What’s on at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

On the Friday between Christmas and New Year’s Eve I found myself in the Art Gallery of Alberta.  The Art Gallery of Alberta is certainly not an unusual place to find me, but this visit brought a somewhat remarkable realization to me:  Red-blooded, square-jawed, two-fisted Edmonton, home of the Oilers, the Oil Kings, the Rush, the (unfortunately named) Eskimos, home base of the Loyal Eddies and the First Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, the Gateway to the Oilsands and the North — Edmonton, the self-styled “City of Champions” loves the Arts!

I stood in the lobby chatting with staff about what they had all expected to be a quiet day.  It was a kind of miserable wet snow day outside.  One would expect Christmas dinner left overs to be still being picked over in cozy homes.  New Year’s Eve celebrating should have been in preparation.  I looking into the gift shop.  Customers were lined up to make purchases.  There was no Boxing Week sale in the gift shop.

At about the five and a half hour mark of a six hour day, over four hundred people had been through the galleries.  Suddenly that number came into perspective for me.  My family ran an Edmonton area golf course in the 80s and 90s when demand far outstripped tee-time supply in the region.  In those heady days four hundred golfers was considered a very busy sunny summer weekend day with sixteen or more hours of day light.  And here, on a snowy, cold, wet day in midwinter, over four hundred Edmontonians took time out from or with their families and holiday celebrations to look at art.  I understand the next two days were similarly busy.

I’m going to say a little or a lot about all the current exhibitions, but first a little more about my realization.

There has been a long and divisive debate in this city about the cost of building a new arena, principally as a venue for the erstwhile champion Edmonton Oilers.  There has been a little bellyaching in some quarters about the cost of the marvellous public sports/recreation centres in our city.  The owners of FC Edmonton, our (soccer) football team, have expressed a desire for a new stadium, but the cost has kept such a thing a pipe dream.  The City of Champions seems a little ambivalent about some of its potential champs.

But, when the Art Gallery of Alberta desperately needed a new building, the debate wasn’t about money, it was about the design!  The Winspeare is one of the finest concert spaces there is, and it is busy, busy, busy.  Same for the Citadel and who knows how many smaller theatres, art galleries, music clubs, festivals.  Every single day year round you can find live theatre, music, dance, poetry, opera, festivals of all sorts. And they’re all packed!

Sure the big sporting events haul in sponsorship and advertising dollars and a crowd for an afternoon or evening or two a month, but, every day an Edmonton artist hangs up her work and crowds gather, from hard-working youngsters like Cayley Thomas pulling them in at Wunderbar, or Aaron Paquette mesmerizing at the Bearclaw, to the Citadel veterans filling the house for the 423rd annual production of A Christmas Carol.

Or the Art Gallery of Alberta overwhelming its staff with the epic draw of glorious shows year round.

A note to Mayor Iveson:

Can we replace those “City of Champions” signs with “Festival City” or “City of the Arts” or something?

And now, a quick (?) tour of the current exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

Of Heaven and Earth: 500 Years of Italian Painting from Glasgow Museums

As I read the catalogue for this show of works from Glasgow’s municipal museums, I couldn’t help but think that the legacy the Scottish city enjoys thanks to Victorian collectors is very parallel to the artistic wealth that has been being built by and for Edmonton’s citizens.  Certainly the emphases are different, but our artistic riches, and the resource available to us, are remarkable.

Of Heaven and Earth is a representative selection of the Italian paintings in Glasgow’s collections, from Buonaccorso’s mid-14th century St. Lawrence which greats visitors on their left as they enter the second floor gallery, to what I find a most endearing piece, Luigi da Rios’ Overlooking a Canal, Venice: from 1886.  A quirky hobby I have is looking up on Google StreetView the locations of old paintings.  Sadly, I can confirm Peter Humfrey’s suspicion in the catalogue “Almost certainly this house no longer exists.”  How wonderful that the house and it’s people survive in da Rios’ painting!

