Thursday, February 19, 2009

Prairie Artsters: The Isolating Aesthetic*

Riding the train beyond the tunnels of downtown, rumbling along in the semi-new carts and into the chain-linked isolation of north and east Edmonton, I sat numbed by the graffiti removal just east of 95 St. Where there was once a milieu of unsolicited creations lining the otherwise grey zone of industrialization, there now only exists more grey, in the form of patches outlining the former bursts of expression.

If you saw this particular stretch of graffiti that resided there for seemingly as long as I can remember, you would remember that it was a mix of amateur works stretching between the nothingness of Stadium and Churchill. For the most part, the works were mediocre, being neither mind-blowing or base in articulation, but still there was something intrinsic in their quality; everytime you saw them amidst the emptiness, there was something deeply moving about the experience of encountering these works that situated you into an “Edmonton” experience.

Their removal is natural to the medium of graffiti, and on one hand the situation presents itself as a prime blank canvas. On the other hand, though, its targeted removal by a civic committee intentioned to replace all unsanctioned works with blotchy patchworks of muted blue-greys actually creates another type of Edmonton experience: the experience of isolation, or in terms of visual understanding, an isolating aesthetic.

Beyond the inherent issues of improving architectural standards and public art engagements, the city reinforces a visual solitude. Navigating through the city, the conditions isolate you into the solitary commuter: sand and grit dunes lining every meridian and sidewalk from Beverly to Lewis Estates creates less-than-desired treks; the horizon breaks up into hubs of big box stores along inhumane lanes of traffic; gravel lots extend from homogenous single storey abandoned buildings; the soulless walks through sidewalkless paths leading you to nowhere.

Erasing those marks left by the anonymous only perpetuates the disconnection that already permeates our dirty city streets. With each step we take to “clean up” this city’s image, we are removing those who have contributed to Edmonton’s identity, and in turn, the potential of ever forming a self identity and heritage.

As the Edmonton Heritage Council begins to form adjacent to the Edmonton Arts Council, a look back at The Art of Living Plan emphasizes that heritage “is the knowledge of the watersheds in human experience that provide the framework for how communities and individuals understand themselves.”

Heritage is a form of living history cultivated down into a collection and archive, but what boils down to inclusion and exclusion will inevitably shape our history and heritage. There are plans to open up a city museum, but will this museum feature an Edmonton that I remember? Through erasure, there leaves no possibility for remembrance and understanding, be it through the difference and expression of opinions. In starting fresh everytime, there is no momentum, no continuation, no follow through, leaving only the static representation of the present. This in many ways may be our identity, partaking in an ongoing amnesia of not just the past but our past mistakes in believing that it’s easier, cheaper and better to start all over again. Staying on this path, there will never be anything more than this self-effacing cycle of denial, which looking back and looking ahead, leads again to a state of isolation.

- A.F.
*First published in Vue Weekly, February 19 - 25, 2009

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Manatee Mammaries, Travis McEwen and Mandy Espezel, The Fringe Gallery, Jan 1- 31, 2009 REVIEWED by Pam Baergen

I have known Travis McEwen and his work for several years, yet as I followed him down the steps of the Fringe Gallery to see his latest show I wasn't sure what to expect. This exhibition was to be a collaboration with Mandy Espezel, and the impression I had of collaboration is that it was a difficult practice, especially for young artists.

Image credit: Travis McEwen and Mandy Espezel. "Untitled" from Manatee Mammaries. Photo credit: Travis McEwen 2009.

What I found at the bottom of the staircase was an array of imaginative, awkward creatures--figures birthed from the collaborative drawing efforts by these two young Edmonton artists.

McEwen completed his BFA in painting, and his work produced up until this point has been largely representational portraiture based on memory and imagination. Espezel's work is also figurative, often mixing animal elements such as horns and paws with human limbs, breasts, and body hair. Fusing their separate interests and aesthetics together, each piece created for Manatee Mammaries expresses a sign of trust, as each piece was worked on by both artists, beginning a few pieces on their own, then trading and adding to what the other had made. The artists selected 40 of the 50 works they created and pinned them around the gallery in lines or groupings of similar size.

