Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Intimacy of Being Liminal, Culturehall Issue 59

Image credit: Alana Riley from 
The Pressure Between You and Me is Enough To 
Take A Picture 

To be liminal is to be elusive. In literary theory, critical theory, psychology, neurology, and simply, in states of being, to be liminal is to exist within the frays of perception. In looking at the field of contemporary photography, the concept of thresholds finds its way back to the genre of portraiture, where the self depicted is neither here nor there, past nor present, but a moment rendered that suspends and challenges our perceptions of who we are, and who we may be . . .

Continue reading on Culturehall

Artists featured: Sarah Fuller, Alana Riley, Meera Margaret Singh, and Lewis & Taggart.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Prairie Artsters: Year End Distillations*

As the top-10 lists start piling in on the best albums, films, books, etc of the year, I too have been compiling my own top-10 art-related residues of the year. Boiling them down to moments rather than any specific shows, here is what I will remember as an art critic from 2010:

• The opening weekend of the new AGA. There was excitement in the air, no matter what you thought of the new building. Everyone on the dance floor was from Calgary, and at the end of the night I found myself sitting with David Janzen and Peter von Tiesenhausen, two established Alberta-based artists I respect. At one point, we all looked up from the belly of the building, and I suddenly felt a wave of wariness over the future of homegrown artists in this space, and I wonder if there had been a collective sigh in that moment.

• My first Winnipeg studio visit was with Aganetha Dyck, possibly the nicest and loveliest human being in all of Central Canada.

• Snide attitudes in artist-run centres. Lots of examples to choose from, but the last time I was at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver, I asked the front-desk attendant which artist was responsible for a particular work. He told me it was "so-and-so," and that it was "all pretty clear" if I look to the panel I had been pacing back and forth from for over 20 minutes. Then the only other person in the gallery piped up and said, "Sorry to interrupt, but actually, that work is mine. I'm some-other-name." And while we all shyly smiled and went our separate ways, I realized that this was not such an uncommon experience in artist-run culture and totally acceptable behavior. Strange.

Image credit: Josh Holinaty and Luke Ramsey
• Driving with a friend westbound on 100 Avenue, crossing 105 Street, we both exclaimed at the same time, "Did you see that?" The giant illustrated mural by Josh Holinaty and Luke Ramsey on the East side of the John Howard Society building was a new public art project that, frankly, didn't suck. Hopefully it's just the beginning for Edmonton's Public Art Council, which has a mighty task ahead of it to change one's expectations.

• My first visit to The Mendel in Saskatoon. For years all I heard was "The Mendel's the best! It's what a public art gallery should be." I didn't fully realize what that meant until I got there, and realized that it was a beautiful little building with an adjoining planetarium nestled along the riverbank and that it was free all the time, and therefore accessible and welcoming to everyone. Seeing a congregation of individuals and families from all sorts of backgrounds, I was surprised by my own surprise at this observation, realizing then that intimidation and exclusivity are so deeply rooted in art institutions that in lieu of such behavior I was confused as to where I actually was.

• And the number one art memory of this year: getting to hear Lucy R Lippard speak about her relationship as a critic and curator to artist Eva Hesse. The entire talk was invigorating, but what lingers still is knowing that, with time, writing does not get easier, but that language itself will expand and contract to distill thoughts and instincts into coherent expressions. That night, I heard phrases of thought that up until then were words I would never have put together on ideas that I barely had a grasp on. It was an important moment for myself personally to hear the possibility for such clarity of thought through language spoken from the mouth of someone who has been doing what I want and try to do for over 40 years.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Canadian Art: Top 3 Prairie Prescience*

Ryan Park Variations of incomplete fists 2008 and Elizabeth Milton The Actor Cries 2005/10 Installation views at “Cabin Fever” Courtesy Platform Centre for Photographic + Digital Arts / photo Larry Glawson

1. Cabin Fever at Platform Centre for Photographic + Digital Arts

Chalk it up to synchronicity, but on the brink of an impending snowstorm, I ducked inside Artspace on my final day in Winnipeg and literally caught “Cabin Fever.” This exhibition at Platform posed a question: Is it feasible to satiate such undulating hunger derived from being nowhere by creating your own somewhere? . . .

Continue reading on Canadian Art Online

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Laura St. Pierre, Urban Vernaculars, AGA until February 13, 2011*

In Laura St Pierre's Urban Vernacular, large-scale photo landscapes fill each given wall of the AGA's RBC New Works Gallery. As ever-so slightly digitally manipulated stretches of urban landscapes, they are the end results of guerilla art tactics in and around the town of Grande Prairie, where St Pierre has been living and teaching for the past several years. In one image from the series, the mounds of silty snow gathered at the edge of a mega parking lot are undeniably familiar to any resident of an urbanized winter city. In looking closer, nestled within the mounds are temporary shelters made out of garbage, and even these are not so unfamiliar sights.

Image credit: Laura St. Pierre

The mounds of snow recall a direct first-hand experience of suburbia, especially to those who have become accustomed to navigating our cities from the point of view of automobiles or attempted the impossible walks through sidewalkless streets and mounds of dirt and snow. In short, the photographs elicit an intimate experience of urban landscape, but a particular type of urban landscape that has not yet lived up to its own expectations.

St Pierre's latest series is photo-based, but it is photo-based documentation of an action, one that is both immortalized and trapped in its own preservation. As an artist who has been known to create sculptural installations that take over galleries, St Pierre shifts into presenting only the photographs of her installations, and while the installations are site-specific and not transportable, I wonder if the medium of photography is enough to translate the initial concept.

Image credit: Laura St. Pierre
In "5.10," the most striking image of the series, the open facade of an isolated building sits like a proverbial Narcissus, sitting before its own reflection with pride and glory. Congregated street lights appear off in the distance signaling civilization. Above, the prairie sky is vast and open, and the upturned and exposed earth suggest both development and death. The possibilities are open for interpretation, and intervention, and yet, the photographs elevate these gritty and ephemeral installations into something that is enchanted and permanent. The immortality of the photographs are seemingly in opposition to the inspiration of their subject matters.

Last seen in Edmonton with her Autopark installation on Churchill Square as part of The Works Festival, St Pierre converted a handful of beat-up old cars into self-sustaining green houses. The presence of the cars, the smell of condensation and dirt, those factors played into the overall work.
Conducting a series of interventions, St Pierre sought out locations that potentially relay a survivalist instinct, seeking locations that could be transformed into temporary shelters. From abandoned school portables to the back of an appliance store, St Pierre built makeshift shelters using disposable materials like styrofoam and plastic packaging. Lighting them simply from the interior, and giving them a semblance of being inhabited, they were photographed in the twilight hours, further adding a cinematic quality to the implied narrative.

The photographs themselves are desirable objects, pristine panoramas of controlled chaos that push viewers past the point of reality. Like her series of landscape interventions and subsequent photographs along the St Lawrence River during a 2007 residency in Quebec, the photography of Urban Vernacular are captivating photographs.

However, photographs are not the installations, even though that is how most of us will ever get a glimpse of ephemeral art. Photographing works in order to share and archive them, that strategy has proliferated, and the issue remains debatable as to what is preserved in photography and what is lost.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Prairie Artsters: Another Era Ends*

Edmonton is a transient city. From its history as a fort city, the landlocked equivalent of a port city, Edmonton always has been a place of comings and goings. The migratory syndrome of this place dates farther back to the First Nations, whose traces show that tribes mostly summered in this area now known as Edmonton.

Anyone who's stayed beyond a year has no doubt noticed the fluctuation of people coming and going from this place, be they coworkers, neighbors, friends or family. Its transience is somewhere between a gold-rush mentality of "get rich and get out" and the stubbornness of prairie homesteaders.

So as a recession levels out, the flight from Edmonton is once again on the rise. Certain downtown developments are on hold as tear-down buildings have extended their lease on life for a few more years, and while a time of recession is often the best time for the arts, that simply doesn't appear to be the case this time around.

