| Liz Wylie
The Underside of Edmonton:
Bob Iveson, Tommie Gallie, Jim Davies and Cherie Moses
Vanguard, Vol. 13 #4, May 1984.
[ 4,468 words ]
Generally speaking, the national image of art in Edmonton is that of elegant, abstract, late modernist sculpture and painting. Sculptors who work in welded steel with an additive or constructivist process like Peter Hide, Alan Reynolds and Catherine Burgess are all known out of province. Indeed, David Burnett and Marilyn Schiff in their recently released Contemporary Canadian Art featured a discussion of these three artists as well as two other Edmontonians working in this mode in their chapter on recent Canadian sculpture. No mention was made of any other approaches to sculpture in Edmonton. Abstract painters such as Doug Haynes and Ann Clarke already have national reputations and, as with their peers in Edmonton like Terrence Keller, Seka Owen, Phil Darrah and Graham Peacock, they work with the visual qualities of art such as form, colour and texture very much for their own sake.
It would be futile to argue one way or another about the validity or value of this genre of art. What is interesting, however, is to examine the effects that the predominance of this kind of art has in Edmonton, especially concerning younger artists working in alternative ways. Since prevailing ideologies at both the Department of Art and Design at the University of Alberta and at the Edmonton Art Gallery are mainly sympathetic to the above approach to art, artists working in other areas or experimental media have little chance of any legitimate community support. Over the last several years, this situation has led to a severe schism in the city's art community and a feeling of bitterness or even disdain among some of the younger artists towards the more established, modernist ones. For example, the modernists are referred to as working according to an Edmonton party line (1) and last year two Edmonton artists coined the collective nickname 'Ed Steel' for the ten Edmonton sculptors working in welded steel who showed at Beaver House Gallery, since they thought the work all looked so similar. This kind of division in Edmonton's art community is unfortunate, but at the same time understandable. In a certain sense, as an art centre, Edmonton can be viewed as provincial, and as such is a place where ideas and movements in art can be simplified and codified to the point of becoming ironclad codes. Factions result, and this seems to have been the case in Edmonton. In a larger centre with a more pluralistic art production this would not be as likely to occur. Seen with some perspective then, the Edmonton situation is something of a tempest in a teapot. But this doesn't reduce the drastic effect it can have on artists at variance with the predominant approach who are trying to establish careers in the city.
It may come as a surprise to some that there are alternative modes and styles of art being explored in Edmonton besides late modernist abstraction. Four artists who are each highly talented, ambitious and stubborn in their struggle to do their work and survive in Edmonton, are Bob Iveson and Tommie Gallie in the area of sculpture, Jim Davies in painting and Cherie Moses in performance and camera art. These four are only the tip of the iceberg of 'underground' art in the city; there are many other less experienced, less developed and less distinguished artists working in various media and styles. But these four have been professional artists for several years, and their work is the most exciting in the city, therefore, worth exploring in its own right, the fact that it is not Edmonton's recognised art notwithstanding. Iveson and Gallie are sculptors who generally work in wood and although they have approached sculpture completely differently from each other in their own work, they have recently turned to doing joint, collaborative projects. Jim Davies is a painter whose work can be seen in the context of the new figuration currently enjoying so much exposure and international debate. He is one of a very few artists involved in this sort of painting in Edmonton and his work stands out in its uncanny evocation of mood and emotion. Cherie Moses is Edmonton's only artist working in camera art (as opposed to 'straight' photography), installation and performance art. Her work is remarkable for its conceptual component combined with a fine aesthetic appeal.
