"Alaska Highway, Northern B.C."
H. G. Glyde, "Alaska Highway, Northern B.C.," 1944, watercolour on paper. University of Alberta Art and Artifact Collection, Museums and Collections Services.
THE ROAD: Constructing the Alaska Highway
The Edmonton Art Gallery, Edmonton
Until October 2, 2005
By Gilbert A. Bouchard
It used to be that museums were museums and art galleries were art galleries and neither the expositional twain would meet.
Prior to the ‘80s there was a pretty clear curatorial logic as to what the two were supposed to be displaying: museums were all about the history-based ‘artifact’ (including decorative pieces and historical works of ‘foundation’ art) while the art gallery was about the aesthetic objet d’art (though there were territorial debates regarding ancient fine art like Greek black-faced pottery).
That was then. Today the line blurs as museums appropriate works of art for historical context while art galleries find it hard to discern between ‘artwork’ and ‘artifact’ when so many artists work with found objects. To that end you see Edmonton’s Royal Alberta Museum mount full-on art shows (such as a recent showing of late 19th century Parisian painting) as the Edmonton Art Gallery (EAG) edges into the anthropological (eg. a recent antique Chinese jade exhibit).
Both institutions have also been squatting on each other’s territory in a more subtle fashion as the museum uses art to articulate cultural-historical realities and the art gallery displays artifacts to historically contextualize art.
The result for folks who can get over the breakdown in semantics is a plethora of exciting hybrid shows like the EAG’s The Road: Constructing the Alaska Highway, a show striving to cover the whole intellectual/visual history waterfront on its particular subject matter.
In this case: the deconstruction of the rich cultural motherlode of material that surrounds Edmonton’s complicated relationship with the north embodied by the Alaska Highway, the roadway that connects Edmonton to Fairbanks, Alaska, and physically cements the Alberta capital’s overland claim to ‘gateway to the north’ status.
Curated by Andrew T. Hunter and the EAG’s own senior curator Catherine Crowston, The Road is an ambitious and sprawling multimedia exhibit that displays everything from documentary photos of the highway being built to ‘40s era souvenirs to various works of fine art (from traditionally sublime pieces created by H.G. Glyde and A.Y. Jackson under commission by the National Gallery of Canada to works created by talented early tourists to postmodern work by contemporary northern artists like Joanne Jackson Johnson, Valerie Salez and Doug Smarch Jr.).
As one can surmise, the show is huge, boasting cheek-to-jowl displays of all these visual artifacts. To its credit, the show’s themes are well articulated and beautifully compartmentalized, allowing the work enough space to breathe while also milking some pretty fascinating and oft-times playful juxtapositions that cut both ways historically speaking (for example, you’ll see Jackson's odd obsession with painting pristine/untouched landscapes when he was specifically sent to document a huge landscape-altering activity).
Typical of this new school of deconstructive, theme-driven exhibits, this approach can only irritate the old-school viewer out for an easy aesthetic consumptive experience (given in particular the massive shifts in modality and the crowded nature of the show), but satisfying for the intellectually broad. The more time and effort you spend with this show, the more you get out of it.