Sunday, February 28, 2010

Thrust, David Janzen and Julian Forrest, Peter Robertson Gallery, February 25 - March 18, 2010

With an exhibition title like Thrust, one can only expect a certain amount of sexualized energy on display. Only after viewing, the title and subject matter are more about the redirection of sexual energy into other forms such as aggression and bravado.

Image credit: Julian Forrest, "Play/Fight #4", 2009 Oil on board. 9" x 12"

The two man show at Peter Robertson pairs up painters David Janzen and Julian Forrest, who although share a similar palette, approach the world through very different outlooks. Forrest, who since moving here from Ontario, has ironically noticed an increased influx of males moving to the province, and takes up the matter of increased levels of competing testosterone on display. Referencing media portrayals of fights, mostly from internet stills of YouTube clips, Forrest encapsulates these fleeting moments into rather comical stances and poses, and puts forth more questions than answers of how our society has shaped the male identity through pop cultural imagery. Also showing a series of rabid looking dogs, the animals actually hold a much higher sense of nobility than any of the men in his paintings, who are often awkwardly street wrestling each other or in stances ready for a fight.

Image credit: David Janzen, "Blossom (026)", 2009 Oil on paper (framed) 9"

On the other hand, it was pointed out that Janzen plays on the notion of bravado without evoking his sentiments to any living form. While his series on rocket ships blasting off are certainly phallic in nature, Janzen contrasts the work by playing with circular canvases, even using small embroidery/sewing frames to offset the overtly boyish subject matter with a touch of the feminine and the contained. While there is certainly a comment, if not a fascination, with the amount of energy being wasted with each blast off, there is also a sincere innocence in invoking the reckless and wild streaks of destruction of being young with too much energy to burn.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Karsh: Image Maker, AGA, until May 30, 2010

Debuting last summer as part of Festival Karsh, a summer-long celebration organized by the Canada Science and Technology Museum and the Portrait Gallery of Canada, a program now contained within Library and Archives Canada, Karsh: Image Maker is an extensive tribute celebrating the centenary of Armenia-born, Ottawa-based photographer Yousef Karsh's birth.

Image credit: Yousef Karsh, Winston Churchill 1941. Gelatin silver photograph

Standing as the premiere exhibition in the AGA's new second floor gallery space, the show highlights how important it remains for regional, and certainly national, acknowledgment of portraitures and photography in shaping our cultural identities.

Designed as an interactive bilingual exhibition, Karsh: Image Maker gives prominence to the photographic tools used as well as Karsh's portraits that span the bulk of the 20th century. As an internationally celebrated portrait photographer, Karsh, like many photographers of his generation, profess to seek that "elusive moment of truth." But if you compare and contrast every photographer who's ever been after the truth, from Cartier-Bresson to Sally Mann to Nan Goldin, it becomes clear how subjective the notion of truth really is and how their truth reveals more about the photographer than anything else.

From Thomas Church to Jean Paul Riopelle, to legends like Cecil B. Demille and Winston Churchill, Karsh carefully crafted his portraits to reflect his subjects' iconic stature. The celebrity factor may be what continues to be heralded, but this was before people were famous for just being famous, and this fact overshadows an underlying credence Karsh sought in those who contributed some form of mass cultural significance.

The archival typewritten documents with hand-written marginalia are fascinating to note that Karsh had an ongoing wish list titled, "Important Personalities Yet To be Photographed For Possible Inclusion in the Book." Going after people with larger than life personalities like Ernest Hemingway, Jacques Cousteau, and Diego Rivera, Karsh had an ongoing interest in capturing writers, musicians, dancers, political figures and movie stars, all reputable for their contemporary achievements and translating their cultural stature into an emblematic portrait.

Image credit: Yousef Karsh, Pablo Casals 1954. Gelatin silver photograph

From over 15 000 portrait sittings, Karsh noted one of his favorite photographs was of French cellist Pablo Casals, playing inside a rotunda of an old stone church. Vastly different from the majority of his well-known mid-frame shots and intimate close-ups, his image of Casals captures the cellist in full, sitting with his back turned and his instrument in hand, existing in perfect harmony with the curvature of space and light surrounding him.

