Thursday, May 27, 2010

The 2010 Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art: Timeland, AGA, May 29 - August 29, 2010*

Timeland marks the first edition in the Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art’s short 14 year history where it has been curated from a perspective external to the host institutions, and notably, external to the province. Inviting Richard Rhodes, Editor of Canadian Art magazine and an independent curator for over twenty years, the Art Gallery of Alberta and sole host of this year’s exhibition appears to be making a bold statement.

Shifting dramatically into the 21st century with not just a new building, but with inviting a reputable outside eye to fulfill the premise of “showing Alberta art to Albertans”, the AGA is opening up a largely localized debate onto a national and international playing field. The result will open on May 29 to the general public, but at first glance, the released line up of 24 artists breaks down to be predominantly male, white, residing in Southern Alberta, and already enjoying some level of success outside of the province.

While the selection process remains to be culled from an open call that is then whittled down to studio visits and a final list, this year’s line up holds an air of anticipation regardless of familiar names. The context has shifted, and that becomes clear when you speak to an established artist such as Lyndal Osborne, who will be making her third appearance out of seven biennials.

Internationally known for her meticulously crafted investigations into genetically modified agriculture, the Australian born Osborne recalls how the biennial has shifted over the years. From her acreage just outside of Edmonton, she shares, “When it started, I thought it was the best thing that ever happened to the province. I thought it brought together the artists in this community, that were not exactly acrimonious, but had a lot of tension between them. For the first time we all got together and talked to each other. Tons of artists came up for that first biennial. I thought it was a chance to start again.”

In 1996, the then Edmonton Art Gallery was shifting from its modernist ties to a broader contemporary field, engaging in the model of a biennial to provoke new discussions on the state of art in Alberta. While over ten years has passed since that model was first adopted with the exhibition touring to at least two different institutions within the province, the show will only appear at the Art Gallery of Alberta, but there is hope that the show and the building will become a destination point this summer.

One of the artists who feels the buzz is Calgary-based painter Chris Millar. Pointing to the brewing excitement in Calgary about the biennial line up, which is heavily stacked with Calgary-based artists, Millar feels that people will make the trek up for it. In his second biennial at the age of 33, Millar will be exhibiting his recent venture in sculpture--albeit it is sculpture made from the skins of paint. Recently acquired by the National Art Gallery of Canada, “Bejewelled Double Festooned Plus Skull for Girls” will be the first time this new work appears in Edmonton, which made its premiere in Calgary last year at Trepanier Baer, who has been representing Millar for the past five years. As a young artist that has been toted as the next big thing coming out of Calgary, Millar is rarely seen in the Northern part of the province, and this fact is echoed in his perception of the biennial as a good foreground to reach a broader public. “I’m excited to show in the new beautiful building,” says Millar from his studio in Calgary. “The work is not just acquired by an individual that goes into their art lair. This is the point in the process where you can exhale and feel satisfied.”

Image credit: Chris Millar, Bejewelled Double Festooned Plus Skull For Girls, 2009, Acrylic Paint, Styrene, ABS, Metal. Collection of The National Gallery of Art. Image courtesy of the artist.

While issues of exposure and support may reveal more about the differences between Edmonton and Calgary’s art audiences, galleries, and collectors, there is a lingering and volatile notion of the biennial being an inclusive project, serving to only propagate the commercially successful components of Albertan art.

East Coast transplant Paul Bernhardt, who along with Millar were finalists in 2005’s RBC Canadian Painting Competition, refers to the idea of local biennials back to New York’s Whitney Biennial, where since 1932, has always been a point of contestation amongst local artists. Completing his BFA at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design before finishing his MFA at the State University of New York, Bernhardt shares a more cynical perspective on biennials, “It’s really an unfortunate way to frame something, like with the Whitney, there’s this expectation that in some way it is going to be this definitive statement on what’s happening--but in reality, it never can be.”

Image Credit: Paul Bernhardt, Communication Breakdown, Oil Pant on Canvas, "62 x "74, 2009

Moving to Edmonton three years ago and working steadily on structural abstractions that link our modernized lifestyles with the landscape, honing in on the figurative specters of parking lots, satellites and power stations, Bernhardt has been industriously working away in his downtown studio just a block east of the AGA. Having never seen any previous editions of the biennial, he doesn’t know what to expect for his first inclusion, but is aware and sympathetic to the feelings surrounding the changes to and within the gallery. He shares, “I think it’s a good thing to bring in guest curators. Everybody has a particular interest or bent and it’s important to create context. The thing that is unfortunate is that people get their backs up when you put in the word “biennial” that has this pretense, but it’s still just a selection.”

Another recent addition to the province within the biennial is Kristin Ivey, who drove to Alberta’s most southern westerly region of the Crowsnest Pass from Halifax for a residency in 2008--and has never looked back. Enchanted by the mountainous terrain of the region and the tragic beauty of the town’s history, which is actually five small towns about two and half hours south of Calgary, Ivey has been living and working mostly in isolation in a population of roughly 6,000.

“I only know two of the other artists in the biennial, Rita McKeough who taught me at NSCAD, and Wednesday Lupypciw, who did the residency at Thomas Gushul’s right after me,” says Ivey, who has also never been to nor shown in Edmonton.

Working in reclaimed fabrics that began in Halifax and has since grown to over 200 ft in length, Ivey has settled down in the area, buying a house, and relating to the land in a way that is akin to a burgeoning romance.

“Instantly when I got here I had the feeling that I had to live here,” she recalls over the phone. “Even when I leave to go to Calgary, I felt I wasn’t home. I don’t even feel comfortable in Nova Scotia anymore. It was hard to stay here at first after the residency ended and the grant funding dried up. I had to be referred to get the smallest jobs, but I fought for it.”

Idealizing Crowsnest Pass for the first two years, Ivey feels she is now seeing things more clearly, but remains enchanted with an idea of this land as being from another time--a theme within this year’s curatorial approach.

Citing in particular the history of the place, with examples of the tragedy of the old mines and the infamous Frank slide that buried part of the town, she reflects, “There’s of course tons of history in Halifax, but when you grow up with it, it’s not the same. There’s no sense of self discovery.”

Excited and nervous about leaving her isolation and talking to artists again, Ivey in many ways is a microcosm of Alberta within the Canadian art world, working away in isolation and rarely finding affinity within her own town. “There are a couple of artists in town, but I don’t know what they would think of my work,” she says sheepishly. “I probably won’t get a show in town, and I don’t get to see a lot of other work unless I’m traveling with my own shows, but after leaving school, I always felt you could live anywhere so long as you show everywhere.”

Having recent exhibitions in Calgary, London, Ontario, and Toronto, and an exhibition in Nova Scotia later this year, all since graduating in 2007, Ivey has found her corner of the world that fuels and inspires her, living in awe of a place she can’t help but call home. And like Ivey, the AGA looks to break its own isolation by engaging in a larger dialogue, seeking support from outside sources, as often the case, the recognition we seek exists beyond our local spheres.

*First published in Vue Weekly

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