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Akimblog Staff
2008 Critics' Picks
December 17, 2008
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…. Actually, right now, it’s just the worst. The year started off alright, business as usual, with nary a thought of belt-tightening. Come summer, the Conservative government called an election and then announced a series of multi-million dollar cuts to arts funding. Suddenly the country was up in arms! Nothing unites a bunch of artists more than a threat to their meager financial freedom. And what an outcry it was! Quebec jumped in full force, email chains started linking, subversive YouTube videos were produced. The capital-A Arts were finally an election issue and the Conservatives suffered for it. But then the bubble burst and all bets were off. This financial crisis signals dark ages ahead for anyone interested in arts funding, gallerists hoping to sell work, and institutions needing to raise money. Next year is going to be a heavy one, so – on that happy note – let’s look back at the past twelve months to see what lifted the hearts of Akimblog’s national correspondents. These are the pictures, people, places, performances, etc. that kept us going on.
 
Happy New Year,
Kim Fullerton & Terence Dick
 
 
 
Aaron Peck - Vancouver
 
1. Perhaps most successful for the discussions it provoked, Exponential Future at the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery did something worthwhile: it made people passionate about the state of art in Vancouver. Many people disagreed with the selections (which is, I think, positive); it was the usual suspects, but so what? Some of the work held up, some of it didn’t. For an exhibition purporting to represent a generation, the work in Exponential Future was strikingly similar (all of it research-heavy referential, concept-based art, neglecting a lot of other social practice, new media, performance art, or painting). I particularly enjoyed pieces by Isabelle Pauwells, Mark Soo, and Elizabeth Zvonar. Exponential Future was far more successful than some would wish to concede, partially because it left so many people dissatisfied. I think that dissatisfaction was, in a lot of cases, the generative point.
 
2. Robyn Laba achieves a lot with very little, but her work is more complex than may first appear. Previously she transformed a pile of newspapers into a column, a tottering Tower of Babel-like structure, and before that, she held a reading group on Hannah Arendt’s Life of the Mind. Her latest sculptural installation on the ceiling of CSA Space - acetate triangles stapled together and folded in on each other - was transfixing to lie under, like the canopy of some huge plastic tree. But there’s more to it. We are constantly aware of this piece as work: the seams and staples are showing. As a meditation on the means of production, her work is engaged in a way that escapes most art currently championing “engagement.”
 
 
Owen Kydd, Night (August), 2008, video installation
 
3. Owen Kydd’s Night (August) is not listed on Monte Clarke’s website as an exhibition this year. Over the summer, one had to ask to see Night, which was quietly on display in the coach house behind the gallery. Three monitors display nocturnes. Each monitor loops a series of (mostly) still videos. Nocturnal portraits are difficult pull off. But here they are shot with a canny use of contemporary technology and a painterly attention to composition. Mark Lewis, Stephen Shore and many others come to mind. There is a lot I could say about this work, but for now, suffice to say I like it a great deal.
 
4. Eli Bornowsky’s curation, much like his own painting, invites the viewer to do something a lot art no longer does: to look. To look and to think with patience was the unassuming invitation of Making Real at Or Gallery this fall. If one sits with the work - or rather stands, as Richard Tuttle suggested to the curator - the more and more enriching it becomes. Making Real involves a sustained attention. Of the work, I found Guido Molinari the least rewarding, while the new work by Tuttle, Mathew Bushel and Monique Mouton were each difficult and sometimes unsatisfying, but ultimately generous if the viewer took the time to encounter the works on their own terms.
 
5. The Vancouver Art Gallery holds eleven pieces of Jeff Wall’s work, apparently the largest collection of the artist in the world. Here’s hoping that the Acquisitions Funds continue to purchase more. Wall’s work is rarely shown in his native Vancouver, so this alone made the VAG’s recent exhibition worth noting - even a cause for celebration. Wall’s pictures also demand close attention. Any chance one has to look at these pictures should be taken. The difference between Jeff Wall in reproduction and on the wall is staggering.
 
 
 
Sarah Adams-Bacon - Calgary
 
1. Having existed for barely over a year, IDEAL Gallery was a blast of fresh air in Calgary’s art community. Balancing itself between a professional space committed to contemporary art and a spontaneous platform for experimentation and excellent fun, the gallery provided opportunities for exploration and discourse. Founded and managed by Erik Olsen and Erica Brisson (both coming from outside of Calgary), IDEAL hosted well over a dozen exhibitions during its brief run. The programming included work that sometimes adhered to established disciplines, but frequently stepped into experimental and investigative practices. Hopefully, with the boom disappearing in poofs of greasy ash and real estate crawling into various dark caves, spaces like IDEAL will become more available for future artist ventures.
 
