Photo: Kristy Trinier.
"Future Station," Light Rail Transit, Edmonton.
FUTURE STATION: 2015 Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art
January 24 to May 3, 2015
Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton
By Diana Sherlock
We have arrived at Future Station, second floor of the Art Gallery of Alberta with satellites at the University of Alberta Museums Enterprise Square Galleries and site-specific locations. Curated by AGA curator Kristy Trinier, Future Station is the ninth iteration of the Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art, which has been spearheaded by the gallery with intermittent partners since 1996.
This biennial takes its name from an incomplete 30-year-old transit station located under Edmonton’s civic centre on 97th Street, just northeast of the gallery. Like its namesake, Future Station is speculative in nature, posing questions about present realities by contemplating future possibilities for which we remain in a constant state of anticipation. In the exhibition, 42 Alberta artists from 10 geographically disparate communities gather, ever so briefly, on the platform to exhibit art produced within the last five years that signals an ever-changing transition from one moment in the province’s history to another.
Image courtesy of the artist.
Jude Griebel, "Accident Mouth," 2013, papier-mâché, epoxy resin, foam, wood and oil paint, 43.0 x 84.0 x 129.5 cm.
With few exceptions, the artists are under 40 and map a direction for the next generation of contemporary art in Alberta. In her catalogue essay, Trinier says she chose to work in Edmonton because she liked the “dystopic, modernist urban feel of the northern city” and found the “edge between vacancy and opportunity was incredibly compelling.” The works selected for Future Station exude the same tensions, contradictions and ambivalence. Trinier argues optimistically that the region’s formative art history affords artists a “true Alberta advantage” rather than limiting their horizons to fit a dominant art historical paradigm. Perhaps so, but even new art histories are shaped, in part, by past histories, as Edmonton’s lingering formalist legacy attests.
Trinier also outlines themes for the biennial, “psychology as a creative methodology and means to audience effect, natural forces confronting the artist, detritus as a working material and austerity as an aesthetic,” but the works often do not seem to bear out this text. The AGA installation is strong visually, but Enterprise Square lacks installation finesse, and the curatorial relationships between the works are weaker; it feels like a secondary space. Future Station is full of ideas, but some pieces lack staying power and depth, leaving one wondering what the future might bring to these maturing practices.
Image courtesy of the artist.
"Funtown: Electrical Fire Extravaganza"
Kyle Beal, "Funtown: Electrical Fire Extravaganza," 2014, charcoal on paper, 92.0 x 152.0 cm.
Contemporary landscapes, particularly those mediated by commerce and technology, reappear throughout the exhibition. Most prominently, Tyler Los-Jones’ commission, A panorama protects its view, is part of the biennial, but will remain installed for a year in the gallery’s Manning Hall. This gigantic vinyl photographic mural flips one’s attention from the materiality of the photographic object – here cut, pieced and wound into a three-dimensional ribbon form and re-flattened by re-photographing the sculptural object – to the subject of the landscape and our view of it. Its companion image in reverse is installed on a billboard along the highway near Hinton, nearing Jasper National Park, the place the photograph was taken. Interestingly, Trinier invited Brenda Draney, an Edmonton painter originally from the Lesser Slave Lake region, to accompany her on the northern leg of “The Great Alberta Road Trip,” during which Trinier conducted dozens of studio visits. Draney’s series, Missive from the North, includes eight en plein air landscapes painted in the back of a van in freezing temperatures that could be read as a parallel text to Trinier’s curatorial exploration.
Image courtesy of the artist.
Brittney Bear Hat, "Lessons," 2013, digital prints on vinyl, Dimensions Variable.
