Thursday, October 21, 2010

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

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