Empty spaces and somewhat affordable housing are once again available, but who is left to fill them?

2010 saw a lot of people depart the city. This year felt far more draining than usual as a mass exodus seemingly affected my direct community of peers. While many emerging artists not-so-surprisingly leave, there is a deep mourning for the mid-level artists who have no other choice but to leave.

There is a school of thought that doesn't think it really matters who leaves and who stays, just as long as there's somebody to fill the post. And while I believe that to be true in one sense, there are moments in any history that are perhaps more special.

Even within these pages of this paper, this past week alone saw two significant endings: Ted Kerr's last Queermonton column ran with no note bidding farewell, but one that was written from his current home in New York City. Ted had helped found the much-needed column and gave a mature and localized perspective on living queer. In short, he filled a void, and the double edged sword of filling a void is that you will have no peers.

Also gone from this city is former Arts Editor and staff writer, David Berry, who left to work for a national paper in Toronto. David was actually the proactive agent behind getting Prairie Artsters to appear as a regular column in Vue Weekly, and his support and knowledge of the city made the paper a far more interesting contemplation.

As great as syndicates may be, local voices provide an immediate feedback system that any city or community needs in order to grow. And while theoretically this all makes sense for readers to support and demand local content, I am wondering what keeps a local voice going?

Nostalgia and sentiment are one thing, but critical mass is wholly another matter.

There are certainly people who remain and who are talented and capable, and the apocalypse is yet to be upon us, but there is something profoundly deflating about seeing a community's momentum continually rise and fall, and being awash in its amnesiac tide.

*First published in Vue Weekly

(Sir)rogates, Julian Forrest, Harcourt House, until Dec 18, 2010*

Image credit: Julian Forest, 2010
As a thematic painter who holds a deep fascination for the masculine in all its anxiety and glory, Julian Forrest's latest series, (Sir)rogates, deviates from his past works by beginning to displace the masculine into the realm of Other.

Through both critical theory and normalized social understanding, the Other is almost always atypical to the dominant male, literally being the other in relation to the heteronormative white (and often dead) male figure over the course of Western history. So as a painter fascinated by the male species as a culturally produced figure, Forrest has begun to study and tell the story of the male figure through one of allegory.

Citing the narrative strategies of novelist Yann Martel, Forrest also works best when he is seemingly saying one thing while a whole other world is at play beneath the surface.

In the large black-and-white illustrative portrait of the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz standing back to back with a King Kong-esque gorilla, Forrest presents his viewers with an deceivingly lighthearted play of notions of bravery and brute strength. The classic choice of black-and-white also evokes a timelessness in the tension between the two portraits, both of whom are surrogates of unwitting heroes in popular culture. The Lion, who only wanted courage, is shown here looking shyly over his shoulder at the resilient ape, playing on our memories of the character. Delving deeper, the Lion is unmistakably a man dressed up as a lion who, cradling his own tail in his hands, is unsure of himself in relation to the beast and to himself as beast.

While descriptively the works bounce from portraits to landscapes to studies, they cohere visually through Forrest's lush palette of soft pastels and loose strokes, returning to earlier works where drawing and painting melded into one. What's most interesting is the blankness of the background for almost all of the portraits, all except for "Emerald City" where the subjects are women. The blankness here could be interpreted as a form of isolation or alienation to a tangible surrounding, as many of the figures from The Dukes of Hazard to cowboys and boxers are relics that have seemingly lost their place in the modern reality.

Also playing with art history with one direct reference to Jeff Wall, and naming another work after a new Arcade Fire song that evokes the imagery that Forrest is constantly after ("I was lost standing in the wilderness downtown"), the show as a whole is both nostalgic and critical of the modern and urbanized male.

In the Front Room, Ian Forbes' Foldy Books of Death are just that: foldy books spanning 24 pages of copper-etched illustrations, depicting a world of randomness. From an ongoing play on cold dripping toast to creatures from land and sea, the world unfolded by Forbes is one of referential imagination, fitting right along the spectrum of graphic novels, and one whose presence in the gallery may have been opened by last year's artist-in-residence Spyder Yardley-Jones's graphic takeover of the main space.

*First published in Vue Weekly 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Vague Terrain: Thoughts on "Formerly Exit Five: Portable Monuments to Recent History" Kenderdine Gallery, Sept 17 – Dec 17, 2010, BY SPECIAL GUEST CORRESPONDENT KRISTY TRINIER

Late September I traveled to Saskatoon to meet with the city’s cultural and urban planners about public art; from the air, the land around the city was drowned in rain and the area looked more like a paddy field than a wheat field. Downtown I stood with the city workers in the rain, looking at an artwork under the Traffic Bridge, a rusting hulk of a truss structure, which spans the South Saskatchewan River. It is over one hundred years old, and as the first vehicular bridge in the city, it is now closed and subject to the clouds of civic debate. How do you, or should you memorialize a bridge, and the millions who have made the crossing over the river? Should the next structure be a replicant, to give an illusion of immortality to the urban realm? What room is left to give to the unfunctional in our cities? It was an interesting time to be there; with water, weather, and time, the city is finally old enough to decay in on itself.  

It was the bridge that I thought of when I went to the University of Saskatoon campus and visited the Kenderdine’s latest exhibition, curated by Dr. Shauna McCabe, pedantically entitled Formerly Exit Five: Portable Monuments to Recent History. The gallery space was an underground bunker-like space in a beautifully conserved College Building, which you appropriately reach by passing under carved gargoyles and terracotta plaques listing deceased war alumni. Reaching the gallery and surveying the work, I noted that each artist approached the concept in a vastly different way, but independently asked the natural question, can you accurately plan for and visualize anything beyond your own lifetime?

Image credit: Cyprien Gaillard, "Pruitt-Igoe Falls" (video still), 2009. Courtesy Galerie BUGADA & CARGNEL, Paris; Laura Bartlett Gallery, London

I was familiar with David Rokeby’s Seen from a presentation in Amsterdam for his seminal 2002 submission to the Venice Biennial for Architecture. It was exhibited originally as part of Next Memory City, curated by architect and fellow public-space photographer Michael Awad as a digital projection. Within the context of McCabe’s exhibition, and with the quotidian onslaught of modern technology, the work is more ominous than future-positive. The artwork’s RGB digital surface resembles a 3D airport x-ray body scan image of a public square and the visual technology is so common the artwork now seems more dated than it is. It tracks the physical shapes of pedestrians moving in continuity across the time dimension, so you can visualize the space inhabited by the person long after they have left it, the image trailing ghost-like behind them. An image finally given to the idea of apartment walls talking: we are looking at the exact people in this exact place nearly ten years ago. The image appears abstracted and interrupted by frenetic shapes darting through the space, immediately identifying it as Piazzo San Marco to anyone who has suffered the shit and detritus of its numerous fowl, an iconic annoyance of the original sinking city.

Century of Growth is a documentation of sprawl. Sara Graham’s chronological series shows municipal growth as a map: ever expanding, never contracting. Like an embryonic drawing, the lines invite you to consider the time when your own city was just a handful of roads, once conceding only to natural obstacles like rivers and ridges. Man-made construction in this country is still embryonic, and so the works seemed conceptually incomplete to me despite the viral beauty of the images.

The central dominant work of the exhibition, Arc, a painting by Denyse Tomasos, envelops you in both scale and composition. With a colour palette reminiscent of fellow Yale alumnus Jessica Stockholder’s, the forms are instead rendered entirely in paint with pure physicality of gesture evident on the platform of the canvas, creating a psychic portrait and emotional memory of the shadow events which occur within an architectural space.

