2023 Critics’ Picks – Part One

As per tradition, Akimblog has reserved the last two weeks of our publishing year to reflect on the past twelve months of art happenings in Canada. Our writers have selected the exhibitions that stuck with them long after they left the gallery. At a time when we’re inundated with an endless array of images, to dwell on those that captivate us and be transformed in their presence is a rare feeling indeed. This, then, is a tribute to those experiences. Here’s to more in 2024!

Ogheneofegor Obuwoma in Vancouver

Racquel Rowe, Bodies of Water, 2023, still image from video

In the last year, the art community has gradually regained a sense of balance, which has brought new approaches to exhibitions, documentation, and access, as well as created meaningful new pathways for artists. The new sense of balance has still felt tumultuous to me, so I’ve been drawn to works that address, in some way, feelings of precarity.

I was personally touched by Saltwater Cures All by artist Racquel Rowe at Galley Gachet. Rowe engages with issues of the body, exploitation of land, and the broader relationships these ideas have to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the ongoing exploitation of the people of Barbados. Her work uses water to reflect a devastating history, but also, more importantly, a place for healing and reconnection. I was drawn in by the lives she presented and how she captured communal ritual. Through video documentation of her performance practice and the landscapes of Barbados, Rowe handles ideas of land and home with impressive care and imagination.

Through weaving and the use of textiles, artist Francisco Berlanga addresses the material relations that create home and memory. His exhibition Enticed and Entangled en algo Antiguo at Grunt Galley had me thinking of my own home and the sights, smells, and words that link me to there, as well as how a thing like a piece of cloth can hold important memories and map out a life and people. The gallery space was completely transformed with fabrics, clothing, weaved grass, film, and stone bricks to create a sense of almost forged nostalgia for viewers.

In early November, I had the opportunity to attend a book launch co-hosted by Artspeak and the Libby Leshgold Gallery. Spatial Disruptions of the Body by Aisha Lesley Bentham is an exciting new publication in Artspeak’s dissident Art Journal series. The book launch included a talk and reading from the author that culminated in a community conversation about Black femmehood as it relates to bodies, food, and time. I highly recommend this book and look forward to seeing the coming year as an opportunity to embrace uncertainty as generative.

 

Levin Ifko in Calgary

Teresa Tam, Good Job Arcade, 2023, promotional image

In May, I wrote about Good Job Arcade and how Teresa Tam’s team of artists transformed TRUCK Contemporary Art into a fully interactive arcade space. I think of this show often, and continue to be really moved by the way Tam ‘s work holds space for diasporic longing and care through artist friendships and media arts. (You can read the full article here.)

Continuing this collaborative trajectory in the city, the exhibition Black-Space-Time saw artist-run centres Stride Gallery and The Bows both engaged in the expansive research of curator Nura Ali. The work of artists Anna Binta Diallo, Preston Pavlis, and Braxton Garneau made space for the Black care and intimacy that Ali writes passionately about in the exhibition text.

I was also really taken with The Beyond Within, an amalgamation of Annie MacDonell’s work curated by Crystal Mowry and Leila Timmins. I found myself going back to the Illingworth Kerr Gallery over and over again to sit with a feeling that I’m not sure how to name (and perhaps not sure if I want to). Mowry’s discussion about the show and her curatorial practice was another highlight of this experience.

In 2023, I’ve seen a huge effort put into arts programs and workshops from all kinds of arts organisations across the city. I’ve been feeling excited and deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to experience many of these, and I hope that sharing in the form of collaboration, exhibitions, and arts programs can continue to facilitate connections in arts communities and beyond.

 

Jon Claytor in Sackville

John Murchie, Duck Decoy Paint Portrait, 2001, acrylic on canvas

Did John Murchie’s recent retrospective, À rebours at the Owens Gallery, change my life or is it a coincidence that 2023 is the year I decided to stop leaving and just stay put? For over thirty years I’ve been trying to say goodbye to my small town of Sackville, NB, but every time I leave I find myself back here as if drawn by some dark magic or the powerful force of a black hole. Such is the nature of my uneasy attachment to this place that Murchie calls “the heart of the heart of the heart.” But something changed this year. I am no longer itching to run away. Looking back, I can see that the change happened shortly after seeing Murchie’s retrospective.

Half of the pieces in the exhibition were made in Sackville and show how the artist chose this place, embraced it, and made fascinating work here. Murchie makes conceptual art that can seem difficult to decipher; however, he cannot help but also leave a trace of his heart in the work. And the work reflects this town in so many ways. It is minimal, complex, vibrant, humorous, austere, playful, and practical. Most of all, it isn’t striving to be somewhere else or something else. His later pieces especially could only be made by this particular artist just as much as they could only have been made in this particular small town.

This is why I am choosing À rebours and Murchie’s conceptual art as my highlight of 2023: for sentimental reasons. They made me feel content, inspired, and happy in the place where I am. I walked into the exhibition and my life stayed the same. That made the biggest difference of all.