Sunday, November 23, 2008
Paper cut-out conflict
My Beautiful War explores warfare and aggression
Jeanne Fronda Staff
Doilies and warfare belong together. Well, at least Winnipeg artist Paul Robles seems to think so.
Born in the Philippines and raised in Canada, Robles is known for exploring subjects like identity and race. His current exhibition, My Beautiful War, which is currently showing at the Quiet Room Gallery, is a refreshing and unusual collection of paper cut-outs that can make viewers feel rather uneasy. But that’s really the point.
The foundation of these pieces is to go against tradition, and Robles’ cutting of origami paper — paper that is traditionally folded — to create art would be shunned by origami purists. From the origami paper, Robles has crafted seven pieces that explore aggression, the perversion of war and male identity.
One of the pieces, “The Age of Reason (Duel I),” features two males facing one another, but each has a gun located at pelvic level. The guns are both aimed at a pink flower that appears to be bleeding blood of the same pinkish hue. Clearly this work is meant to elicit discomfort. An apparent pissing contest, this piece marries the unpleasant idea of war with something as innocuous as a pink flower.
The viewer questions not only the identity of the males in question, but also the reason behind Robles’ choice of a traditionally feminine colour to accompany such a disturbing image. In addition to his “corrupt” use of origami paper, Robles deliberately pairs vibrant colours — pinks, reds, greens, oranges and blues — with black. The figures in his pieces are usually silhouettes whose identities are unclear, and it’s frustrating not to know what one is looking at. Harsh contrasts of colour and theme are recurring sentiments of the exhibition.
The intricate designs of the paper that make portions of the works look like doilies remind viewers of femininity. They also remind viewers that doilies are associated with the job of homemaking, which is, of course, a traditionally female role. It’s truly an odd and interesting idea to attach something so overtly womanly as a flimsy paper doily to visual representations of conflict.
Other works include “The Age of Reason (Duel II),” which is another fighting match in which two men are in conflict. One has a buck’s head emerging from his pelvis, while the other has a snake emerging from his, as if to say, “Hey, why don’t we just measure them and see who’s boss, okay?”
Two other pieces also have plainly visible references to dispute. The meaning behind the red cut-out “Security Munki (The Prisoner)” isn’t completely clear, as the silhouette of a hooded figure standing near a monkey doesn’t seem to communicate much. At first glance, the pointed hood resembles those that are worn by the Ku Klux Klan, but the figure is actually a reference to the U.S. Iraqi war prisoner scandal. Stare at it long enough and you will see that it’s a haunting piece that reminds us of how appalling war can be.
The purple cut-out “Security Munki (Hunters)” is an obvious comment on battle, as one of two men points a rifle at a heart. A monkey seems to be dangling from the rifle’s barrel as if to mock or distract from the conflict.
But some sedate pieces managed to creep into the show. “The Year of the Snake” and “My Beautiful War” are two pieces that lack real movement. The former is simply a grey snake surrounded by some grey and orange flowers, and it doesn’t seem to comment much on battle. The latter is a cut-out of two red birds perched on a branch. (But the work is lovely, as you can see the detail of the snake’s skin and the birds’ feathers.)
One piece seemed a little out of place among all the dark shapes and aimed firearms. “Open Season (Feast of Birds)” is a collage of colourful birds and vegetation surrounding a blue skull that seems to peek-a-boo out of nowhere. The work feels a little claustrophobic due to all the birds and flowers, and the piece doesn’t seem to add much to the show except to stand out as one of the only works that lacks silhouettes.
Though the show isn’t terribly poignant — and you might get a little caught up staring at the phallic images — the contrast between the different colours and shades, and the complex cutting that created such detailed work make this an engaging show.
My Beautiful War runs until Oct. 20 at the Quiet Room Gallery, located in room 111 at St. John’s College. Call 474-8531 for hours of operation.