The most desolate and striking images were from Vahram Aghasyan’s Ghost City series, first exhibited in the artist’s native Armenia, and most prominently in the 2007 Istanbul Biennale. The symmetry of the vacant concrete shells, the Soviet skeletal beginnings of a ghetto to house Armenians displaced by an earthquake, contrasts strongly with their own reflections in the bleak water below. The stark buildings are easily rendered abandoned monolithic islands by nature, and their brutalist construction is eerily familiar to an audience in a Canadian prairie city.

Image credit: Vahram Aghasyan, "Ghost City", 2005-2007, c-print, 100 x 130cm each

I’ve been a fan of French artist Cyprien Gaillard’s recent site-specific exhibition in the Netherlands, Dunepark, an excavation project on one of Holland’s most prized beach environments, unearthing a colossal bunker below the surface of the earth, considering negative space literally as a medium of the public realm. Yet his work in McCabe’s exhibition focuses sharply on dark matter. Gaillard’s video diptych Pruitt-Igoe Falls presents first the veil of water from Niagara Falls, and then the implosion of a St. Louis building tower in as equal volumes of form, illuminated against the night sky. The pairing and equation of these two segments is what makes the work evocative; it’s dissociative symmetry made me declare a love for video art again: the entropic moment of water and building falling as particles, each in opposition, is suspended for eternity through the artwork.

The exhibition was tightly curated, both visually and its selection of works, and unlike most theme-based exhibitions, the artworks did not serve as redundant evidence to a thesis but had compact chronological syllogism. It was obvious that McCabe had ruminated on each work for years, where the summary of their presentation serves only as an index to an unresolved conversation, the conclusion of which felt dominantly like a warning. Things never stay the same.

It leads you to imagine the city. Architects do not design decay. The carefully rendered streetscapes, engineered structures, and civic flow have transparent layers of figures and shrubbery laid on top, and geographically correct effects of seasonal lighting and shadow. But they forget to add the garbage. The sand piles and dirt left by street-cleaning equipment in the spring. The terrible signage and advertising littering facades, and the indifference of the cumulative millions of vehicles and individuals that inhabit the public spaces of a city repetitively, until its materiality physically decays, until freak ice storms and tornadoes, or even war, will cut swaths through carefully planned street grids. And the future developers, engineers, and architects who lay in wait, to tear everything down and build again. Architects do not design collapse.

The heavy dystopic tone to the exhibition is an unmistakable yet a simplistic deduction. Utopias are individual. Histories are personal. As an artist within a plethora of artists, an individual among many, whose voice will live beyond the physicality of their body, the physicality of their city? Whose perception, whose construction will be preserved when entire civilizations collapse? In this McCabe is clear: the past is only relevant to the present. 

Bio: Kristy Trinier is the Public Art Director of the Edmonton Arts Council. She has a Master’s degree in Public Art from the Dutch Art Institute (ArtEZ Hogeschool voor de Kunsten) and a Bachelor’s degree in Visual Art from the University of Victoria. She has a background in arts administration and has exhibited her artwork across Canada, The Netherlands, Norway, China, and Germany. 

Audio Interview with Laura St. Pierre, November 25, 2010

Image credit: Laura St. Pierre "Urban Vernacular" series
As a series of makeshift architectural sculptures constructed and photographed in Northern Alberta, Urban Vernacular is Laura St. Pierre's latest series of works addressing the excess of our consumer culture. While not immediately viewed as environmental, the works nonetheless speak to an imagined relationship with our environment through our discarded waste, and attempts to reconcile what appears to be a future, yet sublime existence.

Urban Vernaculars is on view in The RBC New Works Gallery,  AGA through to February 13, 2011.
This interview was conducted on October 30, 2010.

Prairie Artsters: The Black Rider . . . in Camrose*

The infamous operatic theatre production of The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets first premiered in Hamburg's Thalia Theatre in the spring of 1990. As a creation and collaboration between three of the 20th century's genre-benders—Robert Wilson, Tom Waits and William S Burroughs—The Black Rider takes up the fable of selling your soul to the devil for what price, and complicates the peasant folklore with twists of subconscious desire as seen through the filter of German Expressionism.

Under Edmonton's own November Theatre, the show made its Canadian and American premieres and toured from St John's to New York, finally ending its sold-out run at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre just a few years back. The production is highly complicated as it involves not just one, but three creative minds at play in terms of executing its musical score, a deceivingly simple story line and a deeply rooted nihilism within every direction. Musical icons from Marianne Faithful and Mary Margaret O'Hara to Richard Strange have been involved in past productions, and Waits' album of the same name remains one of his most elusively magical albums in an already magically elusive discography.

So when I learned that The Black Rider was going to be put up for a one-week run using students from the Augustana University in Camrose, Alberta, I thought, "Really?"

Directed and produced by Augustana's sessional theatre instructor, Kristine Nutting—who has successfully demonstrated through past productions an avid interest in pushing the boundaries through stylizing the macabre—The Black Rider ran all of last week in a small converted church to a crowd of mostly locals.

Camrose in its present state is a town holding just under 17 000 people. The centre is surrounded by farmland and dark highways. With a crowd of supportive friends and parental guardians, a cast and crew of 25 young theatre students put on a hell of a show last Friday night. Led by Augustana alumni and current U of A student Nathan Huisman, these inexperienced artists from rural Alberta delivered an astoundingly professional show in less than eight weeks.

Due to the strictest licensing rights agreements, attaining the rights to put on The Black Rider is no easy feat. Robert Wilson does not give out the rights to his play very often. But Nutting appealed to Wilson's own rural roots, his childhood of growing up as an outcast queer with a speech impediment in Waco, Texas, who, according to the director's notes, "found solace or at least some semblance that something else existed beyond his homophobic town with the weird piano teacher ... the town eccentric [who] exposed Robert to art, music and everything that would save him ... ."

This production of The Black Rider will not tour. Perhaps a couple hundred people saw it and no recorded document will exist of it. With a full band led by Curtis Ross and choreography by Kathy Ochoa, this show was a lot of work to put on, and that in itself was the sole reason it was put on: to go through the motions and process of staging a ridiculously complex show with almost no resources out in the middle of nowhere.

Throughout the show, I knew I was watching something special; I knew I was watching raw talent inexplicably throwing itself head first into experimental material with the confidence and ability to own the work. The energy of the production reminded me that anything is possible anywhere, anytime, so long as you go for it.

The director's notes conclude, "I explained to Mr Wilson that just because an artist is limited by geography does not mean that they must be limited in their artistic palette. Although we are not the chosen few who are born to New York or anywhere fabulous that perhaps the spirit of the eccentric piano teacher could live on via the legacy of his work."

Continuing on some 40 years after Wilson left Texas to become one of the most respected theatre artists in the world, the spirit of the eccentric theatre teacher lives on in rural Alberta.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Akimblog: Are Curators Unprofessional?*

Haunted by the specter of Harald Szeemann and the all too brief history of curating contemporary art, the Banff International Curatorial Intensive Conference with the provocative title Are Curators Unprofessional? recently brought together a roster of influential voices for an assembly of perspectives and dialogues on the state of curating in the 21st Century . . .
*First published through Akimbo. Click through to read the review in its entirety.

Image: Ann Demeester and Teresa Gleadowe (and cactus). Photo credit: Kim Williams, 2010

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Edward Burtynsky, OIL, AGA, until Jan 2, 2011

Photographing across the world from Shanghai to Azerbaijan to the industrial sites all over Canada and the United States, Edward Burtynsky has been large-format documenting the physical impact and patterning of heavy metal industry for close to 30 years. Grouped together for an exhibition that traces the life cycle of oil, from extraction to car culture to the landfills and abandoned extraction sites since the late 1990s, Oil takes an even wider angle on the developments of the energy sector of the last 10 years.