Perhaps only in a place like Edmonton would sculptors Bob Iveson and Tommie Gallie be considered avant-garde. Anywhere else their site-specific pieces (most often in wood) would not be thought of as far out of the ordinary. In Edmonton, however, they stand out like sore thumbs. Intriguingly it is Iveson and Gallie's working relationship and friendship which has formed as much of their solution to the problem of Edmonton as has the direction of their work. Iveson first met Gallie in 1972 while they were both students at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Iveson was there as an undergraduate, having recently switched programs to sculpture from industrial design. He had come to Edmonton from three frustrating years at the University of Manitoba in their architecture program and was searching for direction and answers to questions about art. Gallie was finishing his M.F.A. in sculpture (he had come to Edmonton after finishing a B.F.A. at N.S.C.A.D. in 1971) and was working with various unorthodox materials that alluded to his maritime roots: tar paper, huge wooden beams and tug rope. Initially, Gallie became a mentor to Iveson and, encouraged by Gallie's 'validating' of his ideas, Iveson began hauling in bug-ridden railroad ties to the pristine sculpture studio at the university to use as his materials. Even at this early point, Iveson and Gallie would have been eligible for the nickname by which the CBC's Robert Enright refers to them — the Edmonton dissidents. Gallie and Iveson continued to associate with each other after their time together as students was through and they began their collaborative work in 1980. They protect each other from what would otherwise be complete isolation in the city. Yet, there is nothing cloying about their togetherness — they bicker and fight with great glee and are more thorns in each other's flesh than mutual fans.
Their most successful collaboration to date was begun in 1982 and set in place in 1983, a piece called Child's Play done for a public park in Saskatoon. (2) This was the result of a juried commission for which Iveson and Gallie's submission was selected from one hundred and thirty-two from across Canada. Since initial work in generating the sculpture competition for Saskatoon had involved city officials getting information from various Saskatoon children who played in the park, Gallie and Iveson decided to continue this and to use Saskatoon children as the subject for their piece. Silhouettes of children at various games and activities based on photographs taken by the two artists were cut from steel and then installed on site. The work has met with favorable reaction in Saskatoon, though one could fault the piece in that the twenty-eight static images of the children at play allow no actual physical play involvement by children now in the park the way a behavioural / structural sort of sculpture would.
Both Gallie and Iveson share a strong belief in the importance of a site or context in the content of any sculptural work they do, whether it be physical, cultural, historical or geographical. Yet, in their work as individuals, this belief comes out in completely different ways.
Bob Iveson (born in Calgary in 1951) began to draw on his boyhood hobby as a model maker in his work after his B.F.A. and as a graduate student at the University of Alberta in 1977-79. He turned to some bits of hardwood he had around his apartment and began creating imitation woodworking tools. As a subject, he says, the tools were immediate, they felt comfortable and they allowed him to play with illusion. With Iveson's hammer, to cite one example of the tools, he has played with the contrast between the two materials, metal and wood, reversing them so that the viewer encounters a bronze handle and a wooden head. Various groups of the tools (screwdrivers, jars of nails, a plane) were exhibited in the late 1970s in group exhibitions outside of Edmonton, (3) but during this time the artist was nagged by the sense of preciousness the tools took on when displayed in gallery cases.
So, in 1980-81 he undertook the construction of a mock-up wooden workbench where the tools are now permanently housed. This piece has yet to be exhibited in Edmonton. (4) Although Iveson's work at this point was painstaking and took a great deal of time to complete, it does have a mindless, obsessive quality to it — like that of ships built in bottles for no purpose other than the challenge of the activity. His more recent pieces for specific sites rise above this limitation of the isolated works. A large project completed by Iveson concurrently with some of his later tools was a commission work for the Graduate Students Association's Power Plant Social Centre on the campus of the University of Alberta. Architect Garry Frost was in charge of renovating an out-of-date power plant to a multi-use building (lounge, cafeteria, pub, meeting rooms etc.) He approached Iveson to do a piece for a section of the building in which exposed pipes run along a brick wall above eye level. Pipe Dream (1978-80) was the result. Trompe l'oeil elements representing a 19th century cast iron valve and a section of missing pipe were carved in wood by Iveson and installed to fit into a blank section of the exposed pipes in a room that is now used as a billiards and pinball games area. The finished work of art blends chameleon-like into its surroundings and most users of the area probably never notice it. Its presence is astonishing, once one does see it, and a viewer cannot help, in spite of resistance, feeling impressed by the sheer amount of time and workmanship involved in creating the huge wooden pieces.