Karsh, who began with photographing for theatre productions and experimenting in highly stylized abstract photography before establishing himself as a technically superb portraitist, undoubtedly preferred the large format method of staged photography. The only regret of this exhibition is the mummification of Karsh's large format 4 x 5 method, a heavy, laborious process involving complex alchemy, but one that still exists today. As it stands, large format and the medium of film is becoming a specialized art form as dark rooms continue to disappear from art schools and fewer artists can access this technique. The exhibition's digital reproduction of Karsh's large format process sent instantly to your email is a fun idea, but it is arguable that large format film and digital photography are in fact two different mediums, and an exhibition that pays tribute and educates viewers on the art and science of photography would pay more respect to its nuances.

Karsh is History, an award-winning documentary screens Friday Feb. 26 at 7pm at the AGA's ledcor theatre. Admission is free.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Corinne Duchesn "In Memorandum" Harcourt House, February 18 - March 20, 2010*

With indiscernible text scratched into one piece along the short wall, and an inexplicable reoccurrence of the same cherry tree and bowl fixated in the majority of the exhibiting works, Corinne Duchesne's In Memorandum remains mostly a mystery of her memories.

Image credit: Corinne Duchesne, "Blazing Cherry" Mixed media on Mylar 36"H x 123" W

Relying heavily on Jungian, Freudian, and antiquity symbols as motivation for herself and hopefully for the viewers, the works throughout the exhibition were created during a period of intense grief for the artist. For whom she was grieving remains a quiet matter, one could guess it was for a child with the repetition of a plush rabbit with long ears, but for whom she is grieving ceases to be the point in an exhibition focused solely on the grieving process.

There is no doubt of the artist's technical capabilities; with each mark made and captured, the strokes of emotion run the gamut of calm to wild, and this energy in each piece makes for an open entry for viewers to engage. Multi-layered with various treatments from washes to resistances, they are simply appeasing to the eye, but stepping back and seeing the exhibition as a whole, there is an underlying disconnection between the emotion put into the work and the sensation one draws from it.

As a series of triptychs each hinged on a beginning, middle and end structure, each piece reads as a visual entry of a daily diary, bringing together fragments of thoughts, images and moments that do not necessarily cohere together, but are made to be remembered.

The repetition of certain images across the show do not connect with one another, existing as islands unto themselves, making each occurrence appear more like drawing studies and exercises. As large expansive bursts of colours textured onto 10-foot-long strips of mylar, Duchesne's pieces are individually engaging. Collected side by side, however, the works have no room to breathe, suffocating themselves and viewers with saturation.

The most interesting aspect of the show is that while the works were created during a grieving period, they are undeniably full of vitality, as to grieve is to honour life, be it the end of one or our very own. Understandably it is difficult to discern the logical process of how one person grieves, but as a visual exhibition designed to engage with a general public on the subject matter of grieving, the works are a document and history of heavily subjective visual metaphors that leave viewers in an unsatisfied state between a process and its praxis. To view somebody's drawings during their time of grieving does not necessarily translate to an understanding of that emotion, nor does it have to, as the show appears to be more about remembering this period of grief than anything else. But if the show is to be contextualized under the umbrella of exploring the nature of grieving, there should at least be some point of transference, or elicitation of understanding another shade of grief—otherwise, the works remain therapeutic exercises, that albeit are important to do, but not necessarily ready to exhibit under the same intentions.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Edgy Women, From the Prairies*

Guest Blogging for Edgy Women Festival, Montréal, 2010. Click on the title to
check out the Edgy programming and read all the edgy blogs at

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Allen Ball, "The Wordless Book and other sounds" Front Gallery February 12 - 27, 2010

After a year sabbatical from his post at the University of Alberta, Allen Ball returns with this surprising gem of a painting show at the equally surprising location of The Front Gallery.

Premiering fourteen new paintings organized into three complementary series, "The Wordless Book" is a harmonious exhibition demonstrating how contemporary painting can still revel in its own medium and history while being an explorative and daring two dimensional object.

Playing with the masked cynicism of William Blake's "Songs of Innocence" and the idea of "The Wordless Book," a creation by the prolific London Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon designed as a Christian evangelistic device that used colours and patterns to teach and colonize through the word of God, Ball creates an intimate series that reconstitutes the power of the image.