A Burtynsky photograph is immediately recognizable. Technically perfect and vast, they are emotionally reserved and boldly confronting representations of beautified intrusions against nature. Always, a Burtynsky is distanced, removed, startling and cold.
Image credit: Edward Burtynsky Suburbs #3, with quarry
North Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, 2007

There is a gasp in blurring what is supposed to be horrific with what is supposed to be beautiful.
The bright orange and red sulfuric lines come together and make a pattern, visible only on this type of scale, and they are truly visual wonders of our contemporary culture. And in looking at this content that tie together issues of witnessing, access, beauty and an unstoppable industry, I am left wondering: what is the point of this exhibition?

The photographs are technical marvels, and Oil's accompanying book of the same name fittingly won the 2010 And/or Book Awards as the series reads as an ultimate coffee table book, filled with gorgeous photographs on a topical subject matter. But like most coffee table books, they leave hardly an impression.

At first glance, the scope of each photograph carries the weight of wonder. But wonder evaporates into a search for something deeper, and after five years of what seems like the same show over and over again, I am still unsure as to what the artist is trying to say, if he's trying to say anything at all. The pipes and cars and life of each photograph are pristine to the point of abstraction. The scenes cease to inspire thoughts of any depth about the issue of oil beyond consumption.

Image credit: Edward Burtynsky SOCAR Oil Fields #3
Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006
So while we all know oil is a major issue of the day, do these photographs of oil culture—many of them void of people, taken from gas guzzling helicopters—speak to anything beyond postcard witnessing? I am not confident in describing these images as even bearing witness, as they appear free of any morality-driven impetus which is a marker for witnessing as action. These photographs are clinical, and the world documented is hardly one that is recognizable as inhabited for anything beyond production and consumption.

It has taken Burtynsky years to identify with environmentalism, and one can understand his hesitation as his photographs do not necessarily share the same mandate, though readings can certainly apply.

The photographs in Oil are not chronologically placed, and so the suggestion of a life cycle of start to finish is only a visual narrative, as in fact, the latest photographs come from the extraction and refinement phase shot mostly here in Alberta.

There is a unrelenting persistence in Burtynsky's method that seeks over and over for that composition of such exquisite colour patterns and cinematic lighting that keeps him one of the most recognizable photographers. But more clearly than ever, it is the formal quality of a Burtynsky that rises to the top, and certainly not the subject matter that inspires additional thought or feeling.

As part of The Festival of Ideas, photographer Edward Burtynsky, Tim Flannery, best-selling author of The Weather Makers, and Tom Siddon, former Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, will be discussing how truths can be lost and lies perpetuated on both sides of the oil-versus-water debate.

Thu, Nov 18 (7 pm)
Oil and Water: Beyond Debate?
Citadel Theatre, Shoctor Theatre
(9828 - 101A Ave) $18 – $28

First published in Vue Weekly

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Audio Interview with Anthony Kiendl, on Saturday, Nov 6, 2010

On the grand re-opening of Plug In ICA, Anthony Kiendl, Executive Director and the 2009 Hnatyshyn recipient for curatorial excellent in the Visual Arts, , takes a short break in the stairwell to discuss a brief histry of Plug In and their new summer residency.


Designed by DPA + PSA + DIN Collective, the new building works in perfect harmony to the rest of the block, complimenting the outlines of is neighbor, the WAG, marking a new presence of art in downtown Winnipeg.

For more information on exhibitions, programming, and residencies, please visit Plug In ICA or head down to the intersection of Portage and Memorial.

My City's Still Breathing, Conference Report*

Filmmaker John Waters, Photo Credit: Leif Norman
In naming a civic arts conference My City’s Still Breathing, there’s an undeniable layer of self-criticism at play, but one that ultimately resonates with poignancy. The title comes directly out of a song from Winnipeg’s own John K. Samson of the Weakerthans, whose lyrics capture the pain and pride of living in Winnipeg and echo the indomitable will of those who choose to stay in this isolated prairie city . . .

*First published on Canadian Art Online. Click through to read the full report.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Prairie Artsters: Winnipeg is more than just breathing*

Some may have forgotten already, but Edmonton was Canada's Cultural Capital in 2007. After some controversy in allocating the prize money into individual artist funds rather than supporting organizations for heritage or legacy projects, the year came and went with projects and speakers, and the only visible lasting affect has been a continuation with supporting a culturally diverse community arts program now under the Edmonton Arts Council's granting program.

The designation of a "Cultural Capital" means almost nothing, but it's clear it's all in the action of what you do with your time in the proverbial spotlight. It differs across the Prairies, of course. Wandering through towns like Red Deer and Moose Jaw, who have also been designated Cultural Capitals by Heritage Canada accordingly to population size, they had put up flags throughout their township that were left to billow years after the fact. These tattered and faded flags were the only physical emblems left from their designation, at least the only apparent signs that there was a sense of culture through the empty streets and boarded-up buildings. Looking back, the execution of how a city displays their cultural capital status has proved to be the most interesting aspect of this federal initiative.

For 2010, Winnipeg was declared a Cultural Capital of Canada. Long known for its fiercely independent arts scene, the city is now in the early stages of devising a cultural plan and developing its waterfront. Organizing a conference to discuss and extrapolate issues of arts and the city, The Winnipeg Art Council and principle organizer Mary Reid (whose day job is the Curator of Contemporary Art and Photography at the Winnipeg Art Gallery), programmed a phenomenally engaging lineup and poignantly titled the four-day symposium, "My City Is Still Breathing."

The line is pulled directly from a song by The Weakerthans called "Left and Leaving." The sentiment for someone coming from Edmonton resonated, as the urge to leave and the pull to stay are of constant contemplation. The main difference, however, was one of motivation.

The conference was less a networking conference than it was a mighty think tank, pulling in people from around the world who have basically improved some aspect of their city and or community through artistic initiatives from the community level to the policy level.

The thread throughout the conference could be quickly summarized by its opening guest speaker, John Waters, who without even taking off his coat gave a Vegas-style stand-up routine that ranged from a lot of things that can't be printed here to the recurring concept of celebrating everything that one hates about their city, or at least everything that tourist officials would try to hide about the city. Highlighting your city's difference from other cities is what keeps the place a place, and not some homogenous cookie-cutter echo of every other place in the world.

Winnipeg invested their Cultural Capital funds under the umbrella of This included artist-led projects and festivals, but also projects that don't have an immediate, quantifiable return value like educating through workshops and symposiums.

One of the resounding points I took away is that Winnipeggers have no desire to turn their city into a world's city, as it is truly a place for the locals. Winnipeg has no qualms about its status as a small to midsize Prairie city. Its artists fully recognize their isolation and aren't crippled by it. A three-hour modernist architecture tour was enthusiastically led with no signs of lamentation, reinforcing the notion that Winnipeggers embrace their city with a love that is not apologetic, but unconditional and blinding. It is also a city that has not gone through an onslaught of development and makeovers, losing a few buildings here and there, but retaining enough of its landmarks for its citizens to remember this place as their home.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Kristi Malakoff, Blazzamo, Latitude 53, until Nov 13*

Image credit: Kristi Malakoff, Polyhedra Series.
Running the length of the North wall in the main exhibition space of Latitude 53, Kristi Malakoff's "Swarm" explodes as a material intervention against the flatness of the gallery walls. Meticulously hand-placing 6000 colour-transparency butterflies of all different shapes and makes, the illusion of "Swarm" supersedes a simple colour arch or a heightened interest in lepidoptery; the sensation one gets when walking along "Swarm" is that of an erasure of the gallery boundaries, outlined by each butterfly frozen in mid-motion, lining door frames, baseboards, heat ducts and roof beams in its own line of motion.

As an artist with a very visible mathematics background, Nelson-based Malakoff time and time again impresses viewers with her astounding sense of detail. Her hand is visible in everything, from the adhesion and placement of each acrylic peg in "Moon Dog" to the surgical cuts made to foreign stamps to enliven them into narrative spectacles.

