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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

Girl Power

Bart Gazzola
Published Thursday June 11, 05:39 pm
A new wave of female artists is energizing the Saskatoon scene

 Steph Krawchuk's work currently exhibiting at Art Placement is quirky and simple: she presents a mix of works that are abstracts and urban landscapes in Building Blocks, but the works have more in common than the usual designations that "abstract" or "landscape" imply.

There’s playfulness in execution (as in “The Bay Building”), but also a surety of hand in the mark-making (as in “Blues,” where the singular drip running halfway down the centre of the paper work seems as deliberate as the strong, thick lines). In fact, Krawchuk’s abstract pieces, though executed in oils, seem more about drawing than painting: the sense of mark-making and the consideration that’s often associated with drawing is present in nearly all the abstracted work.

This also bleeds over into her urban scenes. The strength of the lines could be dismissed as crude, but they’re also about immediacy, a rawness that captures a scene with a minimalism that communicates all the needed information.

The smooth blue skies of her “Cambridge Court, Spring (2nd Ave)” or “The Delivery” have the same flat richness as in “Colour Blocking,” but if you live in this city and you’re a denizen of the downtown, your initial response to Building Blocks will be one of recognition of your “neighbourhood.” Some of the urban portraits are of “older” residents of the downtown — Moore’s is here, but so is Ayden with a somewhat brutalist rendering of a delivery truck, hence the title “Delivery” (though I personally think of it as the CFCR building — my own personal narrative of Saskatoon intruding into Krawchuk’s).

House of Braids is featured in a winter scene, the snowdrifts looking blocky and intrusive, in a work titled “Dusk” that may be my favourite of the city scenes. The deep blacks, the gradating sky of orange to red, and that one of my favourite bars is depicted make this an image that encapsulates my downtown and walking in the winter, and that demonstrates Krawchuk’s skill and sensitivity.

And the downtown is not neutral. Like any place that disparate groups inhabit, there’s a fracture between how these groups see this place, and the stories that are told about it. In its way, it’s as much a contested space as a traditional landscape by Lawren Harris is when next to an Ed Burtynsky.

This is where a work like “The Bay Building”, with its bright rendering of the patterning on the side of the building (and the Studio Fiat sign), acts as a landmark for the history of the downtown. I remember when that building was turned into condos, and then when the same happened to the King George Hotel, and the yammering insistence that this would mark Saskatoon as the new Calgary. Rents went up, wages didn’t, the mayor jabbers about increasing density in the downtown and we all seem to ignore him like we ignore panhandlers, as the truth (of both) is inconvenient and doesn’t fit our opinions. This is where there are odd touches — like the lack of people in any of the landscapes, even pieces of living spaces like “Third Avenue Apartment” or “Cambridge Court” give no hint of the people who are there.

This idea of memory and personal interpretation is also very present in the works of Catherine Blackburn currently at Wanuskewin. The influence of Michèle Mackasey, who acted as a mentor to Blackburn through a recent CARFAC program, is palpable — whether in the narrative realism in the family portraits (and self portrait) that Blackburn presents in Woven, or in demonstrating that who’s deemed worthy of a portrait and all of the socio-political baggage therein is neither accidental or isolated from our larger societal space.

Blackburn’s work is not solely painting, and in this formal context she seems to be creating her own version of a family narrative — incorporating photographs, and within the titles adding hints and clues to where she stands, and what we’re being invited to consider. Family is so often said to be the cornerstone of society. I don’t cite that like a glad-handing political huckster, but more so to quote Blackburn: “Through the subject of family, I am inspired to express my own feelings and experiences which speak to the complexities of memory, history and cultural identity.”

Several years ago, I praised Saskatoon exhibitions by Tammy Salzl, Janet Werner and Melanie Rocan, arguing that the best painting we’re currently seeing is from female artists. I caustically surmised this might be because the history of painting and abstraction in the West generally ignored the fact that not all had been given a chance to “speak.” I see a younger generation stepping forward here, continuing that tradition. Krawchuk’s works are at Art Placement until June 25th, while Blackburn favours us with her work all summer at Wanuskewin. Take time to check them both out. 

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