THE 2007 ALBERTA BIENNIAL OF CONTEMPORARY ART
Art Gallery of Calgary
By Gilbert A. Bouchard
As soon as you enter the first display area of the2007 Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art, you’ll know that you’re in for a fun, but challenging time. The first piece is a series of quirky, super-horny elk — animals sprouting huge racks of antlers all over their bodies — created by Edmonton’s Paul Freeman. Typical of Freeman’s most recent work, the images are purposefully contrarian and inherently puzzling.
They evoke a seriousness, the idea of animal mutation and genetic modification, if not out-and-out environmental collapse. The dystopic feeling is reinforced by their stylistic presentation, rendered with a wild use of negative space and a creepy deployment of stringy brushstrokes and drawn lines.
At the same time, Freeman’s work is brightly coloured, boasts acres of white space and tons of humour, albeit on the dark and low side, all serving against the work’s cautionary grain.
The theme of this sixth Alberta Biennial is “Living Utopia and Disaster.” The main exhibition will be displayed in Edmonton until September 9 and move to Banff shortly afterwards, while a special one-off survey exhibition of works by Alex Janvier is being presented by the Art Gallery of Calgary August 31 to January 5.
Curated jointly by the Art Gallery of Alberta’s head curator Catherine Crowston and Sylvie Gilbert, senior curator at the Walter Phillips Gallery at The Banff Centre, new works by 22 artists from various centers around Alberta were chosen for the way they address the paradoxical nature of life in 21st-century Alberta.
We live in a place particularly rife with tension-wracked oppositional communities that all citizens move across and live with and within, symbolized by the extremes of the resource extraction industry balanced by an increasingly vocal green movement at the other extreme.
It’s a tad melodramatic and cliché as a theme, but it’s also a truism, especially in boom-time Alberta, where boundless optimism is married to a nagging sense of dread. It’s a show of work by artists from across the province, belonging to various generations from senior artists to emerging artists, so the take on this particular theme is diverse. While boasting more painters than the previous incarnation of the Biennial, there are a several adept examples of sound installation, video, fabric art and electronic media.
Given such a broad, controversial and versatile theme, the broad sweep of artists assembled ended up betraying multiple political leanings and philosophical tactics. Some artists have taken a direct path in addressing the idea of utopia/dystopia through an exploration of international war hot-spots. These include a series of paintings by Julian Forrest based on internet pictures of soldiers from Afghanistan holding guns (sometimes in self-portraits from sites like hotornot.com) and an eerie set of videos (projected from tiny TVs recessed in equally tiny portals in the gallery’s walls) by Mary Kavanagh depicting people frolicking holiday-style on the gargantuan white sand-dunes of an American missile testing ground.
The most disturbing work in this category is a large landscape/still-life triptych painted by Chris Flodberg. His more-realist-than-not paintings juxtapose lush formal banquet settings with scenes of the urban devastation of war. The effect of Flodberg’s work is glaring, neatly off-setting the dual concepts of guilt and pleasure that transfix the developed world. In this case, he’s also connecting that subtle consumerist discourse with another more salacious concept — our consumerist excesses might also be connected to military misadventures of an imperial nature.
These big thematic connections between hope and catastrophe are also addressed in works from a profoundly personal perspective. The installation piece created by Jonathan Kaiser, “Lost Boys and the 100 Year Mortgage,” a tiny, vaguely Victorian-style room filled with empty cages and terraria, comments on the tension between the artist’s childhood fantasies and dreams and his often conflicting, adult desires.
Meditative and claustrophobic, Kaiser creates an articulated discourse about potentiality and the hunger we all have to grow and expand our horizons. This despite being constantly seduced by the sedentary appeal of our earlier lives, as seen through a filter of retrospective — if not full-on nostalgic — torpor.
The show succeeds, but at a cost to the viewer. This is a highly meditative show that needs attention and time for proper absorption, an intensive investment, but one that will pay out intellectual dividends.