Guerilla Critiques: National Gallery 'Builders' Biennial is beautiful but kinda bland

Monday, November 12, 2012



The cover of the "Builders" exhibition catalogue

By Tony Martins


At the vernissage for “Builders,” the Canadian Biennial 2012 at the National Gallery (NGC) on November 1, a quiet reverence filled the exhibition spaces as scores of viewers took in this important collection for the first time. As with many NGC openings, the event was populated with an interesting blend of Ottawa cultural personalities and visiting art stars, but despite the size of the occasion one element was oddly absent: buzz. With the possible exception of Alan Revisited, the gigantic and slanted sculpture of a male nude by Evan Penny, there seemed no single entry in the show that had people talking or that had them pulling one other to viewing areas whispering ‘You’ve gotta see this.”


Put together by a curatorial team led by Jonathan Shaughnessy, NGC Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, “Builders” is the second all-Canadian Biennial and features more than 100 of the contemporary works that the Gallery has collected in the past two years. The emphasis is on both stalwarts and newcomers, all of whom are “builders” in the sense that they have helped formulate in the eyes of the curators the leading edge of contemporary Canadian art.


To be sure, the exhibition has no shortage of beautiful, inspired, and engaging artworks and the sheer scale of the effort is alone impressive. After a walk through and a bit of reflection, however, the characteristic phrase that came to mind from “Builders” was tame emotional uniformity. While the exhibition is no doubt an important record of Canadian contemporary art, taken as a whole it might be summarized as subdued, overly measured, and by extension—dare I say it?—too politely Canadian.


If you like art that gets your knickers in knot, this is not the show for you, even if getting a rise from viewers was likely never the intent. For me, far too few of the works could be called jarring or paradoxical or controversial (is this the Canadian way?), although one notable exception is Brian Jungen’s Star/Pointro, the refreshingly strange assembly of rawhide and automobile steel (another kind of “hide”) mounted on a freezer. This conceptual indigenous piece is one of the few works in the show that stops you in your tracks. You can feel the cultural tension in the stretched skin and up close you can smell the leather. The result is a striking mix of banality and exultation, as if the animal and vehicle had fatally collided and we are offered this resulting monument.


Also, judging by the artist statements included in the exhibition catalogue, Star/Pointro is one of the few works in “Builders” where the artist has deliberately set out to be humorous. Noting that the large freezers he often sees on his reserve work so well as pedestals, Jungen writes: “I think there’s a nice kind of play with that. It’s funny—I hope it’s funny. You don’t see that they’re freezers at first and that’s what I wanted.”


A nice kind of play is what I wanted more frequently in “Builders.” Instead, we get too much smoothness, muted palettes, minimalism, somber introspection and conceptual references to art making. (But perhaps I’m naive. Perhaps that’s what contemporary art is?)


Consider two of the entries that could be called issues-oriented or somewhat activist in nature: Edward Burtynsky’s photo Breezewood, Pennsylvania and Benoit Aquin’s trio of images from his The Chinese “Dust Bowl” series. These works quietly draw our attention to alarming global issues but do so only by suggesting that there’s an ugliness hidden beneath compositional beauty. Aquin’s haunted and yellow-tinged images depict smoggy desolation in Hongsibao, a newly built city that’s home to some 200,000 “environmental refugees” relocated by the Chinese government. Burtynsky’s landscape of copious signage from the oil and car industry offers a pristine contrast but the intent essentially matches that of Aquin: to question an arguably toxic power structure using eye-pleasing aesthetics. Of course there’s nothing inherently problematic with such an intent; I mention it only for its contribution to the aforementioned tameness across “Builders.”


One exception offering drama and sexiness absent through most of the exhibition: the mesmerizing video A Game of Chess by Winnipeg native Marcel Dzama. This 2011 work weaves together two narrative streams: a real-life and deadly game of chess played out on a dusty street in Mexico and a dreamlike theatrical dance sequence where the chess pieces come to life in a dark-yet-humorous depiction that I found oddly reminiscent of the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut.


In his catalogue statement, Dzama offers a number of art-historical references that inspired and influenced the video, but the work is more than rich and layered enough to draw us into its surreal world without the need of orientating context. The aesthetic is sensual and playful; there is drama, conflict, and violence at work in Dzama’s somehow life-affirming investigation of free will, destiny, and other mysteries.


