Friday, January 23, 2009

Spyder Yardley-Jones, Strength-Duty-Honor, Harcourt House, January 8 - Feburary 14, 2009. REVIEWED by Erin Carter

Oh, don’t trip over the Nazi flag on your way into Strength-Duty-Honor exhibit by Spyder Yardley-Jones. This dictator themed display shows members of our government and society in a circus-poster caricatured way. The shouting satire of Alberta’s and the world’s problems yell from every comment painted on Yardley-Jones' canvases.

With pictures such as "Karla Holmoka Alive? Why?" you don’t really have to stop and think about what Yardley-Jones is trying to say. Growing up as the son of Edmonton Journals editorial cartoonist Spyder has definitely taken after the opinionated editorial side of art. Spinning through "Ralph Klein the ass talker" to "Helping Mutate Alberta’s future: the tar sands" a little smile may creep on to your face that speaks to both the absurdly extreme and bemusedly pop cultural nature of the exhibition.

Then there are the most magnificent forts made out of popsicles sticks (or some kind of sticks) hanging out in the middle of the room. With the detail of wind mills, resting points ,and multi-tiered rooms designed for communal living, I wonder if they are maquettes for our getaways from this crazy society when we try to escape the tyranny of this so called diplomatic government.

- E.C. Edmonton

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Prairie Artsters - Is there a "here" in Here Now or Nowhere?*

Serendipitously walking by a piece of graffiti text that read “Be here now or nowhere” near his Toronto home, artist and curator Micah Lexier thought he had stumbled upon the perfect title for his curatorial exhibit in Grande Prairie.

Following on 2008’s Ed Bader curation featuring international and regional video-based artists such as Bill Viola, John Will, David Hoffos and Lexier himself taking over storefront windows throughout downtown Grande Prairie, Lexier was invited back by the Prairie Art Gallery to curate this year’s exhibition.

Running until the end of January, Here Now or Nowhere features a series of temporary public art works throughout Grande Prairie’s downtown core in windows, shops and theatres. Robert Steven, the gallery’s executive director, noted the anagram between “here now” and “nowhere” and suggested dropping the “be” all together, feeling the verb may be too emphatic. Only after artist talks and surveying the exhibit, I’m left wondering if the omitted “be” also plays upon the lack of a local ontological presence.

Constructed as a public art intervention exhibition banking on Grande Prairie’s remoteness, Here Now or Nowhere features several new works by artists like Adad Hannah and Jan Peacock, but features mostly older works by the likes of Kelly Mark, Germaine Koh and Neil Goldberg. Hannah and Peacock’s works are the only storefront pieces that successfully collaborate with their venue, while the remainder of the works appear in rotation along a two-block stretch.

The overall exhibition was repeatedly touted by senior critic Robert Enright as “good an exhibit as you’ll see anywhere,” but therein lies the problem: that this exhibit has mostly been crafted for anywhere, and in so doing disconnects it from a relative social milieu.

Grande Prairie, like most small to midsize cities dependent on automobiles with low pedestrian traffic and a sparse central population, shares the fate of a quiet downtown district. After dark, the core inevitably empties, with the exception of a consistent murmur surrounding the York Hotel and a steady flow of pickup trucks hauling skidoos to and from the highway. So for an exhibit where the majority of works are situated downtown and can only be seen after dark, the exhibit is certainly as good an exhibit as you’ll see anywhere, but the major difference is whether the exhibit will be identified by the present and local public.

Standing as mostly strong works independent of each other and of the public spaces they have been situated, the video projections finally became visible by early Saturday evening. After walking the three blocks of a deserted 100 Avenue, I was basking in the encounter of works on display, but left wondering if I’ve gained any insight into the actual places visited.

An ephemeral encounter such as Mark’s “Glow House” is perhaps the best example of the conundrum. Filling an old two-storey house with dozens of televisions set to identical channels, the simultaneous flicker of their synchronized screens illuminate the house into a pulsating glow. As an all-too-familiar sight for any suburban walker in the night, “Glow House” was first created in 2001 through Winnipeg’s Plug-In ICA to an audience that Mark estimates to be no more than a dozen. Reincarnating in various cities since, the idea arrived in Grande Prairie for a single weekend to a small handful who sought it out, but mostly existed for the majority of oblivious drivers and an idling security vehicle. Although some vehicles would slow down and ask what was going on, more often than not the reception was to honk or rev at the out-of-place onlookers standing in the street.

