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Curator Essay

Essay by the curator

Before
Niels Van Tomme

In his text “Interview with a 10,000 Year Old Artist,” Jimmie Durham sardonically states that the artist always works “Before Tomorrow.” Playfully contextualized as an exclusive conversation with the world’s oldest living artist, the claims made by Durham could be easily applied to this figure in the broadest sense of the term. Perpetually occupied with matters and ideas before the crux of formation and beyond official narratives—the exceptional perspective of the free artistic statement can thus be liberated from the restrictive frameworks of most professional endeavors. Through this unique framework, artists hold a position through which they can propose different aesthetic, social, and political possibilities than the ones dictated by the current, historically stratified, and omnipresent neoliberal realm. In exploring this opening, they importantly bypass widespread states of passivity and the idea that nothing can be done to change the current status quo, be it in historically constructed modes of representation, broad socio-economical malaise, or deeper philosophical crises we are faced with today. Instead, they investigate, and act upon the potential to momentarily open up possibilities to transform reality, or seek to establish alternative modes of imagining it, before these opportunities firmly close down again.
In the case of organizing the Parsons Fine Art’s MFA Thesis Exhibition, with works still being developed before this curatorial text is completed and well before any kind of definitive checklist has been made, such claims with regards to diverging modes of how we are to understand the present, past and future, could be further extended and applied to a specific mode of exhibition making. Instead of presenting a well-structured, overarching curatorial statement, with artworks placed and contextualized in order to make an argument, or suggest a specific reading, the exhibition presents temporal clusters of artworks that momentarily disrupt preconceived ideas of exhibition making. Here, individual works still in development crucially contribute to and shape the curatorial voice, suggesting a different kind of experiential hierarchy, which emphasizes fluidity and transformation as key components. Before thus shifts its function from merely serving a curatorial statement to questioning the very foundation of the exhibition, well before it has been finalized.

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A first cluster of artworks explores notions of individual and collective memory, and the complex ways in which they intersperse with a wide range of historical, national, and individual narratives. Finding a connection to the field of trauma studies, these works “bear witness to historical events and the visual representation of witnesses to collective [and individual] trauma.” Kai Margarida-Ramirez connects a migratory family history to the construction of memory and the necessity of familial storytelling. In her work she creates an insular and protective environment, echoing the cultural references of Puerto Rico seemingly removed from the displacement experienced in the US. Yet this newly constructed space often becomes as uncertain, constructed, and alien as the “new” environment she inhabits. Similarly negotiating the dialectic state of the migrant subject, Angela Pulido Zorro elicits the complex relationships between autobiography, a radical political past in Colombia, and her current personal transitory state in-between two countries. Reassessing this intermediate state, her work explores the relationship between the official history of Colombia and its present state of perpetual warfare. Instead of negotiating a subjective experience of history, as the artists described above, both Alona Weiss and María Margarita Sánchez U. evoke notions of collective memory and the ways in which conceptualizations of the past relate to complex, and often violent, national narratives. Investigating the omnipresence of war monuments in Israel, Weiss analyzes how their original, commemorative function gets deemphasized, or bypassed entirely, as they become part of everyday public life and the banality of its urban centers. María Margarita Sánchez U., in a chilling and poetic video installation, addresses how accounts of disappearances, mass graves, and acts of terror are obtained and framed in contemporary Colombia, evoking the impossibility of commemoration as a foremost act of violence perpetuated by the different groups of people involved in the conflict.