Espezel and McEwen explain that their creature-figures were created as a way to explore the conceptual relationship between instinctual drawing and figuration. This exploration has pushed both artists’ works and themes to achieving a sense of social anxiety. One drawing that I found interesting was of a bulbous head shape with small, unbalanced eyes on a flat green and grey background. In this piece the artists have established a play between appealing and appalling, most notably in the figure's forehead and scalp where a piece of decorative paper curves around areas of yellowish pimple-like growths. I found this work to be a successful fusion of both artists' styles.

The unity of the works was aided by the repetition of materials, and the variety of colours and techniques used was a strength of the show. However, there was one image that I felt added little to the show's overall aesthetic and its overall conceptual exploration. The central male face and chest as well as the painterly background disappeared into the dark colours of this untitled image, and pulled visual focus away from its surrounding drawings. This was unfortunate, since it was close to one image that I found particularly intriguing: a plain swipe of colour overlayed with gold pigment on the bottom half of a plain white sheet of paper. Was this image meant to be figuration in it's simplest form? Was it a shadow: something that suggested the presence of a figure? I was torn between pondering this piece and staring back at the other.

After viewing the exhibition my impression of collaboration as a difficult practice has not changed—artists take risks when they step out of their own studios, not only because they are challenging themselves, but because they are challenging each other. According to McEwen, the show would not have been possible had he and Espezel not had "a high level of respect for each other as well as each other's work." Facing the challenges that collaboration presents was definitely worthwhile for these two artists, since it has led them to develop effective and interesting ways of communicating their ideas.

- P.B. Edmonton

Friday, February 13, 2009

Afshin Matlabi, Terrorism, Democracy, Leisure. aceartinc., January 23 - February 28, 2009. REVIEWED by Noni Brynjolson

The introductory text to Afshin Matlabi’s Terrorism, Democracy, Leisure at aceartinc., taken out of a Sandals Resort catalogue, reads: “It is a dream as old as time. Every moment is rich with a thousand delights.” This clichéd statement is followed by the digital photograph “Cuba,” and the video “Four Cuban Impressions.” The sunny utopia pictured in these works is the destination Matlabi visits annually with his family, in part, he says, to relieve accumulated anxiety accompanying the threat of global terrorism. The work consists of digital photos and videos, as well as several works on paper, all of which are informed by the artist’s humour-inflected drawing sensibility. Matlabi, a Montreal artist of Iranian descent, intends to expose hypocrisies in western, liberal democratic life. However, he has not been entirely successful in communicating a clear message.

Image credit: "Cuba," Afshin Matlabi, 2002, digital photograph.

Missiles are featured in many of Matlabi’s works. In “WMD,” a missile dances to the tune of ancient, and very beautiful Persian music. In the crayon and paper pieces “Ballistic Missile’s Weekend Family Outing,” plump tourists dive alongside grey missiles into vast expanses of swirling blue. Water, symbolic of refreshment, rebirth, and also salvation, is a common theme throughout the show. Nearby, the piece “Anxiety Apology” shows dozens of zombie-like figures running over surreally coloured hills, towards a spouting fountain much too small to save them all.

Matlabi cites his influences to include Magic Realism, Persian miniatures, faith-based art, and political art. He abhors the art for art’s sake approach, believing strongly in art’s didactic potential. In an artist talk the day after the opening, some critical questions were raised about the connection of Matlabi’s artistic influences and political beliefs to his work. For example, Persian miniature paintings are much more detailed and decorative than Matlabi’s drawings. It is also hard to see the influence of Shirin Neshat, a reference brought up by the artist. His attempts to parody advertising would have been aided by a more slick, polished aesthetic in some of the works. Matlabi named Théodore Géricault’s “Raft of Medusa” (1819) as an inspiration, an iconic painting that condemned the then-recent failure of the restored French monarchy to save one of France's shipwrecked navy ships. In contrast with Géricault’s accusatory work that focuses in on one isolated event, the focus of Matlabi’s works is far less clear. Is it the concept of democracy, the individual, the government, the media, or all of these interrelated units that Matlabi is contesting?

