works. “We’re looking to expose our clients to some new people, and also to see how these works perform in the gallery space.”
Admittedly a painter-centric exhibition of works, with co-curators and exhibiting artists Tricia Firmaniuk and Cynthia Gardner being both painters themselves, TURF is the first time the gallery has turned to represent the local scene in its three-year history.
“Tricia and I have talked about it before,” Robertson concedes, before pointing out that contemporary Edmonton has yet to spawn an artist or a movement that has really broken out on any commercial level.
A collector before he took over the former space of Vanderleelie Gallery, Robertson has witnessed the frustrating progression of the visual arts scene.
“Artists thrive when they leave Edmonton,” he states plainly, before pointing out that Edmonton is a conservative place with little avant-garde happening.
Firmaniuk would agree. As the central curator who selected artists she had seen over the last number of years, she feels the scene here is healthy and diverse, but still young.
“A lot of good work is being made here,” she says confidently. “I think there’s new interest in abstraction and a move towards more figurative work. People are getting away from academia and the idea of permissiveness. There’s definitely a lot of valid ways to be working.”
Judging from the broad spectrum of artists and media represented, the age of postmodern curating is what strikes you first about the diversity.
Traditional oil and acrylics, interspersed with mixed media, one photography-based artist, UV screen prints, digital outputs and anything else applicable to a 2D surface grace the exhibition walls. At first glance, the works and artists are all strong as individual works, but within the context of a group show, the exhibition serves well as an introductory sample of contemporary Alberta-based 2D visual artists working under the age of 40.
For Sarah Ewashen, one of three Calgarians represented and an ‘07 graduate of ACAD, TURF is her first gallery exhibition. Two large-scale figurative drawings adorn the back south wall, one traditional in its resemblance to Japanese lithography while the other, aptly titled “Anybody,” is an estranging hybrid of cultures, religions and gender.
Like most new graduates, Ewashen now blankly faces the slippery slope of post-art school withdrawal.
“I’m mainly looking for a balance between living and staying true to my art,” she muses when asked about the dreaded “Now what?” situation. “I am looking at more the business side to survive.”
Like her peers within the exhibition, commercial galleries have either not been of interest or not within reach.
In fact, immediately upon entry to the show, there are works by Paul Freeman, arguably not an emerging artist by most standards, but an accomplished artist who has rooted himself in the community through actively exhibiting and administering over the past ten years.
“I’ve targeted public, artist-run institutions, as I’m more interested in just getting people to see the work,” he says. “In this town, there is a legacy to contend with, and I think the artist-run centres have to re-evaulate their role in the community, but I think there’s now more room than before for more stuff to happen.”
Freeman’s works deal mostly with the representation of dead animals in various media and styles, and his ropey chalk pastel carcasses sit directly across the room from the raised 2D works by Harcourt House’s current artist-in-residence, Beth Pederson.
A graduate of NSCAD in 2003, Pederson’s pieces were created this past year courtesy of her studio space as Harcourt’s A-I-R. Bathroom pipes and other everyday objects you see and use and never pay much attention to have evolved from their canvases and assumed their own tangible presence. As Pederson’s magnification on the idea of the simple object continues to grow, she and fellow artist/partner Shane Krepakavich (also in TURF, but currently overseas) doesn’t know if they will be able to grow here.
“The shortage of space is a problem,” she says in her quiet manner. “But there’s also not enough happening culturally, at least not in the visual arts. There’s a lack of awareness, and a lack of appreciation. It just seems people are more interested in buying trucks.”
A Shortage of affordable studio space is a continuous plague, but with the crushing boom and absorption of any available spaces for rent, most artists are finding it near impossible to find a space not just to work, but also to live.
There are, of course, artists who have founded a stable community around them for support and inspiration. Housemates and artists Monica Pitre, Andrea Pinheiro and Gillian Willans are all represented in TURF, and will also be having a group show coming up in ArtsHab playing on the theme of cohabitation. Pitre, who is currently premiering her MFA in printmaking, has two earlier works on display, as she feels that they’re more representative of the idea of “emerging.”
“Basically, I never considered myself an artist when I was doing my BFA,” Pitre explains matter-of-factly. “It was when I started my Masters, feeling that dedication and commitment and knowing that I will never be without this, is when I started to feel like an artist.”
Pitre is also one of 19 recipients out of 142 applicants for the first round of the Edmonton Explorations Grant that will lead into a large-scale public art project this fall. Wrapping up her Masters, the idea of “emerging” versus “mid-level” labels is clearly not of consequence.
Her housemate Willans, on the other hand, marks the impetuousness of “just doing” as a sign of being an emerging artist.
“The reality is, you just have to start doing when you are emerging,” she says, before explaining some of the history of what being “emerging” in Edmonton means. “My parents moved here in the late ’60s just as all of this modernist art was starting to
happen, so as a second-generation Edmontonian, I feel Edmonton is growing up at the same time and finding its own voice and getting away from this foundation of nepotism.”
As a board member for SNAP Gallery as well as having left Edmonton for Toronto for a number of years, Willans very much relates Edmonton’s art scene as an adolescent teenager in the stage of trying everything.
“It’s not a negative remark, but positive, in that we’re finding ourselves. You can be brought up under one way, but there’s always the time when you start doing your own thing.”
Digging their heels into Edmonton’s turf, the artists and emerging artists of tomorrow are certainly breaking new ground on their terms.
First published in Vue Weekly, July 26 - 31, 2007. Print and Online.