The Sobey Art Award finalists never had it so good. And neither did Alberta, birthplace of three of the five nominees.
The National Gallery of Canada cleared about a quarter of its sprawling contemporary galleries to ensure the five finalists, almost all interdisciplinary artists, each had a spacious room to display recent works in an exhibition that runs until Feb. 5 next year.
This is the first year the National Gallery has managed this award for artists under age 40, although the $50,000 prize (with an additional $10,000 to each of the four runners-up) was actually hatched at the federal institution back in 2002 between Donald Sobey, the gallery’s then chairman, and the gallery’s then director, Pierre Theberge. But the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, in a nod to Sobey’s maritime base, previously managed the awards. Exhibitions at that Halifax venue tended to be more cramped.
Management of the prize was shifted to the National Gallery to drum up more national and international exposure for the competition. “It feels good so far,” a beaming Rob Sobey, chairman of the Sobey Art Foundation, said in an interview at the exhibition opening.
Sobey and the National Gallery have begun exploring options for touring the annual exhibition of nominees in Canada and abroad, although no firm details were immediately available. Josée Drouin-Brisebois, the National Gallery’s chief curator of contemporary art and the chair of the Sobey jury, said she is hoping the decision to appoint a foreigner to the jury each year will help spread the word internationally about the competition.
Charles Stankievech, a native of Okotoks, Alta., and former Yukoner, is perhaps best known for his photo-based work, often on espionage themes. Now based in Toronto, the Ontario nominee was the only artist to create a roomful of new work for the Sobey exhibition. In Stankievech’s case, that meant curating a faux exhibition about Anthony Blunt, the British double agent who was also the Queen’s art advisor and the man who convinced Canada’s National Gallery in the 1950s to buy a Nicolas Poussin painting, Augustus and Cleopatra, that was unmasked as a fake in 1971. With tongue in cheek, the resulting exhibition presents the painting and then explores Blunt’s actions with letters, films and other paraphernalia.
Charles Stankievech, "CounterIntelligence," 2014
installation view at Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, University of Toronto, ©Charles Stankievech, Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid
Edmonton artist Brenda Draney, a Cree originally from Slave Lake, is the Sobey nominee for the Prairies and the North. (She was also on the long list in 2013.) Her exhibition room is filled with her trademark paintings depicting incomplete, often sad narratives. One painting, Night Sky (For Sandi), showing a puzzled, grim aboriginal woman, seems to symbolize the story of Annie Pootoogook, the Inuit artist who won the 2006 Sobey prize, became overwhelmed with the attention and was found dead this fall following several tragic years of homelessness. Rob Sobey paid tribute to Pootoogook as he unveiled the exhibition to the news media.
Brenda Draney, "Night Sky (for Sandi)," 2012
oil on canvas, 91.45 × 121.9 cm, Photo by Trident Photography
The third Alberta-born artist is Hajra Waheed, originally from Calgary, raised in Saudi Arabia, and now living in Montreal. This Quebec nominee creates videos, installations, drawings and collages using a wide range of found materials, including technical flight manuals, maps, government reports and news photographs. According to the exhibition catalogue, these objects collectively “generate imaginary political narratives – alternatives to stories that blur the boundaries between reality and fiction.”
Hajra Waheed "The Cyphers 1–18," 2016
mixed media installation (found objects, cut photograph, Xylene transfer, glass, ink, printed Mylar and archival tape on paper), 28 × 43 cm each, installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead Courtesy of the artist, Photo by Colin Davison
Interdisciplinary artist Jeremy Shaw is the nominee for British Columbia and Yukon, although he now lives in Berlin. (“It’s cheaper than Vancouver,” he says.) Using video, film, photography, music and performance, Shaw investigates humans in altered states. His main offering for the Sobey exhibition is a video installation called Quickeners, which presents a new take on various aspects of life, including the “snake handling” that causes religious ecstasy in some American Christian cults.
Jeremy Shaw, "Quickeners," 2014
HD video installation with original soundtrack, dimensions variable, 36:43 minutes, film still
The nominee for the Atlantic region is William Robinson of Halifax. He is another interdisciplinary artist, best known for exploring the way objects are reshaped into something completely different. His contribution to the Sobey exhibition is Sun Ship Machine Gun (Metallurgy I), using film, installation and performance to tell the story of church bells melted for arms during the Second World War and then transformed post-war into saxophones.
William Robinson, "Sun Ship Machine Gun – Metallurgy I," 2015
mixed media installation and performance (saxophonists, video, audio, powder coated aluminum metal tubing and bar, dyed acrylic fabric, acrylic latex paint), dimensions variable, Collection of the artist, film still