MY WINNIPEG, ELEVEN NEW ARTISTS AND A CONCLUSION
[First published in the catalogue of the Shirley Madill curated Winnipeg Art Gallery exhibition Sit(e)ings, 2000, 17-21.]
1. MY WINNIPEG
The Pan American Games is a good excuse for a show of new art at the city's flagship Winnipeg Art Gallery. Anything is. This exhibition is a chance to take stock and to imagine what the future of Winnipeg art could be, to give what's good a leg up, and to see what's missing from this millennial mix.
Any show at a venue like the Winnipeg Art Gallery is important to an emerging artist, even if the aesthetic authority of civic art galleries has diminished over the past twenty years. The art world still has its hierarchies of value and accreditation, and galleries like the WAG range near the top of the heap, but intense competition amongst artists and galleries, the rapid movement of curators, artists and critics around the world, the twenty-year dwindling of public gallery resources (beginning in Mulroney/Reagon/Thatcher era), and the growing cadre of educated artists who do not look to large civic institutions for validation must leave young artists confused about exactly how a WAG show is important.
Most Sit(E)ings artists may seem new to Winnipeg Art Gallery patrons, but all are familiar entities in the parallel galleries of Winnipeg's Exchange District. Manitoba's galleries are mostly in Winnipeg and mostly run by artists. Parallel galleries have changed the nature of Winnipeg (and Canadian) art, and shows like Sit(E)ings play catch-up to the parallel scene. (The cross-Canada system of so-called "parallel" galleries is becoming more and more professionalized, run more and more by people who see themselves as professional curators and administrators first and artists second, so maybe the term "artist-run" is a misnomer. Nevertheless, this system usually gets to show and circulate the artists first - long before the civic galleries. It can also engender a lifetime of loyalty in artists that civic institutions like the WAG cannot.)
When I moved to Winnipeg in 1994 the artist Eleanor Bond asked me to join the board of Plug In, one of those parallel galleries. This association reveals, if you know about Plug In, my allegiances to internationalism in art, my interest in the "neo-avant-garde," and my desire to bring art to Winnipeg from elsewhere and to send Winnipeg art out into the world. Soon after I arrived in Winnipeg I also began to write for Winnipeg's Border Crossings, one of Canada's leading art magazines, and I began to show my work and to curate exhibitions of local art. I got to know the town.
Not having grown up in Winnipeg, I arrived with little knowledge of this town's tight little art scene. I had, of course, already met a few Winnipeg artists, and I knew that Winnipeg had a vibrant cultural life, but my experience was mostly second-hand. As I made studio visits in 1995-97, I pieced together the local networks of artists and organisations: the women-centred Mentoring Artists for Women's Art group; the conservative Loch Mayberry Gallery; the populist Main Access Gallery; the provocative Plug In Inc.; and the co-op-disguised-as-a-commercial-gallery <Site>. I got to know ambitious sessionals like Diana Thorneycroft and Alison Norlen at the University of Manitoba School of Art, and established professor/artists such as Sharon Alward, Steve Higgins, Diane Whitehouse and David McMillan; Video Pool, Ace Art, and Floating Gallery folk; curators like Sigrid Dahle and Shirley Madill; a few people in film; and, through some teaching, a few art students. I became pals with the artists Wanda Koop, Diane Whitehouse, Bill Eakin, and the curator Wayne Baerwaldt.
The first thing a newcomer notices about Winnipeg art - you hear this a lot from visitors - is the large studio spaces. I had associated Winnipeg with the enormous canvasses of Eleanor Bond, Wanda Koop, Diane Whitehouse, Bev Pike, Alison Norlen and Sheila Butler before I arrived, and my first studio visits seemed to confirm presumptions. This generation of artists, mostly born in the 1950s and mostly women, carved out turf beside mostly male Modernists (as in other aspects of Winnipeg art, the painter Diane Whitehouse crosses categories) such as Don Reichert, Bruce Head, Winston Leathers and Tony Tascona. This may seem a drastic simplification of established Winnipeg art, but it is worth noting that in Site(E)ings the combination of landscape, abstraction and large scale painting that once put Winnipeg on the national art map is absent.
The lack of sculpture in Winnipeg seemed peculiar to me (I don't mean installation art as sculpture, but the making of discrete 3-D objects) as did the non-relation of the majority of Winnipeg artists to aboriginal culture. The acceptance of abstract painting by the middle and upper classes of Winnipeg was something I had not experienced elsewhere in Canada, except in Toronto and Montreal. Winnipeg's links to South America and Holland were a big surprise. I found the curious split (with exceptions) between Winnipeg's downtown artists and the University of Manitoba's School of Art to be perplexing. Artists here, I learned, are born at the Art School and incubated downtown. The lack of rurality or rural references in newer art, except in the work of a few artists such as Shirley Brown and Aganetha Dyck, and in First Nations art, I found to be mighty strange, given the vastness of Winnipeg's surrounding prairie.
