Thursday, April 22, 2010

Human / Nature: Portraits, University of Alberta Gallery A, until May 8, 2010

Acquiring works from fine art to ethnographic artifacts since 1908, the University of Alberta is not only one of the oldest collecting university institutions in Canada, but also one of the largest. As one of the institution's 35 different collections that range from print to earth sciences, the art and artifacts collection has put together a two-part exhibition inspired from donations and additions acquired over the past seven years.

Jim Corrigan, curator of the University of Alberta Art and Artifact Collection, has gathered 46 art works and artifacts made by 34 artists and craftspeople from around the globe spanning centuries. The first half of the series, Human / Nature: Portraits, contrasts historical prints by William Hogarth and Francisco Goya to contemporary prints and drawings by Helen Kalvak and Pitseolak Ashoona. Culling from over 2500 works collected since 2003, Corrigan notes that he began to see a pattern on human nature, particularly on portraits and landscape, which will be the second part of the exhibition series.

It is arguable that most works of art address the theme of human nature in some manner, as art in its essence is a continual dedication to shed light on the intangibles of existence. From Edo-era hairpins to beaded moccasins to a contemporary self-portrait by local painter Julian Forrest, the exhibition certainly appears discombobulated in what it is trying to say, but the show does celebrate the Friends of the Museum's 25th anniversary by exemplifying the depth and global reach of the U of A and its friends and associates.

Aware of the ethics of collecting and exhibiting works from other cultures and turning them into art objects rather than contextualizing them in their history, Corrigan shares, "Everyone that looks has a bias and a point of view, and it's important to understand that you have one and that you have a consensus on what you're trying to say.

"I wanted to make people think about objects in a different way, by placing things together like traditional adornments to figurative representations," continues Corrigan, who notes that the limitations of space also inhibited the amount of works to be included.

With some gems like the large prints by Seishi Ozaku, who combined woodblock prints and transferred them to lithography plates, it is the first work the print-focused U of A has acquired that uses this particular technique.

Emphasizing most strongly the importance for the collections to reach a larger public, he says, "Taking a line from the President's message: we need to be connected to the community. It's important for people to know that we have these collections and that they are not just for people on campus."

The second part of the series opening in June will focus on landscapes, and it appears similar in scope. Featuring a newly acquired Lawrence Harris that the Group of Seven artist gave as a gift to Emily Carr, a 1530 woodblock by Albrecht Altdorfer, one of the earliest western artists to use landscape as more than a backdrop, and a gift of a 1930s etching of the U of A as seen from the north side of the river, the broad Human / Nature series may not fulfil a clear vision of an educational exhibition, but it does satisfy the eclectic archivist and historian side in most of us.

*First published in Vue Weekly

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