Oh, Canada exhibition opening tomorrow at four Calgary venues

Oh Canada Calgary invite

This weekend is a big one for the visual arts in Calgary.

There are lots of things going on.

Three big things are happening – 1.) the beginning of Exposure (the month of photography); 2.) the catalogue launch for the Calgary Biennial; and, 3.) the Mass MoCA originated travelling show “Oh, Canada” will also launch.

It is the third item that I want to talk about today.

In 2012, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) hosted what was probably the largest exhibition of contemporary art held outside of the country’s borders in a show called “Oh, Canada.”

O'Kanada 1982 Catalogue Berlin

Of course in this context, those with a long enough view on major exhibitions of contemporary Canadian art will find it rather intriguing to know that in 1982 there was a similarly ambitious, very large survey exhibition held at the Akademie der Kunst, Berlin, Germany. Ironically, it also was called “O’Kanada”. Somewhere in cold storage, I have a large 500 page doorstopper of a catalogue produced for that show. The big difference between the two exhibitions is that the German show discussed a much broader “cultural” context for the arts in Canada, than it would appear that this one does. The 1982 show talked about many things such as dance, theatre, music, architecture and of course the visual arts; whereas the Mass MoCA show has focused on the visual arts.

Regardless, this is probably the largest single visual art exhibition to be held in the city – ever.

That makes it, kind of a big deal.

Of course, any show that is this ambitious and of this nature, should have controversy and/or criticism.

This is as it should be.

If there is none, the show is probably forgettable.

As expected, there will always be the usual questions of why one artist was included, and another not. It is the nature of this type of large survey exhibition. Someone who should be included, almost always gets missed. Because of that, these type of comments are standard fair and are hardly worth mentioning.

However, a statement I have recently read, is a variation on this theme. I only mention it (and it is certainly not a criticism), because it brings into focus why these type of shows are important. They are important if for no other reason, than to get people talking.

This statement came from a person that I know who expressed a concern that this show was curated by,

“an American (who) is surveying Canada . . .

and (she was) not really . . . immersed in the subtleties of our unique cultural identity over decades. . .

(and is) without (full) understanding (of) the nuances of our particular art scene . . .”

It is a comment that on a certain level has an element of validity as most criticisms do.

In response to this I wanted to revisit comments made by the Canadian historian Ramsay Cook (not to be confused with Gordon Ramsay, the cook).

Ramsay Cook, the eminent retired professor of history at York University and general editor of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography had a research interest in Nationalism. As an extension of this he also talked about Regionalism, Canadian Identity, Pluralism and Patriotism.

Together these topics seem to be of interest to current affairs and the person’s comment which were made above. This especially is the case when we consider that as a country we recently celebrated the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812; the 100th anniversary of beginning of WWI; and soon we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation.

These big round number events help define our collective Canadian identity, or in the words of Ramsay Cook the “contemplation of the Canadian navel”. How we react (in part) to these events, will help define how we view ourselves; and how others view us as a collective society.

As a result this is a timely exhibition as we start gearing up for the next big round number event – the sesquicentennial in 2017.

Shortly after the other really big round number event (the 100th anniversary of Confederation in 1967) the University of Toronto Press published Ramsay Cook’s book entitled, The Maple Leaf Forever: Essays on Nationalism and Politics in Canada in 1971. One of the essays included in this publication was entitled “Nationalism in Canada” where Cook argued, “that Canada is far from a homogeneous country. Nationalism by nature tends strongly to centralism and uniformity: Canada is by nature federal, sectional and pluralist”.

In this exhibition we will see that Ramsay Cook’s statement is still valid and true.

All four venues that are collectively hosting the Oh, Canada exhibition (Glenbow Museum, Esker Foundation, Illingworth Kerr Gallery at ACAD, and Nickle Galleries at the U of C) will be opening tomorrow (Saturday, January 31, 2015).

I understand that there will be an Oh, Canada bus which will transport people to each of the venues, starting at the Nickle Galleries at the University of Calgary.