Her "Polyhedra Series" comes from a line of works she made using foreign currency, folding and re-valuing these pieces of paper money into a new value and purpose. There is also a conscious naiveté going on in taking currency from all corners of the world, from Bolivia to Zambia and folding them into exact symmetrical shapes that intersect and build new meanings together. There is a leveling of arbitrary values into equally arbitrary shapes and symbols, but one that engages in a completely new assemblage of meaning, free of exchange values and limits.

Some of her newer works in Blazzamo include the "Untitled (Fruit Loop Tower)" which stands at eight feet in height, a circular structure made entirely of glued fruit loops. One forgets how fragile cereal could be in looking at this construction, and while the design was inspired by the texture of Islamic architecture, its looming rainbow spiral could easily fit into all sorts of imaginations. One could only wish to walk all the way around the tower, which perhaps for logistical reasons, was sectioned off against a wall.

Image credit: Kristi Malakoff, Detail from Stardust
Anchoring the room against "Swarm" on the opposing wall is "Stardust," which renders the demolished Stardust sign off of the Las Vegas Strip hotel of the same name. Malakoff re-envisions the faded bright lights in colourful tissue paper and backlit, but to anyone familiar with the original iconic neon sign, the use of negative space is rather complicated. The majority of bright graphics have been mounted onto dozens of individually precut MDF to give space between each star, which are then individually attached to float off the wall. While the neon sign uses light and darkness to contrast each graphic, here the demarcation of graphic is weighed down by the material as object rather than subject.

Working on a similar piece during a recent Moscow residency that takes on a similar fascination with garish text in re-creating Russian graffiti using crepe paper, Malakoff there appears to have adhered each tissue directly to the wall, or to have at least achieved that illusion in its documentation. The difference, besides one being far more precious and time laborious in site specificity, is the illusion of the graphic subject being transferable between mediums, which is one of her most appealing traits as an artist who uses everyday objects and commands us to see them anew. Malakoff's greatest power as an artist is her ability to move us beyond the limitations of the gallery walls through her evocative transformations, blasting our spatial logic through a sense of retinal wonder and exactitude.

Artist talk on Saturday, November 13 at Latitude 53, 2 p.m.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Neil McClelland, If You Can't Stop, Smile As You Go By, Harcourt House, until Nov 13

Presenting a new series of tensely nostalgic narrative paintings, Harcourt House's 2010 artist in residence, Neil McClelland, offers a most visible weight to the concept of reliving memories.

If You Can't Stop, Smile As You Go By goes beyond rendering old family vacation photos at the lake. Writing out semi-autobiographical stories during his residency and offering the texts on his blog and as recordings in the gallery to listen, there is a haunting presence behind each painting that draws you in with an inherent melancholy.

Image credit: Neil McClelland, The Passage, 2010
Interestingly, the melancholy imbued in each photograph does not manipulate the viewer, but rather ripples forth like a mystery waiting to be revealed. While each image has a story written with it, both outputs stand firmly on their own. The accompanying text is not entirely necessary to read or hear to gain any further insight into each piece, as although the production of the stories was integral to the artistic process, and are quite well-written in their rhythm and concise prose, the evidence of McClelland's self-searching reads loud and clear in his canvases.

The emotional weight of the paint, the light, the distance between boy and father, are undeniably visible, but it is almost what is not painted, what is not said and recorded, that haunts each image.

Prairie Artsters: Amnesiac City*

Last Friday, I attended a talk by Kirsten Murray, one of the principles of Seattle-based architectural firm Olson Kundig. Brought in by MADE's Edmonton Design Exposed Festival, Murray showed an hour's worth of images on projects that completely repeated and reiterated the value of history.

Describing Seattle as a brick and mortar kind of town, one that has gone through many booms in its civic history, Murray's main theme was on giving precedence to the craft, context and collaborative nature of any architectural design.

The most interesting part of the talk for me was the emphasis on giving value to the history of a building, from using timeless technology like steam-engine hydraulics and a pulley system and integrating them into the design and function of everyday spaces. Focusing on concepts of building both residential and commercial projects that are appropriate to their land size, or responsive to the site, and acknowledging a regional architectural aspect in relation to building for a year-round climate, Olson Kundig's design philosophy was somewhat ironic to hear in the lower level of the new AGA: while it's coming up to the gallery's first anniversary, we have now seen the much-contested design shine or fail through all four seasons.

Coming up the steps of the gallery entrance for the talk, the surface of the steps had been freshly torn up. While the reason for the latest facade construction wasn't announced, a flashback to last winter recalled sheets of ice that collected on the smooth cement, and one can only hope and surmise that the landing and stairs are now being winterized.

Shortly after the gallery opened, I had a special guest post on Prairie Artsters by Kristine Nutting, whose main lament was how we always tear down our history and replace it with buildings not suited for the prairies. This boils down to the issue of belonging, what belongs here and what we want to belong here. While pictures of the old library still break my heart and the only sense of history is down in a soon-to-be-animatronized Fort Edmonton Park, the gallery and the probable soon-to-be downtown arena will come to represent a new era of urban design in our amnesiac city. Love it or hate it, these buildings belong to us, and our history.

1905 Alberta Hotel Source: Edmonton Public Library
On the way to the talk, I passed by the Gene Dub-led Alberta Hotel reconstruction on Jasper Avenue, which was news to me that this project existed at all. As one of a multitude of turn-of-the-20th-century buildings that came down in the last 30 years as glass towers shot up, The Alberta Hotel was built in 1901 and carefully dismantled brick by brick in 1984 with the promise of a resurrection.

In one of his always-fascinating articles, Lawrence Herzog in the Edmonton Real Estate Weekly goes into detail about the history of the hotel, about how it had the city's first running elevator and how Edmund Grierson, who co-commissioned the hotel, rode the publicity of the project into a political life and a civic legacy. The concept that we will have a historical building resurrected in downtown Edmonton is bittersweet to me, as while I am elated to witness such a tremendous undertaking of civic pride, there is a hollowness in me when I wonder why we couldn't have just maintained the Alberta Hotel, or the Selkirk or the Tegler, with all this land around us, that we had to destroy and build over top of what came before us. It's hard to understand what and who belongs here, when we have so few reminders still left around us.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Audio Interview with Andrew Buszchak*

Since The News Room is no longer, Prairie Artsters on CJSR has been in limbo. But starting this week, the fine folks at The Eclectic Co. will begin airing the semi-regular arts segment airing most Thursdays on CJSR at 2 p.m. (MTN) 

Prairie Artsters on CJSR will be hosted by Amy Fung, and will feature unscripted live on location interviews with artists currently presenting their work in the city.

This week, Prairie Artsters talks with Andrew Buszchak, whose show, "To Main Street" is showing at Latitude 53. As a series of wall mosaics generated entirely out of text and images randomly collected from the internet, "To Main Street" welds together ideas of individualistic voices, DIY postering, and standardization in our current times.

Artist talk on Saturday, Oct 23, 2 p.m. at Latitude 53 Gallery

*First aired on CJSR Listen Live

Interview with Andrew Buszchak, To Main Street, Latitude 53, until November 13*

Since moving to Edmonton on the first day of this year, Andrew Buszchak has undergone training to become an apprentice in welding, assumed the volunteer responsibilities for Instant Coffee's Alberta list serve and recently opened his solo exhibition, To Main Street, in the Projex space at Latitude 53. As a series of large wall mosaics using text and images generated from random Internet searches, To Main Street mediates the tension between individuality, DIY practices and standardization in our daily lives. Here is an excerpt of our conversation held in the Latitude gallery space.

Image credit: Andrew Buszchak, Detail from "Hope, Air, Words, Wind" 2009

VUE WEEKLY: What were you doing before you came to Edmonton?

