Thursday, December 17, 2009

Glenn Ligon, Illingworth-Kerr Gallery, September to December, 2009

(image source:

During a residency at Alberta College of Art & Design in 2007, New York artist Glenn Ligon filmed his version of the last scene in Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 silent film ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. After the film was developed, the footage returned damaged and the results led to the ghostly film ‘Death of Tom’. This looped film was featured in Ligon’s recent exhibition at the Illingworth-Kerr Gallery alongside ‘Untitled (Minnesota Massacre)’, a series of 19th century painted panels the artist discovered in storage at the Glenbow museum.

Based upon stage versions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s original story ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, Edwin S. Porter’s silent film introduced early 20th century film-viewing audiences to one of the first narrative depictions of race relations in film. During a recent artist talk, Ligon showed documentation of the making of ‘Death of Tom’, wherein Ligon and other actors restaged the scene of Tom’s death and the visitation of 'little Eva' as an angel. He called the completed film’s damaged footage both a “failure of representation”, and an “excavation”. The resulting film, screened within a small black box of a theater, is of eerie, abstract beauty. White shapes upon a black screen seem to shiver, breathe, and struggle to define themselves. Jason Moran’s accompanying music plays to this struggle. Shapes crackle like static, are pulled like wool, and pulse skittishly as Moran’s errant themes become melancholic, pick up hopefully, and stumble as the screen flickers and becomes blank. Moran plays to each damaged scene, each chord pulled gently by slight suggestions of tone or mood. The obscured actors have morphed into tiny threads of light, their human presence visible as streaks of coherent film, shifting and stretching like the shadows of shoes glimpsed from beneath a door.

As the film continues to loop, each time introduced by fragments of the original titles, Moran’s score adapts different versions of itself, its mood shifting palpably. The music seems to age, loosen, lighten, and become heavier, placing itself within and upon the film as an accompanying, then central character. Moran is known for improvising compositions from the phonetic and melodic textures of looped recordings of songs and conversations; a hypnotic structure which brings to mind Steve Reich’s ‘Different Trains’ performed by the Kronos Quartet. The role of Moran’s music in Ligon’s film is both a narrator and activator of versions, possibilities, adaptations, and conversations about the film.

The first notes of Moran’s score as it accompanies the fragments of the film’s title instantly evokes “silent film”, a style within a period of film’s history instantly linked to narratives of oppression which, as writer Jon Davies observes, have “tainted the entire American narrative cinema, whether explicitly or implicitly”. What becomes apparent is that Ligon’s film subtly demonstrates how this history retains its presence through mere suggestion of the silent film refrain.

Leaving the black box structure, a slide projector automatically flips through snippets of text collected and arranged by Ligon. The texts evoke another theatrical version of history. Its dramatic tones describe “The Great Tableau”, “The Great Moral Exhibition of the Age!”, and various “Life Like View”s of violence, its tastefully withheld details “left to the imagination”. The slides, emphasized by the sounds of Moran’s music coming from the tiny theater, are projected upon a high white wall where a makeshift set of stairs allow viewers to see what is on the other side: several large paintings propped or fastened to wooden supports, which depict naïvely-rendered and stagey scenes of conflict between Native and white figures. These figures are all set against outdoor village or landscape scenes which evoke a style in between the sideshow backdrop and the outsider artist’s intimate, fleshy tones.

The placement of the stairs and small size of the platform from which to view these works forces the viewer to strain to try and see much of the paintings’ details, and each new angle cleverly obscures other paintings from clear view. This need for a better viewing angle, particularly as these paintings are both oddly beautiful and grotesque in their glimpsed violent acts (one of the paintings shows a child nailed upside-down to the outside of a house), implicates the viewer in the act of shameless gaping. This is fitting, as these paintings, collected by the Glenbow in the 1960s, are fragments of a 19th century traveling panorama used to display and entertain crowds with a dramatically heightened view of the 1862 Sioux / Dakota uprising against white settlers in Minnesota. In his artist talk, Ligon relayed that the Glenbow felt the panels were “difficult to deal with”, keeping them stored and out of view of the public for the majority of their stay at the museum since their acquisition.

Both ‘Death of Tom’ and ‘Untitled (Minnesota Massacre)’ explore the residual power of distorted, damaged representation, creating entirely new stories out of already-obscured historical texts, and playing with our continued susceptibility to dramatizations of those texts. Ligon’s collaboration with Jason Moran explores this sense of innate history through a much more direct positioning of the artist against and within the text, leading to an installation which continually manifests, as Ligon suggests: “its own structures and desires".

*Review by Kim Neudorf

Works cited:

Coburn, Tyler. Glenn Ligon: I Am… Art Review (London, England) no. 29 (January/February 2009) p. 56-65

Davies, Jon. Glenn Ligon’s Death of Tom. Xtra September 2008. 5 December 2009

Monday, December 14, 2009

Exhibition: One on One Project. Photography By Ted Kerr, Curatorial Statement by QC Gu

AIDS ripped apart the sexual psyches of a whole generation of queer men. It ripped apart mine, and I was a baby still when the death counts began to grow. Shrouded in silence, thousands of queer men went to the grave afraid, clothed, and hidden.

I was in my teenage years when the memories started to come. In the lamp-lit glow of my bedroom, stories from the darkness weaved their way into my life. Books, movies and photographs all pointed in one direction – the gay man was first and foremost a diseased man. That would mean, of course, that I was a diseased man.

Sex and AIDS became synonymous, and as hard as I tried to separate them, the chains seemed impossible. Fear wrapped its heavy hand around me and I carried the burden of AIDS upon my shoulders.

AIDS ripped us apart. Collectively, we can stitch ourselves together again. I think it’s time that I stitched myself together again.

In Ted Kerr’s Polaroids, the men are strong and vulnerable; they are timid and powerful. They appear to us clothed yet naked. They are fantasies rooted in reality. These photos show men finally embracing their bodies and standing in true sexual empowerment.

In the words of Eric Rofes, “For many gay men, the [HIV] epidemic has mutilated our identities, profoundly warped sexuality and intimate relations, and reaffirmed subconscious linkages between homosexuality and contagion.” Kerr’s photographs offer a departure from this AIDS devastated psyche; they present the possibility of safety, intimacy and strength in the midst of a world where HIV and AIDS continue to be a reality.

AIDS is not over, but we don’t need to be afraid anymore. Instead we should be standing naked and queer before the world shouting “This is my body. Witness me!”

It’s time to stand strong in our sexualities. It’s time to make love again courageously through the night. Let us heal our wounds and love our scars. Let us embrace ourselves and each other.

It is with great honor and pride that we present to you the One on One Project by Edmonton photographer, writer and artist, Ted Kerr.

QC Gu is HIV Edmonton's Gay Men’s Community Education Program Planner

Exhibited in Edmonton at Play Nightclub on November 29, 2009

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jason Carter, Nanabozho: The Tail of Giving, Catalyst Theatre, until December 20, 2009

Growing up in Edmonton, Jason Carter didn't feel exposed to very much of his Aboriginal spirituality. In his search to reconnect to his heritage, he found Nanabozho, the trickster rabbit, in the unlikely form of soapstone.

A few days before the opening of his most recent exhibition, Nanabozho: The Tail of Giving, Carter shared, "I started carving soapstone in 2003 after I had mentioned offhandedly to my sister that I would love to try soapstone carving, and at Christmas, I got a piece of soapstone, which I left in the closet for a while. But as I continued looking to connect with my spirituality, I was looking for a flat piece of stone to smudge with and carry around with me, I ended up cutting off a piece of this soapstone, which turned into a tiny eagle's wing, and that's when I really started playing with it."

Image credit: Jason Carter, 2009

Beginning with the nontraditional tools of a wrench and a screwdriver, Carter began carving his first pieces of free form and animal forms. With a friend and mentor in St. Albert-based Doug Smart, Carter has gone on to have two solo exhibitions in the past year, been picked up by Bearclaw Gallery and selected as one of six Aboriginal artists to represent Alberta at the upcoming Olympics in Vancouver.

"I started carving soapstone because I was searching for my Aboriginal spirituality," he continues. "In that, in trying to get height out of the stone, I found Nanbozho, the trickster rabbit. In Cree, Mi'kmaq and Ojibway, they all use the rabbit as their trickster character, something used by the elders to traditionally teach children about morality and their surroundings, and in my research, I was inspired by these stories."