Although I strongly agree that the calibre of this exhibit are as good as anywhere, I could only suggest that the art works alongside their locations build upon a shared sense of “here” for next year.

*First published in Vue Weekly, January 21 - 27, 2009

Sean Montgomery, Crooked Head, Latitude 53, Jan. 9th - Feb. 14th, 2009 REVIEWED by Mandy Espezel

Currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree at Concordia University, Sean Montgomery's Crooked Head is a representation of the work he is doing as a graduate student in Montreal.

The show consists of seven fairly large scale acrylic paintings on un-stretched canvas averaging 50" x 70". Ranging in subject matter from bandana's, bears, beards, flags, blankets, and trouser snakes, Montgomery uses bright and contrasting colours, creating an aggressive visual impact within the small space.

Image credit: Sean Montgomery "Gang Members" 2008

Interested in gender signification, he appropriates culturally masculine symbols, such as the bearded-man or flannel patterning, and reconstructs them contextually in order to question or alter their validity. The stylized slot mouths and obsessive wood grain patterning are definitely eye-pleasing, and create a strong relationship between all the work. But what really interests me about this show is the literal connections to objects that are created through the use of structural shape. The figure / ground relationship is stripped away, leaving only the figure as the subject. In this way, Montgomery's paintings become almost sculptural in their emphasis on material nature. Contrasting with this is the excessively flat paint handling Montgomery has developed. There is no "painters hand" at play here; no lush physicality to indulge in. By using the canvas in direct relation to the image or object being symbolized, we enter a kind of surreal understanding and dialogue of representation. Three works specifically engage in this way, "Bandana", "Bay Blanket", and "Jean Mathieu Montgomerie".

"Bandana" is the most obvious and powerful in terms of direct representation.
Basically a decorated red triangle, this painting hangs on the wall as an oversized detailed version of something completely based in reality. Recognizable as the cowboys bandana used to cover the face and protect one's identity, "Bandana" hangs in existence as a physical object, as a symbol, and as a non-functional image.

Much the same effect is created with "Bay Blanket", a painting that resembles, as its title suggests, the fundamentally Canadian and culturally epic Hudson's Bay blanket. Montgomery replicates the basics of the visually geometric symbol, a large white rectangle with four colourful horizontal stripes across one end. He complicates this with the use of subtly weaving lines that barely alter in tone, but are easily recognized as wood grain patterning. Again, the painting is an object and a symbolic representation, but the slight alteration suggests a kind of additional commentary of personal significance.

The last example, "Jean Mathieu Montgomerie" uses Quebec's provincial flag, a blue rectangle divided into four quadrants by a white cross, as the root of its formal structure and content. Replacing the fleur-de-lis are four delicately executed white line drawings of the bearded-man heads, slightly angled and open mouthed. Presumably representing a Francophone-version of Montgomery's own identity, this painting is the most self referential in the show, and also the most complex in terms of the relationship between symbolism and physical reality. It is also one of the strongest pieces, in my opinion, because it so clearly embraces and epitomizes the necessity, absurdity, and the power of image and identity making.

M. E. Edmonton

Lyndal Osborne, Ornamenta*

Curated by Linda Jansma and Virginia Eichhorn, Ornamenta brings together two significant installations by Edmonton-based artist Lyndal Osborne. An ecology of biodiversity surfaces as a unifying theme between Garden (2005) and Archipelago (2008) — both underscore Osborne’s meticulously detailed craftsmanship with a multitude of treated organic materials.

Image credit: Lyndal Osborne, Archipelago (detail), sunflower stalks and grapefruit skins chine colle with lithograph drawings or painted, wire, glass beads, DNA model connectors, laboratory glassware, metal caps and Bunsen burners, sea balls, seed pods, Sculpey, silicone rubber, resin, papier mache, paint and dye. 2008, dimensions variable.

Since her career began four decades ago, Osborne’s collection of organic objects has progressively permeated her body of work. Advancing from the straightforward presentation of Tableaux For Transformation (1998), a meditation on collection and nonhierarchical systems of being, Ornamenta strikes the viewer as inherently ecopolitical. She elevates her collection of grapefruit skins, dried sunflower stalks, and upturned roots beyond their essence and productive functions, and her rearrangements become an expressive encounter.