Working solely on the flat hard surfaces of plywood and finishing with faux gold leaves, Ball is calling upon the Byzantine era, where decadent paintings were comprised of simple icons used to teach and spread the word of religion. Heavily layered, at times appearing from an aerial vantage, a perspective never before possible in teaching religion, the subtle touches of texture are in essence exposed layers of concealment. While the intention to teach the elements of religion (good vs. evil) still lives on today through media, especially the news, "The Wordless Book" is self-conscious of its own form, complicating the history of how we have consistently used the same imagery to indoctrinate the message to the masses.

Image credits: Allen Ball, "The Wordless Book and other sounds" 2010

Prairie Artsters: Provincial Budget 2010*

With the provincial budget handed down last week and close to $2 billion cut across the board save for healthcare, the arts certainly took their lumps with placated shrugs.

"At least it's not as bad as BC" has been the general attitude, referring to British Columbia's absolutely devastating cuts to their arts funding this past fall, with organizations losing up to 90 percent of their funding and many long-standing companies, galleries and theatres scrambling, or simply closing their doors.

That's great, we're not as bad off as BC, but we're not far off. With significant cuts made into our precarious provincial lottery fund and community investment programs, which are the backbone to funding agencies such as the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, which provides direct funds to arts organizations and artists, we here in Alberta may not be feeling the burn of the scalding cuts, but we are sitting in an increasingly hotter caldron of water.

Now it isn't necessarily the cuts themselves that are so shocking or appalling, but I do take offense at the language used in presenting the cuts as nothing short of a condescending pat on the head and a slap in the face.

Alberta's culture minister, Lindsay Blackett, referring to a drop of $35 million dollars—approximately a 16 percent decrease from last year's budget—to his arts sector as a "haircut" and "a time to focus on needs versus wants," is paralleling his department's commitment to the arts as a cosmetic downgrade. But when was the last time a haircut amounted to losing over 15 percent of your body mass? Losing 16 percent is closer to getting your arm chopped off, not your bangs. If we are to use this inane analogy, hair also grows back, so long as it's attached to a healthy living being, which in the case of the arts in Alberta, may soon be suffering from severe cases of malnutrition.

In a formal letter sent out through the AFA news wire, Blackett refers to how instead of cutting $35 million we're only really losing $5 million, because the government is committed to providing $30 million dollars worth of one-time capital grants, which is a complete oxymoron to his next point of "finding new and innovative ways to build sustainable cultural and non-profit sector organizations." Because afterall, "The Spirit of Alberta, continues."

We wouldn't need to rely on exhausted buzz words like "innovative" and "sustainable" and the weak hype of a "Spirit of Alberta" if the Tories had actually maintained and preserved our heritage fund to allow oil and gas revenues to be reinvested for times like these.
But rather than invest in the long-term health of this province in any possible way, the Tories are in reactionary mode, plugging money into healthcare to brace for the impending boomer bulge in the system, while ministers like Blackett are chalking up the budget to our "current economic realities," which is strange since we are projected to still generate billions in tar sands revenue in the coming years without putting a dime of it back into the heritage fund. What's worse: Blackett still has the audacity to refer to the cuts as some generous deed done in the name of providing services and supports to "the most vulnerable in our society."

Excuse me, but isn't it the government's legal obligation to protect our society's most vulnerable? Who is this group of vulnerables, as very visible cuts were also made to the province's developmentally disabled. I have written before that it is simply unfair to compare the worth and value of arts and culture to education and healthcare, as they are intricately more intertwined than how our culture discretely measures them, but to excuse the cuts onto "our society's most vulnerable" is an atrocity on all of our fiscal, social and democratic values.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Edgar Degas: Figures in Motion, Art Gallery of Alberta, Jan 31 - May 31, 2010*

Celebrating the most significant Impressionist artist to introduce the concept of movement in paintings, the current AGA exhibition, Edgar Degas: Figures in Motion, focuses specifically on the transformation of movement in the living form.

Image credit: Edgar Degas, Two Dancers, c. 1896-99, Pastel, 16 ¼ x 13 inches. Private Collection.

Through examining Degas' sketches, sculptures, and drawings, Figures in Motion traces Degas's progression as an artist from his early days at the horse races to his countless days and nights at the Paris Opera cavorting with dancers and the social elite, to touching upon his reclusive mid-life spent largely with the street life of post-Haussmann Paris, notably in the brothels.