Within many fables, it is Nanabozho's trickery that leads to and explains why the beaver has a flat tail, or why the grizzly bear has a hump on its back.

Working as a live camera operator for City TV, Carter combined creative forces with his coworker and TV personality Bridget Ryan for a run of cabaret storytelling and art exhibition at the Catalyst Theatre for most of December.

"I see a streaming narrative throughout the pieces that are interconnected," says Carter, who trained in graphic design and hasn't taken any formal art training since high school. "We were trying to tie the two shows together through storytelling, as both shows are tied to stories. I've only ever seen one cabaret, so I'm not sure what to expect, but there are 18 new songs all interconnected through story and within context they all tell a story through song."

Carving primarily in soapstone, as well as chlorite and wonderstone, the exhibition features 13 paintings and 13 sculptures. Although soapstone is not exactly a popular art medium outside of most Northern Canadian communities, Carter seems committed to the art form.

"The history of soapstones includes smaller pendants as they would be more mobile," says Carter, whose pieces weigh roughly 15 – 25 pounds each. "There's quite a few carvers up north, but not too many in the south, or urban cities. It's a very messy medium, I have to wear a full suit and wear a masked ventilator as soapstone dust is bad for the lungs, and I kick up a lot when I'm carving. It's hard for anyone to get into. It's really messy and expensive, but I really like doing it."

*First published in Vue Weekly

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Lee Henderson, when you have not been there, your heart is full of longing (redux), Harcourt House Gallery until December 18, 2009

Investigating the arbitrary boundaries surrounding authenticity, specifically in relation to the practice of Buddhism, Lee Henderson's photo-based exhibition, when you have not been there, your heart is full of longing poses notions of permanence and impermanence for viewers to deliberate.

Raised atheist, Henderson developed an interest in Taoism in high school, then the swordsmanship of Kendo, eventually even teaching Tai Chi, but does not consider himself a practicing Buddhist.

"Being Buddhist or not comes up a lot, but I'm more interested in troubling that idea. When people ask me and I answer, 'Yes,' these works and research are permitted, but if I answer 'No,' then it's problematic," Henderson explains, who was in town for last week's opening and artist talk.

"My most honest answer is that 'I don't know.' I like what [performance artist] Laurie Anderson says, that she's a 'Committed Beginner of Buddhism.'"
Committed to researching the boundaries between thought and culture, but suspicious of dogma, Henderson has been negotiating this cultural baggage that includes a former teacher telling him flat out that he'll never understand Buddhism because he's not Asian.

"Where are those boundaries?" Henderson asks, as concepts of authenticity are challenged in an increasingly globalized world where thoughts transfer fluidly and instantaneously.

Image credit: Lee Henderson, "Transmission 11 of Budai" 2008

Having exhibited this show at the Chicago Art Fair in 2008 and again at the Art Gallery of Regina in 2009, Henderson constructs paired perspectives hinged on notions of containment and infection. In the majority of works entitled "The Impact of Hyphenation in Wasps," a single wasp (playing off the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant acronym) is surgically pinned to a Buddha figure with an acupuncture needle. Blown up to a poster size, or more specifically, an arrivals/departure screen size, these WASP prints are paired with a series of "Transmission" works, of Buddha figurines wrapped in a yellow condom, a visual and physical barrier that Henderson also describes as "protective of its insemination from spreading/protecting of the wasps." Playing off notions of acceptance or rejection, Henderson presents the wasp and the kitschy buddha figurine as two symbols engaging in shared notions.

Receiving his BFA from ACAD and his MFA from the University of Regina with a specialization in Intermedia, Henderson has been building on a body of work that fixates on the Buddha symbol as the center of his ongoing investigation in impermanence and metaphysicality. The exhibition as a whole stands visually polished, but there is something lacking as an entry point in basing its foundation on such static symbols of authenticity, despite his artistic intention to problematize such concepts.

While these works are identified somewhat as self-portraits, Henderson remains elusive as to which components in the image he relates with, as he does not identify with Buddhism, but he also does not identify with being a WASP. Being able to straddle both worlds without committing to either, there are certainly intriguing questions to be asked from an artistic point of view, but the exhibition as a whole feels swallowed in a theoretical framework that has not realized itself in praxis.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Prairie Artsters: Mitch Mitchell's The Longing Focal, FAB Gallery, till December 5, 2009

As the final exhibition after two-and-a-half years of self-described pure bliss and raging crisis enduring 16 – 18 hour work days, Mitch Mitchell's The Longing Focal rests somewhere between the vertigo and the sublime for both the artist and the viewer.

Building from this past January's installation, Tar Plane Wayfarer, inside the empty storefront of the former Red Strap Market, Mitchell continues finding inspiration from his time in northern Alberta, sneaking onto a tar sands site and finding himself in an environment that has no equal scope, scale or context. Interested in how viewers can incorporate their body into a space, Mitchell is not your typical printmaker. Moving from 2D towards the 3D, from the flat to the kinetic, the Illinois native identifies more as a print artist, pointing to the low brow Chicago scene of intermedia works as points of inspiration.

As the viewer walks through FAB gallery, Mitchell consciously places black and white lithography prints first, feeling they are the expected, traditional works one expects in a printmaking show. Digitally manipulated to accentuate nondescript architectural shapes and shadows, the works subtly shift into photopolymer gravure prints, which is a non-toxic version of the highly technical photogravure process. Inventing the non-toxic water-based process to reach this point, Mitchell also built, dismantled and rebuilt each model until the structures could no longer be held together.

Trial and error experimentation have been integral to Mitchell's MFA process, and his praxis. "I came here to do something I've never done before," he says days before the opening of his show and defense. "I was always an analogue person, so starting with Photoshop, I was like a kid drawing with a crayon for the first time, and stumbling through it, I came up with this work."

In the lower part of the gallery, Mitchell shows a selection from his print suite, an unbound book without any words. With 17 pages in total, Mitchell wanted to tell a linear story with various visual entry points, an abstract story that disorientates the narrative composition from beginning to end, but with no clear conclusion. The desired illusion of disorientation did not translate into the linearity of a book structure, but the concept of creating multiple portals into the same experience carries through into the remainder of the show.

The strongest works in the exhibition are the large works printed directly onto gator board. Created from the mundane objects found inside the print studio, from tools used in the print process, print type, mylar, even the printing bed, the porous raised textures of winter-influenced landscapes took one year to fully realize.

"I didn't use a single scraper in this body of work—I threw it out," Mitchell shares, referring to the gritty, visually haptic quality of the works. As a result, there is an unusual contrast between the harsh and soft, which incidentally translates to the rolling landscapes from his midwest roots, an abstracted landscape speckled with abrupt structures.

From his wide-open homeland to the unfamiliar obstructions found in the tar sands, Mitchell focuses on the idea of discovery of landscape in his last piece, which is part-sculptural, part-kinetic installation. Factoring in notions of security and curiosity, Mitchell invites the viewer to crouch and peer through peepholes to view into the internal cosmos of an alien environment. From the second floor of the gallery, viewers can experience the light breathing of the topography, a light layer of sawdust that heaves and shifts, as if sighing. Playing with perspective from the external to the internal, from surface to the core, Mitchell is inquiring further into imagery that cannot just be viewed, but must be lived and breathed.

All image credits: Mitch Mitchell 2009

*First published in Vue Weekly

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Printed Matters, Art Gallery of Alberta, November 14 - 28, 2009

With three youth curators along with three mentors, Printed Matters: Creating and Curating Queer is the final exhibition featuring new print-based work created by Edmonton-based queer youths. In its third consecutive year and always in conjunction with Exposure Festival, the queer youth curatorial project remains an important part of the festival, according to Ted Kerr, Producer of Exposure, "Because youth should have a voice within the festival. Along with creating partnerships with institutions like the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA), SNAP and The Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services (ISMSS), the action to foster art and culture is part of animating our rights."

With two printmaking workshops directed towards queer youth, both facilitated by Anthea Black, who was the artist in residence during Camp Fyrfly, an Edmonton-based queer youth camp unique in Western Canada, the decision to focus on print-based work was a combination of serendipitous decisions.