For those who might pursue my little hobby, there is a surprise waiting for you, courtesy of Marc Quinn, in the digital View of San Giorgio Magiore: a big pink something not in the church court around 1760 when Francesco Guardi painted his marvellous view:

Back to Guardi’s painting: stay for a moment before the painting and admire the reflections on the water.  A beautiful – and dignified – presaging of all that was best of Impressionism.

What startled me most on my first visit to Of Heaven and Earth was suddenly finding myself standing a foot or two from Botticelli’s Annunciation.  I just gasped.  Look at the angel’s face and upraised right hand.  It’s as though he has thrown the golden shaft of the Holy Spirit (a Hail Mary pass?).  Is Mary bowing to the angel? or has she felt the Spirit penetrate her, curling in shock? No reproduction in a book can compare with being in the presence of these paintings.

Consider the Adoration of the Magi from about 1500:  Notice the sculptural pastiglia elements on clothing and jewelry.  They can’t be missed — unless you’re looking at a flat colour plate in a book.

Salvator Rosa’s two heroic Baptismal landscapes from the mid-Seventeenth Century somewhat dominate the show just by their size.  And they are oh so grand!  His blasted oak trees smell more of Friedrich than Poussin and so, perhaps, are more attractive to the modern eye than most landscapes of the time.  This is a sublime wilderness the Romantics would admire.

There is so much to love in Of Heaven and Earth!  There are pre-Raphaelite hints in Aldi’s tiny, jewel-like Painter and his Model, and, of course, there are paintings created pre-Raphael.  Hints of Goya, of David.  And look at the charming old violin teacher by Andreotti from the late Nineteenth Century! Norman Rockwell would have been proud to produce this piece, but I’m not sure he could have managed the pathos intermingled with joy that I see in Andreotti’s lovely little moment.

I’ve mentioned just a few of the forty-one pieces in Of heaven and Earth, but each could stir raptures. If you see only one exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta this year — I think you’re being very foolish — but if you see only on exhibition this year at the Art Gallery of Alberta, please make it Of Heaven and Earth!

Of Heaven and Earth‘s only Canadian showing ends March 9th

Chagall: Daphnis and Chloé

A note I made one day while walking through Chagall’s amazing series of lithographs from the National Gallery was simply:

“childlike dream/memory”

Chagall’s vivid lithographs — “the colours!” is a common response to the collection — are illustrations for a novel written in the 2nd or 3rd century by the Greek, Longus.  Little or nothing is known about the author.  There is something fascinating about the idea of illustrating longus’ Daphnis and Chloé as the novel is constructed as the the story Longus imagines to be represented by a painting he has seen.  So, Chagall is, in a sense, recreating the painting Longus admired.

The character Daphnis, the ideal shepherd in the bucolic world of pastoral poetry, is far older than Longus.  Theocritus had killed off Daphnis in his poetry five or six centuries before — just as Milton would kill off that other great shepherd Lycidas more than a millenium later.  Chagall’s lithographs magically recreate the dreamworld of the pastoral.

The story of Daphnis and Chloé, in summary, is that Daphnis, a mortal, and Chloé an immortal nymph, fall in love, and, after various vicissitudes, marry and live happily ever after.  Without the specific context of the text, Chagall’s illustrations give little for the viewer to hold onto.  They seem, in fact, to be childlike memory/dreams of a bucolic world.  Certainly there is darkens in the world of Daphnis and Chloé — I think of the blood red beast being gutted in “Sacrifices made to the nymphs” — but mostly we have the colour, and the light, and a feeling of simple cares in a world of sunlight and warm rains, of toy-like villages on green hillsides in a world still young.  When we stand before Chagall’s beautiful lithographs, we are in the position of Longus, so,

Tell yourself a story!

Until February 16th.