2. The Arbour Lake Sghool is possibly one of the most exciting collectives in Alberta right now. With subversion seeping from under the doors and cracks of their suburban clubhouse, their reputations as cheeky, provocative saboteurs of comfortable thought precedes them as they break bylaw after bylaw in the name of art and brattiness. Beginning spring of 2008, the Sghool has hosted a monthly variety show called Talk Show Thursdays at the downtown pub Broken City. From segments such as “Jay Leno’s Monologue” by Scott Rogers, “What Suits Aaron Sereda?” by Aaron Sereda, “Justin Do Something!” by Justin Patterson, “Science vs. Popcorn” by John Frosst, and excellent banter by comedian hosts Chris Gordon and Don Wood, the entire night is a hyperactive spectacle of shitty (a good shitty) fun.
 
 
Chris Millar in the studio
 
3. Everything Chris Millar makes is like a shot of electric sunshine: irreverent, hilarious, and frenzied. His work is the best example of new visual punk I can think of. I could spend hours in front of any given piece, as each tiny detail packs a sucker-punch’s worth of wonder. What’s most impressive about Millar’s paintings, aside from their dexterous use of color and gleeful play on the word “fuck”, is the laborious use of every single space on the canvas. No wishy-washy backgrounds or half-considered shortcuts, every inch is as strong as the next and could almost comprise a separate piece in itself. That’s some serious skill.
 
4. John Will has been a staple in Calgary’s art scene for as long as I, or anyone, can remember. I’ve seen his work regularly pop up in most of Calgary’s contemporary art galleries, most recently at TRUCK in the exhibition The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Will’s art is always confrontational and often very funny. He has caricatured his artist persona into an arrogant jester, billowing his cardboard ego to the point of absurdity. If it’s a shtick, it’s a good one, and if it isn’t, I still love the work, but my appreciation for Will comes mainly from his consistent visibility within the community. It is exactly his willingness to share a pint with an emerging artist that makes him so endearing. Whether at openings, the local pub, or just browsing through gallery archives, he remains actively plugged into the activities of Calgary’s art at whatever level and, at the ripe old age of somewhere between seventy and ninety, his commitment to art community hubbub is something to be admired.
 
5. Every fall season, as the community finally recongeals from the sweltering summer heat, we’re slammed against a wall of art by almost a month’s worth of festivals (eg. Artcity, M:ST). While this activity is incredibly beneficial to our city and great to see, by the end of it the Calgarian art workforce is on the verge of collapse. By November, the exhaustion is conspicuous in almost every artist-run centre: heavy lidded stares, conversations punctuated by mumbles and grunts, and many heads held in hands. What with the hours and hours and days and days of frenzied coordinating and facilitating, chasing down tardy artists, nudging for deadline acknowledgement, setting up, showing up, cleaning up - these people deserve some serious props.
 
 
 
Cliff Eyland – Winnipeg
 
1. Kent Monkman is an immensely talented and sassy artist, an aboriginal force of unnatural nature. 2008 was Monkman’s year, but look out 2009!
 
2. J’accuse Sobey’s! Daniel Barrow should have won this year’s Sobey’s Award. What gives? Instead we get nth generation conceptualist Tim Lee. As my old conceptual art gurus at NSCAD used to say: “give me a fucking break!”
 
3. Local activist artists Shawna Dempsey, Lorri Millan, Wanda Koop, Eleanor Bond and others did a Jane Jacobs a few months ago when they rallied Winnipeggers to oppose a stadium that would have flattened Winnipeg’s South Point Douglas artist’s enclave. Fight the power!
 
 
Michael Dudeck, The Entia, 2007, performance
 
4. Youngster Michael Dudeck, with a little mentoring from local artists such as Sharon Alward and international stars like AA Bronson, is poised to open his first Toronto gallery show at Pari Nadimi in February. Watch this kid closely.
 
5. Paul Hess has been installed as the new director of the University of Manitoba School of Art and is implementing a graduate program, securing a new building for the school, and reforming the curriculum. Hess really gets contemporary art and he knows how art schools work. Of course he has yet to get through his first Winnipeg winter….
        
             
 
Terence Dick – Toronto
 
1. This year’s big reno unveiling put Frank G. high and above Daniel L. as the institutional contractor of choice for museums in need of a new look. Gehry’s integration of the various layers of old with his newest layer of new at the AGO isn’t seamless, but the seams sure are well tailored. Score one for the team on Dundas Street, but share some of those good vibes with the folks uptown at the newly redeployed Wychwood Barns. An oasis of art has emerged in this previously dry neighbourhood and all should be proud (especially those who nabbed live/work spaces in the new digs).
 