ANDREW BUSZCHAK: I was in Halifax attending the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and before that, in London, Ontario attending Fanshawe College. In London, I was new to studying art and being interested in contemporary art. I guess I was more enthusiastic about going out and seeing any types of shows, whether I knew the artist or not or whether I'd be interested in the type of work. And at NSCAD, my background is technically in printmaking, but I see my degree as interdisciplinary. I don't want to be stuck in any one medium. If I get an idea of how to make something, I don't want to be stuck if it makes sense to use one material over another. I also don't have a studio space, so being versatile is also about working within limitations.

VW: Let's talk about the work. How did you choose the stock images and blog text to make these three large and distinct digitally manipulated mosaics?

AB: The source of the text is any kind of blog on the Internet, selected more or less randomly, and one criteria I was looking for was that it was not written by a corporation, so that it's somebody making use of the Internet, some individual, to express their opinion. Using hundreds of blogs, the choice of colour is a result of the process, an interest in standarization, in the paper size of 8x11, standards and defaults on the programs, like Adobe Illustrator. I just used whatever font and size were set as default, because I was interested in what comes standard.

And the photographs aren't stock images necessarily. They come from a range of Internet sources. For example, "Hope, Air, Words, Wind" is a professional photograph of David Cook, one of the past winner's of American Idol, and the other two images are from amateur photographers. I don't know their names or anything about them, but they are distinct because I don't have any intention to make any story or narrative between the three of them. They can be looked at in any order, and there's no order they should be seen in, but they may be representations of something allegorical.

VW: Can you explain?

AB: I'm reading a bit by Craig Owens, and he wrote a lot about appropriated images and how allegory comes back into postmodern art, but I liked what he said because these images don't read straight across and my use of the images has taken some of their original meaning out and put in new meaning by using random text to make up the images. I guess what I'm saying is that I want to raise an awareness of people using the Internet to express their voices and concerns and opinions and how that all sort of mingles with what's up on the walls.

VW: You've mentioned the idea of "repeatability." What is that to you?

AB: Our society in general is occupied with mass production. The way people live their lives [focused] on how or what to consume. I'm always looking for something ubiquitous and from there I think something interesting can grow.
Artist talk on Sat, October 23, (2 pm) at Latitude 53 (10248 106 St)

*First published in Vue Weekly

Ben Williamson, "Still" FAB Gallery until October 30*

Image credit: Ben Williamson "Diver Down" 2010
As most thesis exhibitions go, the artist at hand attempts to achieve an overarching sense of identity through the show, while trying to demonstrate their range of technical and creative skills. In the first MFA show of the year, Ben Williamson's painting exhibition gets the ball rolling with Still, a show very much about the resonance, and not the content, of moments captured.

Painting in a style that is so highly calibrated it falls back between realism and fantasy, Williamson's technical application of oil is notable in detail orientated works such as "Cockpit," but there seems to be some derision between what the artist wants to paint and what he thinks he has to paint.

Throughout the show there is a semblance of relationship between the paintings, in how they hang spatially to one another, and to the viewer. The all too-cutesy idea of hanging a painting of a fly on the upper wall is a one-liner, and while the gag does not take away from the show proper, it adds nothing either to a show that already struggles to communicate anything coherent.

Trying to find a deeper relationship between the works, or at least something at all that threads together the show, I feel I am left leafing through a disjointed scrapbook of old photographs pulled from news magazines mixed-in with experiments from personal amateur photographers. There is no one common flavour from photo to photo, and I am left uncertain about what connects this portrait of a cat to a moment in the West Bank to paintings of an abstraction of a swimming pool.

If it is to reveal the artist, I get no sense of who the artist is and what he is interested in. Falling back on the artist statement, which is always hard to write, let alone read, I remain unconvinced as to the self-explained interest that the painter is invested in the concentrated moments of beauty, violence and the sublime. That's a pretty broad and subjective spectrum of topics, and only explains half of the show. Williamson also tries to apply Roland Barthes' sentiment of the "punctum" (that is, the resonance, the accident within a photograph in Barthes' own words that pricks and bruises him) as what motivates his paintings, but then here is a jump, as we are suddenly talking about photographs, while the subject at hand is painting. While a photograph of a light socket may stir certain unsaid emotions, a painting of that same photograph will illicit a different, layered meaning.

I don't mean to dismiss this show entirely, as Williamson is a very good technical painter, and a few of the works stand up on their own, including the promo image that is unfortunately reproduced in black and white, but as the first MFA show of the year, following an incline of some very strong student exhibitions in the past few years, I expected more introspection than this.

Upstairs, The Wind from the East features contemporary Chinese prints from The Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, Shenzhen University. As a result of a cultural exchange organized between a group of Chinese print artists and artists from across Canada, the works by the Chinese artists are being exhibited in Canada and works by the Canadian artists are being shown in China. The Chinese portion of this exchange was shown first in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, centre for the internationally recognized exhibition Biennale Internationale d'Estampe Contemporaine, before travelling to Edmonton.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Instant Coffee Needed Our Help*

Last week, members of the Toronto/Vancouver arts collective Instant Coffee were in town holding an open afghan call out. The reason: Instant Coffee will be completing an upcoming Public Art commission to be installed in the new Commonwealth Stadium Community Centre opening in 2012, and like with most of its projects, the public is implicit.

Known for creating events-based projects through forms of public participation in projects such as "Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?" and a series of explorations on the power of light, the collective comprised of Cecilia Berkovic, Jinhan Ko, Khan Lee, Kelly Lycan, Kate Monro and Jenifer Papararo have been collaborating for close to 10 years under the guise that exhibition strategies are not necessarily separate from studio-based ones.

For example, the event held last Wednesday was an integral part to the final "show" piece, which will be a three-part interactive indoor billboard that will feature selected afghans shared from Edmonton's community. The participation of the public is crucial to the piece, and there's a blind faith in relying on a certain level of critical mass for social response.

Lycan and Papararo, who both originally hail from Alberta via the Rocky Mountain House and Calgary areas respectively, were on hand for this leg of the project. Noting that they have a history of taking over venues through events using colours and light (and sometimes afghans), their works have always been based in the potential of an event.

"Afghans seem to adapt to our esthetic," says Lycan, who is now a Vancouver-based artist mostly working in installation and photography that are occupied with value systems and consumer culture. "They are also very do-it-yourself, inexpensive, and their graphic esthetic is something we respond to."

Papararo, who programmed Mercer Union in Toronto before taking the helm as curator of Vancouver's Contemporary Art Gallery, continues the train of thought by pointing to the multi-patterned, multicolored afghan on display.

"It's so complicated—who would put those colours together? It's amazing, and it's a quick way to take over a space by using bright colours."

"It also involves other artists," Lycan adds, "We often use bright pinks and oranges, that sort of op art from the '70s that's acidic and garish. We find it fascinating."

It was unclear as to how participatory Edmontonians got, and perhaps that's just a sign of our general malaise to engage with art beyond a spectacle, but here's to another public art project injecting a much needed dose of contemporary attitude into our city's arts community.

Visit for more information and join their Alberta listserv to receive and post arts related events free of charge. 

*First published in Vue

Prairie Artsters: From Toronto, With Love*

I saw a lot and I learned a lot from my most recent art-related excursion. Spending just over a week in Toronto and seeing as much as I could, here is a brief summary of thoughts that made me think of Edmonton:

First, the Frank Gehry-designed Art Gallery of Ontario. The project, which cost more than four times as much as our (Gehry disciple) Randall Stout-designed AGA, was relatively four times more impressive. Sure, the ick factor is higher when they have an entire floor devoted to special event rentals and you have to walk through its posh restaurant to get to the community gallery, and almost unforgivably the entire top floor is dedicated to the art world wankings of Julian Schnabel ... but the gallery also has a massive and rather impressive permanent collection on constant display and has an army of curators to successfully integrate contemporary works from Ontario-based artists alongside international artists. I went specifically to see At Work, the show on Eva Hesse, Agnes Martin and Betty Goodwin, but I left completely floored by Toronto-based Shary Boyle, who created an intervention in the main floor European galleries with her works that explode the concepts of feminine sexuality, especially in relation to art history. But eclectic programming is expected. What wasn't expected: the in-depth knowledge and coherency of the security guards who were everywhere, and seemed to know everything. I've encountered staff members of commercial galleries and artist-run centres, let alone of institutions, that didn't have a clue about the works around them, and it's these minor but integral interactions that build a returning, art appreciative audience.