Brenda Draney: Suspend

The small gallery at the top of the stairs on the second floor, the RBC New Works Gallery, is a tremendous venue for mid-career Alberta artist to show their work in the company of the historic works usually hosted in the larger rooms of the AGA.  In the New Works Gallery on sees a snapshot of the current moment in Alberta contemporary art.  Always provocative, always powerful, rarely conventional.

Brenda Draney’s new works, collectively titled “Suspend”, fascinating in their own right, are also a stimulating counterpoint to and conversation with the historical works in the other rooms of the second floor, and with Chagal’s lithographs in the Poole Gallery downstairs.  In this series of story fragments from her native Sawridge First Nation and Slave Lake community, Draney emphatically shows that she knows, in the words of Pliny the Elder, “when to lift the brush from the canvas” ( quod manum de tabula sciret – Histories, XXXV,xxxvi. 81).  There are no extraneous marks. Draney’s linen ground shows through everywhere.

These paintings, like Chagall’s lithographs, are illustrations.  But the story illustrated is far more epic than the fable of Daphnis and Chloé.  Draney illustrates the destroying flood and fire the Sawridge and Slave Lake community has survived and overcome.  Draney’s minimalist marks are illustrations of a mythic in scale but very real story of survival, sharing and love.

When I first looked at Draney’s raw grey/brown linen canvases, I thought immediately of some of Alex Janvier’s works, although there is little else obviously linking the works.  I was pleasantly surprised on reading the little book of the exhibition, that Janvier has been an important influence on Draney.  And here we come to what I think is the conversation between Draney and the forty-one pieces from Glasgow across the second floor landing.  Yes, Draney is contemporary with a big “C: and yes she stands in the Turtle Island aboriginal tradition, and yes, she is firmly rooted in the deep history and community of Lesser Slave Lake.  But look again at the rapid, fluid brush work of Botticelli’s Annunciation, at the threatening landscape shared by Rosa’s two monumental canvases.  And look at the impasto of the views of Venice, the piercing individuality of the old violin master, the almost backgroundless women, staring down at the Venice canal:

We stood on the cement front step and I could feel it unsteady underneath me, almost floating. (Brenda Draney, Watermarks: Resonant Absences in Painting and Memory, p. 20, quoted in Kristy Trinier, Brenda Draney: Suspend, p. 5)

Wherever else they may have been aiming, reaching, seeking, the path of the 500 years of Italian painting leads, somehow, through Brenda Draney’s Suspend.

Until March 9th.

Megan Morman’s Now You See It

Now You See It moves me strongly.

I know many in the Edmonton visual arts community have issues with the AGA, just as many in the Edmonton Theatre community have issues witht he Citadel — everybody wants to take potshots at the biggest battleship.  Would we each like it to be different? Certainly. Would we like it to vanish? Heaven forbid!  Personally, I thought at first that Randall Stout’s design for the new AGA was neither the best nor the worst of a bad lot.  I confess now that I was an idiot.  Stout’s design is a wonderful blend of audacity and caution — perfect for Edmonton.  And I predict the AGA building will soon be a beloved icon, even among those (few) Edmontonians who never set foot in the place.

More strongly, I had hoped that the new AGA would be large enough to have a gallery dedicated to rotating exhibitions of the Gallery’s permanent collection, most of which remains warehoused in perpetuity.  I’ve been pleased that Gallery A on the main floor, which currently hosts Angakkuq, has been used somewhat in the way I had hoped.

And so, we come to Morman’s Now You See It.
The artist has covered the infinite walls of Manning Hall with a gargantuan word search puzzle, and the sought words are the surnames of artists whose works are warehoused in the AGA’s permanent collection.  What an unexpected and unexpectedly powerful statement!

I’ll let a few of the names make the point:

John James Audubon
Jackson Beardy
Frederick Banting (yes, the co-discoverer of insulin as work in the AGA collection!)
Paul Emile Borduas
Catherine Burgess
William S. Burroughs (!)
Edward Burtynsky
Emily Carr
Alex Colville
Joe Fafard
Lawren Harris
A. Y. Jackson
Alex Janvier
David Janzen
Cornelius Krieghof
William Kurelek
Arthur Lismer
Henry Moore
Norval Morrisseau
José Clemente Orozco
Jane Ash Poitras
Bill Reid
Jean-Paul Riopelle
Diego Rivera
August Rodin(!)
Allen Sapp
Tom Thomson
F. H. Varley
Andy Warhol(!)

