Views of the 19th Century in Two Media Trying to Find Their Way

Two independently quite marvellous exhibits are at the Art Gallery of Alberta just now.  On the first floor in the Poole gallery there is another of the National Gallery of Canada‘s travelling shows — this a collection of fascinating, moving British photographs from the 19th Century.  On the second floor there is a perhaps more immediately arresting exhibition of two centuries of British watercolours from the Victoria and Albert Museum.  If the juxtaposition has not been planned, it is a stunningly fortuitous coincidence of schedules.  If planned, this plan is brilliant, for the exhibits, met together here in Edmonton, speak to each other, and we in Edmonton and Alberta have the opportunity to benefit inestimably from the conversation.

Having declared the inestimability, I will now, perhaps foolishly, attempt to estimate briefly the conversation and our benefits as gallery-goers.

Such comprehensive exhibits of art forms through their initial formative stages are certainly of great interest to students — whether formal or life-long-learners — of art history, and they are certainly of interest to working artists.  But at the AGA right now we can experience the development of two arts which came into maturity together, under each other’s influence, and often in the hands of single artists working in both media.  Both British watercolourists and British photographers worked in an effort to quickly capture the effects of light, particularly sunlight.  And, of great interest to life-long-learners and non-professional artists, much of the development of both arts was driven by dedicated and talented amateurs.

One of the most important photographers in the National Gallery exhibit, W. H. Fox Talbot, wrote in his first career as a draughtsman “How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed upon the paper”.  A consideration of a number of the pieces from the V&A, such as Cromek’s “Temple of Saturn and Temple of Concord,” Prout’s “Porch of Ratisbon Cathedral” and Boyce’s “East End of Edward the Confessor’s Chapel and Tomb” makes clear that through effort and skill a watercolourist can produce a product such as Talbot dreamt of.  And Talbot himself went on to produce photographs of exquisite detail, such as “The Haystack”, in the National Gallery show.  But Talbot discovered that photography was itself a gruelling art, spending at least three years on the composition which would become “The Open Door.”

As they developed, both art forms rapidly branched out to a wide number of subject matters, but it seems the watercolourist and the photographer always stood side by side.  While Francis Frith was photographing the temples of Egypt, Edward Lear was painting them.  While Mansell was photographing cottages in Argyl, David Cox was painting the beaches of North Wales.  William Bell Scott painted iron workers of the Tyne while Rejlander and Thomson produced photographic portraits of the underclasses of London.

Photographers and watercolourists fanned out around the world, documenting, decorating, illustrating and making social and political statements.  Photographer Roger Fenton went to the Crimea to photograph the British war effort and watercolourist William Simpson carried his paintbox to the same conflict.  Conditions in the Crimea pointed out a fundamental difference between the media:  Fenton’s photos are necessarily static, limited by the photographic technology, while Simpson’s watercolours are filled with movement and colour.  While the photographs of the Crimean War are impartially and meticulously accurate as to physical details, the watercolours capture the moement and confusion that are only hinted at in photos like Fenton’s “Railway Sheds and Workshops, Balakalva.”

But photographers did not always strive for meticulous accuracy any more than did waterclourists always strive for the stunning — dare I say? — photo realism of Cromek’s paintings.  Many of the photographs in the National Gallery exhibit are printed from paper negatives, a technology which continued in use because of desired qualities of softness and depth that were lacking in the more “accurate glace plate negatives and albumin prints.  Many are composite prints made from several negatives.  Most are posed.  Meanwhile, watercolourists often painted impressionistic, expressive landscapes and posed figurative groupings.  Cozens distorted the verticality of the convent-topped rock in “Between Brixen and Balzano”.  Palmer produced an imaginary, allegorical landscape in “Going Home at Curfew Time”, and Turner — well, Turner was just Turner — hardly any realism but all of Reality in golden light and melancholy.

One could go on, but I’ll end with a metaphor.

British Watercolours, 1750-1950 and 19th Century British Photographs, now showing at the Art Gallery of Alberta illustrate beautifully that British Watercolour and British Photography are sister arts who walked hand-in-hand as they grew and developed through the 19th Century.  It is a joy and a wonder to watch the sisters stroll through the AGA.

19th Century British Photographs from the National Gallery of Canada continues until October 6, 2013.

British Watercolours: 1750-1950 continues until November 24, 2013.

I would also highly recommend that you find a way to afford the beautiful and detailed catalogues  from both exhibits.

british watercolours and photos

Maskwacîs: a hidden gem at the Royal Alberta Museum

I’ve been meaning to go to the Royal Alberta Museum to see Maskwacîs (Bear Hills) for a while now.  Today’s heat gave me the push to take an air-conditioned break viewing another slightly unknown gem at the RAM.  Maskwacîs is a display of art pieces from members of the community of Maskwacîs, also known as Bear Hills, or Hobbema, Alberta.  Hobbema is in the news all too often with the sadly familiar tale of poverty, gang activity, and innocent, senseless death. Maskwacîs is a welcome tonic to the negative picture of this First Nation too often presented to the rest of Canada.

The pieces are arayed along the south wall to the left and right of the front desk, opposite the bronze sculptures of the pronghorns and the settler family.  I began my viewing at the east end, just outside Wild Alberta, making notes as I went.  The exhibit contains only about two dozen pieces, so these refreshing images of/from the community of Maskwacîs can be admired/studied on a quite brief visit, although returns would certainly be in order.