Nuit Blanche. It's no secret I detest the plethora of festivals in our city that dilute their programming to satisfy an "art for all" mandate. I believe in the necessity of family programming and social outreach, but I also believe in critically engaging works that push form and content to expand and engage our interests. In its fifth year, Nuit Blanche has fallen in between the cracks in serving art for no one in particular. From more seasoned critics, the biggest complaint was not even the drunks, but the lack of family programming or projects and events that engaged with the public beyond a photo op. Edmonton's arts festivals are overflowing with family friendly programming, but there's little to entice the rest of the population, and hardly a trifle to satisfy an art-centric audience. I'm not entirely sure if any one festival could or should satisfy all these audiences, as time and time again it's proven that in trying to satisfy everyone, we all get left out in the cold. That said, call a spade a spade and stop overriding "art" for funding's sake.

Options and Fluctuations. It's a real treat to have no shortage of commercial galleries and artist-run centres, as the positive outcome within that mix is a real diversity of roles and audiences served. If you're feeling more critical, head to Mercer Union. YYZ, Red Head Gallery, WARC and Gallery 44 all have very different mandates yet coexist in the same building. And it seems that all latest artists have gone down to the converted garages along Tecumseth Street.

After one particular day of wandering through over a dozen galleries, some good, some bad, but all pretty different, I thought again about an article from this past year that tried to square off the AGA with Latitude 53. I remember at the time the article was not worth discussing, but now, it made me sad to realize that not just the writer, but the editor, and an entire base of the population really do believe galleries are just walls with art, and the only difference between them is location and size.

Simply put: being an "art" gallery or festival could mean anything from opening up a frame shop to an excuse for gelato in the streets. Regardless of how it may be funded, art is not a catch-all concept to entertain the masses. While Edmonton's numbers may not be mighty enough to make obvious the different purposes of community art and high art, its small cluster of commercial galleries, artist-run centres, public art galleries and institutions could also take a step to educate the public by distinguishing themselves from their neighbors, because at the root of each space, each started with its own purpose that should still make it relevant and special.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Audio Interview with Instant Coffee in Alberta

After cutting the afghan inspired cake between sips of coffee from a box, Instant Coffee members Kelly Lycan and Jenifer Papararo take a quick smoke break to discuss their public art project for the Commonwealth Community Centre opening in North-Central Edmonton in 2012. 

Join their free and useful AB mailing list by sending a message to or visit to find out more about their projects, events, and services.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

12 Point Buck and Jenny Keith, Harcourt House, until Oct 9, 2010*

Anthropocentric and anthropomorphic, the animals currently on display in both exhibitions at Harcourt House run wild through imagination.

In the main gallery, 12 Point Buck tempers our narrative of an idyllic wilderness with a heavy dose of kitsch and irony in Wild, Wild Life. Comprised of Lethbridge artists Leila Armstrong and Chai Duncan, 12 Point Buck have been collaboratively, if not argumentatively, processing how our human relationship with nature has been heavily mediated. Working off the idea that all interactions with nature must be mediated by the very nature that we are human, 12 Point Buck pushes this concept further to examine how we continue to uphold representations of nature, and consequently, how we continue to engage with nature through a superiority complex.

Photographs of plastic animals arranged in a staged nature lead you through most of the gallery space. Humorous in their subversion of wildlife photography tropes, the photographs are composed very similarly to the found landscapes in the back corner.

Laid out like a yard sale, ceramic and plastic figurines of Canadian wildlife are here gathered in all of their kitschy glory. From animal-moulded salt-and-pepper shakers to a bobble-headed moose, the implicit feeling here is hoarded nostalgia. This goes one step further on the walls, where the reaction towards the simplicity of the wood-framed landscapes recalls for many the artwork hanging over their grandmothers' sofa. Amongst the gems are Artex paintings, which were a '70s popular hobby art that Armstrong's mother participated in and can be summarized as a type of paint-by-numbers done through fabric painting onto white or black velvet canvases.

There are also a couple of genuine Flexhaugs in the mix, which according to legend, are treasures in the prairies. As the story goes, Flexhaug was a traveling salesmen and a raging alcoholic, and to pay off his drinking tabs, he would paint these idealized and picturesque landscapes. Often containing a moon, a deer and sometimes a cabin, there are supposedly hundreds of Flexhaugs out there, many owned with pride, and even some within the collection of the University of Saskatchewan that will see 12 Point Buck playing off them next fall.

In the front room, Edmontonian Jenny Keith-Hughes marks a two-year solo exhibition absence with new works in, You, Me and Everyone We Know. Spending the last two years showing and selling heavily in New York City through the Prince George Gallery, that experience has led to opportunities such as her first show in Chicago this fall and getting a print picked up by the North American clothing/lifestyle chain Urban Outfitters.

Keith-Hughes' style of blending the whimsical with social observation has continued to blossom since graduating from the U of A in 2003. Showing a new level of maturity without losing the inherently fun personality, this new body of work also reveals a new direction, one that is informed by a bold confidence in her skills in painting and in drawing where both the hand and imagination are working in sync to explore new experiences.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Working Under Pressure, SNAP, until Oct 16, 2010*

Haunted by the late great Betty Goodwin, Working Under Pressure is the result of a laboratory-like residency at Montréal's Atelier Graff. Six artists working through printmaking, painting, and photography were asked by participant and curator Thomas Corriveau to reconsider the act of printmaking through the physical process of transferring an image through pressure.

Taking its cue from Montréal legend Goodwin's seminal "Vests" series where the act of pressure became an act of remembering, mourning and creation, the artists here on view at SNAP reflect on the possible directions of where print media can go.

Making its first showing outside of Montréal, the exhibition features a different style of printmaking that artist Paul Bourgault couldn't put his finger on.

As the only artist onsite for the installation and opening, he says through a thick Quebecois accent, "It's a different feeling, I don't know enough to say exactly what, but I know in Montréal, this work, especially my work, is not looked at as mainstream."

Referring to the minimalist style of high production and higher conceptual works that have come out of Montréal, the print works in this show are more visceral, yet do not slack in terms of a professional presentation.

"Tom [Corriveau] asked us to think of printing in terms of, 'What if?' We were giving this theme of pressure as an undercurrent, that was it," Bourgault continues.

Creating a work that is part painting, part mixed-media collage, Bourgault appears to be building human tension through the tactile compression of fragmented limbs and layers directly onto the canvas. Each work is distinctly different from the next, with Lucie Robert's "Pression" series most obviously paying homage to Goodwin and yet finds its own message in its delicate treatment of stitches across the frailness of thin Japanese paper.

Photographer Yann Pocreau strays the farthest from any stylist connection to Goodwin, and yet conjures the most emotion in summoning the absent presence that has been character of the late printmaker's work. Painter Angèle Verret also delves into the emotional with a pair of paintings that at first appear to be lush textural monochromes, but upon closer viewing reveal themselves to be impressions, embedded with a backwards and indecipherable hand-written text that gives them an absent presence.