There will be a large amount of things happening in conjunction with this show and the Glenbow has created a micro-website which is dedicated to this exhibition. In this website, one will find a large amount of information about special events that will occur during the course of the show, both at the participating institutions and elsewhere.

I look forward to seeing the show.

Photography, installation art and blurring boundaries

Tyler-Los-Jones-Esker-Installation-Detail-Jan-2014 (1024x683)

Over the weekend Phillip Gefter’s article in the New York Times from two days ago, entitled The Next Big Picture; With Cameras Optional, New Directions in Photography crossed my desk. 

This served as a reminder that I had previously indicated I wanted to talk further about this ten days ago, when I stated the following:

  • I would argue that Tyler Los-Jones’ installation-based work entitled The way air hides the sky should also be considered as dealing with photography in an abstract way, even though this may not be the artist’s original intent.

For background to further discussion, I want to talk about the camera obscura.

Utilizing a naturally occurring phenomenon, the camera obscura has been around since we lived in caves and tents – although it may not have been recognized as such until sometime later, probably in the middle ages.  It is so rudimentary, it is how our eye sees objects.  Our brain automatically corrects the orientation of the image.  Pinhole photography and the camera obscura share a lot of the same principles.  I have inserted a schematic which shows the process of how it works below as it relates to drawing.  The principles are still the same.


Basically simple photography works like this:

  • A single person is standing in the sunshine on one side of the yard.
  • The photographer steps into a completely darkened room on the other side of the yard and closes the door behind him/her.
  • Between them is a wall with a small hole in it on the side facing the person standing in the sunshine.
  • After the photographer’s eyes adjust to the darkened room, the photographer notices that on the far wall across from the small hole is an image of the person standing in the sunshine.  The difference is that the person is upside down and appears to be standing on their head and can be viewed in real time.

This is the basic technology for the camera obscura – simplified greatly of course.  I have not bothered to explain how the image is captured.

One of the many advances in photography was the use of mirrors.  Now we have mirrorless cameras.  This is a relatively new innovation and young technology and is viewed as kind of a big deal.  Most likely this is where the marketplace will be going in the next couple years.  Watch for more significant advances here in the near future.  As a result, it is fair to say that the technology now is very much different and much more complex than it once was.

Having said this, any person can build their own camera and take photographs using the rudimentary camera obscura process and there are many that do.  In fact, there is a small group of dedicated photographers that do just that in the city and area and there has been for a while.  In some ways I would suggest that is a backlash against technological advances, retaining past knowledge, combined with the honesty of doing it old-school – although I am sure tat each person does it for their own personal reasons.  In fact I wrote a review published in Calgary’s FastForward last year during the Exposure Festival about two of these people that do pinhole photography – Diane Bos and Sarah Fuller.

To boil down the technology of photography even further – photography is about capturing light (and the absence thereof).

The framework for my argument

Getting back to the New York Times article.  The article is in response to a new show that will be opening later this week at the International Centre for Photography in NYC.  The ICP show talks about the important period starting in the 1970s to present day.  During this period the boundaries surrounding photography began to blur as a result of conceptualism and the inter-disciplinary nature of photography that is not uncommon now.

In the NY Times article, Phillip Gefter quotes Quentin Bajac, MoMA’s Chief Curator of Photography who talks about the identity crisis in photography at present which is a result of changing practices.  He goes on to state:

  • The shift of focus from fact to fiction, and all the gradations in between, is perhaps the largest issue in the current soul-searching underway in photography circles. Questions swirl: Can the “captured” image (taken on the street — think of the documentary work of Henri Cartier-Bresson) maintain equal footing with the “constructed” image (made in the studio or on the computer, often with ideological intention)?

There is a lot more in the article and it is well worth the read for anyone interested in photography.  I would suggest that with it being the month of photography shortly, this article should be required reading before stepping foot inside any exhibition space.  You don’t have to agree or disagree with the writer or any of those quoted – just be aware and use it as food for thought.