Organized by Degas specialist Joseph S. Czestochowski, the show as a whole focuses particularly on the artists' posthumously made bronze sculptures. While Degas only exhibited one sculpture in his life time, "Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen," which stands prominently on display along with a working study, the majority of Degas' sculptures were just that: studies of the body in motion.

Sharing a similar fascination with Edward Muybridge on the movement and grace of horses at the track, and predating Muybridge's 24 camera/photography experiment to capture a horse in motion, Degas was drawn to the horse within the context of the races, a social pastime of convening crowds. It is arguable that his desire to represent motion was also to understand it, as the turn of the 19th century was the era where the pace of the urban came to fruition.

Turning more towards the city and its nightlife, Degas' preoccupation with studying ballerinas progressed from studies of arabesque poses to fleeting, natural moments, as seen with "Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot." As a contrast to how lines form as the human body moves, the lively and awkward "Dancer Looking ..." is the complete opposite to the arabesque poses with their perfectly symmetrical outstretched back leg and elongated line. Looking over the body of Degas' work, it is evident he preferred sketching his dancers in unstructured poses and moments of rest, rendering feverish lines in naturalized movements.

Image credit: Edgar Degas, After the Bath, c.1899, Pastel on paper. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio; Gift of Ferdinand Howald

Like the evolution of the dancer's body from ballet to modern and contemporary dance, Degas' line also becomes less rigid as he turns his focus from the studios of ballerinas to the toilettes of working-class women.

Revered and reviled in its time, Degas's series on women bathers was scandalous not because of the nudity, but because he chose to focus on lower- and middle-class women, almost all of them prostitutes. His "Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen" of Marie van Goethem was similarly criticized for not idealizing the girl, showing her as a "flower of the gutter," as one critic put it, with her hands coyly held back, back arching and chin up, confrontational and brash in stance. Although often read as misogynist, Degas, especially in the latter half of his career, successfully contributed to the demystification of the female form in art.

"After the Bath," the only coloured pastel from the bathers series in this exhibition, is consistent with Degas's favoured perspective of facing the bather's back as she is either rising from the bath or drying herself off. The relaxed body comes alive from the tactile pastel of energetic blues and greens emanating from the light of water and competing with the warmth of flesh and life.

Image credit: Pierre-Auguste Renoir "Bathers" 1884-1887

Responding directly to contemporaries such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whose works such as "The Bathers" or "Bather Arranging Her Hair" depicted Venus-like coquettish women in idyllic, pastoral settings frolicking like cherubic angels, Degas in contrast paints his faceless bathers in almost decaying hues of mortal flesh, forgoing the ivory representation of feminity with the natural hues of blood and veins.

Greatly influenced by the city he lived in, a changing Paris where class structures were quickly disappearing in favour of the modern life, Degas' fascination with the excitement of movement, be it at the race track or the Paris Opera, eventually found satisfaction with observing the people of the streets, where the energy of any city breathes

*First published in Vue Weekly

Monday, February 8, 2010


A Pan-Prairie Trip Down Memory Lane: From the Re-design of the AGA to the Impending Re-design of Saskatoon's Mendel Art Gallery

I was at the Art Gallery of Alberta’s swishy opening party, Refinery, for the young swish set of Edmonton last night. Perhaps what was noticeable right off the bat was the lack of strangers there, the lack of people unknown. All the people neatly clung to their identifiable groups. There were no strangers to flirt with, no one even alone, as though people don’t do that: go anywhere alone. All of them coupled off save for a few of the power lesbians in town who I am often left to flirt with by default. I had no idea art gallery openings were a date thing. I proceeded to look at this new miracle of Edmonton all by myself. Of course I did enjoy that all the ladies were in heels. The boys (even the normally gross ones) were in suit jackets from Zara, albeit some of them still wearing toques and or hoodies under their fancy suit jackets, still they were in suit jackets. Edmonton and its weather is demoralizing enough (or practicalizing) to the effect that it is hard to take off your sweats. So there we were the same old people in the same old Edmonton all dressed up to celebrate a building that is influenced by a piece of nautical Architecture from Spain?