For the most part, the show is just interesting as it allows visitors to see what print artists are doing on the other side of the country, as often here in Edmonton our print artists are seemingly more engaged with international practices or already renowned Canadian printmakers. As the legacy of highly technical printmaking runs deep through the impact of the U of A and byway through SNAP, it was a breath of fresh air to see a different flavour of contemporary printmaking that focused less on technique and more on concept.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Monday, October 4, 2010

Nuit Blanche 2010: First Impressions

Let me preface this by saying that when all is said and done, Nuit Blanche was the worst part of my Toronto art experience this week. I otherwise had a great time visiting dozens upon dozens of galleries and spaces throughout the city, even taking in a theatre show at Buddies in Bad Times, seeing Trigger at the gorgeous new Light Box, and of course the highlight of seeing and hearing live the one and only Lucy Lippard. I certainly don't regret doing Nuit Blanche, but I probably won't do it again.

In its 5th year, Toronto’s version of its outdoor all night art festival has been accumulating this “must-see-art” mentality that completely takes over the city’s downtown streets, public transit, and public landmarks with this fervour and rigor that one would think a war had just been won. Naturally, I wanted to check it out.

While the festival proper officially begins three minutes to seven p.m., most of the satellite and  independent projects were open, and so beginning with the galleries on Queen Street West (which weren't all formally part of N.B., but were certainly bracing for it), I began at 4 p.m. with Eliza Griffiths' vernissage at Katharine Mulherin.

As a new series of figurative sketches based on fictional characters for a yet-to-be determined theatrical narrative, Griffiths continues her study of contemporary young women that rebel and confront, this time with an apparent focus on drawing and androgyny. Having a light conversation with the artist in attendance, this would be the most art-centric conversation I would hold for the next 12 hours.

A few hours later and many forgettable stops later, I found myself standing in line to enter Campbell House Museum. Drawn by the glow of the fire (which, of course, was also art), I queued up not knowing what to expect as the front lawn of the historic house was covered in steel pine cone sculptures (including the source of the fire). Wandering through the house, there was absolutely nothing of interest to see. The planted works on the wall upstairs did nothing to engage with the history of the house, which I can only surmise is a relic from the city's early days now preserved for school children and tourists alike. You would think a show held there would be somehow connected to civic history, but instead there were pine cones and I stood in line to see them.

Miss Chief Eagle Testickle
Right across the street, canned music was being blasted and enough temporary white towers were set up in Nathan Phillips Square that one would think there was a concert, but it was in fact the Daniel Lanois Later That Night At The Drive-In that projected original video works by Canadian icons like Neil Young onto different surfaces throughout the square. Along the pool surfaces, lying on makeshift platforms, and staring up into the sky, the idea is to expand a collective experience--which admittedly, sounds great, but the average flow of passerbyers didn't last past a single song. There was something innately disappointing about watching and listening to prerecorded musicians echoing through a fairly transient space. Nothing can stand in for the presence and energy of live performance, especially since this festival really calls on viewers to physically wander through the city. A big part of my excitement was to see the city through the lens of Nuit Blanche, but the dearth of reciprocating engagement by artists with the public and public architecture this year was really surprising.

There were a few that tried to engage the public, and even fewer who succeeded. I'll applaud the effort of Kent Monkman and Gisèle Gordon's attempt to engage the crowd with a pulsating performance as the ever glamorous Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. In the performance I caught, the sizable crowd did not want to feel the rhythms of Iskootāo, which according to the free programme means "fire" and "woman's heart" in Cree. The mob was far more interested in snapping photographs of a man in thigh high boots, making loud obnoxious comments about it, and wanting, if not needing to be entertained by it.

I'm skipping over a lot of mediocre and pathetic projects as my protestations with unengaging efforts and disrespectful artists/audiences were threads throughout the night. At some point, I had to go see the re-enactment of Marina Abramovic and Ulay's Imponderabilia, but didn't make it onto campus until well after midnight. By then, the drunks downstairs and outside were fully in their element, and the aggression inside to "see" naked people was almost laughable. The aggression was not just from the audience, but also from the security and handlers, who moved people through the live art experience like an airport security check. While the original performance was shut down by the police after 45 minutes, the performance today (and recently at MoMA) required the presence of active security, which not only completely changes the energy between the performers and the audience, but really could be understood as a whole new work about the police state and our seeming need to be policed. Needless to say, it was heavily controlled provocation, and I walked away feeling awful about the whole thing.

Another notable live piece, The Endless Pace, by Davide Balula and choreographed by Biba Bell, saw 60 dancers sit in a circle in Commerce Court and mimic the mechanical workings of a clock through movement based on the second, minute, and hour hands. While the work itself is interesting for one hour tops, the endurance through the bitter cold wind made the work almost sadistic to watch, as an overhead live feed could be viewed from inside of the adjacent office building while through the windows below the projection you could watch the dance and theatre students viciously shivering and eagerly waiting for the second hand to come around again.

By three in the morning, after wandering through endless blocked off streets filled with restless drunks stumbling aimlessly from one glowing project to another, pausing to take photographs of anything and everything that could barely be categorized as art, I came upon An Te Liu’s Ennui Blanc again and no longer minded the irony of people pausing to take photographs of it. Seeing it in the day time, it was just a simple white neon sign sitting atop the storefronts on Queen St W. But by night, the sign read more like a beacon of enlightenment against the black sky, a truism that serves as a warning and, lo and behold, as an actual art intervention.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Prairie Artsters: Profile on Jonathan Kaiser

At the very back of the darkened RBC New Works Gallery, a modern suburban bedroom appears on a small stage. Lit through the adjoining closet that glows through a pair of thermal wear, there is an indecipherable light that suggests neither day nor night, but the removed and constructed lighting found in any quiet suburban neighborhood.

Image courtesy of the artist

Crawling onto the staged bedroom floor where two crinkled blankets double as beds, books are scattered throughout the room, suggesting a space inhabited primarily for the solitary behaviour of reading and dreaming. The latter is true as you turn your head and see a two-headed creature, adorned with flowers and small ornaments, peering back at you from the darkness.

It is a creature undeniably fantastical, and yet purely domesticated, at home in this bedroom that is neither a child's nor a man's.

It is in this liminal space that artist Jonathan Kaiser creates, and while the room is modeled after his childhood home in Winnipeg, it is not necessarily an adolescent sentiment.

"When I was young, I wanted to be 50. I wanted to skip to being an adult," shares Kaiser, who currently lives in Ottawa where his partner is attending school. "But now that's changing. I remember my home, and I remember these memories because they're usually tender and fond. This was a space I could sit and think when I was a kid."

Kaiser, who's been slowly recreating elements of absence, especially in suburbia, began as a design and printmaking student at the U of A. Graduating just five years ago and technically apt, his content opened up after being invited to participate in a drawing show at the AGA by curator Marna Bunnel.

"I was excited about the objects," says Kaiser. "I didn't plan on doing an installation, but I ended up making an installation of wall drawings. It was a really positive experience. From that, I started meeting people."

Quiet and humble are understatements in describing Kaiser. From that first out of school experience, his work caught the attention of the curators for the 2007 Alberta Biennial, and from that, his name was put forward and accepted into the Glenfiddich artist residency that opened up yet a further world of opportunities.

"I've only done one residency, but I know I should do more," he continues, echoing many artists transitioning from emerging to mid level. "When I have a project, I totally focus on it full time, then when I have downtime, I do nothing. I have little odd jobs, but I'm afraid of taking on a real job or career as my art practice may cease to be."

As his first solo exhibition, Kaiser recognizes that this will be a higher profile show for himself, and that he's had to manage his time differently. "I like to have as much freedom as possible, and change things a week before if I wanted to. This couldn't be the case this time, which is good for me."

Building through Edmonton-based connections in projects such as The Apartment Show and recently in The National Portrait Gallery, Kaiser doesn't hold down a regular studio practice, but his works reveal a maturity that is consistently surprising, guided by a strong intuition that is calm and thoughtful.

He asserts knowingly in a soft spoken way, "I don't have much of a plan for my career. I plan to keep making art no matter what. I've been producing smaller works, which is a good scale for where I am right now."

*First published in Vue Weekly

Celestial Bodies runs in the RBC New Works Gallery, AGA until October 10