I began to regard Winnipeg as a city-state that did not acknowledge local geography, and this thought seems to be confirmed by Sit(E)ings. There is nothing here that contradicts my impression that much of what is called "Manitoba culture" is really Winnipeg culture. Isolation (Winnipeg is a day's drive from Minneapolis, the next biggest town) has made Winnipeg's city state prone to the kind of generous arts funding that produces artists of Sit(E)ings ilk. City states, we remember - Florence and Athens are prime examples (although it might be a stretch to compare them too closely with Winnipeg!) - generate a lot of art because cultural spending is concentrated and linked to civic pride and a tightly-knit urban fabric. Nobody in Winnipeg, except perhaps the local tabloid The Sun, would dare assert that the arts do not enjoy wide support here. The arts cannot make a province like Manitoba, but they can and do make a city state like Winnipeg.
Visitors notice that Winnipeg is a well-funded art town. Provincial governments left and right support art. Two government agencies distribute money to Winnipeg artists like those in Sit(E)ings: The Manitoba Arts Council and the nationally-based Canada Council for the Arts. These agencies rely on professional arts bureaucrats and artist juries to distribute grants, and Winnipeg artists do very well by them. There is some municipal arts money to boot, and private funders here, too, like the Loewen Foundation. The system works.
The 1960s dictum that it doesn't matter where an artist lives is finally becoming true, and that makes Winnipeg, with its cheap rent and generous funding system, a great place to make art. Nevertheless, some Sit(E)ings artists will probably leverage their graduation to WAG gallery status into lives in Toronto, New York or London. A previous generation of Winnipeg artists and administrators left for Toronto a decade or more ago (including Doug Sigurdson, Andy Patton, Janice Gurney, Will Gorlitz, Tony Brown, and Philip Monk) but it is worth remembering that other significant art players, for example Wayne Baerwaldt, Wanda Koop, William Eakin, Eleanor Bond, Noam Gonick and Guy Maddin, have remained in Winnipeg and have done just as well.
2. ELEVEN NEW ARTISTS
A group exhibition of the work of contemporary artists is a risky undertaking. Because the artists are alive, often anxious, and inclined to make last minute decisions while installing their work, a group exhibition can look a little haphazard and improvised. That's the nature - and the excitement - of a group show of contemporary art. Young artists tend to want to show too much. Only maturity can engender a sense of appropriateness to an artist's installation decisions. My thesis here is that Sit(E)ings demonstrates that some of these artists have already hit an early maturity, others not.
I began this piece with a description of the Winnipeg art scene as I understand it, not only to inform WAG visitors of the context of Sit(E)ings work, but also to remind Sit(E)ings artists of exactly where they are, how their town is perceived by outsiders, and where they can choose to go from here now that they have been given this public acknowledgement of their seriousness and importance.
None of the artists in this exhibition are neophytes (even if Jacek Kosiuk happens to be finishing off an undergraduate art degree as I write) but neither is any of them what you might call "established." Paul Butler, Daniel Dueck, Jacek Kosciuk, Harry Symons, Marcel Dzama, Blair Marten, Jean Klimack and Christina Kirouac have all shown recently at Plug In in solo or group shows. Lori Rogers and Jake Moore have each done major installations of their respective work at Ace Art. Dzama is a prime mover in an artist-run collective called the Royal Art Lodge.
I mean the following observations as "characterisations" of Sit(E)ings work. Characterisations can induce rage in an artist as they resist a writer's opinion, but the advantage of a characterisation is its clarity and brevity.
One way to characterise four of the artists in this show - Daniel Dueck, Jacek Kosciuk, Marcel Dzama and Jean Klimack - is by reference to the six Value Village thrift stores in Winnipeg. Value Village sets out goods - clothing, pots and pans, even folk paintings - the way a department store does, except that the carefully itemised and shelved items look like they have come directly out of a landfill site and they are very inexpensive. Very little in Value Village predates World War II - there are no antiques. These stores recycle the recent past in a manner exactly parallel to how Daniel Dueck, Jacek Kosciuk, Marcel Dzama and Jean Klimack make art, except that the soiled and used goods (including imagery past its "best before" date) are transformed by these artists from a state of abjection, from a Value Village shelf so to speak, into a spectacular white box gallery art. Value Village and the WAG operate at opposite ends of the social spectrum, a fact that is highlighted - even if unconsciously - in Dueck, Kosciuk, Dzama and Klimack's work.