Of course I am thrilled that Edmonton decided to sink money and invest in the art of culture, I mean our city needs this. This point was proved by this 50 something year old lady in the Degas exhibition who looked like one of my aunties from the farm. She was all decked out in a rayon pant suit and pair of gold lamé flats from Wal-Mart. Her hair looked like all your aunties hair when gussied for a wedding: puffy, hair sprayed and curled. Later she was perched on a chair with her flats off, her panty-hoed toes out in the open, smiling at me. It was 10 at night and she was enjoying herself in the Degas room, then she looks at me in her Avon made up face and giggles in an Alberta accent, “sore feet” and her husband who looks like one of my farmer uncles continues to look at the Degas sculptures. Clearly this is rewarding; this is the reason to spend the cash, to make the big fancy building that deserves a fancy event, so that people like my auntie and uncle from the farm get to come and enjoy this caliber of art. To encourage funds that support bringing Degas to Edmonton. But then the next day a sinking feeling sets in as I realize, "Oh god they are going to do the same thing to the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon."

I have a bad a really, really bad relationship with my father. Me and the man don’t speak, never have, never really connected except in the Mendel Art Gallery. At the Mendel somehow me and that old man could muster the strength to talk, just about art; nothing else, none of the complications of divorce or custody battles, or Down Syndrome or cancer or kidnapping or unspeakable events. This practice of going to the Mendel--which as a side note, I thought was called The Mental Art Gallery for people who were mentally retarded.

Image Credit: Arthur Price, "Girl With Cat"
Photograph by: Greg Pender, The StarPhoenix

When I think of the Mental Art Gallery I immediately think of coffee in a plastic cup and the sculpture Girl with Cat by Arthur Price. At the Mendel you could get a cup of coffee for 50 cents and sit in this large room that overlooked the North Saskatchewan River. A simple brown modernist room. It was not cluttered or busy, just some chairs, a few round tables and Girl with Cat. When I look at the Degas sculptures I only enjoy them because of how much it makes me think of Girl with Cat. Of course now that same room is a place where you can get lattes, but for a long time it was simple. If they tear down the Mendel where will Girl with Cat go? Will it no longer be fashionable?

My thoughts turn to the Mendel's great 60’s architecture as you enter, the great plant conservatory where you could see bananas growing on trees, real bananas which is a big deal when you are a kid in Sask and you are not even sure that banana’s could possibly grow anywhere because the place you live is so cold you are sure they make bananas from science experiments that involve a test tube. When I was eight years old I met Princess Anne at the Mendel Art Gallery, I had my first and last violin recital at the Mendel Art Gallery. I stared at the same Group of Seven paintings for my entire childhood. I thought they were boring, but they were mine. Of course I had no idea that I had spent my youth staring at the Group of Seven until just recently. This place was a perfect fit for art on the prairies. It was built by a successful meat packer in the 60’s. Fred Mendel not only donated the Group of Seven paintings, but also the cash for an art gallery as a way of saying thank you to the community where he found success. Fred fled Germany in 1940 and he wanted a building to be "one of such character and personality, even if a controversial one, that we could all take pride”. And I did take pride or at least pleasure in that building, I took pleasure in the quiet when the rest of the world stopped and all that mattered were the nicely lit rooms, the simple architecture that felt modern, unique and special. I felt special in this place. The building itself was not ostentatious; it felt like it belonged there in Saskatoon, like it belonged to the river bank on which it sat. It felt as though it had always been there. As a kid I had no understanding of art nor were my parent’s arty types. My mom was born of an uneducated Ukrainian insurance salesman and my Dads' people were from a small farm near Radisson. The Mendel was special, private and it did feel like ours, not someone else’s idea of what an art gallery is or should be. It belonged. Now they are geared to tear it down and build a new one. But that one is more than a part of my history, it is part of Saskatchewan’s history and what it stood for culturally at a particular moment in time. Why do we always tear down things that link us to our history?

Photo credit: Flickr

As I leave the new Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton late on a Saturday night, the ice that collects on the side of the building near the wheelchair ramp nearly wipes out my lady friends in their heels. Although I am in a fur coat, I am wearing sneakers and I too almost break my tail bone. The ice on the sidewalk is a permanent architectural flaw. The nautical building in the landlocked province did not account for ice and snow. And what about those windows? They are going to leak in a few years and we are going to be dumping money into the building not made for the sturdy stuff required on the prairies. What was wrong with our building before? Oh sure it wasn't as sexy and no one would have loaned a Degas to us before. I suppose it is good to regenerate interest in art and more importantly art in Edmonton, but as always a sense of nostalgia sets in when we tear down the things that are great about the prairies, and make room for things not made for us, like trying to squeeze ourselves into something we are not, like gold lamé Wal-Mart shoes, suit jackets, or galleries inspired by boats. Next time I will go to the art opening in my sweats just like I did in Bollywood, where being my prairie hick self, I was the belle of the lululemon ball.