Iveson's interest in site-specific installations seems to date from Pipe Dream. In general his other works such as his Bicycle from 1977 (done while working with Fumio Yoshimura and according to Yoshimura's plan in Vancouver) and Plough from 1980 are less successful in terms of depth of meaning and content than his works done for specific contexts. In 1982 Iveson was selected to fabricate a piece in steel for the Shaws' Woolen Mill Provincial Historic Site at Fish Creek Provincial Park near Calgary. He researched antique spinning and weaving mills and their machinery to create the forms in the steel sculpture. Thus the piece takes on a meaning in relation to the place where it is located.
Tommie Gallie is much more of an abstract artist than is Iveson. He was born in 1946 and received his B.F.A. from N.S.C.A.D. in 1971 and his M.F.A. from the University of Alberta in 1973. After his 'maritime' M.F.A. work he turned to large-scale constructions in wood in which he parodied real objects. The most widely exhibited of these was Jacob's Ladder from 1978. (5) To some extent this piece resembles a ladder in a very cursory way: the lower rungs are intact and two uprights are more or less in place, but as one looks upward, the forms turn wacky and certainly no physical passage would be possible.
Eventually the object-related mode became too limited for Gallie and, in an effort to forge some new direction, he began freely experimenting with odds and ends of wood he had in his studio. Through this process of putting things together randomly, he arrived at his wedging and jamming pieces done in doorways or other architectural gaps with large hunks or slabs of wood. From these he moved to compression works, which also span doorways, but consist of pieces of thin dowelling bent in curves between slabs of wood at either end. Both these types of work do not require nails, but hold themselves naturally in position. All of such works done by Gallie are created for specific places and none exist outside of any given context. When he creates the pieces, he has no preconceived plan or image in his mind but simply lets the materials guide him. Gallie's door jam, wedges and compressions are graceful, artful and subtle. They help heighten a viewer's awareness of the 'poetics of space' in a gentle way, yet the pieces are not overly refined or precious.
In a large installation show at Ring House Gallery on the campus of the University of Alberta in 1981 Gallie transformed the entire space of the gallery (an old house) by installing various configurations of wooden planks and beams in vital areas — doorways, mantles, windows, and alcoves. A similar event occurred this year at Edmonton's artist-run center, Latitude 53, March 2 to 25.
Neither Iveson nor Gallie produce objects that could be shown by a dealer as they realize this would be a hopeless endeavour for them in Edmonton. As a solution to being here, both prefer to restrict their output to site-specific commissions and they try to seek inclusion in public gallery exhibitions outside the city. Although it is an uphill battle, they have had some success in turning the Edmonton situation to their own advantage.
Jim Davies was born in Toronto in 1950 and received his B.F.A. from the University of Guelph in 1977 and his M.F.A. from the University of Alberta in 1979. He is an Edmonton figurative painter whose work is very much at variance with Edmonton's predominant mode in painting of late modernist abstraction. Davies has had a long attachment to the figure in his work and in his most recent paintings it is still the human image that is his focus. He says that while a graduate student he originally began to use the figure just as a convenient device on which to hang more formal concerns: colour, space, line and shape. But more recently he began to clothe his figures, which had previously been nudes, and he has become more interested in them as portraying psychological entities. In some ways, Davies's paintings bear a relationship to the work of Eric Fischl, the New York new figurative painter. Davies fervently admires Fischl's work, especially his ability to create mood in his paintings. But Davies's work is gentler in tone and feeling than Fischl's and his expressionism is closer to that of Edvard Munch than anything as raunchy and campy as Fischl's. As well, rather than Fischl's bourgeois suburban settings, Davies paints his figures in dream-like, imaginary landscapes: clearings, roads through forests, and city streets. But like Fischl, his narratives are ambiguous in meaning and, like Richard Bosman, there is often a sense of potential menace or pending disaster / violence to his scenes. Davies' work has none of the comic book-inspired look of Bosman, however, but in style, is closer to Fischl, and like Fischl's work, bears a strong relationship to fine art history. Davies admires Magritte, for instance, and is striving to evoke the sense of unease in his juxtaposing of people and objects that he sees in Magritte's work.