2. Justina M. Barnicke Gallery director Barbara Fischer continues in her quiet way to lead the curatorial efforts in our fair city. She has produced much needed survey shows for local mid-career artists (Kelly Mark last year, James Carl right now) and handed over the keys to the gallery to up-and-coming curators (Chen Tamir and Aileen Burns, to name two). She shared her space with ex-Blackwood Gallery curator Seamus Kealy for his monumental Signals in the Dark exhibition (we’ll see what she cooks up with his replacement Christof Migone) and she’s taken on our national pavilion for the next Venice Biennale. She’s a hub, get to know her.
 
3. Simon Starling’s Infestation Piece (first at the Power Plant and now at the AGO) was a long time coming and, having heard the inside scoop from PP installation maestro Paul Zingrone, not as simple as just dropping a Henry Moore in the lake, but damn doesn’t it look a relic from an ancient alien civilization.
 
 
Katie Bethune-Leamen, Mushroom Studio, 2008
 
4. If there’s one local metaphor who’s time is about to come, it’s Katie Bethune-Leamen’s Mushroom Studio at the Toronto Sculpture Garden. As the North American industrial/manufacturing/financial complex collapses, artists are going to have to go back to the old ways, living (and thriving, I hope) off the rotting infrastructure that once displaced them. There’s going to be a lot of dead wood around in the near future; bring on the fungi!
 
5. And finally, a shout out to Convenience Gallery because it’s so convenient! It’s in my neighbourhood, it’s always open (even when I’m walking the dog at midnight), and it’s got good shows (like Coryn Kempster, Gabe Sawhney, and Julia Jamrozik’s Hard Candy from last winter). In fact, let’s hear it for all the window galleries! There are a couple brand new ones up the street from me, notably Fine & Dandy at 2017 Dundas West, and I expect to see more in 2009 what with all the abandoned storefronts that will likely be coming our way.
         
              
 
Stacey DeWolfe - Montreal
 
1. This summer, I had the pleasure of hearing Sophie Calle speak about her provocative show, Prenez soin de vous at DHC/ART. In person, Calle - who has stalked strangers, photographed their messy hotel rooms, and revealed the most intimate details of her life - is a much less controversial figure than her work suggests. That said, the show does read at times like an act of vengeance (albeit gentle) comprised of the inspired responses of over one hundred women to the devastating break-up email that Calle had received a few years earlier. Though the results are decidedly mixed, the show is a stunning accomplishment and speaks to the universality of loss and the labour of mending a broken heart.
 
 
Vitaly Medvedovsky, The Hunt, 2008, oil on panel
 
2. It was only this past weekend that I stumbled into Galerie Push, one of the latest additions to the rapidly expanding Mile-End art scene. Push is a little space with big intentions, showcasing some of the city’s finest emerging artists and, at the same time, nurturing the next generation of art collectors. Amongst the artists on the gallery’s roster, I was particularly taken with the odd and lovely paintings of Vitaly Medvedovsky, whose work was also on display this summer in Art Mûr’s Fresh Paint, their annual exhibition of new works by the region’s top graduating MFA students.
 
3. Over the last decade, Bree,ree’s Todd Stewart has made a name for himself as a much-sought-after graphic artist, known especially for his work designing some of Montreal’s best rock posters. Recently, Stewart has made a move toward more personal projects, landing at General 54 this fall with Lost Layers, a show featuring a series of prints exploring the many facets of the city. Stewart is a skilled illustrator and his work here has a distinct character recognizable from his more commercial pursuits, but what lingers is the emotional depth of the pieces: the loneliness, romanticism, nostalgia, glory and wonder they evoke.
 
4. When contemplating the shows that struck me this year, I found myself returning to three individual multi-screen video works, each of which has stayed with me for different reasons. In March, there was Nelson Hendrick’s syncopated play with shapes and rhythms Map of the City at Articule and Kerry Tribe’s lovely and intellectually-resonant Here and Elsewhere which screened as part of DHC/ART’s Re-enactments. The MAC’s Quebec Triennial, which is deserving of its own mention, had Bettina Hoffman’s Émile. There is something benignly and wonderfully perverse about this group of teenagers who lay strewn about while the ground-level camera circles around their static bodies.
 
5. And finally, though some of the big shows this season (eg. Sympathy for the Devil at the MAC and Christian Marclay’s Replay at DHC/ART) have been a little hit and miss, the abundance of rock-related art in galleries has definitely been energizing. For the most part, where these shows faltered was in the sum of their parts, while the individual pieces - Warhol’s screen tests for the Velvet Underground and Christian Marclay’s fantastic four channel Video Quartet come instantly to mind - made manifest the compelling link between art and rock, image and sound.
   
