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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Happy Anniversary

Bart Gazzola
Published Wednesday November 12, 05:36 pm
The Mendel celebrates five decades with a fine exhibit


Runs to Jan. 4

Mendel Art Gallery

Modern Visions fills the entire Mendel, and the front gallery space makes a powerful opening for this exhibition, which marks the institution’s 50th anniversary.

Two works from the original Fred Mendel bequest — Lawren Harris’s “Untitled (Mountains near Jasper)” and Arthur Lismer’s “Autumn, Bon Echo” — bracket the space on temporary walls, facing you as you enter. These idealized, modernist landscapes leave a gap between them through which Rebecca Belmore’s “blood on the snow” is clearly visible: the stark reddish stain on snowy white a sharp evocation of contemporary Saskatchewan, just as Harris evokes an “older” era.

To the left is Ed Poitras, whose “Optional Modification in Six Parts” comments on the living nature of treaties. Behind “blood”, two pieces frame it in a manner that mimics (or updates) the aforementioned Group of Seven works: Edward Burtynksy’s “Dryland Farming #12” and “#24”. Both bring his aesthetically driven eye to sites of industrialized production, where the beauty of the landscape — when seen remotely — suffocates any larger considerations of what we’re doing to the environment. The landscape as resource (in the exploitive sense) in the Harris work is now having its “potential realized,” as the Frasier Institute might say, by Burtynksy.

This exhibition can’t but be political, even ignoring the debate around the forthcoming move to the Remai Modern Art Gallery. Any institution that’s held the respect and love of a community through five decades is an institution with divergent, often disagreeing, stakeholders.

I feared a charade of regionalist masturbation, privileging karaoke modernists and pandering to those who see the Mendel solely as an extension of their own political agendas.

But Sandra Fraser, the curator of this exhibition (with assistance from departed chief curator Lisa Baldissera), presents a nuanced take on collecting and history. The installation is reminiscent of Fraser’s Where It’s At: there are guiding wall didactics, and an arrangement suggesting commonalities of idea and form, but they’re subtle.

The side gallery illustrates this: photographic works — including Thelma Pepper, this year’s recipient of the LG Lifetime Achievement Award — are grouped together with some that speak nationally (Jeff Thomas’ juxtapositions of his son next to various “landmarks” that play upon “Indian”) and some locally. (These include “George Moppet plans a show at Mendel Art Gallery,” “1981” or “Storage Area, Mendel Art Gallery,” both by Randy Burton, and two works by Art Balim that are shots of a younger, urban Saskatoon.) These works are from the Photographers Gallery bequest — and Sandra Semchuk, a pillar of that organization, has contributed “Baba’s Garden, Halford, Saskatchewan 1985-1986” here too, which playfully “talks” with Vic Cicanksy’s sculptural “The Pink Pantry”.

Fraser indicated several works in this side space that evoke a “prairie anxiety” about identity and place. Honor Kever’s “The Good Dishes” is a moment before a disaster; Arthur Smith’s “Billy” is a posthumous portrait of the artist’s son (he seems disheveled with unfocused eyes); John Will’s “Hillbilly Hell,” with its bloody red horizontal stroke, is the crass cousin to the quiet rage of Belmore’s “blood.” There is also another aspect of continuity: Bear Witness, the subject of his father Jeff Thomas’ work at one end of the gallery, has a video installation across from Will. The history is ongoing and updated.

The interstitial space (the long slim hallway) presents works that are quotations of past major Mendel exhibitions: works by Eric Fischl cite a show, decades ago, of this first-rate international artist’s work, and a large Evergon (“Lemon Squeezer”) that’s as vivid as his solo show here in 1989 was. (Interesting historical fact: it was that show which a city councillor of the time, displaying fine “Christian” homophobia, tried to use to incite outrage for his planned mayoral run. The Mendel defied this bullying with an integrity that endeared them to many.)

There are some amazing works here that are rarely seen — some due to their sheer size, and some, like Colette Whiten’s work in the hallway space, because they overpower others. “Structure #4” is one of the most significant feminist sculptural works of its era, with a considered aesthetic and an engaging subtext about gender and art-making that’s disturbingly funny. Experiencing this work is a personal highlight.

Visions is overflowing: hanging the back gallery salon-style is logical, but also a bit whimsical, and the two facing walls in the high-ceilinged space, again, play upon local and national discourses.

Grant McConnell’s “Return: Waters of the North and South Saskatchewan” continues the theme of the landscape as commodity, with scrolling banners suggesting empire and consumption. Kenneth Noland’s “Flares: ‘Fly’” and Ronald Bloore’s “Painting” are fine specimens of prairie modernism, and merit inclusion. Conversely, Fowler’s “Dark Water Upstream” epitomizes regionalist pedantism, but thankfully that’s a rarity in Visions.

There’s a Doug Bentham in a corner, but it pales next to the Robert Murray or Roland Brenner sculptures that inject a sense of unique play into their interpretations of English sculpting legend Anthony Caro. Taras Polataiko’s “Kazimir Malevich. Suprematism, Study for a Curtain,” meanwhile, is a piece with both reverence and acid humour, marking a high point in Saskatoon painting.

Interestingly, all the large and, ahem, manly painting (Jack Bush’s “Peak” or John Kissick’s “Untitled”) is in the same gallery as Kaija Harris’ “Red Landscape.” Her delicate tapestry holds its own and more against the industrial Paterson Ewen (“Record Wave with Rocket Cloud”) it faces, and I’m reminded of how many artists (especially women) are reworking modernist aesthetics in a contemporary manner.

This confrontational inclusiveness in Visions is impressive, and a smart snapshot of the gallery’s history — and by extension, Saskatoon’s history. The Mendel has changed significantly over its half-century, defying the political pressures that many civic galleries are often beholden to. Arthur Miller said that, “an era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted,” but that can be a positive thing, and speak more about a rich possibility replacing a dogmatic orthodoxy. Modern Visions acts more as a step forward than a nostalgic look backwards.

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