"The work speaks to a more DIY activist aesthetic," Black points out, who is also the Exhibitions Manager for the AGA and one of the project's mentors, along with Kerr and Scott Mair from ISMSS. "They're about getting ideas out there quickly, disseminating ideas through print, which has a long history in queer art history including Daryl Vocat and General Idea as precedent setting examples in Canada."

With the curators ranging from age 17 to 24, and without ever having met each other before this project, Juniper Quin, Stephen Shaw and Jolanda Thomas managed to put together two exhibitions for Printed Matters, one at the AGA and one for SNAP.

Thomas, the oldest member of the curatorial team, shares "The biggest thing for me is being involved in the queer community. How things like this impact the community." As someone who came out in her early twenties, she continues, "I never had access to this when I was a youth, and it would have changed my life. I didn't come out until I was 21. I feel in some ways I missed this boat. I was having the same thoughts they were having, but this is coming from people much younger—it definitely resonates with me."

With the youngest curatorial member, Shaw, still in high school, his curatorial statement offers further insight into the spectrum of what it means to be a queer youth. "We encourage the openness of the art, no matter how inappropriate it may be deemed. The way we self-identify as queer, and how this is part of our identity, helps us to lead our community into the future."

The third member, Quin, an undergraduate student at the University of Alberta, says "It's been really eye opening to work with Stephen, who's in a Catholic highschool. I realize there are a lot more queer youth in the school system that are being underrepresented, if they are represented at all. By working on this project, I realized how important and necessary it is, especially with the advent of Bill 44."

*First published in Vue Weekly

Shane Golby Signs of Desire, Latitude 53, November 6 - 28, 2009*

In a series of repeated images of self and others in suggestive poses collaged and layered over each other on street signs and other materials, Shane Golby's Signs of Desires takes on the the literal and metaphorical notion of signs.

One of the most surprising figures to repeat itself throughout the exhibition is a rainbow-haired Treasure Troll, which besides from being nude, stands apart from the rest of the bare asses and muscular builds.

Explaining the repetition of the troll, Golby remembers that as a young boy in south Edmonton, he was very likely the only boy who collected troll dolls. Coupled with a religious upbringing that left very little room for Golby to explore his sexuality, who at one point was going to be a Lutheran Pastor, Golby looks back today reflecting, "I was tired of feeling guilty."

Then, about ten years ago, along with partner Chris Carson as they hit up garage sales as the two prepared to move in together, Golby found an entire box of Treasure Trolls being sold off by a young man. Associating the collection of troll dolls as something a young gay male would do, Golby recalls it was a sad encounter, with the boy having a black eye and another male figure lurking silently in the background. Golby and Carson bought the entire collection, one of which was the rainbow hair troll used in the exhibition, prominently appearing throughout the exhibition along with homoerotic text and images.

Currently the Manager/Curator of Traveling Exhibitions Program at the AGA, Golby spent three years in the University of Alberta's printmaking program, something that continues to influence his art practice.

"We only see the surface of people, but underneath there are many layers, secrets we may never know," says Golby. "With the repetition of images, I can change the context of the image using the same image, exposing that layering,"

Judging from the layering on display in Latitude 53's ProjEx room, Signs of Desire is more indicative of Golby's self-narrative of coming to terms with his sexuality. With words for and even a piece by his partner featured prominently in the exhibition, the show is largely engaging with Golby as he stakes a claim for his own desire.

Besides a few digitally manipulated pieces of erotica in public spaces, the majority of the exhibition is a blend of gel-transferred text and image, which highlights Golby's passion for writing. Explaining the impetus for the seven chapters on display, much of which is an autobiographical erotica, Golby says, "I only owned three porno mags and I thought, 'Well this is getting boring,' so I just started writing my own gay stories."

With edits in tact on a very first draft, the story is divided into two sections, the first half dealing with the guilt and pain of his earlier years and and the second half on the upward swing of growing stronger individually.

Reproducing his autobiography on two enlarged triangles, the first half facing down and the second half facing up, Golby concludes, "This is about marking my territory and putting my sexuality out there."

Image credit: Shane Gobly, 2009

*First published in Vue Weekly

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Keith Murray, And The People Bowed and Prayed, Latitude 53, November 6 - 28, 2009*

Beginning with a close-up of bright neon lips, mouthing out Dolly Parton's classic love croon, "I Will Always Love You," the shot pulls out in a slow single zoom to reveal a glowing apparition of someone both mystical and camp: someone both man and woman serenading you with the ultimate love song.

Blending the reverent with the irreverent, the divine with the mundane and the pop with the poignant, Keith Murray lives and breathes a life inspired by an immensely deep and diverse mix of influences.

Image credit: Keith Murray, Still from "The Dolly Shoot" 2008

From the pop cultural to the religious deities found within the exhibition to simply carrying on conversation, Murray pulls from a wealth of resources on any number of issues jumping from the Bible to Star Wars. Speaking in particular to "The Dolly Shoot," Murray explains during a break during his installation, "I always thought that divine persons would be transgendered, and then I found out in The Book of Revelations 1:13, John had a vision of Christ with breasts. The King James version changed things, but I thought, 'Huh, of course, Christ would have breasts.'"

Although the breasts are drawn on in the video, Murray had a double mastectomy at the age of 14 when he began to develop breasts during puberty. As something he had blocked out of his mind for 11 years, Murray now openly shares that he's began recollecting the experience in the last two years.

"In Buddhism, you can envision one's self as an enlightened being," says Murray, who actively engages in various religions. "I see this figure [in "The Dolly Shoot"] as the fully realized vision, the end goal, of who I am—if nothing had changed."

Blending his background in digital media (ACAD) with his training in make up and special effects, Murray had painted his entire body blue from head to toe, resembling more a Blue Krishna than a pop country superstar, but this confluence of imagery is what has made Murray such an interesting, if not, surprising artist. Highlighting his third eye and heart chakras, Murray genuinely approaches the idea of performing a love song to him/herself and to the viewer without falling to camp or elitism.

The Calgary-based artist began his PhD this fall at the Institute of Advance Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. Funded through a full scholarship, Murray also splits his time in Las Vegas, where he married himself last summer, curating and organizing exhibitions and screenings at the Erotic Heritage Museum.

Having always been interested in finding the divine in the mundane, and recognizing that those who do recognize the divine in the everyday are often the ones who go the extra mile to tell their story, Murray ultimately feels the performance is a love song to his ego.

"It's about yearning to grow beyond yourself and willing to let go," he says. "We're all totally and completely loved, and this figure has come back to remind you of this truth."

*First published in Vue Weekly

Prairie Artsters: Studio Visit with Clay Ellis

Tucked away within one of Edmonton’s many nondescript industrial zones, the studio of sculptor and painter Clay Ellis sits lined with new work for his upcoming solo exhibition, Related Articles, at the Peter Robertson Gallery. While the exterior surroundings are punctuated with greys and browns, inside the simple concrete building a host of multi-refractions and reflections of mirror polish stainless steel gleam and glow amongst large elongated canvases of sharply contrasting textures, techniques, tones and shapes.

The small polychromatic sculptures using stainless steel and polyurethane are a play on colour. Reflecting colour back onto the contours of the steel rather than directly applying colour onto the materiality of sculpture, these new works deceptively play at the viewer’s spatial depth and the sculpture’s own capacities to create light and shadow down to the meticulous patches of 1500 grit stenciled scuff marks that hover on certain pieces.

Ellis’ penchant for putting one thing against each other, pulling information and making it all work together, down to the diverse selection of music in the studio, is a trait that carries over to his two-dimensional work as well.

At first glance, bright strips of yellow appear collaged over digitally printed designs of convex and concave shadows, but moving his entire body closer to the painting, Ellis makes it clear that everything on his canvas has not been digitally altered, but is in fact a product of painting.
Citing 15th century Dutch painter Roger Van der Weyden’s “Descent from the Cross” as the most captivating painting in the world for him, Ellis deeply respects the history of his craft, but advances his medium through evolving and employing a variety of techniques that break ground on new territory in terms of aesthetics and disciplines.

As one of the province’s more prominent and established artists with permanent works of art showing from Churchill Square to the Shaw Conference Centre, the 54-year-old Medicine Hat native has been one of the most innovative sculptors of his generation. His trademark bulbous paintings may have modestly began in 1996 during a collaboration with Kenneth Nolan, but the easy going demeanor of Ellis can also in jest contrast some of those offset shapes to that of a prolapsed colon.

