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Kelly Johner, "Saddlemaker’s Stand," 2014, Old Timer Slickfork saddle tree, cowhide reins, chap snaps, dee clip rings, iron stand, rope, screws, dye, deerskin lacing and lacing clips, 67” x 21” diameter.
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Kelly Johner, "Prairie Song," 2014, antique Association saddle tree with Sampson steel horn, burlap sacking, fishing line, upholstery tacks and dee clip, 67” x 20” diameter.
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Kelly Johner, "Figuratively Farm," 2014, various media, installation view.
KELLY JOHNER: Figuratively Farm
Multicultural Centre Public Art Gallery, Stony Plain, Alberta
April 25 to May 21, 2014
By Agnieszka Matejko
What’s home? For immigrants and the increasing number of people migrating within Canada in search of jobs, there’s no easy, visceral answer. Not so for emerging artist Kelly Johner. Her identification with the Prairies is nearly mythic. Johner grew up on a dairy farm just outside Edmonton and has raised horses and longhorn cattle in Sturgeon County for the last 34 years. Her family farm defines her: it’s her blood, her home and her artistic inspiration.
For this show, Johner created an installation entirely out of farm materials. During long daily walks on her land, she collected bale twine, burlap sacks, cowhide reins, nylon rope, deerskin lacing, beehive paper and the like. An avid rider, Johner also had a decade- old collection of saddle trees – the inside structures of saddles. It was this collection that gave her show a central theme. Stripped of leather and tipped vertically, saddle trees resemble female figures. She used these sensuous wooden armatures to create nine, life-sized, anthropomorphic figures, each with a distinct personality.
For instance, "For the Love of Bling" is a flamboyant, glittery figure with more than 5,000 sequins studded over a Bowman saddle tree, along with an evening gown crocheted by Johner’s mother from 8,500 feet of royal-blue bale twine. (The sequins refer to the family’s love of barrel racing, where flashy decorations on horse and rider are in vogue.)
Across the gallery is a more sombre sister, "Artemis of the West". Named for the Greek goddess of the hunt, she has an earthy, rotund body built from a weathered Roper saddle tree and laminated plywood rounds, both painstakingly wrapped in rope that’s arranged in sensuous, curvilinear patterns.
Such labour-intensive attention to detail resonates. Johner’s cornucopia of scavenged materials could have descended into visual chaos. Instead, they are seamlessly integrated, transforming farm detritus into treasures worthy of the Guggenheim. The show’s symbolic narrative is less consistent. The voluptuous saddle as a metaphor for farm woman works well in lighter, more humorous works, such as "The Belle of the Bale".
But in poetic sculptures like "Absence/Presence", created out of rusted barbed wire, the curvaceous saddle silhouette distracts. It reads more like a female cartoon caricature.
Metaphorical quibbles aside, the striking feature of this show is its rural theme. Few installations – or many artworks at all – address country life with such thoughtful, deeply felt emotion. This show is a love poem to a way of life that’s disappearing. Johner’s neighbours are being bought out, their land slated for heavy industry. Although many are moving, Johner has stayed put. Sadly, it is her beloved home that is shifting irrevocably around her.