Davies's painting is done from observation, not from photographs, and since he is employed in the daytime as a preparator at the Edmonton Art Gallery, he both explores and paints in the evenings. Thus, many of his works have a twilight and bluish cast to them and the colours are within a close bluish range in hue. He does not work from a preconceived plan for each painting, but lets the imagery develop as the painting proceeds. He is skilled at composing, paint handling and integrating his drawing with painterly work. His new paintings are tamer than his last series from 1980, shown at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton in the winter of 1981, which consisted of huge, garish nudes in exotic, jungle-like settings. The figures are more subdued in the new work and the paintings both more tasteful and subtle. Ultimately, they are more meaningful. Rendezvous, from 1984, shows a Kurelek-like prairie landscape seen at twilight. A man has driven his car off the country road and stands in the middle of a field staring into the distance. A number of small figures in a clearing are the subject in The Gathering from 1984. They stand around an orange fire and one gets a distinct Ku-Klux-Klan feeling from the scene and the implied events to follow. Edge of the Sea from 1984 contains two figures on a beach, painted in a tipped-up perspective. Both are painted without detail, yet we read the one in grey as male and the one in pink as female and get the feeling that some violent act is about to occur. In each painting, the purpose of the peoples' acts or stances is unknown and unfathomable, so that the content of the work remains impenetrable in any detail.
In terms of his location in Edmonton, Jim Davies can be seen as being handicapped. Although he has friends, he says he has no artist-peers, no one from whom he can get meaningful feedback on his work. His contacts outside the city are limited in number and he says he is frightened at times by the solitary nature of his activity. Yet he perseveres, very much a painter in a strange land, and chooses as models painters from New York, whom he can read about in art magazines.
Cherie Moses does camera art, performance pieces and installations, all of which are media with long-established histories elsewhere, but in Edmonton have been untouched, making her unique in the city. Moses was born in Cleveland in 1949 and first came to Canada to do her B.F.A. at N.S.C.A.D. in photography and printmaking. Then from 1976-79 she studied at the University of Alberta, completing her M.F.A. in printmaking and mixed media. She says that due to the prevailing ideology of Greenbergian modernism at the Department of Art and Design at the University of Alberta she found it a real psychological struggle to complete the degree and only felt completely free to begin exploring her ideas in art after she graduated. Her M.F.A. work has a restricted and quiet feeling to it and involves only art issues rather than any life-related ideas.
Moving from her spare, fetishistic M.F.A. works, which were arranged in carefully planned installations, Moses plunged into photography more deeply than before in order to begin exploring ideas of the self, femininity and love in our culture. 'I felt it was no longer enough just to make forms', she says. She began working on photo-series using herself as a model and investigated concepts such as verbal declarations of love and the idea of masks. Photo-works from 1979, after she had finished at the University of Alberta, such as Daisy Game and Pas de Deux are pleasing, but a little too delicate and limited to herself in terms of meaning. Slowly the artist began to turn outward in considering issues in her work. This shift of emphasis can be seen in a 1980 photo-workImposed Image: Other Woman. Although Moses is still the model in this twelve-image piece, she is more incidental to the work. The main focus is on identical dog tag-like Woolworth necklaces, one of which she wears in every photograph. Each one is engraved with the name of an 'other' woman. She turns from side to side in manikin poses, trying to convey the parallel between posing, in an art sense, and posturing or the adoption of roles, in society.
