Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Sylvain Voyer: Survey 1957 - Present, Art Gallery of Alberta, Jan. 17 - March 22, REVIEWED by Mandy Espezel

Sylvain Voyer's artistic roots run deep within the community of Alberta. Born in Edmonton in 1939, he has been making paintings for over 50 years. From his developmental years as a student at the Alberta College of Art in Calgary; to his activist ambitions behind co-founding the artists run centre Latitude 53 with Harry Savage in 1972; to his current role as a much celebrated and successful artist who has attained a mature style; Voyer has consistently been an integral part of Alberta's artistic identity and development.

Image credit: Sylvain Voyer, "Snow Drifts" 1985, 122 x 81 cm, acrylic on masonite. Image courtesy of the AGA.
The Art Gallery of Alberta's retrospective exhibition lays out Voyer's life work in reverse chronological order, so that upon entering, you are first exposed to the well known Canola Field paintings. These works are bright, and very approachable. There is also nothing really challenging about them. Landscape painting is thematically friendly, and I think the AGA knows this, and took full advantage. Which is smart; getting people into the gallery is an important ambition. The strength of the show itself though would have benefited from some editing. Voyer has a keen eye when it comes to composition, and he knows how to make really attractive pictures. But there is a lot of work in those first few rooms that is pleasant to look at--and easy to forget. There are larger dramatic paintings, like "Nice Day in July", and "Ada Boulevard", which are much more experimental, and stand out because of their visual intensity. These paintings seem to be about the boundaries and abilities of paint, as much as they are about depicting fields and skies and trees. This is where Voyer's work remains exciting; when he incorporates the ideas and formal experimentation of his earlier work into the realm of his contemporary representation. He breaks down the picture, keeping enough information to not lose the connection completely.

Image credit: Sylvain Voyer, "Solflower" 1990, 136 x 136 cm, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the AGA.

As you move back through the gallery, paintings remain organized by theme. There is the Winter room, the Tree room, the Edmonton room. Two side galleries hold work done in the 80's when Voyer and his wife began wintering in Mexico. These paintings have strong cultural themes, showing scenes from Mexican villages, incorporating materials and imagery from the surrounding culture. They range between being incredibly endearing to overly ambitious. The smaller paintings feel like studies of local Mexican life and are intimately rendered. They have the same quality of invested time and consideration that Voyer's smaller paintings of local Edmonton landmarks and scenery have. The larger works however, become all about material. He is clearly experimenting, but the massive and elaborate frames feel more obnoxious than cohesive. I understand the intent behind them, but put in comparison with the other work, they are too much.

Then there is the early work from the 60's and 70's. This is when Edmonton's love affair with Flatness begins, and the rest of the art world moved on. Voyer's work from this time shows an incredible awareness of this. There is work that clearly resembles Op-Art; pieces from the "New York, hard - edge" series that concentrate on creating illusionistic and 3D effects with stripes and colour. There is work concerned with ideas about ownership and appropriation. In the "Recycled Art" series Voyer paints on top of pre-existing images, turning the mediocre into inventive and humorous pictures. There are the sculptural and assemblage works, where material is used satirically and perhaps with reverence to the past. "The Guggenheim" from 1979 shows a hanging paint can, covered with a scroll of paper that has images of historic paintings plastered over its curves. "Museum of Modern Art", from the same year, is an arrangement of clear cubes that have these similar art history postcards applied to them. These clear boxes are all contained together under their own plexi-cube. And then there's collage work, where Voyer dices up images and re-assembles them into massive historical mazes.

In this one room at the back of the gallery, there exists endless ideas and jokes and un-inhibited visual experiments. This is the work done by Sylvain Voyer that fascinates and delights me. It is an amazing thing to walk through this show and witness the evolution taken by this one artist, and the range that he has worked to develop. To see where he came from, and how he arrived at the style of painting he is so well known for today. His current paintings may not be my favourite of the exhibition, but that is pretty insignificant. This show is about an artist who has given much of himself to his artistic practice and to his home; one has to respect and admire that journey.

- M.E. Edmonton

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