Jean Klimack preserves chewed gum in handmade see-through packets. A bruised book of collaged responses to her written requests (including the rejections) for people to chew gum sits next to her gum packet wall. The packets have hand-sewn sides, as if, one wonders, to mimic the kind of handicraft objects that one finds in abundance at second-hand stores like Value Village.
Daniel Dueck and Jacek Kosciuk fill their works with images and text from post war pop culture, but with the commodity gloss sanded off. The effect of a Dueck or Kosciuk is reminiscent of the art of Francis Picabia, Robert Rauschenberg, and Mike Kelley, an art of detritus, of consumerist garbage, of tattily- preserved cast-offs, of post-war consumer culture dressed up for recycling as art in a pristine white gallery.
Marcel Dzama's drawings dig a little deeper into the past than the others - their tea and khaki colouring, the dated hair and clothing, and the surrealist licks evoke the period between the world wars - but his imaginary drawings fit well into the Value Village orbit. Dzama's drawings are heavily nostalgic and unapologetically illustrative, as if to conjure up a dream world inhabited by the folk whose clothing ends up years later (after the funeral) on a Value Village rack.
Paul Butler takes the junk fetishism outside the Value Village realm by rephotographing his collages of taped out advertisements to make glossy photographic works. Butler's pictures have poetry and social punch. He is a pivot point in this exhibition, a link between the Value Village artists and what I'll call the "installationists" Jake Moore, Christine Kirouac, Harry Symons and Lori Rogers.
Kirouac, Rogers, Symons and Moore, unlike the "Value Village" artists, can only be called "emerging" because some Winnipeg gallery-goers have somehow missed their long exhibition histories. Kirouac is as young as the Value Village set, but has had a great deal of experience as an artist and parallel gallery board member. The allegiances to installation art that Kirouac, Rogers, Symons and Moore display is a marker of their ambition to run with the kind of art players who show at the world's biennial festivals.
Installationists (any artist, of course) are smart to try to completely control the spaces in which they exhibit their work. Jake Moore uses her technique of stretching fabric across a structure to make winged pieces in the WAG's rooftop pond. She has cleverly chosen a place where her art may be seen without interruption. Similarly, Kirouac has made a vulvic room - her exclusive space - in and on which to festoon her boxing and lingerie self-portrait photographs.(Kirouac's feminism, like that of her twenty-something peers, seems meant to offend both older feminists and patriarchal conservatives alike.) Lori Rogers has also made a womb-like room for her work, but hers is black and filled with a chanting video and sound work that feels a post-partum experiment in ultra-sound. Rogers' room is inhabited by a two sided video projection of grainy, flesh-coloured forms occasionally interrupted by a flash of foliage - an unforgettable experience. Harry Symons claimed a large floor in order to make a sprawling urban landscape in miniature. (When I visited the work in progress it looked like Montreal Island, where Symons once lived.) Symons has been creatively modelling the constitutional debate for some years now. In this latest manifestation of his obsessional practice, Symons uses strands of wool and variously-sized wooden blocks to visualise a decision-making process as a city.
Kevin Waugh and Blair Marten make discrete objects such as I lamented not seeing when I first arrived in Winnipeg in 1994 and not, strictly-speaking, installation art. Marten makes combines (Rauschenberg's term for assemblages) out of vinyl letters and found objects, as if to illustrate and provide captions for his philosophical thoughts; and Waugh contributes a dense sculptural work made of chair legs that looks as if it could be reconstructed into innumerable configurations, like a Lego set. Both artists are refreshingly cynical: Waugh's artist's statement consisted of a deliberately incomprehensible exercise in writing, and Marten's was a labelled piece that contained no words at all except "artist's statement."
3. CONCLUSION AND PREDICTION
In order for Winnipeg's city state to grow into a new kind of cultural capital, a trajectory for the future must take us beyond novelty and ethnicity toward a cultural project that reconciles Native and non-Native cultures into a new post-ethnic urbanity. (I'm not talking about aboriginal imagery in art, but a consciousness that reconciles some Native and some non-Native ideas into wonderful new stuff.) There are hints of that reconciliation in Sit(E)ings, but nothing explicit: Lori Rogers video work offers a glimpse into the possibilities of a technologically-perceived natural world, the Value Village artists treat city garbage as urban "nature," and Jake Moore's pond piece could be read as an Icarus-like nature allegory. As Sit(E)ings artists range across media and subject matter with one eye on a dated pop culture and the other on international art, I invite them to consider a personal trajectory that keeps them in Winnipeg, however much they and their art travel around the world, and that also leads them to address what I see as Winnipeg's possible pan-aboriginal future.