The New Alchemists singles out two of Edmonton’s most heretical sculptors into one unified and transformative exhibition. Having exhibited in group shows from the landmark Edmonton Art Gallery 1985 Sculpture City exhibition to the inaugural Alberta Biennial in 1996, sculptors Catherine Burgess and Blair Brennan are brought together again by independent curator Caterina Pizanias for the current show at Harcourt House.
Burgess and Brennan, both Edmonton-based installation sculptors, have carved divergent paths for themselves in a city best known for its modernist steel formations. Since their first show together at the AFA’s then-functioning Beaver House Gallery, both artists have continued to fine tune their exploration of where sculpture—as presence and as object—can take the viewer narratively. Uncovering the multiple meanings in presence, working with different materials such as stone and wood and branching beyond taking “sculptor off the pedestal,” both artists have been actively and progressively seeking to engage the viewer to see the potential of sculpture as installation, and in so doing uncovering their own narratives within their art.
The latest creations are no different in their intent. Isolated together in The New Alchemists, Brennan and Burgess’s sense of narration comes out for full display. Seemingly opposing aesthetics are harmonized through their mutual preoccupation with storytelling through symbols. Side by side, Brennan’s brute playfulness and Burgess’s clean precision are compelling compliments of each other. Brennan’s “In any case the moon” demonstrates the artist and his medium in the most literal and poetic of alchemic expression. A curved piece of galvanized steel refracts the light of the moon over a transformed cast iron pan.
Transformed by the hammer, transformed by moonlight (as was the special opening night wine), change and results are here suggested as a combination of forces.
Directly located in the diagonal corner is Burgess’s “Where in the world,” a continuation of her philosophical pondering between the circle and the sphere. Playing with the micro and macro cosmos associated with these shapes results in a dialectic geometry. The hard slanted presence of the rectangle comes in as almost an intrusion, but the balance sought in the overall piece draws out the viewer’s contemplation of cosmic relations.
Spatially, both artists produce work that engages the mental and physical proximity of their viewers, and together, the bombardment of transformative apparitions is certainly palpable.
Twenty-some years ago during Sculpture City, then-sociology of art PhD candidate Caterina Pizanias first noticed Brennan and Burgess standing out from the rest. Over the phone from her home in Calgary today, Pizanias relays, “In 1985, modernism really was dead, but everyone in Edmonton believed it wasn’t. What attracted me to these two artists way back was that they were both butting the system.”
Continuing to root their works in the personal, Pizanias’s effort to bring them both together was to direct the viewer out of their normal viewing habits.
“Installation forces the viewer to complete the art,” adds Pizanias. “We have to get away from the slumber of expecting beautiful art. It is lazy to just look at a piece and not engage. Every viewer brings a new life story and every piece can be translated differently.”
First Published in Vue Weekly, November 29, 2007