In Garden, a central patch of upturned annual indigenous roots have been treated in bright pinks and greens, colours that for Osborne best represent the growing climate in Australia and Canada. Rendering visible the harvested roots, which have sprouted from seed to plant to death, Osborne invites the viewer to look and think beyond the life of a plant, and appreciate the dead roots as central to the ongoing cycle of growth.

Acknowledging her mother’s gift and passion for gardening as the direct influence for her own interest, Osborne’s real-life gardens are a visual cacophony of healthy, self-sustaining perennials grown wild in rhythmic chaos. Cherishing the plants in life and in death by collecting and incorporating her own dried foliage, Osborne’s work affirms that the worth of seeds and roots does not end once the productive function has been completed. The natural cycles of life from seed to root to plant and back to seed have an intrinsic value, a value being threatened by research-driven advances in biotechnology, a field that fascinates Osborne and prompts her to question its accountability within the grand ecological order of nature.

Image credit: Lyndal Osborne, Garden, mixed media installation: sunflower, beans, tomatoes, dill and corn roots, corn silk, rose petals, lime grass, dogwood, stair step moss, rhubarb seeds, willow, dogwood, corn cobs, hand-made sisal paper, wax, latex, steel, plaster, wood and paint, 2005, dimensions variable.

Expanding beyond the hyperreal urban backyard in Garden, Archipelago simulates 16 modified cell structures along a metaphoric North Saskatchewan River. Osborne has been interested in the international debate of labeling genetically modified foods — biotechnology produces research-driven organisms by concentrating and injecting the most productive genes from a diverse variation of organisms into homogenous superseeds. The long-term effects of a single superseed on human consumption have yet to be accounted for in terms of long-term human and ecological health, and Osborne is asking questions now — how will GMOs adapt to infestation, bush fires, and other ecological cycles that reinvigorate natural diversity.

Flowing throughout the exhibition alongside the 16 altered pods and laboratory apparatus, the North Saskatchewan River shines in contrast as an open-ended life source filled with unaltered biodiversity. Running close to Osborne’s own home and acreage, the strength of a healthy river stands as symbol of sustainable ecology that intertwines both art and life.

The diversity of materials culled from Osborne’s own land, and visible throughout Ornamenta, strives for an awareness of our ecological responsibilities to respect nature’s self-sustaining rhythms. Osborne’s metaphorical gardens and cell pods act as warnings to the irrevocable damage our unheeded technological breakthroughs can bring if we as consumers and as a generation do not become more aware. Disrupting a natural order through the proliferation of GMOs, the concern of biotechnology is not restricted to the single issue between humans and nature, but as demonstrated in Ornamenta, rests between diversity and the earth.

Ornamenta will exhibit in the Penticton Art Gallery, Edmonton’s Harcourt House Gallery, the Moose Jaw Museum and Art Gallery, and the Esplanade Arts & Heritage Centre in Medicine Hat through late 2010.

*First published in Galleries West Winter/Spring 2009.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sarah Anne Johnson, Illingworth Kerr Gallery, January 8 - March 27, 2009 REVIEWED by Kim Neudorf

In her current work at the Illingworth Kerr Gallery, Winnipeg based Sarah Anne Johnson continues an exploration into personal experience through ‘straight’ and ‘constructed’ narrative through photography and bronze sculptures to tell the story of her grandmother’s mistreatment under the care of Dr. Ewen Cameron.

Prefacing “Nan” (Johnson’s name for her grandmother) within the exhibition as an underlying presence in the exhibition, a long glass case provides 1950s newspaper documentation of Dr. Cameron’s ‘experimental’ and cruel treatments, diary entries and letters written by Johnson’s grandmother alongside letters and photographs of Johnson’s family.

Walking deeper into the centre of the gallery, nine-inch tall bronze figures of Nan are flanked by rows of framed, digitally-enlarged photographs, both actual and fictional. Two of the bronze figures gnaw upon thick twigs, which are either alarming replacements for arms, or act as a seeming burden of endless consumption and vivid regurgitation. One of the figures is shown from the waist up, appearing as though stuck fast in mud. Gouged rings line her body and slice across her breasts, and she seems exhausted with the effort of freeing herself. Another figure appears to be covered in a wormy rash resembling teeth marks, giving her clothed body the appearance of raw skin. Combined with Johnson’s added touch of slicing off the ‘face’ of the figure and refastening it the wrong way round, this three dimensional piece gives shape to the ‘outward’ and ‘inward’ signs of escape.