Known to Trinier before her studio tours, the Calgary-based Arbour Lake Sghool is one of the many informal artist collectives active in the province, and its new multi-channel video installation, Hamptons, is akin to Jackass for (boy) artists. Filmed by drones in the style of reality TV, the artists and their friends stage a guerilla-type war on a vacant residential lot in Calgary’s Hamptons neighbourhood. Accompanied by a discordant soundtrack, Hamptons transgresses the mediatization of war through re-enactment and irreverent play. Machismo is taken to pathetic lengths in Giulliano Palladino’s looping video, Myro, in which a young skater awakens in the urban bush, shotguns beers and traverses the landscape on his board until exhaustion: the cycle repeats. Palladino and the Arbour Lake Sghool are part of a socially networked culture, a generation more dispersed and connected than earlier generations, but ironically, even more closely knit and isolated within its own constructed reality. Recalling recent Internet memes, Brad Necyk’s large-scale colour photographs in The Reflection series capture desperate selfie performances in shiny household objects, where the performed self becomes the material reality.
Image courtesy the artist.
"Gibraltar Point (Allegro)"
Adam Waldron-Blain, "Gibraltar Point (Allegro)," 2012, digital video, 9:02 minutes.
A return to formalism and realism underwritten by illusion, artifice and popular references also pepper the exhibition. Kyle Beal and Erin Schwab meticulously render the landscape in charcoal drawings; Beal’s colourful kitschy-framed Funtown series reproduces the spectacle of YouTube video stills that capture a New Jersey amusement park devastated by hurricane Sandy, while Schwab’s Flood series isolates the Hangingstone River’s detritus as another sign of nature’s ominous force. Wil Murray investigates authorship using found imagery in Die Welt in Farben, a 1910 portfolio of 42 hand-coloured silver gelatin prints of grand European sites by Johannes Emmer that have been collaged onto and painted into by Murray. These collages were then re-photographed and hand-coloured in the method of the original portfolio and reinserted on the portfolio pages in lieu of the original images, but with the photographic negative documenting this reproductive process. Tinged with nostalgia, and evoking empathy and pathos, Hannah Doerksen mimics a funeral home’s reception area using found domestic objects, faux finishing and découpage foliage in And We Have Now Place to Leave and Nowhere to Come to.
Doerksen’s practice is indicative of a recent material turn in contemporary art, characterized by the growing importance of material culture throughout the 1990s and evinced by concerns for the way materials and the crafting of handmade objects carry meaning. Perhaps the quirkiest example of this in Future Station is ceramicist Jude Griebel’s fantastically surreal, reclining (or, in some cases, melting) figurative sculptures crafted from a myriad of materials including cast resin and papier-mâché painted to look like compost or dioramic landscapes. A site-specific work by Griebel can also be seen at the nearby Gibson Block Building. It is one of three context-specific works in the exhibition; the others include an animation by Jill Stanton on Edmonton transit platforms, and a text flyer by Steven Cottingham. Devon Beggs’ fibre paintings, Coeurl, Skullet, Fabulous Muscles and Walk With Me, merge into one materially excessive installation where nods to macho modernist formalism are theatrically enveloped by glittering synthetic fibres, pins and woven pink and orange twine.
Image courtesy of the artist.
"Die Welt in Farben – Tafel 41: Trisannaviadukt der Arlbergbahn"
Wil Murray, "Die Welt in Farben – Tafel 41: Trisannaviadukt der Arlbergbahn," 2014, handcoloured silver gelatin print, 38.2 x 44.1 x 2.5cm.
Is Cottingham’s black wall mural with the gold-leafed phrase, The future might not be bright enough, a sardonic comment on both the show and Alberta’s cultural prospects? Do the subtle black fissures between these thin sheets of gold reveal our tar-soaked, boom-bust reality regardless of the optimistic and forward-looking tone of Future Station? Perhaps. What the biennial consistently demonstrates, however, is that the province is home to a lot of really good – and very diverse – contemporary artists, and Albertans, among others, enthusiastically engage with contemporary art. What may be less clear is what ongoing, significant support there will be here, in the richest Canadian province, for art institutions and the growing community of Alberta artists who continue to light the way for contemporary art.
Diana Sherlock is a Canadian independent curator, writer and educator whose projects engage research and commissioning models that create opportunities for contemporary artists to produce new work in response to specific collections, contexts, histories and display cultures.