Kristine Nutting is a prairie-based performer and playwright currently living in Edmonton, formerly of Winnipeg, and will always be a Saskatoonie at heart.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Prairie Artsters: Seven Year Itch*

On a weekend morning in the late spring of 2003, a fold-out advertisement fell out of my newspaper. The cover of the fold out featured a single eye looking out from a seemingly pristine-yet-deserted movie theatre screen. As a still from The Paradise Institute, a work created by then Lethbridge-based artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, artists I had never heard of and a work I knew nothing about, the lone black and white image of the eye, framed by the shadowy curvature of an anonymous brow down to the jaw, was curious enough for me to make my ever first art trek down to Banff.

Image credit: Janet Cardiff, George Bures Miller, The Paradise Institute, 2001

Being then still an English and Film Studies student at the U of A, the eye in the centre of the screen reminded me of two things: the opening of Luis Buñuel's surrealist Un Chien Andalou for its eye-slicing scene that revolutionized cinema and how we view it; and on a more personal level, the empty theatre setting signaled the death of the single screen cinema experience, which was something of great interest to me. Where sight and sound once enveloped audiences united in a common experience, the multiplex has become a phenomena in bombarding viewers with stadium-seating entertainment. The experience of cinema has changed the content of cinema, and The Paradise Institute seemed to offer another way of experiencing the moving image, one that was completely foreign to my modes of perception.

As far as I had known, the visual arts remained purely fixed in the realm of objects inside of galleries, existing as flat surfaces placed against the wall or fashioned into strips and shapes of forms and colour. Museums and galleries were touring tombs for art historians, and though certain objects were of great totalitizing beauty, I had never experienced that gestalt moment before a work of art, and therefore, did not really believe it existed.

I still have not seen it to this day, this emotion that overwhelms you upon first sight, but sitting inside that forced perspective balcony of The Paradise Institute, I felt and heard an experience that would change me forever.

Binaural audio, reverberating through my inner ear canals, narrating a story that weaved between the fictional film visually playing in the theatre and the fictional sensation of sitting in a theatre, sent a physical chill all the way down my spine. The moving image has never ceased to bewitch me, but here was a creation that opened up a world between the work of art and our physical experiences of that art. It would be in this liminal world where I began exploring the histories of art, film and literary theory, criticism and the cross-pollination of thoughts and forms between disciplines and the limitations we place on how we perceive each discipline.

Almost seven years later, I have still kept these thoughts in mind as I grow as an arts writer and sometimes curator, expanding further into the visual arts, performance art, multimedia and interdisciplinary worlds. There is a long history in believing that every seven years brings a significant change evident in our molecular structure, and so chalk it up to an act of serendipity that the artists who launched my interest in contemporary art would appear again with their largest and most immersive installation to date after first seeing their work seven years ago.

Having continued to blaze the art world since The Paradise Institute wowed Venice in 2001, Cardiff and Bures Miller have continued to play on the false realities of our perceiving minds and bodies. Their use of technology has progressively become more sophisticated in tandem with the technology itself, and their reputations are more international in scope with a studio and home base in British Columbia. Creating the The Murder of Crows, the work currently showing at the AGA, for the Sydney Biennial in 2008 in an empty 200 metre wharf, it is without a doubt they have reached a level of artistic creation and production where budget, logistics and resources are no longer barrier issues.

Packing the house for the their lecture at the Telus Centre on campus last week, where Cardiff and Bures Miller first met as a graduate student and soon-to-be drop out respectively, the pair informally presented selections from their career to a room consisting largely of old friends, former teachers and wide-eyed art students. The talk wasn't riveting by any means, or even all that insightful, but it was warm and charming, much akin to a homecoming where all that matters is that they were standing in the room with you. I left wondering if their reputations had become more valued than the art itself, as the long shadows of The Paradise Institute and certainly Forty Part Motet still hover as the benchmarks that each new subsequent work will be invariably compared with.