A second cluster of works deals with multifaceted, playful encounters, which question normatively established notions of interaction and behavior through a series of engaged, performative gestures of varying length and diverging modes of temporal engagement. Jian Yi, in his project Strangers, contacts people through the internet, involving them in a non-participatory encounter through which he documents their daily activities with a series of snapshots. Merging the quotidian with the personal, he returns one week later, leaving a gift on their doorstep. Similarly straddling the spheres of intimacy and alienation, albeit in a different sociocultural context, Alejandro Yoshii gets in touch with individuals via various gay dating websites and apps, stripping the subsequent encounters of any sexual or physical connotation and purpose. Requesting his subjects to collaboratively produce a “social sculpture,” they ultimately leave a physical and permanent archeological imprint of their brief social media-induced meeting. Using the internet as a gateway to personal, intimate encounters that balance the fragile divide between precariousness and dependence, both projects resonate with Judith Butler’s suggestion that our capacity to respond to others “will depend in part on how the differential norm of the human is communicated through visual and discursive frames.” John Lee, in a more politically charged and provocative performance, stages oppositional and critical confrontations, mapping his ambivalent feelings and resistance towards American imperialism onto his own body.

A third cluster of works deals with the emergence, as well as breakdown, of narrative structures. Examining and emphasizing the ways in which narration can create fictional spaces that move away from ”the real,” as well as the supposedly objective mediation of time, they importantly engage tactics of subversion, an idea explored at length by Michel DeCerteau in The Practice of Everyday Life. David Connolly, in a complex multi-channel video installation, investigates speech acts and their cultural and political implications. Juxtaposing actual events concerning a 2011 mining accident in Zambia with corporate speak and management talk, the work suggests an alternative to the official, biased account of the tragedy, while powerfully subverting the meaning of the language surrounding it. Focusing on a different field of narration, Lilly Handley is concerned with storytelling and the emergence of narrative structures, using the audio diary format as a way to destabilize meaning. As the stories she tells are both experienced by her, as well as borrowed and found, Handley complicates a straightforward understanding of first-person narration and memory, enhancing her audio installation with an ephemeral image archive of found scenarios. Whereas these installations address the formation of narrative alternatives, the works by Hala Alhomoud and Cara Nahaul emphasize the breakdown of narrativized constructions. Employing abstract patterns and repetition, Alhomoud shows short, looping animations depicting manual labor, zooming in on a physical gesture of a body working on farmland. Through juxtaposing these animations with text pieces that refer to industrialized food products, as well as the reductive mode of narration, the artist suggests an intricate connection between two habitually separated worlds, the one of traditional farming and that of processed food production. Lastly, in her large scale, colorful paintings, Cara Nahaul confuses the representation of familial identity and ethnic and cultural origins, deconstructing the spatial and formative elements that make up family photographs by recontextualizing them in newly imagined interiors and different time periods. Her staged, theatrical compositions evoke relatable narratives through their generic content, yet are complicated by the formal abstraction of the painted image.

Lastly, a fourth, and final cluster of works evolves around more explicitly open and formal approaches to artistic practices, suggesting a number of transversal links that disregard a clear, upfront thematic determination. In doing so, they explore the formal implications and deeper meanings inscribed in a range of materials and media, as well as the possibilities that emerge from deliberate genre confusions. Within this context, the works of Mark John Smith, Rujuta Rao, and Becca Jane Rubinfeld are bound by an interest in the physicality of sculpture elaborated with a wide variety of media, ranging from photography to video, from sound to printmaking, thus deconstructing the different temporal spheres associated with these modes of artistic expression. Taking a hyper subjective approach to assemblage while exploring the essential yet fragile relationships between objects and materials, they explore a wide range of concepts and approaches, from the notion of ekphrasis, through the translation of an artwork from one medium to another resulting in an altered experience (Rujuta Rao), to the division between knowledge and intuition, fantasy and reality (Becca Jane Rubinfeld), to the removal of individual expression and action (Mark John Smith). In a similarly investigative vein, Matt Whitman uses film and video cameras as instruments of meditation, exploring links and connections to the rich history of structural cinema. Staging durational handheld shots until his hands start shaking, Whitman inserts his own body into the image hors-champs. He does this while filming long takes of empty storefronts meditating a New York on the cusp of disappearing, through increasingly marginalized media from the past. Finally, for Luka Rayski, painting becomes a means to explore doubt and uncertainty instead of presenting the visualization of grand artistic gestures. Embracing failure and unpredictability as a mode of expression, his painterly constellations boldly balance the emergence of catastrophe and love.