As is often the case in contemporary art in general, the subject matter of the works in “Builders” is frequently art itself. Several of Max Dean’s introspective photographs refer to his own earlier projects; Michael Merrill’s ink-on-paper illustrations depict ductwork inside gallery spaces at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Ron Terada’s paintings explore the life and career of American artist Jack Goldstein; Myfawyn MacLeod’s Hex symbols were painted by a commercial sign painter in a strategic attempt to “sweep aside the vestiges of authorial presence,” says the artist; Penny’s 2011 Jim Revisited refers to his much smaller sculpture called “Jim” from 1985 and acts as “a meditation on the shifting terms of my artistic engagement over the intervening years,” says the artist; Joanne Tod’s Arc dans l’arc depicts in oil on canvas a scale model of the Paris Arc de Triomphe monument that is displayed in a glass case within the monument itself.


Call me old school, but if so much of our leading contemporary art primarily references other art, if messages in the work are subordinate to and subdued by the conceptual characteristics of the art-making itself, do we have, arguably, a body of work that collectively aligns in a kind of closed loop, essentially reflecting back on itself over and over again in series of tighter and tighter circles until … until what?


This last point may again be a critique of the broader contemporary milieu and not of “Builders” in particular, but even if that’s the case the limitation identified in my first few paragraphs still holds: that almost all of the works collected in “Builders” are great examples of important Canadian art that fit snugly, efficiently, and all-too-willingly within the confines of the contemporary.

"Builders" is on view until 20 January, 2013.


Guerilla Critiques: Michèle Provost's gift shop follies

Wednesday, October 23, 2012






Critique and images by Tony Martins



Can art be cute?


For most, within reason, the answer is yes. Heck, the contemporary art world could well do with regular injections of humour.


But what if a large, solo exhibition/installation with dozens of intricately assembled elements rests almost exclusively on what seems like little more than a cute concept?


Arguably that’s what viewers are offered in Michèle Provost’s Rebranding Bytown, the whimsical-yet-elaborate faux museum gift shop that opened Tuesday, October 23 in the Bytown Museum’s upstairs gallery space. The show was curated by the Museum's Judith Parker.


Packaged with suitably splashy and colourful graphic design, this site-specific, conceptual exhibition features dozens of mocked up, hand-made items that parody the wares typically seen in conventional gift shops: coffee mugs, t-shirts, action figures, iron-on decals, and on and on. The difference here is that the items draw inspiration from the Museum’s collection of real artifacts. Included are, for instance, action figures representing real-life figures from Bytown history. You get the idea.


In fact, you get the idea immediately—and that’s the limitation. After the concept hits home, there’s really nothing more to be seen other than dozens of additional executions of the concept. Sure, those executions are cute, clever, inventive, well thought out, but still ultimately repetitive and thus unsatisfying.


Rebranding Bytown is the Museum's second Artist-in-Residence exhibition and clearly a large amount of research and painstaking work has gone into the project. Yet with so much emphasis on the irony and the cuteness, the exhibition fails to make any kind of substantial statement. We do not learn anything new about the history of Bytown (Ottawa’s initial name) and we get only a cursory look at the Museum’s collection, some of which is rendered historically inaccurate for artistic purposes.


Promotional copy for the exhibition states that the faux merchandise attempts to “examine the role that marketing and commerce play in the operation of a local cultural institution.” The specifics of this examination, however, are unclear. Is Provost critiquing an over-reliance on gift shop revenue? Is she warning of the dangers of reducing history to a line of packaged products? Does she view sales of, say, coffee mugs featuring famous historical figures as problematic? If I had to guess (and unfortunately I do), I’d say that on the whole, with it’s lighthearted and fun treatment, the exhibition seems to endorse the idea of museum content as inexpensive retail commodity. I’m sure that visitors will inquire about purchasing some of the clever merchandise. After all, who doesn’t want to own an affordable piece of history, be it real or rebranded?


Provost is highly regarded for her contemporary blend of craft and social and/or cultural commentary. While her technique is again impressive here, if Provost is commenting on what museums (and/or historians) do commercially from within a museum’s walls, her take is too sugary sweet to offer much artistic impact.


