Sunday, November 23, 2008

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

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