Matlabi’s own political beliefs add another layer of opacity. After he talked about reconsidering “family values, core values, a faith-based system, and religious texts, which are more sophisticated than philosophy,” he stated “voting dictates the value of your artistic creativity,” adding that he had voted Conservative in the last election. Does this change the political message associated with the show? Matlabi sees democracy as flawed, but what kind of change is he after? To me, the artist’s words were more confusing than enlightening, both aesthetically and politically. Considered next to each other, one might piece together a critique of the inhabitants of western liberal democracies: unquestioning, flabby followers whose political systems inherently result in war, and who relieve their anxiety by escaping to warm, sandy beaches to regenerate. However, the works were more difficult to comprehend after hearing Matlabi speak, and I am left with questions surrounding the connection, and in this case disconnection, between aesthetics and politics, intention and expression.

- N.B. Winnipeg

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Yan Geng, Sub-Sur-Face, FAB Gallery, January 27 - February 14, 2009. REVIEWED by Sarah Hamilton

Yan Geng’s MFA thesis looks in many ways like just another exercise in modernist painting. In fact, the exhibition has already been criticized as just. From a distance, as I approach each painting, it is almost all too pretty. But I also have trouble with the assertion that with so much criticism of Edmonton’s modernist history lately, a young artist could seriously practice pure formalism without bringing in some discourse from the past thirty years.

Geng has taken up a keen interest in the sub-conscious and the subsurface by probing deeper into the human psyche. His paintings are figurative, but the faces have been removed because he doesn’t “believe that the face itself really shows us very much truth on the surface.” As a figurative idea, I think this is a dull realisation; the sub-conscious and sub-surface realized though strict modernist painting is cliché – I’m recalling the work of the late Surrealists and the Automatistes here. Artists like Paul-Émile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle uninhibited themselves in some way to unleash their subconscious mind, reflected in abstracted forms with narrative titles. It’s interesting, but without further investigation, this method of art making has run its course.

Image credit: Yan Geng "Perplexed" 2009. Acrylic and Oil on Linen, 57"X39.5"

But, underneath the seemingly pristine surfaces is an undulating, filthy texture, which breaks the surface and hints at something both fascinating and distressing underneath. I’m charmed by Geng’s texture. The pure surface of the paint is tainted by some wretched something trapped under it. If I were neurotic, I’d scratch it out when no one was looking.

The works that drew me from across the room is a series of three paintings, hanging around the corner of the upper gallery. They are three large paintings that look almost like colour-field works, titled "Perplexed", "Exhausted" and "Insidious". Though still vaguely figurative, the shapes have been so abstracted that they have lost meaning. It’s a head, I think. The same shape is repeated across all three canvases, but the colours are pop, almost neon. The emotions used to title the pieces are not symmetrical (I’m thinking, tritely, of symmetry like agony and ecstasy). I’m glad that Geng doesn’t try to bow to our need for balance and meaning and investigates all feelings, as asymmetrical as they exist.

Overall, I think its very odd that a so-called modernist painter would choose a subject matter that rejects the surface as any source of truth, pointing out that in our own realities, the surface is a thin, inexpressive veneer for a complex machine working underneath, which contains content that cannot ever be expressed visually or literally or emotively.

Geng is satirizing painting at the end of painting. That a style meant to effuse all meaning and method in art has become just as emotive and inexpressive and perplexing as its predecessors. And yet, as artists, as a community we’re still obsessing over the surface. It’s humorous, and it’s an interesting direction for an artist to take his formalist training.