Image credit: Sarah Anne Johnson, "Blackout" 2009

The figures "Black Out" and "Rage" push these physical metaphors into slapstick. "Black Out" shows Nan’s head completely replaced with a large white box, while equally sterile white tubes cover both arms. "Rage" depicts Nan in a stance of effort, producing a mushroom-cloud of glistening dark-green.

Johnson uses an awareness of materiality and the narrative associations of bronze figures (‘fixed’ and ‘cast’ in their fateful bodies) alongside the vulnerability of cardboard, dried fur, wet-looking glazes, twigs, and sandy surfaces that resemble mud-caked skin. This visceral, humorous use of material in the figures allows an intimacy with the work that seems more about Johnson’s interpretation of Nan’s story than the decidedly stark, graphic version of media documentation.

Of the framed photographs, portraits of Nan and snapshots of Johnson’s family are shown in various stages of painted and drawn embellishment. In a baby photograph titled "Leslie Orlikow," a baby’s blurry face and clothed-body resemble a melted snowman which has sprouted a garden of penciled-in wicker and lace. "Family Tradition" shows Nan holding a child and baby on her lap, her benign smile askew within a painted and drawn layer of face, as if she were a fictional character dreamed by the children. Her arms and fingers are delicately painted into twisting vines of brown-green, grasping net-like around the baby and child.

Image Credit: Sarah Anne Johnson, "Birthday Party" 2009

Less resolved and more illustrational than the bronze figures, the photographs seem more like studies than finished works. Heightened by paint and graphite, pieces like "Leslie Orlikow" and "Family Tradition" are able to disturb a sense of photographic resolution or fixed truth, but seem much less self-aware of their materiality and the narrative potential of their limitations.

One particular exception is the piece "White Out," wherein Johnson repeats the boxed-head and tubular-arms of Nan, this time painted in delicate tones and placed in front of a backdrop of what appears to be a man-made touristy waterfall. Embellishment and photograph seem to mimic and blur each other, and Nan seems an oblivious, yet pose-happy vacationer made light by the banality and triteness of her re-imagined surroundings.

*All images courtesy of the artist, 2009.

K.N. Calgary

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tar Plane Wayfarer, Mitch Mitchell, Red Strap Building, Jan 5 - 23, 2009*

An Illinois native growing up amidst corn fields and prairie landscape, Mitch Mitchell knew nothing about Fort McMurray or the tar sands before his visit last October. Camping with two friends for 55 days, the U of A fine art graduate student inadvertently gained unprecedented access to active construction sites.

Not knowing his actions were both prohibited and rare, Mitchell, sketchbook in hand, followed the sporadic “booms” heard through the distance, which turned out to be sound deterrents situated near tailing ponds, placed to ward off wildlife. Surveying the massive oil-and-gas site, the self-identified nature lover was simultaneously overcome with repulsion and attraction to the devastations he witnessed and sketched. In every direction surveyed, depletion at every level was occurring with Tonka trucks the size of two-story buildings rolling through a completely degraded landscape, creating three-story dirt piles, enormous tailing ponds of orange and yellow, all with the acridity of burnt metal and oils wafting through the air.

“It was intoxicating,” says Mitchell, fully aware of the double entendre, of the landscape that inspired Tar Planes Wayfarer, his most recent installation. As a print artist who formerly worked with the midwest landscape in quilted patterns, his first visit to the Fort McMurray area completely changed his artistic output. “I was working with the micro/macro of landscapes and geography before, but it was still ‘too pretty,’” he says as we tour through the installation process inside the former Red Strap Market.

Rolls of blank newsprint are laid out and some have been ripped up in mounds and strewn across the floor. Their pale blankness lends itself to a form of messaging, explains Mitchell, who is evidently just as impacted after another recent trip up north.

“I was flabbergasted by the changes that had occurred in a year’s time. Roads have changed direction, pits were bigger, ponds were larger, there were orange scarecrows floating in the tailings ponds, three-story walls of earth were being constructed around the ponds to block a visitor’s view, and it seemed as though the city had grown three fold,” Mitchell recalls. Without the luxury of straying any closer the second time around, Mitchell was suddenly aware of the forced separation between the tar sands and the people living nearby, and that it was this dynamic within the process of the tar sands that he wanted to explore.