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Taking these temporal clusters into account, this exhibition simultaneously confirms and renders more complex Boris Groys’ well-known and widely employed dictum that works of art cannot force the visitor into a contemplative mode, as they “lack the necessary vitality, energy, and health,“ needing outside help—an exhibition and a curator—to become visible and fulfill their purpose. Of course, the artworks under consideration would not be visible without the context of the MFA Thesis Exhibition and its particular curatorial and institutional framing, but Before nevertheless suggests a subverting of this notion: what if it is the exhibition and its accompanying curatorial statement that actually lack vitality and health? What if the exhibition’s artworks deconstruct the very structure that allows them to come into being? In this regard, it seems relevant to consider Plato’s early dialogues in the context of the role of the curator at present. Always evolving around a subject who thinks he knows something about a specific matter, he ultimately discovers he does not, a revelation awakening his desire to investigate it more closely. Habitually speaking from an all-knowing, authoritative perspective, in this exhibition framework the curator is subjected to Platonic doubt, opening up a series of thought-provoking questions rather than providing clear, straightforward answers. As such, Before suggests the continuous and multifaceted interplay between past, present, and future, mediating the multitude of challenges and promises associated with graduating from an art academy in New York City.

1- Jimmie Durham, “Interview with a 10,000 Year old Artist” in A Certain Lack of Coherence, Writings on Art and Cultural Politics, 1993: Kala Press (London), p. 80.

2- Francis Guerin and Roger Hallas, “The Image and the Witness: Trauma, Memory and Visual Culture,” http://www.closeupfilmcentre.com/vertigo_magazine/volume-3-issue-8-winter-2008/the-image-and-the-witness-trauma-memory-and-visual-culture/, last accessed April 6, 2014.

3- Judith Butler, “Torture and the Ethics of Photography: Thinking with Sontag” in Frames of War, When is Life Griavable, 2010: Verso (Brooklyn), p. 77.

4- Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 1984: University of California Press (Berkeley), p.79.

5- Boris Groys, “On the Curatorship” in Art Power, 2008: MIT Press (Cambridge) p. 46.

One Man’s Nature
By Jenny Western

Kenneth Lavallee is what some folks might be inclined to call an “old soul.” Dapper and polite, he exudes the humour of a kindly, story-telling grandfather, with his gentle, reassuring manner. As a twenty-something artist he is certainly years away from that old rocking chair, yet within his artistic practice there are references to a bygone era. The bold colours and abstracted forms that are the emerging artist’s signature style clearly reflect a modernist aesthetic. Think something along the lines of a Jackson Beardy-Winston Leathers’ love child for the new millennium. Perhaps not surprisingly then, Lavallee’s latest body of work, Man and Nature, situates his epoch of interest within the brackets of 1960 and 1975, all while keeping a clear eye on the realities of life as a young Métis man making art in the year 2014.

Like Beardy and Leathers before him, Lavallee is an experienced printmaker and muralist, having worked extensively on various projects around his hometown of Winnipeg as well as in locales further afield. And while these two modes of artistic production continue to affect his practice as a whole, Man and Nature focuses on Lavallee’s skills as a painter. The exhibition showcases a handful of new paintings that explore the wonders of nature and the human experience through a lens tinted by mid-twentieth century Canadiana. Despite his keen attraction to the styles of modernism, his interrogation of its modes suggests an awareness of being situated in a (post?) post-modern era, while being cognizant of the triumphs and shortcomings of the last century.

