Fung's two recent columns, from the 1st and 16th of April, are statements of this new mindset. A recent trip elsewhere has persuaded her of Edmonton's enduring inadequacy. In Montreal, Fung laments,
You really can't walk without tripping over an artist of some sort, and most likely they're riding their bicycle to one of the many free or affordable cultural events that everyone from all ages seems to attend in passionate droves. Everyone is creative
Unlike here, apparently, but this is going too far. Fung is an art writer, going to see a festival. Of course everyone she meets is an artist — as an artist and writer living in Edmonton, my experience is not actually very different. If you spend time mostly among artists, then most everyone you meet will be one.
Amy is making hyperbole, of course. In her second article, after complaining about events that she didn't go to — a turnabout from her implied complaints about Edmontonians' unwillingness to participate — she tries to be more clear:
We don't think anyone wants to be challenged out of their comfort zones because we're never challenged out of our comfort zones
The problem is, then, that nobody does anything brave enough. But at the event Fung missed, was an example of something brave, in the form of K.O. Dance projects, whose performance was, incidentally, terrible. Justified only by a similar idea of fearless iconoclastic conceptualism, they performed the least site-specific site-specific dance imaginable (for which they had to rearrange the site), packed with pandering, over-literal movement and embarrassing metaphor. They challenged an audience who largely lacked the critical background, or, at the Mayor's Gala, the rudeness to address what they had seen. Notable local twitterer — but not art-critic — Mack Male described them as “interesting”, and that is undoubtably what someone similarly lacking a framework but trying to be open-minded would have described the feminist performance festival in Montreal as. This essay is not the place for an extensive discussion of their performance, but I think that many of us who claim to know what we are talking about might have made the same kind of noncommittal statement if pushed to it, and in any case Fung saved herself the trouble.
Overwhelmingly, we shy away from real discussions of the faults in our community, making only quick-and-easy statements that we can almost all agree on (often about how something is wrong with our city), and Fung's short and therefore inevitably simplistic articles are the best that we generally see. So what is wrong with Edmonton and why are we all so upset about it?
Edmonton's Aesthetic Legacy
Central to the crisis in confidence of Edmonton art is an idea of self-identity as expressed through aesthetics. Edmonton has a specific aesthetic history that needs to be addressed, and to their credit, the Art Gallery of Alberta has shown interest in exploring this history of late. The recent Sylvain Voyer show there is a useful starting point for an historical analysis of contemporary practices: the show presented an history of Voyer's own struggle to define a truly local aesthetic and we can broadly establish three categories from his work which provide a useful structure with which to discuss today's production and theory in Edmonton. In all three we can see the same internal conceptual struggles that describe today's Edmonton art practices.
Voyer's initial practice was as an abstract modernist, an aesthetic closely associated with Edmonton's institutional history. Voyer did not stay in his New York/Edmonton style for long, however finding it unsatisfying and not sufficiently specific to the place which he called home. Voyer was hardly the only local artist working in this style, however, as the history and collections at the AGA and the University of Alberta will quickly tell you. The other artists felt the limits of the style, too, although they did not abandon it as Voyer and mainstream international art tastes did.
Ironically then, what was once promoted as the international style has now become a regional art form with pockets of practice — or resistance, some would say — on the Prairies and elsewhere. Critical theorist, Caterina Pizanias...offers this opinion:
“...Relieved of the pressures of keeping up with New York, the reluctantly dispossessed Edmonton abstractionists began experimenting with less derivative styles....”
In other words, re-positioned as they now are on the margins, these Edmonton-based artists find their artwork looking more and more distinctive.... Some recent developments in contemporary art, like the use of metaphor and external references, have also rubbed off giving some of these practitioners the freedom to abandon the self-referential and strictly art for art's sake attitude. (Laviolette 191)
But this change is a curious one. At the University of Alberta, students of Graham Peacock see their professor and his ECAS cohorts pushing the boundaries of modernist abstraction. Peacock's work is, in his own words, “both abstract and representational” (Quoted by Ainslie & Laviolette 81) and due to his experiments in illusion his work is less able to be described by Greenberg-style theory than in his early days, but his lectures have not made this changeover with the same zeal. Similarly, ECAS's main representative as far as Prairie Artsters readers are concerned, Ryan McCourt, fills the shared Studiosavant blog with love for modernist theory, despite his own very referential work. Furthermore, despite claiming ignorance of what some cast as a deep divide between aesthetic and theoretical camps in the city's art community, McCourt revels in the battle, browbeating his adversaries and any unfortunate writers who happen to disagree with him.