Tar Plane Wayfarer is Mitchell’s direct response to his experience of walking through the tar sands development and the stories he heard in the camps. As a three-week-long, ongoing installation, the process becomes the work on display in the Red Strap’s street-front windows. Activating the space with pedestrians and drivers gazing in both intrigued and confused, Mitchell is attempting to re-create a heightened experience of moving through, over and along the tar sands. Creating tailings ponds and dirt hills by labour-intensive treatments of paper with asphaltum, water and carborundum, Mitchell aims to induce both the spatial and olfactorial sensations that both repulsed and transfixed him.

The ever-changing state of Tar Plane Wayfarer suggests the influx of the tar sands, except that while the latter grows and devastates, the former can only allude to the scope of the project that is irrevocably altering both the land and how we exist with it. Hiding certain surprises within his paper hills, Mitchell draws upon conversations from retired tar sands workers who shared stories about the irresponsible devastations that occurred in the early years before any environmental codes were suggested, including the burial of large-scale broken machinery that was simply more cost effective to hide than to repair or move off-site.

Today’s tar sand reclamation sites reveal the ecological alterations in its sickly yellow fields. Moving to connect the human body back to the landscape, no matter how altered, Mitchell invites audience members to physically engage with the work, setting aside all gallery decorum to touch and shape the work presented.

“Every Albertan I’ve met has an opinion on the tar sands, and though they don’t think they’re being political, by expressing their opinion they are making a political statement,” says Mitchell, who keeps a consistent sense of awe and imposition. “I have my own personal views on the tar sands and I’m giving people a venue to react by trying to tell them what I saw.”

*First published in Vue Weekly, January 15 - 22, 2009

Friday, January 9, 2009

Prairie Artsters - Starting The Year Off Right*

Instead of looking back over the past year of failures and achievements, it’s that time of year when everything appears fresh again and endless possibilities and opportunities become fair game. Arbitrary or not, flipping over that last page of the calendar translates into starting anew—and it’s feeling that rare sense of openness that makes our new year attempts worthwhile.

When all of the “Best of ... ” and “Year in Reviews” are said and done, the most recent year past always seems marked as a year in transition, a year plagued with almost-coulds and probably-shoulds spilling forward with a momentum that is now this coming year’s responsibility to shoulder on and propagate.

Following this annual call to action, could 2009 live up to expectations? (For example, will people actually start putting their money where their mouth is?) A more prolific arts scene including better art making paired with better arts writing is one wish we can all collectively hope for, but instead of leaving it to fate, what can we do to make this a realization? It’s one thing to pick at what’s wrong, but it’s entirely another to address the problem through positive reinforcements. There are also some fundamental issues, if not myths, that need to be dealt with if there is any chance for us to move forward.

For one: producing good work does not equal success; connecting works to people who care is a better definition. Beyond just the issue of marketing and education, the level of disconnect within the arts remains dismal. From a void in audience development to the general community’s lack of interest or awareness in what’s going on concurrently within the city and in other similar centres continues to keep us thinking that better is simply elsewhere. Except that art, like here and everywhere, is mostly bad, hyped and disappointing. Bad art exists everywhere, and the major difference is that we appease our docility with an “A” for effort. Bad art, along with good art, needs to be witnessed, exhibited and mulled over. Contrary to popular belief, art does have a function: art challenges us to think and feel beyond our own perceptions. Art, lest we forget, is a fundamental necessity for the human-social condition.

Right now in our city, relational issues that plague the growth and production of culture include an entropic university program, an ill-informed art market, a limited number of exhibition venues for local artists, the goal of commercial representation being a high priority and the attitude towards arts funding as a subsidy rather than a necessity in maintaining a viable civic centre.

These are not discrete problems, but tangents arising from shared roots. Segregating the arts, or our limited perception of what is “art” and aesthetics from daily life is one culprit. Not informing ourselves, or expressing ourselves, is also a a major blockade. And although critical arts writing and curating are slowly becoming visible factors in producing an interesting art scene, I have to ask: when will there be a growth in critically conscious art making? I’m not talking about MFA thesis projects that force theory into practice; I’m talking about making art that goes beyond navel gazing banality and dreams beyond delusions of commercial stardom. By interesting, I do mean diversity and experimentation in the way we approach how we make, exhibit and understand the arts. Edmonton hasn’t been lacking in people or projects, but there has been a lack of focus in what artists and audiences could do. Maintaining a status quo never inspired anybody. If we want to see change happen, then collectively we are the ones who have to make it happen. There’s no one way about it, but through the clashing of ideals, we are at least moving towards a new direction.

*First published in Vue Weekly, January 8 - 15, 2009