And so on. And on. For a long time.  A long, long time.

Maybe we could find forty-one pieces to send off to Glasgow for a temporary exhibit! Or better, when we build that new arts complex next to the new Museum down the road from the new entertainment complex/arena — maybe we should find a permanent exhibit space for some of the AGA’s permanent collection.

Thank you, Megan Morman for rubbing the sadly hidden collection in our collective face.  The hiding demands action.

Until January 31st.

Hunting Blind

Robin Arseneault and Paul Jackson’s instalation outdoors on the City of Edmonton Terrace is challenging to appreciate under this winter’s snow, but fortunately, Hunting Blind is a permanent exhibit.  Come back on a sumer afternoon, enjoy a drink and some snacks in the shade of Aurora Borealis.  Then wander over to the edge, sit down on the little bench behind (in front of?) one of the pac man ghost like bird cutouts.  Look through the eye holes.  What’s that structure on legs you see?  What’s sticking out of it? Is it pointed at you?

Go order another drink and consider the relationship between artist, art, and viewer.

The Intellection of Lady Spider House

Anyone who actually reads what I write here will know that I recently said of Conceptual Art “What the Hell?!” (I paraphrase).  But, I love The Intellection of Lady Spider House!  Certainly when it opened in the lead up to Hallowe’en it had a little more power, and certainly reading the text of the concept — Geoffry Farmer and a collective of artists came into possession of a collection of old funhouse props — homage to Bruce Conner’s 1959 Spider Lady House — collecting — reclassifying — (I paraphrase) adds layers, dimensions and depth, but, really, if you can physically negotiate the multiple trip possibilities, just explore the space! And enjoy the quiet dimness.  Maybe chat for a while with the silent, waiting lady in the corner.  “Is she Lady Spider?!” I suddenly ask myself.  Get caught in her web.

Today a young couple and their toddler rode the elevator down from the thrid floor with us.  “Spooky!” said the baby-faced father with a happy, comfortable grin.  He “got” conceptual art, and critics be damned!

Until January 12th.

Cabinets of Curiosity

The Intellection of Lady Spider House ties in nicely with Cabinets of Curiosity in the BMO World of Creativity (The Kids Gallery as we’ve called it for almost 20 years now through two buildings).  Here we have a compact, interactive, kid-scale, wacky, crazy collection of every imaginable type of whatnot.  This is crawling into a slightly creepy but always safe Tomboy’s junk drawer writ remarkably large.  I have an overwhelming vision of some Ray Bradbury novels.  Here children can examin the Illustrated Man, sip Dandelion Wine (non-alcoholic of course), and now and then worry that Something Wicked (mom or dad checking in from Angakkuq) This Way Comes.

Even if you’re a grown up, even if you’ve no kid tagging along, take a tour of the Cabinets.  If you open yourself to it, maybe you’ll find a surprise within.

Until June 1st.

Angakuuq: Between Two Worlds

Between two worlds.

Here we are.  Soapstone shamans dancing, drumming, hunting. Whalebone and ivory and fur.

Here we are.  Human transforming to animal transforming to human.

Here we are. Lithograph and the carved stone (lithos) whence the print was taken.

Here we are. Arctic lithographic prints of mythic story and Eurpean lithographic prints of mythic stories.

Here we are. Sawridge paint on canvas and Italian paint on canvas.

Here we are. The viewer transformed into a bird within the piece of art she views.

Here we are. The joy of dark childlike curiosity and . . . . the quotidian world of work and routine.

Here we are. Angakkuq. Between two worlds.

In Gallery A until February 16th.

Words cannot describe.  You must look and see.

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