Sunday, October 12, 2008

ARENA, Art Gallery of Alberta, October 4 - January 4, 2009 REVIEWED BY Brenna Knapman

Curator Ray Cronin pools a variety of artists, inspirations and mediums to bring together ARENA: The Art of Hockey. Given the cultural division that has ostensibly separated arts and sports, it’s surprising how many notable artists have delved into the realm of hockey on their own initiative to find meaning, share inspiration or perhaps heal old wounds and fallen heroes. The more rooms one tours, the more the story comes out, weaving hockey fans into a very Canadian tapestry of dreams, politics, anticipation and cruel wilderness. ARENA successfully pulls together a meaningful dialogue about the lives of many Canadians and sheds light on the reasons we’re so obsessed with pucks, players and replays.

Image credit: Diana Thorneycroft, Group of Seven Awkward Moments (Winter on the Don), 2007. Chromira photograph, 2/20, 73.7 x 55.2 cm. Collection of the artist. Courtesy of the gallery

Hockey is an emotional sport rife with broken hearts and loyalties: the Toronto Maple Leafs have a 2,400 person waiting list for season tickets and they haven’t won a Stanley Cup in over forty years. ARENA reflects the fanaticism behind the fan, with pieces ranging from Craig Willms’ Hull in the Crease, a miniature, movable set-up of a disallowed goal available for public replays, to Ken Danby’s six versions of Gretzky, all completed between 1999 and 2001, each with a creepy smile and most which show famed hockey star Wayne Gretzky waving at the viewer (yes, he retired. Obsess much?). Roderick Buchanan’s self-portrait, The Origins of Hockey, features the artist naked, covered in temporary tattoos and holding a shinny (practice) stick, and is an apparent statement of Gaelic influence on the sport, but also reminds us of the years of hockey’s influence on our culture and the ensuing intensity of emotion we have toward or against it.

Wanda Koop’s Hockey Heads 1,3,5 and 6 evoke a chilling atmosphere that dominates one of the rooms, with larger-than-life goalie eyes peering out from behind masks, expressions suggested by the manipulation of background colours. In another room, the river of hockey players against a quintessential ‘wilds of Canada’ background and equipment buried in beeswax bring a rural setting, while the crucified hockey player as animal bait adds some terror to the wilderness. This is most evident in Jim Logan’s National Pastimes, a series of paintings centered around a game of hockey on a small-town rink within an indigenous community. The time period is determined by the heavy church imagery, and the activities show many instances of abuse and violence; out in the open yet ignored. It’s also the only piece in the whole show that features hockey players of colour.

ARENA manages to have a little something for everyone. It easily connects with popular culture (Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg’s giant pastel Zamboni reaches out to the ridiculous, while multi-media instillations like Jean-Pierre Gauthier’s Flirting with the Puck bring the sounds of the game and the appeal of interaction). A decidedly memorabilia feel to the show probably appeals to die-hard hockey fans. The show offers big name appeal, but doesn’t limit itself to the status quo of the art world. For those who crave the artistic discourse, opportunities exist to discuss loss and love, fear and desire, what intrigues us and what controls us.

Such a large show attracting more than its usual crowd makes sense when one considers the plethora of influence hockey has on us. From the heart-thumping feeling of anticipation and the heart-wrenching moment of a goal to the political influence of sponsors and war and the sociological implications of an often-violent sport, ARENA hits the nail on the head in terms of addressing the artistic interests of the ‘average Canadian’.

The show does great things for hockey, broadening its place in our cultural history. What does it do for art? It offers an artistic discussion capable of attracting those outside its normal realm. Thus, it grows.

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