- S.H. Edmonton

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Prairie Artsters - Many Sides to Every Story*

A few weeks ago, I went to two locally organized events by Toronto-based artist Peter Kingstone through Latitude 53 and HIV Edmonton. As a self-taught artist currently touring his single-channel video installation, 100 Stories About My Grandmother, Kingstone also screened a short independent work, “The Adventures of Strongman and Quickboy,” for a community viewing and post-screening discussion.

Wanting to tell stories not normally seen in popular media, Kingstone’s representation of sex-trade workers upsets mainstream constructions of prostitutes as often-disenfranchised, homeless drug addicts from shattered homes. Though it could be argued that this stereotype has roots pulled from reality, it cannot be denied that this construction has been massively popularized to maintain and uphold a moral standpoint that perpetuates prostitution as morally depraved and holds that prostitutes must by default be inferior. By not even engaging in the morality of the situation that automatically creates a “good” versus “evil” scenario, Kingstone instead represents male sex trade workers from a humanist point of view, and in so doing successfully tells a story about people rather than judgments.

Image credit: Still from 100 Stories About My Grandmother, Peter Kingstone, 2008

100 Stories About My Grandmother features 100 male prostitutes from Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal, Miami and London sharing a first-person narrative about their grandmother. Each story runs for several minutes in an unedited, unscripted stationary shot with the participants ranging from 17 to 64 years of age.

At times wavering between a confessional monologue and a long-forgotten anecdote, the affect on the viewers is the experience of a pure and profoundly sincere moment of human intimacy. Presenting the 100 stories through three different living room sets reminiscent of one’s grandmother’s house, we are made privy to these stories broadcasting from television sets that would never otherwise offer these perspectives.

Media constructions often dehumanize prostitutes (or any group that is deemed morally inferior), framing them as victims, often of violent crimes, and thus upholding a moral justification of why they must be controlled and saved. Instead of beginning from a position of defense and being judged, Kingstone starts with a narrative about relating to his own grandmother, who was a sex trade worker and who he never got to know. Soliciting a collective memory that reveals horrors and comedies from our everyday relations, the work stands as a communal archive for storytelling.

Similarly, in “The Adventures of Strongman and Quickboy”—which features extended scenes of explicit sex between various assemblages of men—Kingstone presented the film as a community viewing to encourage discussion rather than voyeurism. Topical issues of age, disease and relationships converged without ever dramatizing or exploiting itself into clichés. The character of Strongman has to take daily meds, but the words “HIV” and “AIDS” are never uttered; the character of Quickboy is obsessed with a constructed pop culture that has not included him, but gay exclusion is never dwelled upon.

Serendipitously, on the same day of Kingstone’s opening for 100 Stories About My Grandmother, the Edmonton Sun newspaper published an article entitled “A Twisted Homosexual World.” Appearing by pure coincidence, Mindelle Jacob’s column featured an interview with a Calgary-based psychology professor sharing his opinion about the twisted behavior of “hedonistic psychopaths” who either willingly give or seek out the HIV virus. Using internet profiles as its reported research and blatantly constructing these men as monsters, the article was crude and oblivious in a most disappointing vein, but through its sole manifestation into our consciousness, we are at least reminded that there will always be at least two sides to every story.

- A.F. Edmonton
*First published in Vue Weekly February 5 - 11, 2009

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Scout's Honour, Urban Shaman Gallery, January 16 - February 21, 2009. REVIEWED by Roslyn Stanwick

Replacing Nostalgia: Contemporary Views of Home Sweet Home

When you hear the word "scouts" the first thing that usually comes to mind is the character-building youth organization that teaches pre-pubescent teens how to make fires and play safe in the great outdoors. But how about "scouts" in relation to Contemporary Canadian Art? Recently, Anishnaabe First Nations artists Michael Belmore and Frank Shebageget collaborated with Ontario curator Ryan Rice to present Scout’s Honour, a traveling exhibition currently on display in Winnipeg’s Urban Shaman Gallery.