In an attempt to even further clarify her ideas and make them more explicit for an audience, Moses then began to use other materials, turning first to textiles to create images of brides by tearing and sewing fabric into bridal gown-like sculptures. At first she thought of these as static installations, but increasingly she began to envision active grooms involved to 'woo' the brides and thus her performance piece,Brides and Opening Ceremonies came into being. (6) In this work her ideas are abundantly clear to her viewers. Six grooms enter and begin to primp and admire the 'brides', who of course remain static, passive objects for the entire performance. The audience guffaws, which surprised Moses, as she had not realized the piece would be very humourous, at the hilarity yet horror of the kind of entrapment which a wedding in our culture can be seen to represent for the individuals involved.
Cherie Moses's most recent piece of work will be exhibited for the first time at the Robert Vanderleelie Gallery in Edmonton after April 25, 1984. The work is titled Imposed Image: Mother and is made up of sixty 20 x 16 inch black and white photographs of different people. Each person is shown only from below the eyes to above the waist and wears pinned over his / her heart a piece of costume jewelry which reads 'Mother'. Moses began this piece while teaching a summer course at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon in 1980 when she found the pin 'Mother' at a flea market. People agreed readily to pose wearing the pin that seemed to indicate to the artist that each person had some personal association with the term mother. Indeed, in the finished work, each individual takes on and reveals his / her own relationship to the idea of mother given by the brooch. These range from total identification, either by women as mothers, or even men who see themselves as big, bad 'mothers', to wistful memories of someone's mother etc. It seems surprising that such feelings do come across in the work even though the sitters' eyes are excluded, but such is the case.
In terms of craft, Moses's work is impeccable. The print quality in Imposed Image: Mother, for instance, is superb. Some people, says Moses, have faulted her in this area, accusing her of being too caught up with creating an aesthetic art object and not enough with ideology. According to Donald Kuspit, this would be the kiss of death for any artist dealing with political subject matter, (7) but Moses says she is not dealing with political issues overtly. She has a more subtle or gentle idea: 'If you can just change someone's perception, then the way is open to them for further change', she says. 'An image that is imposed on someone closes them off from other perceptions of what they might be.' It is these cultural impositions that the artist wishes to expose in her work.
Moses has moved from a hermetic, self-absorbed art to one that is now opening out in widening ripples to embrace broader concerns. The position she now takes up in the creation of her work is a more mature one and her means are becoming increasingly sophisticated. In 1980 she was hired to head the fine art program at Grant MacEwan Community College in Edmonton and there she teaches students traditional media as well as Xerox art, performance and video. She herself has just completed a course in video production and plans to explore this medium in her next works. Her involvement with disseminating what in Edmonton can only be seen as seditious material and ideas is part of her solution to being here. 'The only thing I really miss', she says, 'is a critical dialogue among peers within the art community here. I just have to go elsewhere for that and rely on contacts in other cities.' Moses says she tries to face the problem of being in Edmonton with humour and feels that in some ways it can be liberating to work in a place without ideological peers as it frees the artist to simply get on with his / her work.
Although the work of all four artists discussed here is very different in character from one to the other, the four individuals have in common the fact that they are each working at complete and conscious variance with the predominant mode of art in Edmonton. Each has had to consider their situation and devise strategies for survival. Iveson and Gallie have banded together for discussion and challenge and seek commissions and exhibitions, generally, outside the city. Davies relies on art magazines and inspiration from elsewhere, but suffers from his isolation. Cherie Moses, most of all, is working to change Edmonton with her teaching of non-traditional media. Given how difficult it is to survive as a contemporary artist emotionally, financially and psychologically, the problems faced by artists such as these four working in a city without support seem insurmountable. Yet they continue to face this challenge and due to their efforts, one can hope to see a changed art scene in Edmonton within even a few years. There is certainly something improbable about finding these four artists in Edmonton, and in that also something to celebrate.
Vanguard, Vol. 13 #4, May 1984.
Text: © Liz Wylie. All rights reserved.
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