Consistently dismantling how one can approach sculpture, painting and in the last few years film and video, Ellis most recently had a solo exhibition, Eight Miles of Barbed Wire at APT Gallery in London that was curated by Karen Wilkin. Originally the inaugural commissioned exhibition for Medicine Hat’s Esplanade Gallery, Eight Miles of Barbed Wire is a literal reference to the distance between the first telephone in Southern Alberta that belonged to Ellis’ grandfather and its distance to the station.

Growing up on a ranch where electricity was considered a luxury item save for the occasional treat of a small generator and the family screening of the now-cult classic The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, the allusion of distance also refers to the growing gap in communication as generations and technology evolve. Especially in reference to his own heritage in the region that began with a Scottish Gentlemen farmer all the way down to the present, there is no denying the sheer presence of eight miles of wire gathered before you create an altogether estranged experience in an age of instant and wireless telecommunication.

Also featuring video projections of layered imagery both archival and shot from the existing family ranch, Ellis nods back to his sense of place and culture. Speaking directly about the necessity to dismantle our culture and to attach it to his everyday, he shares, “I realized the scale of everything is only based on what you know. Everything becomes a product of this area whether it fits into a particular narrative or not. It’s storytelling from one generation to the next.”

While he maintains a modest living as a full-time artist, a career he began at the age of 22 some 32 years ago, Ellis does give himself the necessary luxury of spending parts of the year in London and Madrid and traveling abroad for exhibitions and inspiration. Working as an artist that may not necessarily have an extensive commercial or critical audience on the home front, Ellis appears perfectly content to have an active studio in the middle of nowhere.

All images courtesy of Clay Ellis, Copyright 2009.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Prairie Artsters: Art and the Recession*

"Recession" as a noun, or state of being, has been unavoidable. Be it in your bank account, on the front page news or even as a narrative hook in films and television shows, the idea of living the poor life is simply everywhere.

When the market began turning over a year ago, I remember having a conversation with a friend who shrugged off the dipping real estate prices and the rollercoaster stock exchange. As a full-time artist, she said something to the effect that as someone already living, working and surviving well below the poverty line, the onset of a recession wasn't going to harm her.

For the most part, this has been the case for the arts in general. Not many of the stereotypical "poor, starving artist" types I know have been hit very hard by their nonexistent or paltry investments. None of the independent artists, writers and dancers have lost their nest egg since they never had one to begin with. And while on the immediate level this seems fine by most everyone, as artists are used to working for next to nothing as purse strings are tightening across the board, I do find the continued lack of value, be it monetary or social, in the arts a disturbing fact.

The recent end-of-summer plans by British Columbia's Liberal government to drastically cut their arts funding by up to 90 percent has gotten the rest of the country's attention. With a provincial deficit in the $2 billion range, even BC, which boasts one of the highest quality of living stats in the country, is not prioritizing their arts and cultural legacy.

In looking at what's unfolding out west, everything from projected standard $20 ticket prices soaring into the hundreds of dollars just to break even to the devastating closure of many long-standing companies and organizations are becoming more than just looming threats. The reality is, arts and culture from production to dissemination has become so dependent on government funding that to cut even just a little bit will only further starve the malnourished.

Alberta during the Klein years completely drained away its Heritage Fund. With most arts funding coming from private endowments and allocated gaming revenue from lotteries and casinos, the value of arts and cultural production in this province continues to exist on a spiraling decline combined with pockets of instability. And while this may be the case for everyone, BC is proving that arts remains the first to go.

In pitting arts and culture against other aspects of our social needs like healthcare, education and infrastructure, lobbyists have successfully blinded the greater population into believing the arts can actually be segregated from our daily lives as something excessive to our quality of life as a human being. When in fact, it becomes preposterous to even think of our lives without concerning choices made in colour, design and esthetics. In always receiving the smallest slice of the pie, arts and artists have lost sight of their value and contribution to society as a whole. And as the overall pie shrinks, perhaps perceptions of values may be reset for future productivity.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Monday, October 26, 2009

Exhibition: Or What?!? 9662 Resident Show, ARTery, November 2009

Since being converted into living spaces from one of Western Canada’s oldest Farmer's Markets, The City Market Apartments has been home to a some of Edmonton's brightest and youngest artists, designers and musicians. From emerging to established, individuals and collectives, residents of City Market live and work in the newly deemed "Quarters" district, the stretch of transitional property east of 97 St and Jasper Avenue. As the city and developers focus their attention on revitalizing this once propserous area of downtown Edmonton, OR WHAT?! aims to showcase what is already happening in downtown’s east side.

Partnering with the ARTery, a discrete multidisciplinary venue within the Quarters district, OR WHAT?! looks to showcase the diverse artistic voices already living and working in East Downtown before our cityscape changes once again.

Image credit: Aaron Pederson, 2008-09

Featuring works by: Jayme Chalmers, Aryen Hoekstra, Loyal Loot Collective, Jonathan Luckhurst, Laura O’Connor, Josée Aubin Ouellette, Aaron Pederson, Jordanna Rachinsky, Adam Waldron Blain, Laurel Westlund, Gabriel Wong and Greg Swain.

*Organized by Amy Fung

Friday, October 23, 2009

Alexander James Stewart, The Hydeaway Oct 22 - Nov 1, 2009

Double majoring in sculpture and printmaking, while working in the basic premise of industrial design and sometimes dabbling in video and performance, Alexander James Stewart's solo exhibition at the Hydeaway is convincing proof that the future of contemporary art will be interdisciplinary in process, and perhaps, praxis.

Only a third year undergraduate student at the University of Alberta, Stewart has appeared in past Student shows, from an honorable mention as a Victoria Composite student to last year's Student Design Association show where he performed as furniture (where his performance as object in fact reveals the purpose of why we create furniture and the functionality of objects), the current exhibition is his first solo show before an upcoming SDA group exhibition in November.

In a brief conversation, Stewart comes across more curious than precocious, intelligent than conceited, and his works carry a tone of an artist learning more about himself and his capacities. In one of his latest pieces in progress that is currently on exhibit, the bare bones white outline of a three dimensional shape takes shape against a heavily textured black and white background. Achieving this sculptural white outline by first constructing a shape with LED lights and then drawing its lines, Stewart still plans on sewing the outline onto the physical canvas to achieve yet another layer, and in so doing bringing back the element of an object into the piece.

Lucid in his approach to art making, where many art students and artists become bogged down by the histories of their predecessors in either mimicking or overcoming their achievements, Alexander James Stewart is offering something unique in just being himself.

All images are credited to: Alexander James Stewart, 2009

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Prairie Artsters: Glow Hotel*

Back in January when the skies darkened before the evening news, some peers and I had driven up to Grande Prairie for the outdoor public and intervention art exhibition Here Now or Nowhere. Curated by Micah Lexier and coordinated through the Prairie Art Gallery, the outdoor exhibition emerged as the sun settled and Grande Prairie's main street storefront windows came alive with an array of video and media works. As a project to facilitate the presence of visual art in the community in lieu of a gallery space under construction, the calibre of the exhibition was undeniable as it featured new work by Adad Hannah as well as intervening in the local newspaper with engaging works of art.

Running for three weeks all together, the exhibition also featured a weekend of panel discussions and a weekend-long showing of Kelly Mark's Glow House (#4), an installation that has been reincarnated throughout the country and in the UK since 2001. As the buzz project of the exhibition, a small group of us turned off of main street and walked along the darkened river bend. Isolated save for the passing vehicle on the quiet residential street, we had come to experience the fleeting sensation of Glow House set against the complete darkness of a quiet Northern Alberta town.

From the street, the house at first appears like every other house standing on the corner of any suburban street. Already carrying a local reputation as a haunted corner lot, the sudden glowing pulse of the house garnered pauses by passing vehicles, but lacked any real pedestrian audience. As any suburban walker may intimately know, the flicker emanating from living room windows at night casts a virtual light show. A friend had always noted the same moment of passing window after window of glowing television sets, but she was depressed by the mundaneness of it all. Multiplied and hyperbolized, Glow House takes this common experience and projects it from every single window, heightening the entire house into a pulsating orb of a fleeting moment.