What kind of opportunity has she missed? Consider Pierre Brault’s widely successful one-man play Blood on the Moon, wherein the playwright/performer offers alternatives to distorted local history ordained by prevailing authorities in the case of Patrick Whalen, the Irish immigrant accused of murdering Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a father of Canadian confederation. Whalen’s assumed guilt and unfair trial cast significant historical and moral doubt on his conviction and subsequent hanging—adding life-and-death drama and layers of mercurial truth to a key chapter in Bytown history.


Consider also some of the work included in “Decolonize Me,” a group exhibition of six contemporary Aboriginal artists exhibited at the Ottawa Art Gallery in the fall of 2011. A photo series called Artifacts of Authenticity by Vancouver-based Sonny Assu questioned the authenticity of Northwest Coast art when presented in “white” environments. The photos showed traditional Kwakwaka’wakw masks in a museum, a commercial art gallery, and a gift shop, stirring up tension surrounding how we package and sell “authentic” heritage and history.


Clearly Provost was not hoping to foster a similar tension. Of course not all art should be heavy-duty and cuteness can be refreshing, but in the end Rebranding Bytown offers more evidence of Ottawa’s longstanding fine arts brand: usually too nice, too pretty, too comfortable.


Curator Judith Parker will offer her views on the exhibition during a free talk and tour held at the Museum on Sunday, November 4 at 1 p.m. Provost delivers an artist talk on Saturday, November 24, 1 p.m. at the Museum.




Merci, Nuit Blanche, for a wonderful night out


Sunday, September 23, 2012



Post and photos by Tony Martins

There was a Halloweenish chill in the air, warmed with a festive spirit and enhanced by so many visitors to Ottawa, some of them performers wearing costume, as the first edition of Nuit Blanche Ottawa (NBO) plugged in and proved electrifying on the night of Saturday, September 22 (and early Sunday morn).


While almost no one could have expected to catch every one of the 100-odd exhibits, it could be argued that NBO was likely the best night of visual arts in these parts in recent memory. Or perhaps ever.


Things were predictably a touch tamer in Hintonburg, but Wellington West definitely did have a little extra on-the-street energy as numerous groups of art-hunters roamed the sidewalks and jostled in and out of venues.


In the Byward Market, the excitement was palpable, especially when mixed with the usual Saturday night party scene that spills out onto the streets. The whole affair seemed bright, exotic, spontaneous, and a little bit glamorous. So you’d be hard pressed to argue that NBO did not meet its main objective to mess with the nature of our town, if only for one night.


Here are some images of the action.



Early in the evening at Orange Gallery in Hintonburg, NBO curators Lainie Towell and Megan Smith were in a buoyant mood when they helped kick off the event in a brief ceremony.

From inside the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre on Wellington West: Andrew O'Malley's weather data-driven installation was projected onto two parts of the building and included fly-by text from interested Tweeters.


On Armstrong Street, an enormous yarmbomb created by Greta Grip and friends dramatically changed the face of the Twiss & Weber fashion and crafting shop.

From outside, a peek inside La Petite Mort gallery, were go-go dancers steamed up the windows and the photo-art on display helped push the gallery's usual edginess to NBO heights.

Inside the Ottawa School of Art, Jane Ladan's stunning sculptural work created a high traffic zone inside the small room where it was exhibited.

Art scene kingpins (and talented photographers) Lawrence Callendar (foreground) and Mauricio Ortiz had a cool time hitting the streets.

In the busy courtyard outside Planet Coffee, Christopher Griffin's sculpted elephants were hugely popular, especially because viewers were offered materials to make their own, smaller elephants that became part of the art.

Inside the Art Rental space at ArtsCourt, an immense mural, the work of a team of non-Ottawa artists, dominated the room.


Upstairs at the St. Brigid's Centre for the Arts, a number of intriguing projections transformed the cavernous area into sacred space for a Stills in Motion group show. This image attempts to capture the spooky beauty of Theo Pelmus' Holy Mandylion projection as it slowly ghosts back and forth across the altar.


