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

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