Winnipeg's new litter of art pups
Some are dumpster-divers for art materials. Others play naughty tricks with porn shots. But these young artists have talent and formal control, writes ROBERT ENRIGHT
WINNIPEG -- Cities are both real and imagined places. What's interesting about Winnipeg and the reputation of its visual artists -- both those who have left and those who continue to live here -- is that the real and the imaginary have become indistinguishable. Because of the emergence on the international art scene of a group of artists, including Tim Gardner, Karel Funk, Jon Pylypchuk, Sarah Anne Johnson and Marcel Dzama and the Royal Art Lodge, Winnipeg is now viewed in New York, Los Angeles and London as a place that has produced an inexplicable number of good artists. There are rumours circulating about the water, the cold and the sense of community. All of them may be true.
What is unquestionably true, however, is that Winnipeg has developed a keen sense of itself as an art city, and the success of their peers is a model on which the current crop of artists can imagine how they might flourish in the rough-and-tumble art world. The most recent evidence of what those artists are up to is Supernovas. The Winnipeg Art Gallery and its adjunct curators Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan (who are themselves performance artists with an international reputation) have picked this stellar title as a way of focusing attention on "the future of art in Winnipeg" and on the basis of the quality and quantity of the work they have included, no one would disagree with that assessment.
But what is equally apparent is how thoroughly this group exhibition of 29 young artists is also about the "past of art in Winnipeg."
Winnipeg is, by and large, conservative, a predisposition that encourages the city's artists to use the past as a way of informing the present. Winnipeg artists also waste nothing; they are seriously committed to dumpster-diving and other forms of aesthetic recycling. Two-Sicks (the name is migratory and turns up as 26, Twenty-six and Too-Six), is a collective of some-time graffiti artists who ride around on bicycles in the summer and attach art pieces to walls, billboards and telephone poles in the inner city.
Two of Two-Sick's members, Shaun Morin and Fred Thomas, indicate the wide range that can be worked inside the surface chaos of urban art; Thomas uses aerosol paint to transform the refuse of the back alley -- tin-can lids and pieces of discarded metal -- into paintings of haunting, edgy beauty. Morin, who uses the tag Slomotion when he's on the street, can make elegant art in the studio as well. His ability to effortlessly yoke together the craggy figuration of the late Philip Guston with a positively formal sense of composition reveals him to be the most accomplished painter in the exhibition.
But that formal quality is everywhere apparent in Supernovas; in the collages of Justin Ludwar, the video of Heidi Phillips, in the deft Wite-Outing and cut-outing of Shawna McLeod's mixed-media drawings and the different registers of emotional restraint in the photographs of Meera Margaret Singh and Richard Hines. These 29 artists work in all media -- from Mike Germain's computer art to Jennie O'Keefe's doll-making -- but what emerges is a sense of intelligent control, a wariness that refuses to let the material and the process of art-making get out of hand. If these artists were members of a political movement, they would be old-style Red Tories.
There is a sense of restrained blueness in the exhibition as well. The back space of the gallery includes a clutch of artists who direct their attention to the body and its desires. Erica Eyres's ballpoint-pen drawings of young women are a disturbing species of fictional self-portraiture; while Liz Garlicki's large, loosely rendered vinyl-on-vinyl paintings of porn images are utterly compelling because they are so difficult to read. Porn shots that don't deliver are genuinely subversive, and it's in this territory of confused expectation and surprise that Paul Robles also works his tongue-in-cheeky magic. His two dozen meticulous origami paper-cuts on vellum are brilliantly naughty; inside the innocent form of the silhouette he executes a spectrum of sexual acts worthy of the Kama Sutra.
There is much to praise in this eclectic exhibition and much to be cautious about as well. The aesthetics of impoverishment -- how so many of these artists use the detritus of the street and punk culture -- is a way of making something out of nothing, but it can also become a style, a sort of material dumbing down. It can also become a way of simply gathering things together, which is not necessarily a way of making art. But at its most rigorous, the art of the overlooked and the undervalued can be delightful and dramatic. Adrian Williams, one of the founders of the Royal Art Lodge, is an older member of the new "supernovas." His mixed media on found material collages are a highlight of the exhibition, as is his expressed attitude toward making art. His method is "an attempt at resurrecting old objects with the clumsy magic wand of a new imagination." What he has always done in the past is a perfect description of what the "Supernovas" are so effectively doing in the present.
supernovas is a return to the age-old theme of renewal, etched out a decade ago by the Winnipeg Art Gallery in its Sit(E)ings: Trajectory for a Future and more recently by Plug In in its Young Winnipeg Artists exhibition. Audiences of aceart inc, Plug In ICA, Cream, Platform, Video Pool, Gallery 1C03, the Franco Manitoban Cultural Centre or Winnipeg's annual fundraisers will recognize many names and artistic gambits amongst supernovas's 29-artist roster.