The strengths and weaknesses of McCourt's arguments are seen most clearly when he feels most threatened. In a long, multi-part argument in the Studiosavant comment box following a 2008 talk by Anne Whitelaw about Edmonton's modernist history, regarding the changing role of the Edmonton Art Gallery/Art Gallery of Alberta, and some allegedly abrasive comments made there, it seems that McCourt (and presumably his “henchmen”) are angry with Whitelaw not only because she clearly belongs to the postmodernist team, but because she was unable to answer every question. She seems to be in a position of authority, as an Art History professor and curator, and it is critical for the would-be modernists to demonstrate that this is false: not only does she disagree with higher authorities (like Karen Wilkin and others who she is discussing and critiquing), but by her own admission her knowledge is not absolute, so her authority is suspect.
Reliance on authority is an explanation for the constant reassertion of modernist theory, as well as explaining for a simpler time in criticism, and Peacock's recurring comments to his classes about how the AGA is now afraid to show abstract work. The result is resistance to attempts, like Fung's, to construct a new critical discourse, which is met with disheartening attacks on the credibility of writers, or a passive lack of acknowledgement.
Edmonton's other groups don't necessarily do better, however. For the abstractionists, this kind of conflict is a survival mechanism to preserve their importance and keep their critics defensive, but the rest of the community has also taken up this discourse.
After his abandonment of abstract painting, Voyer's practice is still split in a way that can be instructive for contemporary Edmonton art. His continuing attempt to construct a local art practice resulted in two dramatically different forms.
Voyer was of course involved in the creation of Latitude 53, an artist-run centre which was a clear alternative to the Edmonton Art Gallery. Latitude 53's historical mission is articulated in a “Latitude Attitude” pamphlet displayed in Voyer's retrospective. It was a challenge to the modernist status-quo in Edmonton, both in encouraging something truly local and as an appeal to a different model of internationalism than the New York-centered model of the modernists. The pamphlet exalts the visit of a Parisian critic and his high view of alternative Edmonton art.
Edmonton's ARCs continue to bring experimental art from abroad as well as showing some of what is produced here, and show much the same kinds of work, but the role of the centre has changed because of changes in other institutions. This is doubly true in the eyes of the artists who have grown up since Latitude's founding. The centre can no longer be defined against the public gallery because the Art Gallery of Alberta has significantly changed its curatorial and institutional strategies. In fact, to the young artists of today, these institutions do not seem terribly different: although the ARCs and the AGA show different artists and have different models of accessibility, they both show art from elsewhere and are primarily interested in connecting Edmonton to a larger art discourse. The art both show is clearly different from what is put up at the ARTery, a much younger alternative space, and not in merely in terms of quality. Young Edmonton artists, especially those seen at the ARTery, seem more concerned with the local, and their approach is again grounded in our history.
Voyer is most famous for his third and most enduring practice, and while I certainly do not wish to suggest that work at the ARTery resembles his canola landscapes, there is a philisophical similarity. Voyer's landscapes are his ultimate expression of the reality of Alberta, and young artists here seem very interesting in creating work which takes up the same kind of question of local identity. As with Voyer, this can include a retreat from the battling models of globalism, especially as young artists and writers are so used to the constant conflict of Edmonton's changing institutional and public taste.
In January of this year I wrote an overwhelmingly negative of The Advantaged at the ARTery, a show which aimed to talk about some ideas of local art in Edmonton and Calgary. What the show did right was to let the artists talk about the place instead of trying to suggest that the work summed up the practices of the place — plenty of shows about local scenes are easily criticized for trying to package things too neatly. Instead the opposite occurred and the works had too little curatorial oversight both in terms of quality and focus.
In some ways, Edmonton came out of The Advantaged looking good. I mostly wrote about the flashy, jokey tendency of the most visible, mostly Calgarian, art in the show, which I felt was ultimately uninteresting compared to humbler local works. But that humility is itself part of something at least as bad: the dangerous tendency among young artists here is to lose interest in not only the institutions but everyone, making work only for themselves. They can barely be bothered to pick up their artwork after the show, because it matters so little to them.
This is the dark twin of Fung's idea of bravery — that we do not care what anyone else thinks. We barely expect any public or critical response, and so we tell ourselves that we don't want it. We don't treat our work as a representation of our professional selves, and as a result are unconcerned with its quality and cohesiveness. It is then no surprise that our explorations of local identity are scattered and messy and lacking in quality.
* Ainslie, Patricia and Laviolette, Mary-Beth. Alberta Art and Artists. Calgary: Fifth House 2007. 81
* Laviolette, Mary-Beth. An Alberta Art Chronichle: Adventures in Recent & Contemporary Art. Canmore: Altitude Publishing 2006. 191
- A.W.B. Edmonton