Comprised of five sculptural installations, the exhibition playfully parallels the ‘art’ of Scouting by exploring themes of teamwork, community, and personal development within the shifting scope of our contemporary Canadian landscape.

Image credit: Frank Shebageget
"Lodge" 2008 gelatin, basswood, steel. Courtesy of Urban Shaman.

The idea for the show came about three summers ago, when high-school friends Belmore and Shebageget decided to return to Upsala, the remote community in northern Ontario, once home to the artists’ grandparents. Having spent many childhood summers fishing, playing, and exploring in and around the area, their journey back was coloured by distant memories of a landscape that no longer was. Formerly the site of a booming sawmill industry, the community is now nearly all but abandoned, with few residual indications of its modern past.

But rather than succumbing to their personal sense of loss, Belmore and Shebageget found the experience liberating. From it, they drew inspiration to create a series of sculptural installations, in which they address the impact of Western technology within our country’s cultural, social, and geographic climate.

Using hammered sheets of copper, engraved aluminum, suspended mosquito netting, interwoven fishhooks, and yes, even a giant pile of wooden airplanes, Belmore and Shebageget have pulled together a variety of informal materials to develop landscape installations rich with wit and hidden symbolism.

In "Snag," Belmore has cut a series of hydro/telephone poles into ten small aluminum panels, spacing the pieces evenly apart along the gallery’s wall. In northern Ontario these poles still stand tall, but remain functionless. With no more community to connect to the outside world, the poles have been stripped of their wires and are slowly being engulfed by the natural forest from which they originally came. Now, they merely exist as ironic examples of cultural change; as symbols of an economic shift; and as icons of the lasting marks we so carelessly leave when we decide we’ve had enough.

Image credit: Michael Belmore "Snag" 2008: Aluminium (10 panels). Courtesy of Urban Shaman

For Belmore, these poles also convey a personal dialogue. Having grown up at a time when they functioned as Upsala’s central lifeline to the modern world, the artist refers to the poles as ‘guardians,’ or technological symbols connecting life in the past to life in the present.

“Standing on the shores of the lake my grandparents once called home,” Belmore recalls, “I am reminded that progress marches forward, and on that march things are sometimes left or forgotten. My work is an attempt to reconnect or at least capture the essence of our ever-changing landscape.”

Similarly, Shebageget’s installation "Lodge" plays with the notion of intercultural change within the places we call home. Resting approximately four feet off the gallery floor, "Lodge" is comprised of 1,692 hand crafted wooden Beaver bush planes. It is no coincidence that 1,692 is also the number of Beaver airplanes the de Havilland company first produced when the Canadian Shield first became open to southern pilots. With their ability to land on water, the introduction of the Beaver’s modern technology forever revolutionized the way native and non-native communities alike would interact with the land.

As is true of most of the works in the exhibition, the more I think about "Lodge" the more I appreciate Shebageget’s work. In a previous installation, the artist hung the planes from the ceiling in the formation of a beehive. This time, he meticulously piled the pieces onto the floor to resemble a dam. By cleverly playing on the various meanings of the word "beaver", Shebageget’s installation requires you to stop and think about the competing relationship between these two symbols of Canada’s heritage.

Shebaget proposes, “My focus on historical and contemporary intercultural history attempts to locate positive connections that have been established between native and non-cultures, without falling into tropes of stereotypical issues about native culture. This conceptual framework speaks to both the historical and contemporary relevance to both native and non-native identity in Canada.”

By exploring the changing visual icons of the Canadian landscape, Belmore and Shebageget’s sculptures touch on personal and universal truths about the community’s role within the construction of self-identity. Emphasizing themes of change, development, displacement, mass production, and repetition, their subject matters explore parallels between the land’s natural appearance and the surfaces we’ve learned to create. Such works cannot only be appreciated for their honesty in social address, but also for their playful candor and remarkably emblematic appearance.

-R.S. Winnipeg