Now less than a year after this mini-art pilgrimage to the north, Kelly Mark will be altering this project into Glow Hotel for one night only on Stony Plain Road. As the former main street of the town then known as Jasper Place before being annexed by Edmonton in 1964, Stony Plain Road continues today as a major expressway that is better known for pawn shops and sex stores. Programmed as part of Store Front Cinema Nights, an initiative by the Stony Plain Road Business Association and co-presented by the Art Gallery of Alberta and the Edmonton Arts Council's Public Art Program, Glow Hotel marks the occasion of attracting high calibre artists to Edmonton for artistic opportunities unique to the city.

As the Glow project is almost a decade old and has since existed as indoor gallery installations with televisions playing specific videos, it remains unknown whether Glow Hotel will have a similar affect of its predecessors; but as the season of long nights starts up again, I for one am certainly looking forward to finding out.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Kelly Mark's Glow Hotel will be available only from 7 – 9 pm at Jasper Place Hotels (15326 Stony Plain Road). An artist talk will precede in the Hotel eatery at 6 pm.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The New Flâneurs, Art Gallery of Alberta, Sept 5 - Dec 13, 2009*

Urban Decay: The New Flâneurs suggests a modern world in ruins

The flâneur is the quintessential figure of urban modernity. Coined by Charles Baudelaire, romanticized by Walter Benjamin and reinvestigated by Rebecca Solnit, the flâneur, or flâneurie, is at its root the embodiment of physically moving through modernity.

Almost always understood as male, privileged enough to idle his days away walking and meandering aimlessly and restlessly down urban corridors, the flâneur feeds off the pulse of the city and its crowds of anonymous passers-by. Beginning as a figure in the post-Haussmannisation of Paris' urban centre, the flâneur moves through his city streets with little to no end purpose, but simply meandering to the nuisances and rhythms of modernity.

Doubling the notion of flâneurie with the Victorian aesthetic of the Picturesque, which is an aesthetic often experienced during walking that encapsulates a fragment of civilization in ruins (or inversely, of nature overpowering the urban), the The New Flâneurs exhibit at the Art Gallery of Alberta ambitiously attempts to bridge these 19th century notions with more recent practices such as Situationist psychogeography, parkour and contemporary art works culled from its own collection.

Though there are evident ties between flâneurie and parkour as they share similarities in being of Parisian origins, being a mostly male activity and sharing mutual inclinations to subvert urban landscapes with no economic agenda, the element of the Picturesque fits awkwardly with the rest of the show.

Photography is the prominent medium of choice, as Hubert Hohn's deserted black and white suburbia are shown facing Edward Burtynsky's consistently sublime devastations of human advancements. Equally, George Webber's portraits of deserted sweat lodges evocate the decay of the sublime. Together, they spell out the doom of the 20th century. Depressing as it sounds, the new flâneurs appear to be more excavators than field researchers of a desolate and static modern world.

Proposing a common thread tying all of these ideas together, that thread is in fact a movement-based approach to how one experiences the world. Only restricted to the gallery save for a few outdoor programming initiatives and film screenings, there is a major void of actual movement within the show.

Image credit: Don Gill and Sarah Williams' "Erratic Spaces" 2009

Movement is suggested amongst the handful of frozen pedestrians in Mark Arneson's dated Edmonton photographs, but it's really only media artist Don Gill's photography slideshow and video collaboration with dancer Sarah Williams that evokes movement as a keystone. As a formal exercise, "Erratic Spaces" documents a series of Williams' non-choreographed movements in relation to urban spaces and shapes, but beyond showing the athleticism of Williams as she responds to urban sites, the body-explorations she explores do not translate onto video—which differs in execution to the physical traces left by parkour and the revelation of shared and concealed histories discovered through psychogeography.

The biggest issue in viewing this show was, ironically, the inability to navigate the viewing space. Erecting a multi-panelled installation that doubles as extra wall space, the viewer is immediately forced around a lot of awkward corners—which although suggesting viewers can trace their own paths around and along these temporary blank structures, in reality, just creates physical barriers.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Prairie Artsters: Farewell, Anonymous*

Moderating online comments has become necessary to maintaining a relevant dialogue

A few weeks back, I was asked to informally share my thoughts on the subject of criticism. Leaving with more questions than answers, I wrote a column on my experiences as both a critic and as a subject of concentrated critique.

Just barely one month later, that initial piece—which concerned itself with devaluing anonymous online criticism—has ironically become fodder for anonymous online critiques to the point where I now feel obliged to moderate all comments on Prairie

Criticism, as a basic feedback system, is an intensified response. Done well, criticism could be a sensitive and conscious response to an expression. Not everyone wants to engage, but there are those who are so vehement in their engagements that their arguments are more aligned with monologues.

It has been said that anyone who comes up to the artist immediately following a performance or presentation of their work with either accolades or criticisms is a selfish foe. Genuine or helpful criticism tends to take time—to formulate all the facets and considerations of the experience of an expression. Criticism can be informed in a number of ways, and if done properly, the opinions shared are heard as productive insights rather than defensive reactions. In addressing criticism, especially in an era of instant communication where process time disappears and alternate personas are privileged, instant feedback forums slide into a war of weightless words and egos that add little to the heart of an issue.

As both an active venue and archive for dialogue, Prairie Artsters continues to shift in mandate, starting first as an across the board reviews space, then growing into contextualizing works to their place, to its current phase of addressing regionally, if not nationally and internationally relevant issues facing contemporary artists by using Edmonton-based works as examples.

In this new role of monitoring the flow of feedback, there is now a check and balance to the issue of generating dialogue rather than just picking fights. Not responding only goes so far, and even responding only goes so far, but in actively shaping the conversation, a productive feedback system can now acknowledge the merit of all comments said by simply publishing or rejecting them in relation to the overall arch of a discussion.

This has all been tried and tested through print publishing, but in the realm of online publishing, the accessibility for anyone and everyone to partake in discussion remains its grace and its Achilles' heel.

While I concede anonymous voices are capable of producing incredibly fruitful and profound insights, let's be real that the anonymous voices we're talking about are a specific handful of anonymous or moniker-wielding voices that have rarely, if ever, offered anything fruitful or profound.

They are the equivalent of hooded hecklers, espousing rants without taking responsibility in connecting their words to their real identities. Although most of us know who these hooded voices are, in the long run there remains a very palpable lack of credibility and respect for opinions offered by real artists who choose to separate their opinions from their real persons.

In my desire to move past the moot points of Edmonton's potentials and short comings, past entrenched stances of idolatries and -isms, I, and anyone else interested in moving the conversation along, need to let go and bid farewell to all that does not inspire and feed us.

As an end note to those who have entertained themselves and many Prairie Artsters readers for the past two years, this is very likely the very last acknowledgment I will ever make of them. Take care and good-bye.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Monumental Moving Project (David Hoffos' Scenes From a House Dream)*

Requiring 5000 square feet of open space and spanning 25 separate works consisting of 40-channel installation, audio and mixed-media dioramas, soundscapes, projections, mirrors, false walls, windows, lighting, surprise cut outs, and every other semblance of dreams brought to life, David Hoffos’ sprawling installation Scenes from a House Dream (2003 - 2008) challenges the viewer at every turn, and as it turns out, is an even greater challenge to tour.

Before its first opening at Lethbridge’s Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Hoffos and two full-time assistants spent 17 days turning two floors of the Gallery into a fully-immersive funhouse of strange and haunting scenes. This fall, Hoffos and crew will remount it the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. The logistics required to transport an exhibition of this scale require more effort and funds than the standard show, and Hoffos is sharply feeling the absence of the Department of Canadian Heritage Exhibition Transportation Service, which was cut from the Federal budget in April of 2008. As a direct result of the cutbacks, the original presenter for Scenes from a House Dream pulled out, and Hoffos and his supporters had to rethink almost the entire original tour.

Now, there are potentially three to six stops across the country after the National Gallery installation, but with an intricate and labour-intensive installation, every step of this show is proving to be a stretch of human limits and imagination. With 21 large crates, and the logistical expertise of laying out each discrete installation and its light sensitive construction into a navigable experience, the act of touring this show has become an art unto itself.

“In this last year of the project and first year of the tour, I have really needed my long-term Canada Council grant,” Hoffos says. “Just to free me up to focus properly on this one project. I have also had support from my commercial agents — they had committed to financing the crate-building, which is very generous considering that there is no immediate return for them.” Currently coordinated through Rodman Hall at Brock University — where director and curator Shirley Madill brought it from her previous post at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

Scenes from a House Dream opens in Ottawa on November 6.

