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"Exshaw Lumber Pile"
David Janzen, "Exshaw Lumber Pile," 2011, oil on canvas, 48" x 72".
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David Janzen, "Fridge Garden," 2011, oil on canvas, 72" x 48".
ALBERTA: Transfer Station, To June 16, Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton
By Agnieszka Matejko
A vast, boundless sky stretches across the horizon; glimmers of light emerge through a swirling fog of clouds. A lone figure silhouetted against the heavens gazes at this awe-inspiring sight. This sublime vision of nature portrayed by the German painter Caspar David Friedrich – now relegated to history books and often derided as sentimental – takes on a fascinating twist in a new series of oil paintings by Edmonton artist David Janzen.
From the horizon up, Janzen’s expansive skies, palettes of soft grey and exquisitely blended clouds fit seamlessly into the Romantic visions of 19th century art academies. What lies beneath is a frightfully 21st century phenomenon. Here, with lovingly rendered detail, Janzen depicts panoramic vistas of garbage dumps and transfer stations, where urban trash is sorted and taken to landfill sites.
“ Back in 2009, I had this notion that I would visit landfills in scenic places,” Janzen says. Like a solitary tourist, he toured dumps along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. He started with Calgary’s Spyhill Landfill. It was familiar to Janzen, who had completed a diploma at the Alberta College of Art and Design and had later worked for the city as a truck driver’s swamper, regularly dumping cut brush there. “I came naively,” he says. “I had a glow vest on, I had all the safety stuff and they said: ‘No! You can’t come in here.’” It took a supervised PR tour to get the photographs he needed. But his reception was not always so frosty; guards at some dumps were charmed by his quest. In the end, he toured 17 sites, going as far south as Pincher Creek.
Then, sometimes accurately rendering photos and at other times working from drawings and imaginary composites, he meticulously painted eerie vistas where grandeur meets decay. It makes for startling contrasts. Forces of creation and destruction, beauty and ugliness, reenact an ancient struggle. Yet, there’s little Romantic embellishment. Janzen is merely an attentive observer. For example, Fridge Garden depicts what he witnessed at the Exshaw landfill: Decrepit towers of refrigerators that stand as sentinels against mountains wrapped in clouds.
Who will win this man-versus-nature struggle? No answer emerges from Janzen’s paintings, but he admits to being a fatalist. “I don’t think that we are going to pull out of an abysmal spiral,” he says. Yet, his sense of looming environmental disaster is moderated by beauty. It’s an aesthetic sense he shares with his Romantic predecessor. “Friedrich’s work speaks to me of our collective smallness, the insignificance of humanity when set against the backdrop of the infinite.” While most seek the sublime at Niagara Falls or atop a mountain ridge, Janzen discovers it amidst the detritus at civilization’s edge, where culture confronts nature and the real challenges the ideal.