To begin with, the exhibition’s title Man and Nature is a conscious evocation of the way in which the world was displayed during a certain moment in a certain period of time. For the uninitiated, mainly those who were not school children in Winnipeg at some point between the 1970s and early 1990s, “Man and Nature” is the abbreviated name for The Museum of Man and Nature. Opened in 1970, the museum’s wafting smell of creosote (a cue that you are just around the corner from the Nonsuch, a recreated seventeenth-century tall ship that is the museum’s crown jewel) and its requisite dusty dioramas loom large in the civic imaginings of many Gen-X and Millennial Winnipeggers. In 1996 the museum decided to strike a more inclusive tone when its name was officially changed to The Manitoba Museum, a move that aimed to rescind years of entanglement between museological practices and patriarchal language. As with the selective renovations that occurred to the museum space during this period, the name change seemed to highlight the very values it was trying to cover up through its attempted erasure.

Today, still coloquially referred to as “Man and Nature” by many, The Manitoba Museum is a pastiche of 1990s design overlapping 1970s ideals. One of the remaining vestiges of note is Daphne Odjig’s celebrated mural, The Creation of the World. Commissioned by the museum in 1971, The Creation of the World tells a version of the Anishinabe creation story unfolding across a ten-by-twelve-foot wall. Bright, bold, nearly garish colours are outlined with dark black lines, producing forms that are recognizable and yet abstracted. Here we have a vision of nature, simplified by its mid-century vernacular and yet deeply complex in the inferences of its storyline. Odjig’s style, which was informed by a knowledge of European art history as well as an understanding of traditional Indigenous aesthetics, became inextricably linked to the Woodlands School, when she helped found the Professional Native Indian Artists Incorporated, or the Indian Group of Seven, out of Winnipeg in 1974. Together with Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Alex Janvier, Norval Morrisseau, Carl Ray, and Joseph Sanchez, Odjig assisted in redefining widely held conceptions about Aboriginal artists and Aboriginal art across Canada and beyond.

Seven years earlier at Expo’ 67 in Montreal, Morrisseau and Janvier had participated in the groundbreaking Indians of Canada pavillion. Set within the celebratory tone of this world’s fair event, the Indians of Canada pavillion created a stir by plainly intoning some of the complications of modern Aboriginal life in Canada. A message of this kind, dissatisfaction expressed by an Indigenous voice in a space where Indigenous experience had usually been spoken for, was pivotal, and the role of the participating artists is not to be overlooked. Morrisseau created a mural for the Indians of Canada pavilion called Earth Mother with Her Children, while Janvier contributed a round panel painting to the building’s exterior called The Unpredictable East. As scholar Ruth Phillips notes, “… the use of modernist abstract styles by many of the artists sent a message about the readiness of Aboriginal artists to participate in the world of contemporary fine art. In a complementary fashion, the works newly created in traditional idioms countered the still-widespread impression that traditional Indian art – and culture – had disappeared.” 1

Lavallee has taken an interest in Expo ‘67, particularly the tone and feel of its official theme, Man and His World. Design and graphics produced in support of Expo ‘67 has continued to influence many contemporary Canadian artists today; Brian Jungen’s Habitat 04 infamously made reference to Moshe Safdie’s renowned architectural project Habitat by turning its cluster of boxes into a play structure for cats. Lavallee is certainly no exception. But the Expo ’67 colour palette and geometric forms have not been the only elements to leave a lasting impression on his artistic practice. Despite, or perhaps in the face of, the overarching patriarchal hum of the Man and His World theme, Lavallee is intrigued by the simplicity of the perceived relationship between humanity and what we view as the natural world.

At its foundations, the paintings of Man and Nature are an exercise in presenting memories and ideas about Lavallee’s own relationship to the land around St. Laurent, a town on the eastern shores of Lake Manitoba, which the Lavallee family calls home. St. Laurent is a Metis community with deep roots as a fishing site for Anishinabe and Metis peoples. In 2004, St. Laurent was chosen to represent Metis communities of North America in an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and today St. Laurent carries on a variety of cultural activities including the Manipogo Festival which takes place every March at the end of ice-fishing season. For Lavallee, St. Laurent is home to his grandmother, as well as a place of natural wonders and childhood recollections. A flashback to seeing wolves at the edge of the family property while a baby cousin played just yards away might evoke an image of trees, wavy lines, and fresh air in his mind’s eye. The artistic outcome in his piece The Bush presents itself as a landscape painting, but in Lavallee’s head it compromises some of the qualities of classic portraiture in capturing not only a place but the spirit of its people, even if those people are not visibly present in the image.