*First published in Galleries West, Fall 2009

Inside The Works 2009*

Every summer for the past 24 years, The Works Art and Design Festival has taken over Edmonton’s downtown core with a spectrum of international art and design. Highlighting the work of fine artists at various stages of their careers in lobbies, basements, and hallways, The Works remains Northern Alberta’s biggest art festival. With the 2009 theme of "Heat", arts and crafts tents and a spacious beer garden cover most of the main area of Sir Winston Churchill Square in Edmonton. The art exhibitions can be found near the north end of the Square, tucked away to the side of the road.

Filtering through the rest of the year’s “Heat” line up, Allen Ball’s non-temperature-related Spectacle in a State of Exception was a pleasant surprise in the always-busy foyer of the Stanley Milner library. Known primarily as a painter, Ball continues on from his last work The German Autumn in Minor Spaces by focusing on photography as a medium to render the psychology and memory of space. The Works show, created during his volunteer post in the Canadian Forces Artist Program, samples a larger body of work that will tour across Canada.

Another highlight from the Festival came from emerging Edmonton artist Josée Aubin Ouellette’s Playground Architects. As one of the few artists who chose her own exhibition space, Ouellette independently approached the YMCA because of the real three-dimensional jungle gyms running alongside the hallway gallery. With five large canvases playfully flattening down the structures into rigid, rudimentary shapes and colours, Ouellette successfully demonstrated an astute awareness of how traditional art forms can engage with public space, an awareness that doesn’t apply to the Festival itself.

From its roots as an idea to revitalize Edmonton’s deserted downtown core by celebrating art in office lobbies and then-empty For Lease storefront windows, The Works hasn’t grown in tandem with the city’s changing dynamics. As architectural standards and public art procedures are finally being put into place, The Works carries on with art culled from non-site-specific open calls — and the Festival’s lack of curatorial vision is growing more obvious. Sprawling into 30 sites, many of which are programmed independently and function regardless of the Festival, The Works appears to be more about maintaining and securing annual partnerships than it is about inspiring art and public engagement. The Works has grown more akin to an overblown craft fair than an international-calibre art and design festival, moving further away from its original mandate to put public art in alternative spaces.

*First published in Galleries West, Fall 2009

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Prospectus Group Show, SNAP Gallery, Sept 10 - Oct 17, 2009

As a dedicated members-run printmaking center for 27 years, SNAP's member shows have consistently demonstrated a caliber on par with the city's University printmaking program. Sharing many of the same alumni due to plain geography and community building, Prospectus brings together a range of artists beyond their relationships as mentors and students and into the realm of professional peers.

Symbolically, the show stands in for Edmonton's printmaking community as it travels to Montreal and Belfast in 2010 with the possibility of bringing their printmaking communities here. Featuring many of Edmonton's esteemed printmakers like SNAP co-founder Marc Siegner and Akiko Taniguchi and Sean Caufield, the show has a healthy range of printmakers at various stages in their careers, and their range of techniques serves to compliment each other on the intimacy of mark making. But on the flip side, the inclusion of aesthetics is palpable.

Already been criticized for looking too inwardly, I am reminded about the last time I was genuinely excited about printmaking. During last year's Edmonton Print International where the works showcased moved beyond the framed 2D work of technical labour, I as a viewer, had my perception and possibilities of printmaking exponentially expanded. Having mostly experienced printmaking in the context of Edmonton's legacy, the EPI show demonstrated one clear notion: that internationally, printmaking has no disciplinary boundaries tied to its infinite technical possibilities.

SNAP continues as a closely knit community within an already closely knit printmaking scene, but this members show makes me wonder if there opportunities to exist on the fringes of this collective core? A year after having my mind blown from EPI, while scanning across a solid show by local artists, I couldn't help but reminisce about those works that pushed past their templates of what printmaking should be, and in turn caused me, as a viewer, to do the same.

- A.F. Edmonton

Prairie Artsters: Elaborate On Collaborate*

What Does It Mean When Someone Wants To Collaborate?

Collaborating, as both word and action, gets tossed around a lot these days. Everyone seems to be collaborating with someone, and if for some untimely reason they are not, then there's definitely talk of collaborating on a future project.

I will offer the opinion up front: collaborating is extremely difficult. Or more precisely: good collaborations are extremely difficult. A juggling act of vision, skills, egos, personal growth and straight up logistics, to collaborate means to trust and release total control by all parties in favour of a unified and comprised vision—and unfortunately not many people can pull this off.

Recently experiencing three very different types of collaborations in the form of contemporary dancer/choreography Paul André Fortier with musician Robert Racine, drawing between Tim Rechner and Caitlin Sian Richards, and a mixed media visual installation by Sarah Alford, Jennifer Bowes, and Shirley Weibe, I'm left wondering about the limitless processes behind such a common yet diverse practice.

In their artist talk prior to their opening performance, Fortier and Racine made it clear that collaborating needs a single vision. Fortier, who turned 60 last year and who cites visual artist Betty Goodwin as a past collaborator (in an era when nobody gets to collaborate with Betty Goodwin), referenced the art happenings and collaborations between now-prominent artists like John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg as how dance, music and visual arts have always influenced each other. Wishing to distinguish the differences between influences and collaborations, I am unconvinced that Fortier's production of Cabane moved beyond mutual inspiration and into the realm of collaboration.

The wonder of Racine was certainly on display, and as a presence, Racine as a performer certainly triggered much of the movement; but the production was without a doubt a Fortier Danse creation first and foremost. Racine's skills have most likely inspired and benefited Fortier as an artist, and Fortier has injected new blood into the melancholic Racine, but the work created was not a collaboration of visions, but a performance of Fortier's concept of how Racine could contribute to Fortier's meticulously choreographed work.

As Edgar Degas was greatly influenced by sitting in on ballet classes, producing a series that would shape the era of Impressionism to Richard Serra's formative and vested interest in contemporary dance, channeling this perception of movement and space into post-war sculpture, these too are not collaborations, but points of research and one-sided inspiration. The question then is: does actively involving your inspiration in the process equal a collaboration?

Local figurative painter Caitlin Sian Richards premiered her new series of drawing exercises made with abstract painter Tim Rechner in FAVA's Ortona Gallery as a more democratic collaboration. With pieces created in tandem in Rechner's studio, along with pieces traded between the two over a span of four months, it is visually clear that Richards' formal techniques are heading into a new direction through the influence of Rechner's more emotional and immediate approaches. Rechner, whose work continues to be based in a harnessed intuition, contributes his aesthetic and energy to the show, but like Racine, he too serves more as a trigger and influence in the overall work.

On the same night of Richards and Rechner's opening, Alford/Bowes/Weibe's Spaces Within | Within Spaces premiered at Harcourt House. Also calling this a collaboration, the artists showcase three distinct sections reflective of each artist's practice. Since meeting three years ago in Grande Prairie, and living and working respectively between areas in Northern Alberta/Chicago/Vancouver, the three have kept in touch through periodic updates on what each is working on, and even sending in samples of materials at times. The individual works alone are indicative of each artist's heavily processed aesthetics and practices, sharing similarities in transformative labor techniques and subtractive aesthetics. With undetectable compromises engaging in quiet conversations amongst the works, the unification of the pieces solidifies their process into a collaborative exhibit. As each piece can stand on its own, it is their inclusion of each other's growth that creates the potential to mutually inform and expand each other.

*First published in Vue Weekly, Sept 17 - 23, 2009

- A.F. Edmonton

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Prairie Artsters: Art Criticism*

Looking for an honest rejection: Criticism isn't so bad, so long as you know who's doing it

When it comes to feedback, be it on an art show or a new haircut, there is always an overwhelming pull to only hear the negative. Falling back on that tired cliché that it's just easier to believe the bad things in the world, those who want to make art simply need to grow a thicker skin. Art is meant to be shared in the public arena, and that means it will be scrutinized, speculated, celebrated and judged no matter what.

Moving in-between fine lines of honesty and brutality, criticism and whining, and previews and nepotism, when there is a hint (or a smack) of rejection or negativity, what should be professional quickly slides into something personal. As artists, often in the case of emerging artists unsure of their own path, one diss often turns into all that was needed to second guess yourself, your capabilities and quit your art for something safe from the barbs of outside perception.

