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East Coast
Laura Kenins
LAURA KENINS in Halifax 06/07/11
June 07, 2011

Since outgoing Halifax correspondent Sue Carter Flinn has left the east coast for the drier climate of Toronto and a position at Quill & Quire, I’m pleased to step in. Much as the local art community misses Sue, but to make up for our loss it seems that the Nova Scotia government decided to reinstate an independent provincial arts council, absent since 2002 and now named Arts Nova Scotia, shortly after her departure.

Mitchell Wiebe outside his bunker

That’s not the only movement that’s been happening in Halifax. Local painter Mitchell Wiebe and several other artists were evicted from their studio space above the Propeller Brewery on Gottingen Street this winter. Wiebe coped by holing up in a bunker in Debert (outside Truro, NS). One of a handful of so-called Diefenbunkers built in Canada during the cold war, this one is now home to a computer business. Visiting artist friends contributed both elaborate and informal installations, artworks and glow-in-the-dark drawings throughout his stay, and he finished off the residency with a one-day exhibition in May with work by Eleanor King, Cathy Busby, Graeme Patterson, Adriana Kuiper, Cal Lane, Valerie Salez and others. (By the way, it’s not the first time a Diefenbunker’s been repurposed for art: the Diefenbunker Museum in Ottawa has also hosted contemporary art exhibits.)

Mitchell Wiebe, untitled installation with sculpture by Ali Nickerson

Wiebe’s work - neon paintings of bizarre animals and haphazard sculptures of everything from toys to t-shirts to Ethernet cables - feels alternately incredibly out of place and completely at home in this Cold War relic. There’s a back story to each of Wiebe’s pieces typically involving something like a “robot giving birth to folk art” or a “creation myth of oil slicks were created” that incorporates a unicorn and a pinata, but these don’t necessarily sound any stranger than the government building 350-person-capacity bunkers in rural Nova Scotia to prepare for the apocalypse. At some points, the bunker itself feels like the most fascinating thing to see, but any artist would envy the idea of three months to go to town with a vast underground space full of discarded junk.

Tony Publicover

I visited during installation due to schedule constraints and missed the chance to see pieces in action like a ping-pong video installation by Graeme Patterson and Adriana Kuiper’s swing set that pumped water to grow grass. An installation by Tony Publicover grouped lockers together in a dark room, some decorated with small objects - business cards, necklaces - like talismans, flanking a mirror lit by two bare bulbs, creating a sense you’d just walked into the centre of some occult ritual. In a hall on the lower level, Eleanor King (among Wiebe’s former studiomates) used old light fixtures and cables to create a cityscape of sorts. In another hall, Wiebe placed a plaster deer sculpture by Ali Nickerson in a glass chamber filled with aquatic floats to create a supernatural fish tank. It was typical of the combination of planned and unwitting collaborations happening all over the bunker. He told me the exhibition is merely a preview for a larger “bunker ball” planned for the fall.

Bryan Maycock, Shoe Maker: James Maycock abt 1800 - bef 1861, 1998

Back in the city, the Dalhousie Art Gallery started off its summer semester with Materials and Space, a show of new works from the permanent collection acquired since director Peter Dykhuis took over in 2007. Work by Haligonians, NSCAD professors, and alumni features prominently, including two series by Garry Neill Kennedy: a suite of four untitled works from 1975 (a classic Kennedy piece: flat, boring suburban colours on board and linen) and his 1994 work Six Pink Paintings. The latter pops out a bit more; the six pieces of chipboard painted with neon pink and grossly named after an array of skin diseases, including Scabies, Psoriasis, and Eczema. The exhibition also includes work by Gerald Ferguson, Kelly Mark, Charlotte Lindgren, and others, with a number of drawings and sculptural pieces by NSCAD drawing professor Bryan Maycock. Maycock’s work layers drawings of nineteenth-century street maps on shirts, cushions, corsets and more - both the real objects and sketches of them – to explore his family history. Shoe Maker: James Maycock abt 1800 - bef 1861 engraves a map on the sole of a shoe. The show is a fitting follow-up to the Halifax conceptualism on view in the Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada, which took over four local galleries this winter.

Dirt, Detritus and Vermin, installation view

At Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, the installation Dirt, Detritus and Vermin groups three pieces by Cal Lane, Janice Wright Cheney, and Sarah Saunders, with Saunders’ fragile ceramic handkerchiefs tossed around, some in broken fragments, while Wright Cheney’s metal-and-onion-skin cockroaches crawl over the floor around Lane’s piece Dirt Floor, a carpet made from sifting soil through lace. It’s fun to see the three artists’ individual work used by the curators to create one cohesive piece.

Carl Stewart, both pieces from Springwall Suite, 2010-11

Also on the move this spring was Eyelevel Gallery, shifting a couple blocks down Gottingen Street to a new place with a snazzy musical note-patterned gate outside. Inside, Ottawa artist Carl Stewart, in his show fragments, develops a novel approach to the pandemic of used mattresses that take over the streets every spring in this student city. A weaver and textile artist, Stewart has been collecting fabric samples from discarded mattresses since the mid-90s and using them to create 2D wall hangings. He collected some samples in Ottawa, but made a trip to Halifax months before the opening to scout fabrics. It’s a daring proposition in an era of bedbug problems cropping up across the continent, but Stewart revels in mattress stains and protects himself merely by storing new fabric samples in a freezer for a few weeks.

Patchworked and decorated with embroidery and rhinestones, Stewart’s fabric samples range from the banal to the absurd - one piece uses samples of a rocket ship pattern, while in another a pink-gemstone-eyed owl watches over a courting couple in eighteenth-century attire. Stewart unearths everything from plastic-lined flower prints to pastoral scenes to illustrations recalling old maps or catalogues on these fabrics meant only to be covered up by sheets, getting, as he says, Halifax and Ottawa in bed together.

Laura Kenins is a writer and artist based in Halifax. She is a contributor and copy editor for Halifax’s alt-weekly The Coast and an editorial board member for Visual Arts News, Atlantic Canada’s arts magazine. She has also written for Canadian Art, the Telegraph-Journal, Exclaim, Broken Pencil and exhibition catalogues. This is her first piece for Akimblog.

Dalhousie Art Gallery:
Materials and Space continues until July 3.

MSVU Art Gallery:
Dirt, Detritus and Vermin continues until August 8.

Eyelevel Gallery:
Carl Stewart: fragments continues until June 16.



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