    
 
Isa Tousignant - Montreal
 
1. The most unapologetically traumatic sensual experience provided by art this year was without a doubt Christian Marclay’s Crossfire. The ear-popping, cacophonic work positions the viewer in the middle of a room whose four walls are screens that play, each in their own sequence, series of shooting scenes from mainstream movies. The sensation of being hunted is absolutely visceral and, once the brain catches up to the idea that there’s no actual threat, oddly addictive. I could have stood in that crossfire for hours. Does that say something about me? 
 
2. The best art book to be published locally was Conundrum Press’s monograph on Shary Boyle, the publishing house’s most aesthetically ambitious work yet, and a great step in a new direction. The high-gloss reproductions of her perverse porcelain sculptures of mutilated creatures and evil pixies do absolute justice to the works’ finesse.
 
3. Most exciting trend around these parts is that despite the dastardly economic situation (the drought of arts funding in the first half of the year followed by the collapse of the global economy, no less), new commercial galleries are springing up all over the place. There is hope! The three prizewinners are Division Gallery, IPS and Push, all dedicated to representing young and groundbreaking representational artists.
 
 
2boys.tv, Phobophilia, 2007 (photo: Guy L’Heureux)
 
4. The trophy for trippiest transdisciplinary creation in 2008 goes to Phobophilia by the infinitely entertaining 2boys.tv,a duo composed of Stephen Lawson and Aaron Pollard. These local boys have traveled the world touring their filmic and performative skits in the alterna-cabaret/drag spheres, but they’ve only recently entered the bona fide visual arts world. Phobophilia was a poetic feat of illusion, emotional intensity and performer’s endurance.
 
5. Not to end on a sad note, but the biggest loss to the city this year (or more like early next) will be Marc Mayer’s transition from the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal to the National Gallery. His tenure at the Musée breathed new life into the institution and this year alone, produced the incredible Triennale du Québec - the year’s best exhibition in my books - as well as the awesome Sympathy for the Devil. But, lest we be selfish, that’s exactly the type of show we need in the capital. Our loss is the country’s gain.      
       
 
 
 
Sue Carter Flinn - Halifax
 
1. In October, NSCAD opened PORTloggia, an airy new gallery space at its waterfront campus, to bring contemporary art to thousands of unsuspecting cruise ship passengers and provide the university with an opportunity to host large-scale sculptural exhibitions on a regular basis. It’s still early, but I believe that in 2009 this space will bring a more adventurous attitude to gallery-going in Halifax.
 
 
Graeme Patterson’s Hockey Organ, shown at Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
 
2. Work from more than fifty artists spilled over the three floors of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia during the exhibition Arena: The Art of Hockey last May (timed to coincide with Halifax’s hosting of the International Ice Hockey Federation championships). Surprising to some unsportsperson-like cynics, the show worked well, thanks to wise artist selection. Ray Cronin, AGNS director and curator of the exhibition, suggested to me that the work generally broke down into three themes: sentimental, subversion and style. Graeme Patterson, as usual, was a crowd-pleaser, offering mini-tournaments on his Hockey Organ, a souped-up STIGA rod-hockey game with its own Jumbotron. Instead of pulling rods to make the players move, you pressed the organ keys.
 
3. Photopolis, a city-wide photography exhibition, which ran from October 1 to November 15, had almost every gallery in town participating but some of the strongest work was to be discovered in non-traditional locations. Hannah Minzloff’s Underground, a series of subway commuter photos taken in North America and Europe, did not have a subway to call home, like it did during in Toronto’s Contact festival. Instead, her black-and-white photos, which capture the isolation and spiritual experience of underground travel (iPods rule), were on display in working Halifax Metro buses. They filled this small city commuter with a longing for metropolitan-sized anonymity and speed.
 
4. October also brought Nocturne, the city’s first Nuit Blanche-style festival (minus the all-night part). It was a huge success as thousands of Haligonians visited twenty-eight galleries and twenty-four installations and performances. Again, many of the highlights were installations that took a little more effort to discover, like Adriana Kuiper’s Capsule on the Dalhousie University campus, a temporary fallout shelter made from PVC piping and corrugated metal, tucked between solid 19th Century stone buildings.
 
5. But my sentimental favourite for the year was Exalted Beings: Animal Relationships at Dalhousie Art Gallery in August. Curator Peter Dykhuis’ pet project explored our relationships to animals, both domestic and wild. Highlights included David Harper’s when the rain comes, which mixed woodworking, taxidermy and embroidery to create a Canadiana Noah’s Ark, and Corinna Schnitt’s video Once Upon a Time, which answers the age-old question, “So that’s what happens when you invite farm animals into your living room.”
 

 

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