The Canadian Art Database

Charlotte Townsend-Gault

New Image Alberta
[Wendy Toogood, Susan Wood, Anne-Marie Schmid-Esler, Wayne Giles, Bradley Struble, Gordon Ferguson, Jeffrey Spalding, and Sally Barbier]

Vanguard, Vol. 12 #2, March 1983.
[ 1,406 words ]

Too little is known elsewhere about art in Alberta. In New Image Alberta (November 27 - December 18) , Val Greenfield, Curator of the ACA Gallery, has put together a good, interesting show, and the sponsorship of Lavalin Inc. will allow it to travel across the country. The implication is that the old image of art in Alberta, landscape and post-painterly abstraction, needs up-dating.

It follows from this that the exhibition is not a perfect representation of Alberta now, but rather an indication of a large and above all diverse field of very competent art activity from which this selection was made, and which could have yielded several others of equal quality and diversity.

Nor has Greenfield, as she herself points out, located a new 'school'. Imagery by the broadest definition there may be but not homogeneity. The only discernible common characteristics are compositional experiment and an excess of incident, created by richly patterned surfaces and a wide range of materials and textures. These features are achieved, however, according to quite varied assumptions: random assemblage, intuitive juxtaposition, painstaking calculation, and the requirements of narrative.

Furthermore, it is not the newness of all this which is the essence of the show. A number of these artists, as well as several who are not included, have been working in these ways for years. What is new is the idea that their work can be seen, productively, side by side. It is a good idea, and also one which sites work from Alberta in the context of concerns current elsewhere. As elsewhere, it presents a new set of problems for those who would write about it.

The apparatus of formalist criticism being irrelevant, what is to be done? The present situation betrays the extent to which the so-called language of criticism is not that at all but mimicry, a variant on the tone of that which it is about, hence we have: 1st person baroque, narrative (structured and un-structured), pluralist arbitrary, a-political outrage, existentialist revival, expressionist eclectic, and more. The most favourable reading of all this is to believe that it contributes to a broad and open-ended interpretation of the 'aesthetic dimension', Marcuse's notion of which Peter Fuller, the British anti-Modernist critic, is the most visible exponent. Alternatively, it is a shambles.

The tone that it is hard to avoid in many of the works in this show, yet one that it is very hard to mimic successfully, is one that appears to derive from psychological necessity. The artists seem to be trying to 'get at' something that evades formal description, and a number of them are prepared to say as much.

Wendy Toogood's fabric collages are, on one level, about formal configuration and movement possible within them. The titles confirm this — Spiral, Vortex, Cross. Toogood is a superb colourist in the manner of the West African masking traditions with their rich combinations of colour, line and texture of which she is a great admirer. The colours in the works on show have the flatness and density inherent to felt and raw silk and this contributes to the stillness of parts of the compositions. A nice counterpoint is thus provided for the zooming, swimming animal humanoid creatures which set up an almost electric buzz in those parts of the work they inhabit. This adds up to something more than form. Toogood says she tries to capture the state of mind that follows certain kinds of encounter, those that transcend the humdrum and set off chain reactions that change everything. While such intentions dominate her work they cannot be read as elegant formulae.

Curious as are Susan Wood's looming, isolated images of fish and shells, they become, on contemplation, curiouser and curiouser. They read like enlargements from hieroglyphics. Monochromatic, they are painted as though they had been scratched on stone. They lead to an awed wondering of how we, accustomed to reading a phonetic alphabet, manage to 'read' images at all.

That, instinctively, we do, and receive back, on an intuitive level, the paradoxes of the surreal, is the response set off by the imagery of Anne-Marie Schmid-Esler — her contribution to the diversity of response allowed by the diversity of images in this show. For a number of years Schmid-Esler has assembled her work intuitively from objects and materials at hand. A notable series of ceramic sculptures, done around 1980, centred on castings of a life-size model crow. These same birds, both threatened and threatening, appear in two new works here. In them the components, mop-heads, chair backs, sticks, even the fashionable broken plates (though here they become bird-feeders, and anyway this artist has made use of broken pottery for years), are attached to plywood. The artist finds herself liberated by the framed rectangle, freed from the technical difficulties of ceramic assemblage, and still able to make it perfectly un-clear whether the birds are trapped or free in their ambiguous spaces.

Wayne Giles's images are splashes or explosions. They are highly coloured gestures made from coat-hangers, golf clubs, walking sticks, scraps of wood and metal, cutouts and leftovers, all transmogrified by heavy impasto and vivid patterning, which hold the gestures in a state of tension. Their movement is made all the more frantic because, like TV 'snow', it is not allowed to 'go' anywhere. Image and form are fighting it out with wonderfully energetic results.

Bradley Struble explores the mysterious business of formal relationships between 'abstract' shapes in a series of watercolours more tentative and gentle than anything else in the exhibition. Kandinsky-like they allow for references more metaphysical than physical. Forms are sliced away, their placement undercut or coloured so that contradictory or paradoxical interiors are revealed. Something of the sort could also be said of Arthur Meads's paintings, although they are anything but gentle. He arrives at his forms by mixing his vocabularies: expressionist brushwork, minimal grids, and hard edge colours. Pop insouciance. When they speak together, as I think they do in Sailor I and Sailor II, rather than shouting each other down, the result is a telling re-working of the old picture plane problem.

Plane and perspective are also the formal concerns of sculptor Gordon Ferguson. In a portable installation made for this show he has planted pigs as if he were planting clues. He wanted a device, and found it in expanded steel mesh pigs, to humour viewers and make them think about distance. The pigs and their pale yellow corrugated fibreglass backdrop are lightly peppered with plastic wieners. Ferguson likes the ordinary materials that can be found at Beaver Lumber or on any patio or carport. He has given them a high-tech edge by using multiple steel screws. The space that holds the large pigs lolling in the foreground and the little pig in the fictional distance is activated by the wieners, they layer it up. In Ferguson's work the images, the pigs and their by-products, are there as formal devices, as uses for materials, as means to a not very porcine end.

In four paintings done since 1980 Jeffrey Spalding tips the concerns of conceptual formalism into a wider arena where the elements are painted in such a way that they encourage, rather than stifle, speculation about suggested or intended meaning. His images are forms derived from the built environment. The precision painting and texturing is knowingly exploited for its ability to administer some test to the eye, which, in turn, contrives to test the understanding. These walls, windows and fences, so common, so banal, yet cast shadows, break up space, in most peculiar ways. If this is normal, then art, in its old role of illusion maker, triumphs again.

Sally Barbier's ceramic sculptures are the most overtly autobiographical works in the show; it is the artist's own image which is incorporated. They introduce a funkiness to its catalogue of diversities, which is as it should be for funk remains a powerful force in creating images up and down western North America. In this context their private nature only encourages that incursion, prompted by the exhibition as a whole, into an area of meaning that is always there for the looking in any art but which much recent art gives us no reason to avoid.

Vanguard, Vol. 12 #2, March 1983.

Text: © Charlotte Townsend-Gault. All rights reserved.

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
The Canadian Art Database: Canadian Writers Files

Copyright ©1997, 2020. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.