Back in mid-December 2013 the British newspaper The Guardian also published an article written by Stuart Jeffries, entitled The death of photography: Are camera phones destroying an artform?  This also is an interesting article, like the one above – for different reasons.  It starts off with a quote from the award winning, Mexican-born, professional photographer Antonio Olmos, who states this:

  • “It’s really weird. . . Photography has never been so popular, but it’s getting destroyed. There have never been so many photographs taken, but photography is dying.”

Now Tyler Los-Jones and his installation at the Esker

As stated above, the use of mirrors is considered to be a significant innovation in the advancement of photographic technology.  So was the use of lenses; the concave and convex forms that they took; digital image capture; and many other advances.  For our purposes however, I am most interested in the use of mirrors.

In Los-Jones’ installation mirrors are also important.  The primary image in this installation is of three pieces of what I assume to be old growth timbers, painted blue on one end.  To properly view the image, one must use the mirrors stacked against the far wall or alternatively move to a far extreme in the window and see it from the side.  The image generally faces away from the viewer and is attached to the backside of what looks like a packing crate and moving blankets.  There also are what is assumed to be a large scale photo of water and nature-based wallpaper rolled up sharing the same space.  The installation gives the impression that it is like a display window that is being set up and those putting it together have left for a short coffee break.

My point is that in this installation the mirrors are important.  It is through using these mirrors one gets a view of or glimpse of the installation.  As it is with photography, so it is with this work.  Some of this installation is photo-based.  This also ties in with the photography theme, although this is more studio-based and as Bajac states, is moving more toward fiction.

Overall this work fits within the greater context of the other three artists showing in the main space.  All are dealing with the concept of utopia – a theme that underlies all the works on display.

Now for the public service announcement:

On Saturday, February 15 between 3:00-4:00pm, Tyler Los-Jones will give an informal talk about this installation.  As indicated in the exhibition guide, “he will discuss questions he has about time, secrets, and the anxiety he feels towards the concept of Nature.”

If I am able, I would like to go.  I am previously familiar with his work, but this appears to potentially be a new direction.  I would be interested to hear what he has to say.

Photos and architecture at Esker

Cedric-Bomford-Esker-Foundation-Catalogue-Image (1024x690)

Last night I attended the well-attended opening at the Esker Foundation.  There were three interesting shows in the main space featuring (as one encounters them) – Peter Von Tiesenhausen, Tobias Zielony, Cedric Bomford.  As a group with different approaches they all are well-selected and work well together in the same physical space.  Also featured in the Project Room (a display window space on the main floor) – Tyler Los-Jones.

As expected, given that this is the EXPOSURE: Calgary, Banff, Canmore Photography Festival will occur during the month of February, two of the featured artists deal with traditional photography – Tobias Zielony and Cedric Bomford.  However, I would argue that Tyler Los-Jones’ installation-based work entitled The way air hides the sky should also be considered as dealing with photography in an abstract way, even though this may not be the artist’s original intent.  If time allows, and I still have the inclination, I would like to explain why at a later date.

My intent today is to write about Cedric Bomford and architecture.

I am not an architect.  However, I do enjoy looking at built-spaces, as stated before in this blog, I am however a big fan of Brutalism.  That is about the end of it.

The work of Cedric Bomford on display at the Esker, is a series of 15 large black and white photos of air vents connected to the Prague underground metro system.  I must assume based on the date of the one photograph illustrated in the catalogue (seen above), that this work must have been completed shortly after his graduation at Emily Carr University.  This in itself is interesting given the strong long-standing and well-conceived photographic tradition that is found in the lower BC mainland and Vancouver in particular.

The structures found in the photos certainly are reminiscent of the Brutalist style of architecture, which for our purposes, thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) can be defined as this:

  • A stark style of functionalist architecture, especially of the 1950s and 1960s, characterized by the use of steel and concrete in massive blocks

There is also a very interesting article from the Architectural Review on the origins of the New Brutalism dating from December 1955 which can be accessed here.  The article is rather interesting as it makes reference to art historical periods such as Cubism, Futurism and others.  I would propose that the Brutalist tradition continued into works such as Clement Greenberg’s Abstract Expressionist influenced steel sculpture (such as David Smith and Sir Anthony Caro).  Ironically one of Anthony Caro’s sculptures stands outside of the Esker main doors.  We see those type of forms in these photographs of Cedric Bomford.  This is relevant given curator Naomi Potter’s comment which states, “As an architectural philosophy, rather than a style, Brutalism was often associated with socialist utopian ideology . . .”