But the context changes if rejection of your work is coming down from an anonymous source, a faceless voice, one that doesn't even offer any context or background from which constructive criticism could be gleamed.

All of this comes from a recent sit down with local industrial designer and artist Adriean Koleric, who wanted to talk about criticism. Starting from his own investigation into looking for honesty in reviews of his own work, Koleric was interested in talking about how I have handled criticism, in both dishing it, but mostly taking it.

Referring to the anonymous/moniker shielded remarks found on the Prairie Artsters blog, Koleric's interest in how I deal with rejection is a fair one. As artists and writers, you put yourself out there, often seeking feedback, and in the realm of internet anonymity, can only brace yourself for anything—so why keep doing it at all?

A recent article by the New York Sunday Times's Randy Cohen addresses this exact issue. Arguing anonymous posting on the Internet has proved to be more toxic for than encouraging of free speech, the article was prompted by the recent court order put onto Google to divulge the identity of one of its users who was anonymously defaming public personas for further legal redress. Cohen outlines legitimate forums for anonymity (like political dissent), while pinpointing that a major problem of Internet anonymity is that the crude keeps everyone else at bay. With no boundaries whatsoever, trying to maintain a healthy discourse with anonymous Internet users is akin to growing a garden in a patch of noxious weeds. The bad chokes out the good, and that simply cannot be ignored.

That said, I personally don't believe any real feedback should ever be dismissed, but we should note that no feedback exists without attachments to major self-esteem or entitlement issues, which when mixed with the distanciated communication of the Internet, is almost always poisonous.

A thousand "That's greats" are no equal for just one "That sucks." But as a believer in calling-it-like-it-is, I am an advocate for a difference of opinions so long as those opinions are legitimately backed up by a name, or research, and if we're all lucky, a bit of social etiquette.

*First published in Vue Weekly, September 3 - 9, 2009

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Clark Ferguson: In Search of Desire, REVIEWED by Noni Brynjolson

For the past month, the offices at Plug In ICA (my current place of employment) have been permeated by the abrasive howls of a hypnotized Matt Mullican. The video documentation of a performance features Mullican pacing around on stage, repeating nonsensical words ad nauseam and performing irrational actions that are usually constrained by one's consciousness. The piece is conceptually interesting, but hard to watch for more than a few minutes, let alone listen to for eight hours while trying to work. Looking for a respite during a recent lunch break, I visited Clark Ferguson’s exhibition down the street at Platform Centre for Photographic + Digital Arts. Consisting of three videos with accompanying photographs and models, the works in Ferguson’s In Search of Desire are both entertaining and engaging. 

Ferguson, who describes his age as “twenty-fourteen,” brings a teenage boy sensibility to his work. It’s as if he and his buddies were sitting around in his bachelor pad one day, and hatched a plan to make an awesome video out of whatever they had lying around. How else would Ferguson have decided, in “Teenage Wasteland,” that it would be a good idea if he created a harness that he would hang upside down in, in his underwear, while twirling his condom-covered fingers around and around in front of a photograph of his bedroom to look like seductively dancing legs? The finger-leg dance cuts to shots of Ferguson looking guiltily seduced, and we only find out at the end that he has been seducing himself with his own hand (masturbation, which Graham and Jaimz Asmundson discuss avidly in an essay accompanying the exhibition). 

All of Ferguson’s videos deal with male sexuality in some way. Ferguson has described himself as “not gay but not quite straight.” This resistance to heteronormativity results in a complete lack of females, female body parts or other objects of desire. It’s about the search for Ferguson, not the catch. In “Dead Meat,” a hunky blonde boy goes on a journey from the wintry prairies (Ferguson lives in Saskatoon) to the desert. Arriving at his destination, the boy sheds his clothes, which turn into animals - fur hat bunnies, pants owl, leather jacket raven. The pants owl beckons him forward, and the boy pushes his head through a slit where he sees a glass of water, the form his desire has taken. He asks in a typically dudish way, “is that a tall, juicy, glass of water?” To which a voice tells him that the water is not actually there, but is a metaphor meant to teach him about “self discovery, life, and...stuff.” 

Image Credit: Platform Centre for Photographic + Digital Arts

The third video is “The Ratspectacla,” possibly my favourite because of the absurd plot, hilariously lo-fi aesthetic and catchy soundtrack . The video again features constructed models and inserted photographic cutouts that simulate reality. It begins with a miniature circus designed for rats. Then, Ferguson and his friend Darryl realize that they’ve lost one of the rats, which becomes human-sized and starts to chase them. The climax comes when Darryl enters a room with a table filled with cream covered donuts. The rat finds him hiding, and starts to eat him. Cream erupts out of poor little Darryl, filling up the screen in an obvious reference to ejaculation. Like “Teenage Wasteland,” “The Ratspectacla” ends with Ferguson revealing his magician’s hat of tricks, and we are shown the models he has used in creating the giant rodent-filled fantasy. 

Conceptual artists such as Matt Mullican have produced valuable works examining language and the subconscious. It seems as if the work that Ferguson makes is miles apart, and more influenced by the aesthetics of music videos, popular culture, home video and even comic books than by serious aesthetic concerns coming from the art world. Ferguson certainly connects his work to larger aesthetic ideas, though, by examining the mediated ways in which spectacle is constructed. Engaging with an audience is essential to Ferguson, and he has succeeded in doing this with these works. I’m sure his videos could play on Much Music, or the Comedy Network, and get a positive response. However, In Search of Desire is not just about entertainment and visual appeal, but also deals with desire and male sexuality in an honest, inquisitive and very personal way. 

-N.B. Winnipeg

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Prairie Artsters: Infinite Fest*

More apparent in August than any other month, the city of Edmonton transforms into one festival weekend after another. Seemingly, nothing else happens but festivals: everything is either closed or in-between. Everyone is out of town or taking a serious stay-cation to enjoy the one month of pure bliss. It's hard to complain about the umbrella mentality of festivals when everyone is out in the sun and having so much damn fun, but it's hard going if you're just trying to find something new to write about. As a result, here is all that I can surmise from this past month as organized per weekend festival:

Heritage Days

By far my favourite festival of the summer, Heritage Days is the ultimate conglomeration of cultures, where each nation's best exports in the smells and sights of food and dance fill out all of Hawrelak Park. A friend and I used to take the festival extremely seriously, mapping out countries explored and yet to explore, and charting an ongoing rating system of places visited. Pressed for time this year, I bypassed the line-ups for tickets and food and just took in the performances. With the highlight of an all-female Cuban band just in town for the festival and sporadic performance pavilions showcasing hokey to brilliant ensembles, it's really the only place I can think of where anyone and everyone can watch dance from Uganda to Bolivia, eat gelato, tamales, pick up a Nikola Tesla t-shirt and devour meat and mangoes on a stick—often all at once.

Edmonton Folk Music Festival

A reunion occurs every year at Folk Fest as you run into those good people that you only ever see on Gallagher Hill. As the mecca of volunteers descend for Folk Fest with people streaming in or coming back for the sole purpose of the festival, Folk Fest is and always has been a great extended long weekend spent catching up between the beer garden and a tarp.

Missing it this year, I felt the constant stream of texts, mobile uploads and Facebook/Twitter updates kept me more than-in-the-know of what was going on from one end of the hill to the other. Although the music should be primary, my clearest memories from Folk Fest exist in moments where everything comes to a meeting point: often sitting on the hill, looking towards the downtown skyline as you feel completely engulfed by the people, the music, and you're happy.

Edmonton International Fringe Festival

Rarely a Fringer, this August week is often spent staying clear of the Strathcona area. Catching only one or two theatre shows a season, the Fringe has become increasingly overwhelming for someone who just wants to drop in and take a chance on a random show. With no more tickets at the door, it's not really a fringe environment, but with Bring-Your-Own Venues sprouting up across the river, North America's oldest and largest Fringe looks to be gaining back some of its grassroots practice.

Deciding to catch just one show this year, I went to Grandma Rosie and Lily's Grandpa Sol on its opening night at Acacia Hall. I first heard about the show earlier this summer in Winnipeg, where individuals I just met raved about this one-woman puppet show. Then a friend in Saskatoon e-mailed, saying that I should really go see this show that's coming to Edmonton, this puppet show by her old friend Lana Schwarz from Melbourne.

