Thursday, April 17, 2008

Getting Real with Material Functions*

Sitting down in the power corner of an established coffee chain, I caught up with emerging visual artists/curator/writer and fractions of Institute Parachute Josee Aubin Ouellette and Mandy Espezel. Their duo-show, Material Functions, opened earlier this month at ArtsHab Gallery, and a greater discussion beyond opening night queries was required.

The exhibition of new and in-progress works stemmed from Ouellette and Espezel’s shared emphasis on the material. There is a variety between the works on display in their use of paint and an obvious difference in how each respective artist handles their medium. Both are painters, BFA graduates from the University of Alberta in 2007 and invested in exploring the representation of material in space, but that’s where the similarities end.

Photo credit: Josee Aubin Ouellette, 2008.

On one side, Espezel’s technique of painting is informed by a formal approach that investigates material life within the painted space. There is a delicate use of light and transparency that reflects the space around her representational objects, emphasizing not just the object she represents but the space it exists within. The size of works was due to its exhibition limitations, but as a means to show, the work is there. Soft spoken and innately intelligent, Espezel understands her work and her community of artists as an evolution of the Edmonton legacy, and not simply a reaction or opposition. While her education was through both painting professors at the U of A, Ouellette’s was decidedly more skewered, making this exhibition an interesting contrast in the way one can paint under a shared concept and through vastly different approaches.

Ouellette, who is more outspoken and equally tenacious in opinions, offers that the alternative title for the show could easily have been Paint. Her interest in the material resides in seeing how it fits within the space around the work as object, and in listening to them speak at the same time about the same thing in their very separate aesthetics, the post-structural observation comes to mind that to the wall on which it hangs on, the frame is viewed as part of the art, but to the art, the frame is viewed as part of the wall. The material is identified by its difference, but only due to its apparent sameness, and it is that distinction that is growing.

While Ouellette thinks her work and process has been recently informed (for the worse) by a professional internship that resulted in a “serial” nature of work produced, her “Oil Sands” series was the most engaging part of her work—simply because it was the most “complete” idea unto itself and the most honest with itself as work being produced for an exhibition. The result may not have been a fully realized concept of her ideal, but this is where a sustained practice of showing and engaging with your own work as well as that of your community’s becomes so important.

As the discussion took many tangents, a grand comparison was made between the legitimacy of Institute Parachute and Edmonton’s larger artistic community. Both beckon the questions: “Is it a joke? Is it serious? Is it real?” which are being asked from within and from a far. For now, the answer to their aesthetics as much as to their aspirations is simply: “It’s REAL if we say so.”

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

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