At the jam-packed Rectory Art House on Murray Street, Andrew Morrow's installation offered a powerful mix of painting, animation, and installation. Best of NBO show? Quite possibly.

Upstairs at the Rectory, a storyteller regales listeners who are likely only too happy to rest in tranquility for a few moments.

In the SAW Gallery courtyard, an enormous and popular chalkboard wall presented opportunity to make life-should-be-beautiful-affirming pledges.

Guerilla Critiques: Martelock's Candy


Friday, September 14, 2012



No one is safe from Guerilla Critiques

Guerilla Critiques is a new series of posts to appear periodically in the Guerilla blog. Why? One of our beefs about Ottawa's cultural community—shared by many—arises from the relative lack of critical voices willing to put forth strong, reasoned opinions. Sure, ours is a small-ish cultural network where longstanding friendships are commonplace, but if the scene is to mature it must accommodate and even welcome criticism, controversy, and divergent perspectives. Toes must be stepped upon if steps are to be taken!

However, impulsive and/or purely dismissive reviews are rarely worthwhile. The goal with Guerilla Critiques is to clearly define the rationale behind the viewpoints, wherever they are rooted.




Guerilla Critiques: Daniel Martelock’s Candy exhibition at Orange Gallery


By Tony Martins


Daniel Martelock is a friend of mine (heck, we’ve sung karaoke duets at Shanghai) and I’ve been an admirer of his work for a number of years. His
artwork walks the fine line between illustration and painting but for me he is more of an illustrator because whole-canvas composition is not his strength and the detail in his depictions suggest pen-and-ink, not painterly brushwork.


The Candy exhibition at Ottawa’s Orange Gallery openend on Thursday, September 13 and features a number of the artist’s past collaborative works as well as a new series of larger and more colourful pieces on canvas.


The new framed series indicates that the artist may have upped his game in terms of presentation; the work itself offers bolder examples of now-familiar Martelock illustrated characters.


Martlelock is prolific and over time has honed his own brand of urban, “street” illustration that balances “cute” with a degree of darkness. His birds, for instance, are usually docile and endearing save for the alarming gas masks and goggles that many of them don, suggesting environmental degradation. Other animals and human figures wear military helmets and often convey a sombreness, as if existing in some kind of aftermath.


As with past exhibitions, the characters in Candy are finely illustrated with craft and inventiveness and they are imbued with feeling; we empathize with the characters even if we don’t fully undersand their plight.


But here’s the rub: As compositions, the works feel unfinished and somewhat unexplored. As with many contemporary fine art illustrators, Martelock seems uninterested in working beyond his central figures. This free-floating approach to illustrative painting seems to be in style of late, but it works better when the rendering technique is loose and gestural, not detailed as in Martelock’s case.


In the Candy exhibition, Martelock creates backdrops with colourful patterned fields that resemble the aesthetic of lace tablecloths. These seem mostly decorative and, as such, underwhelming.


The Martelock characters are highly suggestive of a narrative—perhaps of some kind of post-holocaust vision—but the depth of this narrative is mostly unexpressed. Instead the captivating birds and other creatures float on a flat plane that adds little or nothing to the work’s impact. With minimal attention to overal composition, the opportunity Martelock is missing is to do nothing less than expand his vision to create entire worlds with detailed illustrated backdrops.


In this new series, Martelock is his usual engaging self but leaves me wanting more.


Candy will be on display at Orange until September 30.


Guerilla to help Nuit Blanche take back the night

Join Guerilla at La Petite Mort Gallery on Friday for a double launch avec Nuit Blanche


Can you wrap your head around this? It's a double whammy of rather epic proportions!

Guerilla magazine is the official media partner for Nuit Blanche Ottawa 2012.

We're launching our summer quarterly edition—The Confusion Issue—this Friday.

AND we'll be getting into bed with Nuit Blanche curators Megan and Lainie at Ottawa's La Petite Mort Gallery, also on Friday, starting at 7 p.m. (306 Cumberland)

To add to (and reduce) the confusion, Guerilla and Nuit Blanche have co-created a nifty quiz for Friday's attendees to test their Nuit Blanche knowledge. Ace the quiz and you might win an original artwork by Nuit Blanche artist Natalie Bruvels!