Renewal can be a tricky and imperative business. The weight of permanent collections and academic influences are pervasive in institutions which have the dual function of maintaining historic collections and presenting the very best and the very new. For young artists, the opportunities for being showcased or noticed can weigh heavily on their hopes and dreams. In supernovas, influence is overdetermined. Paradigm shifts, trends, and influences come from many directions, not the least of which has been the mythic success of Winnipeg artist Marcel Dzama of the Royal Art Lodge. An exhibition of this scope can only be a sprawling, uneven, and redemptive affair. To the credit of its curators, Shawna Dempsey and Lori Millan, supernovas is all these things.
Many theories have been advanced to explain the vibrancy of Winnipeg's art community. Low rent. Distance from the perceived art centres of Toronto or New York. Isolation, long winters, and dark basements (both metaphorical and actual). To these I would add an active sense of pluralism, tolerance, and democracy fostered by multiple institutions and activist artists. As for the art, virtually all media are represented in supernovas — performance, painting, drawing, textiles, video, film, photography, sculpture, and installation. Many of the materials are deliberately quirky or scavenged. There are fabric dolls, vinyl columns, woven dictionary pages, tiny pen and ink sketches, slick collages, intimate watercolours, air brushed and stencilled paint lids, torn-off book covers, even a bronze dog with a motorized fan.
|Susie Smith: Action Figures: Frida Kahlo, 2004, series of 25 multiples, screenprint on fabric, each 36 x 15 x 5 inches|
The terms of engagement — pornography, the multi-channel universe, print culture, commerce, identity, our deteriorating environment — are clearly felt and held. Reach may exceed grasp, expressed intentions may not match outcomes, and earnest citations of sources might irk just a little, but, it's a fun show with lots of pizzazz. The gallery walls are upbeat in primary hues, and the brilliant catalogue by Zab Design exudes the exhibition's sense of celebration.
With an unprecedented 1,500 attendees, opening night energy was palpable.The art on the walls was upstaged by the press and mass of human flesh. Artist tamara rae biebrich, blowing air kisses as part of her Social Butterfly performance, greeted our group of three teenagers and two twenty-somethings. The fifteen-year-old quickly made a beeline for Shawna McLeod's series of six framed pages from the artist's sketch book inscribed with meandering tattoos, angels, and musings. The sixteen-year-old was enamoured with Chris Cooper's Purifier, a realistic bronze dog with a motorized device under its head to generate fresher air.
My interest was divided between a half dozen excellent works. Paul Robles's startling series of twenty-four paper cut outs mounted on vellum combines traditional Asian floral, zodiac, or landscape motifs with references to contemporary violence, sexuality, war, and clip art. Adam Brooks's vivid paintings, such as his portrait of celebrities Katie and Tom, offers a more mediated experience, characterized by deft handling, tight composition, and garish sensationalism. Michael Stecky's videotape Harmaline functions just under the radar with its sense of novelty, fantasy, and intimacy. Richard Hines's photographs of domesticity combine the best of formalism with a light-filled emotional intelligence. A public re-reading of soft porn reverses the habitual private/public divide in the vinyl banners by Liz Garlicki, and graffiti artist Fred Thomas cleans up with his haunting installation, Blemish — transgressive stencil art, where paint and rust meet on the degenerating and encrusted surfaces of found objects.
A show of this size lends itself to comparisons across media and theme. Each time I return to view supernovas, I discover the insights and perspectives of a different set of artists, and am persuaded perhaps by just a little bit of that stardust.
— BY Amy Karlinsky