Clayton Saskatchewan’s “Whistle Stick”, a tremendous piece of bead and feather work is the first piece that caught my eye.  In a sense timelessly traditional in appearance, I can’t help but feel that Saskatchewan’s piece is something other and a very modern expression, although I can’t quite put my finger on it.  It seems another visit is quite in order.

Llorinda Louis’ “Never Hide” from 2009 is a mixed media piece — what used to be called a collage — made up largely of clippings from newspapers and magazines.  The influence of Jane Ash Poitras seems clear, but Louis’ piece is about more than just the state of her people.  The images particularly — models in underwear, Sophie Loren assessing Jane Mansfield’s cleavage, a Latin American peasant — make clear that this is also a feminist and anti-colonial expression.  “It’s not about the Laundry!” one phrase shouts.  Indeed, it’s about a whole lot more than that.

Felicia Standingontheroad’s 2009 photo “Free” is the overwhelming charmer of Maskwacis.  A young woman (Standingontheroad herself?) is held in mid-joyful-leap, her body twisted into a gentle arch and slight spiral.  Her light smile of pure joy peeks from behind the collar of her jacket.  Behind her, a child is walking toward her across the snowy field from which she has taken flight.  I could stand for hours lost in this image. What joy!  And what a joy!

Shawn Rabbit’s untitled piece from 2008 has the feeling of a contemporary petroglyph — handprints on a synthetic orange background.

Sandy Heimer has photos hung on both wings of the exhibit.  On the left is “The Carver”, a vivid portrait of a man intent on his work butchering a bison.  On the right side, “Portraits 1” and “Portraits 2” like “The Carver”, are evocative glimpses into the complex, vibrant, living community.

Another exquisite piece which on its own makes a visit to Maskwacîs worthwhile is Rusty Threefingers, Jr.’s monochrome gem “Drummer”.  The black ink work is executed with remarkable confidence and fluidity.  “Drummer” is a jewel of striking confidence and absolutely fascinating.

Please don’t miss the last two pieces tucked in the display case at the west end of the exhibit.  Myra Saskatchewan’s “Beaded Infant Moccasins,” 2006, “Beaded Crown”, n.d., like Clayton Saskatchewan’s “Whistle Stick” seems firmly rooted in traditional forms, but somehow they are also something other and more.  These works provide a powerful, thought provoking frame through which to view Maskwacîs.

“Hai hai”, I say to the community of artists of Maskwacîs, and also a “thank you” to Myra Saskatchewan for the curation and Sandy Heimer for coordinating the show.

Maskwacîs (Bear Hills) continues at the Royal Alberta Museum until September 3, 2012.



Update, January 2, 2014: Yesterday the New Year was rung in with the official, long overdue renaming of Hobbema.  Today is the first full day of the town called Maskwacîs.

“Messages To: The Edmonton Remand Centre Newspaper” by Lindsey Bond

The other day after a visit to the Art Gallery of Alberta (Mistresses of the Modern is still on so get down there!) I was walking through Churchill LRT Station and saw this poster in one of the ad spaces on the wall.  “Oh,” I thought, “that’s Lindsey’s new thing.”  I have a passing acquaintance with Lindsey Bond from her time as Assistant to the Director at Visual Arts Alberta — on her typing skills I inflicted the absurdly long titles of my absurdly small paintings.  I noticed the QR code on the display and, of course, got out my phone. How interesting: I was standing in front of a piece of public art which is part of an attenuated show displayed across more than a dozen public transit stations. And the entire virtual gallery is now also in my phone.  This is good!

I thought of one day many years ago in the Mexico City subway when I noticed that at decent intervals through the station there were screens displaying brief history lessons — public education indeed.  I thought at the time it was such a good thing to be using public space for education and information rather than marketing.  Lindsey’s multi-platform photography exhibit (it will be launched as an old fashioned book at the end of March) is a wonderful marriage of good old public art and the ubiquitous smart phone.

But, I haven’t even touched on the substance of “Messages To:”

Before now I hadn’t known that illicit messages are openly passed from the outside to those held in the Edmonton Remand Centre by the ancient medium of chalk on the sidewalk.  Unlike many I’ve met in Edmonton, I know where the Remand Centre is — I find it amazing that a big building pretty much right in the heart of the city is invisible to most citizens.  If the building is invisible, those inside certainly and sadly must be as well.

But Lindsey’s photos of the chalk messages to inmates heartbreakingly shows that those inside are not ignored by at least a few outside.  Pink hearts abound in the sidewalk drawings.  Even the more concrete messages such as to “Call Ashley” take the time for endearing pet names.  While we are zipping across town in a crowd of commuters, all of us staring at our phones, there are those held in Remand, whatever their alleged crimes, who look out the narrow window for a bit of outside personal loving contact from chalk on the sidewalk, contact which will be hosed away at nightfall.  This chalk is the one tweet they’re allowed to receive for the day or the week or the month.  Lindsey’s exhibit preserves this virtually unknown communication medium and shows us a place in our society most of us don’t — or don’t want to — know about.  This is really good.

The downtown Remand Centre is going to be closed soon, replaced by an obscenely large new holding facility on the northern edge of the city.  I don’t expect the sidewalk will be as visible there, and that is a loss.

Lindsey Bond’s “”Messages To:  The Edmonton Remand Centre Newspaper” is in LRT stations and in your phone until June 7.  QR the virtual gallery and enjoy some thought provoking art — both Lindsey Bond’s photographs and the chalk messages the photos preserve  — on your way to work or school or on your way home, and text or tweet about it to your friends.  I might even think about chalking the QR code onto the sidewalk in front of my house.

The Book of the Project will be launched on May 26 at Latitude 53, 10248 – 106 Street.