Last week, I stopped by the new Common Sense Gallery, purported as Edmonton’s newest artist-run centre, and received a tour of the new North Edmonton Sculpture Workshop.
Almost immediately, it was evident that Common Sense is not actually an artist-run centre in any official sense, but a space run by artists in the old-fashioned sense. To clarify: ARCs have defined themselves as alternate exhibition spaces in relation to commercial art spaces, ie, ARCs are geared towards exhibiting works that are not created as commodified products, but exist as venues for investigating and developing dialogue and practice.
My visit to Common Sense coincided with the new book on artist-run cultures (Decentre, YYZ Books), and between flipping through Decentre’s nauseating navel gazing, I could only wonder how much this independent warehouse cost at the peak of last summer’s market. Owned by Ryan McCourt and occupied by fellow steel sculptors Rob Willms and Andy French downstairs, and painters Nola Cassady and Julian Forrest upstairs, the reconstructed building is essentially an artist’s wet dream in our space-deprived city. As talk of artist spaces rests on the lips of every arts organization, is this an example of the dream realized?
Toured around by a hospitable French, we walked through the former small appliance repair shop where McCourt apparently played as a child and currently plays as an adult. Continuing as a privately funded venture with cheap studio rent, the now privately owned NESW is certainly more impressive in size and facilities than existing local ARCs and arts initiatives such as ArtsHabitat. Just north of 104 Avenue and tucked away in the strip of industrial warehouses, the space resounds as a workshop first and foremost with a viewing space currently housing Mitchell Smith paintings. The gallery is blatantly straightforward with concrete floors and exposed structural steel beams. It resembles a chic commercial gallery space in both form and function: the space is available for viewing by appointment only, with business cards and “Common Sense” T-shirts, but no curatorial vision beyond selling the work.
Working with the building layout, French cordially points out that most of the features and spaces dictated the final outcome of the project. With small nooks, such as the upstairs reading lounge, downstairs video viewing room, Shady Gardens (a small interior balcony overlooking the work bay, just big enough for an ongoing game of Scrabble) and dartboard alley, along with functioning makeshift kitchens upstairs and downstairs, a common room plus three to four east-facing painting studios up in the Ladies Zog, and of course the heavy metal work bay and storage yard, the space is a functioning entity onto itself, in need of no one else.
Much like the five large-scale works by Peter Hide currently up at the Royal Alberta Museum, and presented by NESW, the works on the outside foyer stand isolated and each unto their own, abstracting references that are no longer present and dominating a vicinity without acknowledging its surroundings. Practical in filling the needs of a specific group of artists, the space—as the work—is removed from the temperament of community and practice. It is almost unfortunate, as seeing the colourfully welded sculptures once outside the Shaw Conference now sitting in industrial isolation, the work finally made an impression by existing amongst its own contemporary reality.
*First published in Vue Weekly, July 10 - 16, 2008