Give Me Shelter at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, Charlottetown
By Jordan Beaulieu
Billed as a “glimpse of the future” of St. John’s, NL, Give Me Shelter is a potent reference to processes of establishment. This group exhibition underscores how upcoming artists build a strong foundation by assembling bodies of work, constructing renewed understandings of place and self, and improvising make-shift art infrastructures. Developed over three years by the CCAG’s in-house curator Pan Wendt in correspondence with local artists, galleries, and curators, it aims to interpret states of emergence by showcasing an outstanding roster of early-career artists while reflecting on the 21st-century artistic identity of Newfoundland.
Being selected as regional representatives is a dubious honour. Showcases based on geography are often weighed down by the expectation they convey the substance of their places of origin with cohesion and authority. Despite this burden, the works featured in Give Me Shelter are refreshing for their refusal to yield conclusions. Rather than rely on hollow notions of imagined community or rehashing reductive conventions, the artists translate their lived experience as Newfoundlanders into works that are equal parts playful, weird, sensual, morbid, enigmatic, earnest, and vibrant.
The exhibition fills the upper floor of the CCAG, stretching across two lofty gallery halls. The themes addressed range from queer fantasies to rural displacement, domestic trauma to environmental myth-making. The works span mediums including oil painting, drawing, textiles, photography, sculptural installation, ceramics, video, and more. Some pieces are technical masterpieces, others are delightfully messy. Although the title Give Me Shelter likens St. John’s to an artist’s safe harbour, with at least six of the thirteen participants being alumni of the Grenfell School of Fine Arts, the exhibition could just as easily be described as a portrait of Corner Brook.
Ashley Hemmings conveys her affinity to the East Coast through her tongue-in-cheek approach to critical commentary on the rigid regulation of outdoor public space through crafty rug-hooked signage. José González Luis and Greg Bennett reflect on the intimacy and isolation of sheltered spaces; the former’s ink drawings serialize the loneliness of small-town apartment dwelling through domestic still lifes, while the latter’s oil paintings depict camping tents as dazzling but delicate sanctuaries. Mimi Stockland presents an array of irresistibly tactile objects, creating a surreal collage that further emphasizes the expressive power of household textiles (a theme that runs throughout the show). Olivia Wong’s photo and video performances with both organic and hyper-commercial materials are captivating studies of the fundamental interdependence of humans and non-humans, and the projection of the sacred and profane onto these relationships.
Unlike other so-called “emerging” artist showcases, the artists included in Give Me Shelter seem to mesh well with this often overstretched category. The exhibition is apt for debut in Charlottetown, a city that at times struggles to provide support to its own early-career artists. The scarcity threatening local artists and all arts workers living through the pandemic is a reminder that invitations for Atlantic artists to show their work throughout the region – and, I dare say, beyond – should be more abundant. It is heartening to see this group recognized for their work, and it was fortuitous that artists and audiences were able to congregate in Charlottetown to celebrate the opening, just a few weeks before the fall closure of the Atlantic travel bubble.
Ultimately, this exhibition does not accomplish much meaning-making about the contemporary identity of St. John’s, nor should it be expected to. Give Me Shelter is a valuable curatorial initiative and a colourful collection of eclectic artworks that attest to the positive potential of group exhibitions and the buoyancy of emergent practices, demonstrating that the St. John’s arts community has structural integrity.
Jordan Beaulieu is a settler from Epekwitk/PEI and an emerging artist based in Charlottetown. They are a current board member of this town is small, PEI’s artist-run centre, and have coordinated for festivals including Art in the Open (Charlottetown) and Art Matters (Montreal). They are an MFA candidate at NSCAD University, where they work as a research collaborator on the SSHRC-funded project Counter Memory Activism.