Image credit: Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Storm Room, 2010
All Photos from: Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial 2009 | Takenori Miyamoto + Hiromi Seno

The night before the grand opening of the gallery, with an industry night and the energy of numerous out-of-towners swirling throughout the building, I sneaked away to stand inside their freshly completed new work, Storm Room. The seamless illusion of standing in a Japanese-inspired room surrounded by a thunderstorm was surprisingly more realistic than it was magical. From the perfectly timed short circuiting of the lights to the dew drops pitter pattering against the window panes, the installation was perfect in every each way—except I wasn't interested. It was enchanting, but there was no curiosity. Dreading I would have a similar experience for The Murder of Crows, a piece I have been waiting two years to experience in full, I completely bypassed it all together that evening. Hearing from people who had entered the exhibition that night, echoing my experience during an earlier and abbreviated media tour, the acute intensity of everyone in the room-—the pressing desire to be impressed—was far too overpowering to actually take in the art.

Pulling out the worn and creased fold out for The Paradise Institute that's been saved and kept in an ever-growing pile of old programs and postcards, I am having a difficult time remembering the eye opening affect that this art once had over me.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Book Design in Canada, FAB Gallery, January 26 - Feb 20, 2010*

The 27th Annual Awards for Excellence in Book Design in Canada as organized by the Alcuin Society currently makes its Edmonton stop at the FAB Gallery, with specimens from the best of the best in Canadian book publishing from 2008.

Judges Frank Newfeld, Alan Stein and E.A. Hobart (Zab) selected 32 winning titles from 243 entries, eight provinces and 89 publishers to be exhibited across Canada, at the Tokyo International Book Fair in Japan, the Frankfurt and Leipzig International Book Fairs and compete in the biggest annual book-design competition in the world, in Leipzig, Germany, in February 2010.

With categories ranging from children, limited editions, pictorial, poetry, prose fiction, prose non-fiction, prose non-fiction illustrated and reference, it should be noted that this year there were two categories (prose non-fiction and reference) where a first prize was not awarded, a sign that the awards are used beyond congratulatory back patting and seriously contended to encourage the very best in Canadian design.

In the front room of FAB Gallery, the handsome category of Pictorial prominently displays Geoffrey James' Utopia/Dystopia as designed by George Vaitkunas and published by National Gallery of Canada and Douglas & McIntyre, but unfortunately the display copy appeared in pretty rough shape with a damaged spine. Dominated by excellent photographic prints and minimal text, Vaitkunas' handiwork was bold, but Harry Thurston and Thaddeus Holownia's Silver Ghost: An Homage to the Atlantic Salmon Rivers of Eastern Canada as designed by Andrew Steeves and Holownia (Anchorage Press) was seemingly more elegant in its understated appearance.

In the lower gallery, there was a palpable meta-moment as The Surface of Meaning: Books and Book Design in Canada by Robert Bringhust, (CCSP Press / Simon Fraser University) took home the top prize for prose non-fiction illustrated for its bold use of graphics. The urge to flip through the "Do Not Touch" samples, especially Tony Urquhart's Off the Wall as designed by Tim Inkster, (Porcupine's Quill) is a constant struggle when viewing book exhibitions, as often a lone double-page spread from a book does not do justice to the book as a whole object.

Interestingly enough, each category is judged by a different set of criteria, with each book assessed from cover to cover as a whole entity. From the detail of dust jackets to harmonious front paging and of course, attractive type, the two categories that stood out the most were poetry and children.

While children is one of the most difficult categories to judge, poetry offered the most desirable items to covet, including an elongated print for Stefan A. Rose's "The House that Stands" designed by Andrew Steeves (Anchorage Press) and a striking reissue of Gertrude Stein's seminal "Tender Buttons" by Bookthug and designed by Mark Goldstein.