With that in mind it is interesting looking at these works with an historical perspective.  Naomi Potter indicates in the catalogue essay that these structures were built during the 15-year period of 1975-1989.

We, in Calgary, are fortunate to have some good examples of Brutalism that are often under continual threat of destruction.  A few of these are:

  • The old Nickle Arts Museum building located in the heart of the University of Calgary campus (which was quietly demolished last year to allow the new Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning to be built on its former site);
  • The former Calgary Board of Education building (which is vacant and is now under threat);
  • The old Calgary Separate School Board building (which might be radically changed depending on what the new owner’s currently unknown intent is);
  • The Centennial Planetarium (which may have an announcement regarding change of use before the end of this month);
  • Century Gardens (which a parkour  group helped draw awareness to its importance recently);
  • Glenbow Museum (which will probably have a new entrance soon);
  • Fort Calgary (which has announced a major expansion);
  • Mayland Heights Elementary School (which was on the list of schools to be closed at one time);
  • Stampede Corral (this might be a bit of a “sleeper” as it was built in 1949-1950 which would date to, or even pre-date the very early stages of when Brutalism as an architectural concept was forming.  As a result I would be very interested in who the architect was and investigating how important historically this building might be as it shares some physical and stylistic attributes associated with Brutalist architecture); and
  • A bridge connected to the Langevin Science School (that will soon be remediated) amongst others.

Recently I have spent time in the downtown core.  When there, I often look at the interiors of office building lobbies as I pass through.  Attached is a photograph I took this week of the lobby of the TD Canada Trust Tower located at 421 – 7 Avenue SW.  It is located on the site of the former Eaton’s flagship store in Calgary built in 1929 and some of the original Eaton’s façade has been incorporated into the exterior of the building, especially along the 8th Avenue side.  When looking at this photo I also wonder if maybe some of the original marble floor was retained as well.

TD-Canada-Trust-Tower-Calgary-Lobby-January-2014 (1024x683)

Regardless, this is an example of office tower lobbies in Calgary during recent history.  This is not a particularly good photo and there is no reason why this lobby was selected over another, except that it illustrates my point and I happened to have a photo of it.

As seen in this photo it can be described as minimal, cavernous and functional, with limited individual personality (outside of its unique architectural detailing) and a certain level of conformity (as in similarity to other office lobbies).  I understand that architecture deals with the whole concept of form and function, just like it does with fashion and industrial design as well.  Because of this, I should probably clarify my statement.

I find it strikingly beautiful in its austerity of form and high finish.  The functionality of its use is as a conduit to get those who use this building from the exterior building entrance to the elevator lobby which leads to their offices.  Unfortunately the downside to this is that it does not encourage street-level vibrancy.  It is not particularly welcoming or encouraging of people to stay in the environment for any length of time, with the exception of maybe the security guard whose desk is located there or the cleaner doing their job.  There is only so much variation one can do in a defined physical space and often architects are not always the final decision makers in the grand scheme of things.  Clients have a certain role to play as well and they also have to be aware of their own clients and the needs and requirements of the users of the space.  As an example, this photo shows that there is no artwork, no public sculpture, very little seating and few signs of human presence (although we know it is there), only punctuated with few forms of greenery used to break the austerity.

Similar statements can be said for Brutalism.   Both are austere and pare down extraneous detail.

Given that, I would be interested to fast-forward 20-30 years from now to see if this austere period in our current obsession (for lack of a better word) in our office lobby environments will be seen as dated.  Also I would be curious to see if it meets with a similar distain for this style of minimal architectural interiors, as is the case for many with Brutalism now.  Of course I cannot really speculate on that, as only time will tell.