The day of the opening of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, art critic Matt Gleason identified an outsider aesthetic amongst arts insiders that acts "as an alias for downright sloppiness." While it's hard to tease out the variety of possible reasons, some more valid than others, for this apparent rawness (perhaps a focus on process over finish, laziness, hurriedness or an anti-establishment impulse), they all provide an apt foil for the quality of art experience you find at Avalanche! Institute of Contemporary Art. The gallery founders and directors Nate McLeod and Cassandra Paul are an energetic young pair who embody care and attention, not to mention dedication – both maintain day jobs in the cultural sector in addition to independent practices and running their space (!). From the ambitious reach of their programming (which sometimes infuses the local scene with hot young artists from Vancouver or San Francisco, the likes of which we Calgarians rarely see) to the clean and confident atmosphere of their converted office basement, it is inspiring to see their enterprise unfold with such charm and smarts.
When I first visited their new space under Untitled Art Society, used to seeing large Calgary galleries with floor space disproportionate to the quality of work in them, I was underwhelmed at the size of the exhibition space as it was about the size of a large walk-in closet or small office. But now having seen their fifth show, I can't get over how versatile it is, as well as how stimulating an art encounter can be in spaces that flux between domestic/private and public/open sites. The more alternative the original purpose of the space, the more effort and consideration are demonstrated towards its transformation and communicative potential. The current show, Sudden Death by Vancouver artist Russell Leng, both acknowledges and creatively expands the tight quarters of the gallery. Using the simple mechanism of dipping a basketball in black paint and throwing it against the white walls, he creates a pleasing all-over pattern reminiscent of eighties era printed fabrics or wallpaper while being playful with constraints. Leng says the show explores the concept of failure in sports: a water pipe exposed in the corner of the gallery's ceiling is adorned with referee whistles that are just out of reach. But everything is noticeably silent, subtle and statuesque, almost the opposite of sportive action and bravado. A small monitor screens a looped video of the end of a boxing match, slowed during the final moments before the winner is revealed when opponents hold the referee's hands on either side, looking down in a meditative pause. The expansion of time charges the moment with a spiritual mood. On the feature wall a line of paintings articulate a Greek-like figure in contrapposto with a ball. The figure is repeated but also adorned and elaborated differently each time. There's a sense of ignoring failure, ignoring competition altogether, and just playing and celebrating the game of free will.
Russell Leng: Sudden Death continues until May 24.
Andrea Williamson is a Calgary-based writer and artist. Her reviews have appeared in C magazine, Swerve, Color magazine, esse arts and opinion and FFWD. In January 2013 she initiated a critical theory reading group that meets monthly in a collective attempt to approach academic texts in peripheral and humble ways. She can be followed on Twitter @andreawillsamin.
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