Charming, funny and just twisted enough to be slightly magical, the one Fringe show I saw this year was worth it, but leaving the theatre at 12:30 pm on a Thursday night, I realized that I only go to support the people behind the show and that I'm not there because I'm interested in the form or art of theatre.

*First published in Vue Weekly, August 20 - 26, 2009

-A.F. Edmonton

Friday, August 7, 2009

Lyndal Osborne, Ornamenta, July 30 - August 29, Harcourt House

As previewed earlier this year for this touring show by Lyndal Osborne, I came to see the realized results on the freshly stripped floors of Harcourt House Gallery. As the first show to exhibit on the bare marine-coloured concrete floors, Ornamenta significantly draws your attention to the floor space to view Osborne's re-imagination of the genetically modified harvest.

Drawing a range of audience members from curators to farmers to her artist talk, Osborne's approach to art has increasingly turned towards an installation-based method that renegotiates fine art techniques into an often political contemporary practice.

Image credit: Detail from "Garden" Lyndal Osborne, 2005

Taking meticulousness to a whole new realm, the organic discards from Osborne's personal refuse has been painted, dyed, chine colled with lithograph drawings, painted, paper mached, and distorted beyond natural perception. Transformed to habitat in Osborne's modified ecosystem(s), these estranged roots, seeds, and pods are at once wondorous and alarming--much like their symbolic counterparts.

Building upon Osborne's persistent research into GMO's by bringing together Garden and Archipelago, curators Linda Jansma and Virginia Eichhorn allow for the artist as researcher to continue on a line of thought by encouraging the works speak back to one another.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Allyson Mitchell: Ladies Sasquatch, REVIEWED by Noni Brynjolson

Do Sasquatches really exist? Are there actually ape-like beasts lurking in forests, occasionally sighted but always escaping scientific discovery? Or do they belong in the space of myth, folklore, religion, popular culture? Linda Nochlin asked “Why have there been no great women artists?” It could be said that Allyson Mitchell’s current exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery revolves around the question, “Why have there been no women Sasquatches?” Mitchell’s show features a cast of lesbian feminist monsters. Attractive, yet intimidating, their presence loudly declares an intrusion of different (scary, to some) voices into public discourse. 

To visit the Sasquatches, one has to pass by several different areas. In Canada on Canvas, one might spot numerous Masterworks by the Group of Seven. Next is Four Centuries of Silver, a beautiful show of gleaming, delicately crafted objects. Ladies Sasquatch is tucked away in a small corner gallery, much like a cave. The juxtaposition between the fine silver and the Sasquatch room is quite amusing - especially because the first thing that greets you is a pink, fuzzy, stuck-up Sasquatch bum. Mitchell was certainly aware of the way this placement would bring up questions surrounding gender, material, and craft-making - not to mention gallery politics and the clashing of histories and disciplines within a large institution such as the WAG.

Image Credit: Winnipeg Art Gallery, Installation view, 2009

The female monsters Mitchell creates are made of taxidermy fur, kitschy bathroom mats, afghans and other discarded domestic materials. They are simultaneously hideous and sexy; monstrous and feminine. They are also hand-built, crafted, embroidered and dressed up by Mitchell. Each one has a wig (arranged by Mitchell in “classic lesbian” styles), some have tattoos, and all unashamedly flaunt their furry sexual parts. The figures dominate the gallery space, appearing to be deeply engaged in conversation around a campfire which casts menacing shadows on the surrounding walls. 

The creatures were inspired by Mitchell’s vision of radical feminism. Mitchell, who has a PhD in women’s studies, coined the term Deep Lez to refer to her personal philosophy, which “acknowledge[s] the urgent need to develop inclusive liberatory feminisms while examining the strategic benefits of maintaining some components of a radical lesbian theory and practice.” Mitchell was inspired by visiting the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, an event completely organized and run by women. Watching them work together, free from a society in which many felt powerless and unaccepted, Mitchell was moved to create an homage to their strength and solidarity. 

At a discussion at the WAG that accompanied the exhibition, the existence of Sasquatches was brought up. Joining Mitchell were two Aborginal women: Lynnel Sinclair, a Sasquatch researcher, talked about the numerous sightings she had had in the Manitoba wilderness, while artist Melissa Wastasecoot discussed the role of the Sasquatch within Aboriginal spiritual traditions. The talk brought a new dimension to Mitchell’s work, one based on systems of knowledge, power and belief. While I will forever remain a skeptic about entities that lack convincing documentation (Sasquatches, God, Aliens, etc.), it was still intriguing to hear stories of Sasquatches placed within cultural and spiritual contexts.  

Both Sasquatches and lesbian feminists have eluded scientific classification - neither fit neatly into rational, western (historically masculine) systems of knowledge, but instead belong to different, and marginalized, discourses. Mitchell’s Sasquatches appeal to one’s sense of play. The inclusion of a soundtrack makes it seem like you are entering a bonfire party at a girl’s camp. But they are not toys, they have sharp teeth and an intimidating presence. You can enter their circle, but you’ll have to check your disbelief at the door if you want to join the conversation. 

-N.B. Winnipeg

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Prairie Artsters: QuickDRAW*

Drawing on history: Midnight chalk drawing opens up a new chapter in downtown's social spaces

The Hotel Cecil sat boarded up, abandoned, squatted and forgotten for years on the corner of Jasper and 104th Street before it was torn down 101 years after it first opened. Once a prestigious hotelier on the then-western edge of downtown Edmonton, the Cecil was designed by architect Roland Lines (Alex Taylor School, Union Bank Inn) during a decade of immense urban development that included the inauguration of Edmonton as the provincial capital. Left off the official list for Heritage Buildings, the functioning hotel and bar eventually degraded into a seedy dilapidated dive before permanently closing in 2003 and being demolished in 2007.

As a prime location on the city's main drag, the corner of Jasper and 104 continued to ride the whitewashing wave of another boom of urban development. A glass tower with a street-level Sobey's took shape on the site with a design nod to the heritage district, but no physical trace of the Cecil remained. A transient town with a mentality of transient architecture, memories of public space blur, but the site of Jasper and 104 remains a meeting place of expectations.

Signifying the status of a somewhat urban density, the demolition and reconstruction of the new building was accompanied by the first "Make It Not Suck"—a DIY initiative led by a group of Edmontonians that saw many of our construction site scaffoldings wheat-pasted with pre-made visual works and text. As an attempt to mark the city with something other than construction-in-progress, the MINS group—along with and often in opposition to—the architects and developers were all staking a claim to the city they each called their own. A city expresses itself, but its expressions are regulated, or inspired, by a few.

This past weekend, gathering just north of Jasper on 104 at midnight, a group of friends and strangers arrived en masse with buckets of chalk and no greater plan than to draw on their city streets. QuickDRAW was the first night of Latitude 53's now annual event of drawing, and the Friday night event was proposed by local artist Sarah Patterson. The idea was to draw on the site of the next morning's City Market, connecting the act of drawing beyond just the gallery area. It was also a fine excuse to take advantage of our summer nights in an area that has been revitalized on the surface, but had yet to generate any real sense of self-sustenance.

"It's just to engage spontaneously with art and make fun in a non-destructible way," says Patterson, a tried-and-true downtown resident who regularly sees the action going on in and around the core.

With cars careening past that either apologized or honked, various individuals from a diverse background picked up a piece of chalk and drew whatever came to mind. Some came prepared with notebooks, others engaged with the street fixtures of stop signs and park benches, and others just freestyled large creatures real and imagined. Curious onlookers and midnight dog walkers looked on as if it was a spectacle, and the market shoppers the next morning smiled at the drawings that had been made for them.

Although QuickDRAW holds the same motivation of graffiti, which has been deemed illegal and unsafe in our city, nobody, not even the passing police cruiser, showed any signs of distress at this gesture to decorate public property for free. Perhaps chalk's temporary nature makes it more digestible, but when entire buildings can be torn down, pressure to remove spray paint seems more like a diversion.

As an event, QuickDRAW was neither here nor there, but as a concept, it marks an entry point for anyone to express themselves, as this city belongs to all of us. As Patterson continues, "It's accessible to anyone. Children do this all the time."

*First published in Vue Weekly

- A.F. Edmonton