Friday, March 21, 2008

Seeing Through Modernism (by way of) Karen Wilkin’s “Life After Formalism” lecture, March 20, 2008

In the early heyday of my visual arts writing in Edmonton (spanning just over three years now), I couldn’t understand the overarching preoccupation with modernist formalism and the lighting quick defensive anger at any questioning of formalism’s contemporary relevance. And in many ways, I am still at a lost as to why there remains so much hostility in protecting an era that many have (or should have) clearly moved on from.

The era in question covers most of the 1970s and 80s--currently exhibiting as Seeing Through Modernism--a time when many local artists responded to the modernist art collection at the Edmonton Art Gallery. Backed by the praise and interest of Clement Greenberg, Edmontonian artists saw themselves as more than just isolated Western Canadian artists; Edmonton-based artists not only saw, but worked with serious fervor at being modernist formalists in the vein of an internationally heralded movement.

Over thirty years have passed and the interest in formalism and Greenberg have risen and fallen. The works curated by Dr. Anne Whitelaw present the many accomplishments of past EAG Chief Curator Terry Fenton, and places the works in a civic history that includes the responsive formation of Latitude 53 and SNAP Gallery. Looking at these works in the light of a historical retrospective, the Jack Bush’s and Douglas Haynes can be contextualized as significant moments in the formation of Canadian art history.

Only these works, along with all the others, are not just viewed in a historical context. They are highlighted as the pinnacle of an achievement that many today feel disconnected from--in both aesthetic and in quality. Robert Linsley’s obvious inquiry into why Roald Nasgaard is rehashing abstract Canadian painting bluntly suggests Edmonton formalists (along with Toronto’s third generation abstractionists) were a downright failure in furthering formalist art (Canadian Art, Spring 2008). In looking at this exhibition, into recent works by many of the same artists, and at the product of current U of A BFA and MFA graduates, Linsley’s assessment is bang-on. There is invaluable importance in remembering and acknowledging the past, but to grow as artists and as a community, Edmonton artists, along with the U of A, needs to start looking out before they bottom out.

Karen Wilkin, with her rolodex sharp memory and no punches pulled demur, began her lecture by first differentiating what she saw in the Modernism exhibit from what she remembers. As the Chief Curator from 1971 - 1978, only the second curator in the EAG’s short history, Wilkin basically formed all programming and collecting from the ground up. Through an ever expanding personal network and a passionate commitment to the artists she admired, Wilkin exposed and exhibited the best contemporary works (she could) of that time--and they were the best works to her own taste and judgment. That is what a curator does, a fact that has been washed out by peculiar funding bodies and hog-tied selection committees. But most valuably, Wilkin the curator saw the importance of bringing outsiders in to workshop and visit with local artists to create a common breeding ground of inspiration and activity.

Only thirty some odd years later, Edmonton is still very much creating works of that bygone era and of that aesthetic taste. Enough time has passed that colour field theory is once again in vogue, yet one here in Edmonton would never know it ever went out of fashion.

To an outsider coming in, a missing piece of the puzzle to Edmonton’s modernist history was always “Why here and Why now?” The answer boils down to whom Wilkin, then Fenton, basically knew and admired in a whirlwind combination of who they could get with bare funds and no reputation.

It was interesting, though not entirely surprising, to hear about the insular history then, and how Edmontonians came out of their shell only after big names from elsewhere deemed it appropriate to do so. Unfortunately we are still of that mind frame as we are not only looking in, but also looking back to that time when big names from elsewhere praised what we were doing. We formed an identity through mirroring what was displayed in our public gallery, but we have not grown past that initial instigation of external influences. There has been no life after formalism if you stayed in Edmonton, because art dies once removed from its own dialogue and context.

Seeing Through Modernism: Edmonton 1970 - 1985
runs until May 4, 2008 at the Art Gallery of Alberta

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