Lavallee’s interest in portraiture also manifests itself in his two works Man the Producer and Twin Lakes. Making reference to the Expo’ 67 thematic pavilion of the same name, Man the Producer is a simple image of humanity and the potential for nature’s abundance. It may also be a sideways glance toward the statue on top of the Manitoba legislature’s dome, Winnipeg’s iconic Golden Boy, with his armful of wheat. Twin Lakes draws its title from the beach located in the St. Laurent community. The beach is situated on a narrow strip of land between Lake Manitoba and Lake Francis, thus the allusion to dualities in its naming. Lavallee’s painterly exploration of Twin Lakes presents an image of a woman whose profile mirrors the line of the natural landscape of St. Laurent and the surrounding area that she looks upon.

St Laurent was recently the site of one of Lavallee’s mural paintings when he took it upon himself to paint his grandmother’s shed. The bright colours and rows of vertical lines stand out amid their bushy surroundings. But what appears to be an anomaly is in fact a legacy unfolding itself. Lavallee cites his initial interest in art creation as due in part to his mom’s early artistic creation, painting scenes on garages and sheds using shoe polish. A bit later on, Jackson Beardy’s Peace and Harmony murals on Winnipeg’s Selkirk Avenue caught Lavallee’s attention as he passed by on his way to school every day. Beardy’s aesthetic, with its primary colours, swooping forms, and wavy lines emanating from energy sources, made a discernible impact on Lavallee’s style. The outdoor placement of these works also signals a notable relationship to Lavallee’s understandings of nature and creativity.

Another Winnipeg landmark with a relationship to Lavallee’s work is Winston Leather’s 1972 mural on the side of the Walker Theatre (renamed The Burton Cummings Theatre in 2002 – yet another official civic rename that hasn’t quite stuck with the locals). Generations of Winnipeggers have entered the city’s Exchange District under the watchful eye of the mural’s cosmic circles and dots. Now just down the street from that very spot, situated adjacent to a parking lot, is a Lavallee mural offering its own response. Vertical lines of colour, not dissimilar to the work on Lavallee’s grandmother’s shed, are rounded at their tops and pop out against a dark background. This is Lavallee’s take on the solar system, the old one, of course, that included Pluto. The Man and Nature exhibition also includes a nod to celestial bodies with Lavallee’s triptych Milky Way. Presented as a panoramic portrait of the St. Laurent night sky, his Milky Way is brought together with a cautionary tale about whistling and the northern lights as told to Lavallee by his grandmother. The result is eerie, lyrical, and visually arresting.

Lavallee’s art, for its semblance of simplicity and the relatively young age of its maker, belies a depth of cultural contexts, historical references, and personal mythologies in its imagery. Centrally intriguing is Lavallee’s place within the residual inheritance of mid-century Canadian art traditions. Colours, lines, forms, and shapes collide with an underlying legacy of issues encompassing race, gender, and identity politics. Man and Nature offers a quietly resolute glimpse into the life of a (truly) modern Metis man who is equally inspired by design choices from the 1960s as he is by the view from his grandmother’s window in St. Laurent. While he looks to the past for inspiration, Lavallee’s sense of himself and the world around him is not hemmed in by the lingering modernist conflations put forth by museums and fairs since the last century. As witnessed from this body of work, the artist can take an institutional appellation like Man and Nature and turn it back upon itself in a myriad of ways, weaving an alluring tale that is at once tinged with nostalgia while still being fiercely clever. With the launch of Kenneth Lavallee’s Man and Nature at the Kelowna Art Gallery, the story continues, so let’s all gather round.

1. Ruth B. Phillips. Museum Pieces: Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011), pp. 35-6.