The raison d'etre of the exhibition, however, lies in the limited editions, where the U of A's own Jonathan Hart and Sean Caulfield's "Darkfire", as designed by Susan Colberg and published by the University of Alberta, took home first place for their stunning unbound sheets wrapped in Japanese black-and-red silk. With two winning entries this past year alone, the exhibition as a whole is another fine example demonstrating the long history of the U of A achieving national recognition for its achievements in print and design.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Monday, February 1, 2010

Group Photography Exhibition: At the Same Time, ARTery, January 22 - March 6, 2010
, REVIEWED by Alistair Henning

At The Same Time brings together the work of five different photographers, who share similar aesthetics and subject matter despite significant differences in geography. The show will be exhibited in Edmonton, AB; Toronto, ON; and Manchester, UK. Each exhibition of the collected works will be curated by the artists respective to their hometowns (Zachary Ayotte and Ted Kerr in Edmonton, Steven Beckly in Toronto, and Colin Quinn and Oisin Share in Manchester). 

At the show's Edmonton opening, I had the opportunity to speak with Ayotte and Kerr about how the idea for the show came about. According to Ayotte, “We were friends on Flickr, then I went to Toronto last year and I discussed it with him, and they were game, and then we got organized.”

Ayotte continued, “The most obvious connection was aesthetic. I would look at the photographers' work, how each of us were working, and the similarities in how we all chose to work: our subject matter was the same.

Indeed all the images do share a sympathetic aesthetic: intimate, ephemeral moments captured impressionistically; private lives up for public consumption yet drawing the public into their private world, resisting and refuting the viewer's consuming gaze. Hung like a thoughtful explosion, the layout of prints throughout the ARTery's main front area mixes the photographers' work in a manner that initially makes it feel very much like the work of a single (collective) mind.

Both Kerr and Ayotte reluctantly agreed that the photos and exhibition style of Wolfgang Tillmans had an influence on the show: that photographer's work tends to focus on “the banality of the everyday”, and also Tillmans' way of presenting his own work in solo shows influenced the way Ayotte chose to lay out the pieces in the ARTery.

According to Ayotte, “One of the interesting things I find about his work is the way he changes the meaning of his images based on how he positions them or lays them out. That's why he often re-uses work, is to show how it can change based on context. And that's partially why I think we adopted this style for the layout.


When I came to set it up, I came with an idea in my mind about what each artist's work stood for, how they spoke to each other, and I tried to triangulate them, and fill in the gaps with how the work overlapped. So it is very intentional. It's definitely a choice to put them where they are.”

“But,” Kerr interjects, “not overly premeditated: you had an overarching idea in mind, and let the process guide you.”

Indeed it would be almost impossible to create such a layout other than through total subjectivity. Which in this case is not a bad thing: any formalism of presentation or concept would be an unwanted party guest talking loudly over the assembled images' quiet meditations.

“Sometimes it's just like 'there's yellow in this one and yellow in that one'”, Ayotte agrees. “I would kind of just know when it's wrong.”

“It's because you trusted the framework,” continues Kerr. “|And all the work is strong. When the work is strong, it's easier.”

Although digitally scanned then printed, all the photographers use film cameras as their image capturing medium.

Kerr explains, “We all use film. For me at least, digital made me a lazy, bad photographer. I would keep shooting looking for the perfect photo. I like the mystery of film. We say we 'develop' film, but in Spanish they say you 'reveal' it. I feel that's more closely aligned to what photography is to me: I would rather have whatever that moment was revealed to me, rather than to develop it. For me, photography is super personal. If I'm using digital, it doesn't feel as personal: you almost feel the obligation to share, like 'oh wow, this is an awesome photo!'. I just don't like that.' 

For me,” Kerr continues, “sometimes I'll use photography as a way of being a lazy painter. I'll see something, and I'll have an image of how I'd like to flatten it or make it mine, so I'll take a photo of it. If I was a different person at a different time, maybe I would sometime store it in my head and paint it.”

This more subjective and personal approach, facilitated by using film as opposed to digital cameras, seems increasingly popular: as Ayotte puts it concluding our chat, “It's such an interesting time because I think more and more I'm hearing stories about people going back to working with film. We're seeing the development of almost two different mediums.”

Whether the photos on display here really owe their existence to that special something film offers, there is no question that the show delivers on its premise, exhibiting work so close in spirit that they transcend all personal, temporal, and physical distance and demarcations differentiating their creation.

Photo credits: Alistair Henning, 2010
Image credits: Zachary Ayotte, Ted Kerr, Steven Beckly, Colin Quinn and Oisin Share, 2010.

- A.H.