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Terrence Heath

Another Prairies (1986)
[Eleanor Bond, Aganetha Dyck, Jeff Funnell, Richard Gorenko, Wanda Koop, Edward Poitras and Frances Robson]
An exhibition organized by Joan Borsa for Harbourfront Art Gallery, Toronto, September 1986.

BorderCrossings, Vol. 6 #1, Winter 1986.
[ 1,076 words ]


Under the direction of Bill Boyle, Harbourfront has launched a programme of exhibitions to explore the face of regional (that is, outside Toronto) art in Canada. Joan Borsa's Another Prairies follows Alvin Balkind's selection of works by Vancouver artists and Ron Shuebrook's exhibit of Nova Scotia art. The geographic definition of prairies is, as Borsa notes in the catalogue which accompanies the exhibition, Manitoba and Saskatchewan; the region's characteristics are 'heterogeneous value systems and subcultural identities,' 'a sense of community,' a 'strong socialist and agrarian base,' and gradual 'urban expansion and economic growth.' In the catalogue Borsa draws connecting lines from the works to various elements of these characteristics of the prairies. And although she gives recognition to the influence of contemporary issues, such as 'the re-emergence of figurative painting, feminist art practice, new media, neo-expressionism, issues of representation,' she asserts that the characteristics of the region are a stronger presence in the work of the seven artists she has chosen to exhibit.

Our language will not let us escape the conceptual dichotomy of form and content. We intellectually twist and turn, trying to inhabit a space between the two concepts, but discovering always that we can no more have both together than we can have a left / right foot. Unable to accept our dilemma or to invent a 'formtent', we, as art writers, opt for dealing with one or the other.

Regionalism further bedevils our thought because we have come to identify the art-centre or cosmopolitan art with form ('aesthetic self-consciousness') and the regional art with content ('moral reference'). These categories come from Donald P. Kuspit's essay entitled, 'Regionalism Reconsidered', which was printed in Art in America as early as August of 1976. While such categorizing has some obvious inadequacies, polarization is a tenacious part of our thought processes. The fact that, in Canada, even nationalistic urges have tended to be in the area of content rather than form makes our attempts to unravel the art production of the country bewilderingly complex.

The artists Borsa has included in Another Prairies — Eleanor Bond, Aganetha Dyck, Jeff Funnell, Richard Gorenko, Wanda Koop, Edward Poitras and Frances Robson — seem on first viewing to have very little in common. Their works occupy their own spaces and there are practically no cross-references. Only Gorenko's and Poitras's works have clear prairie images. The others could be imagined as coming from another place. A central concern of all seven artists, however, is the seeking of form for the works, or a relating of form to a new purpose.

Jeff Funnell's work is represented by twenty drawings chosen from forty-nine which constituted his Riel Series. Commemorating the centennial of the Riel Rebellion in 1885, the series is a bold rendition of both the personal and public life of Riel. Each drawing consists in part of narrative text which is worked into the format of the piece. Described in this way, they sound like any number of others in the fashion for text in visual space that we have seen over the past few years. The difference lies in the cultural reference. These works are more like the posters that we used to produce in grade school. The artist seems to be searching for a form of presentation that recalls the school room, the textbook, the history lesson, while the content of the drawings presents a reassessment of the man.

In Aganetha Dyck's pantry of preserved buttons the form is found; the content is allusive. The familiar three-dimensional space of the storeroom with rows and rows of sealers on shelves creates a place we experience as reassuring.

The recent national coverage given to the work of Wanda Koop has made her images familiar to those interested in art. The works which Borsa has selected are not, however, derived from her large format works. These drawings are small, delicate brushworks. The image is the airplane on a blank field. What strikes me about these images is how close they are to calligraphic gestures. The depicted image disappears in the act of the artist. Koop's interest in things Chinese has been increasing during recent years and these very western images are just as assuredly seeking an oriental form. They say: This act is all.

Frances Robson's work develops out of the central convention of the pose in photography. From snapshots to fashion montages, the photograph has presented an arranged world. Even documentary photography has often been set up for the camera. Robson's stark photographs of nurses standing in their uniforms in a hospital ward are posed, but not for effect. The nurses do not smile; they have not obviously arranged themselves. They simply stand looking at the camera, at us. The form is assumed by the artist and the content allowed to emerge in spite of it.

Similarly, Eleanor Bond's huge painting / drawings are intricate in their imagery and suggestive in their possible meanings. The desolation of the industrial sprawl with its threatening sphere and almost hidden acts of violence is the content, but the form is as engaging. Her use of perspective, for example, in Converting the Powell River Mill to a Recreation and Retirement Centre creates the illusion that the entire scene is falling to the bottom left and off the canvas. The drawing technique gives a certain impermanence to the work. She seems to be seeking a form of impermanence.

Edward Poitras's work Wascana consists of a three-dimensional shape which mimes the perspective of a railway flatcar of bison bones in a nineteenth-century photograph. The surface of the piece is made of photocopies of the photograph which, in their lights and darks, resembles the sun and shadow of the bison bones. The work was made at Harbourfront and is in the process of finding a form. Poitras speaks of working it in clay. The form beckons or is becoming and in becoming enriches his understanding and the strength of the piece.

As I looked at this work from the prairies, I was not so much struck by the fact that it was regional work as I was that the artists were led by the idea or concept of the piece, rather than by its form, and that they all sought the form through the idea. If disillusionment with aesthetic self-consciousness has resulted in this art, then it is a vindication of the revolt of the regions against domination by art-centre styles.

BorderCrossings, Vol. 6 #1, Winter 1986.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.


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