Thursday, May 29, 2008

Prairie Artsters - It’s not Us vs Them*

This deeply rooted and seemingly arbitrary rivalry between Edmonton and Calgary exists on various levels—from provincial government attention to sports fanaticism—but it’s questionable to engage in a Battle of Alberta in terms of contemporary visual arts. Extending from their respective former reputations as sculpture and painting centres, Edmonton and Calgary have sustained and developed in very different directions—and the urge to compare and contrast has outgrown itself (with a few minor relapses).

Putting this urge to the test, a friend in the field of art conservation joined me recently for a 24-hour Calgary art trip. Stopping first at the grad show at the Alberta College of Art and Design, the gamut of works surveyed struck us both with the sentiment that we had each seen this show before. Many of the ACAD pieces eerily echoed recent works seen on the northern part of the QEII (or perhaps vice versa), and already I couldn’t resist the the futile activity of comparing.

ACAD BFA Penny Chase’s carefully stringed frame within frame was the rainbow doppleganger to U of A MFA Maria Madacky’s past exhibited work and Ingjerd Jentoft Karlsen’s sound and video installation of active water perched within a wooden box was the higher-end deja vu of Agnieszka Matejko’s installation from The Apartment Show. Room after room of this sprawling and massive student exhibition curated by Wayne Baerwaldt and Alexandra Keim, constant comparisons were made to recent grad shows visited at the U of A, Grant MacEwan and even Victoria Composite’s Grade 12 IB. One is more original, the other more polished, daring, skilled, etc. The compulsive reaction to identify and compare doesn’t regularly occur when in any other city within Alberta, the Prairies, Canada and abroad, but perhaps due to the relative proximity of influences and connections combined with a sense of estrangement, there persists an unfounded sense of entitlement to ideas and aesthetics.

Later on, I unknowingly began an evening that would span all three openings at the artist-run centres that all consistently showcased exciting programming, boasted attendance of and access to all exhibiting artists, published glossy and locally commissioned critical essays accompanying each exhibition and served warm, fresh, and delicious reception food.

Beginning with Lethbridge-based artist Annie Martin’s (im)permeable at The New Gallery, the informal artist talk was both active and engaging, spinning off into a quality discussion of the work that transcended the world of esoteric academia jargon and the simple praise of personal connections and memories. Stopping next at Truck for Berlin-Montréal’s Bettina Hoffmann’s Parallax, the lingering sense that Calgary had a deeper pool of emerging and active artists, writers, curators and administrators was reaffirmed when the gallery was suddenly flooded with the likes of Anthea Black and Nicole Burisch. Eventually with over half a dozen in tow, we collectively headed to Stride for Victoria-based Lyndal Gammon’s Interval to find visiting resident artists from Banff as well as Stride’s executive board members such as Chris Cran still chatting into the night. Walking past Epcor-donated spaces of plus-15s filled with curated exhibitions and performances, and stopping in at a handful of worthwhile commercials such as Paul Kuhn, Newzones and Trepanier Baer, I left the next day feeling recharged. I had a fleeting thought of a life in Calgary, but it was far more exciting to think about the inter-provincial collaborations and discoveries awaiting. Momentarily satiated, my thirst for inspiration continues to explore an unending curiosity into the ambivalent idea of here.

*First published in Vue Weekly, May 29 - June 4, 2008

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