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Terence Dick
2016 Sobey Art Award at the National Gallery in Ottawa
October 12, 2016

I was planning on writing about the Sharon Lockhart video at Gallery TPW this week and its glacial conflation of sublime nature scenes with the wanderings and banterings of Polish teenage girls, but I happened to find myself in Ottawa over the weekend and managed to convince the people I was with that a trip to the National Gallery of Canada to see the very recently installed exhibition featuring the five finalists in this year’s Sobey Art Award showdown would be worth their while. Now that this contest has gone on annually for ten years (with a couple biannual awards before that), the big names of the Canadian art scene who managed to make an impression before they hit forty have all had their chance at the cup (and I’ll admit that name-recognition isn’t the most scientific of standards in such an insular community), so the nominees this time around might not ring a bell for everyone. Which is actually a good thing because it means you judge the winner by their art alone (though it doesn’t mean you actually get a say in the judgement).

Brenda Draney, The Righteous, 2012, oil on linen (photo: Sarah Fuller)

The real winner will be announced at a gala on November 1, but until then we can consider the relative merits of the five on display (with the obvious caveat that choosing the most deserving of these artists is a ridiculous endeavour given the disparity of their practices, the lack of a quantitative standard for measuring art, and the icky feeling that such contests are just a marketing ploy to trick people into caring about something they should care about for its own sake rather than its status as the winner of some trumped up art contest). Moving from west to east (an added obstacle to thinking this is about merit is that the finalists are selected regionally, which precludes the possibility of more than one worthy artist running in any one region), we start with Jeremy Shaw who has a longish history of dealing with altered states of consciousness in his art. Drugs, music, and religion all make an appearance, but his featured video Quickeners leans on the last one. It’s framed in a fake official discourse that treats found footage as a document from the future. That shtick feels somewhat dated (pun intended), yet the voice of administration also manifests itself in two of the other artists here, so maybe it’s a thing again.

Before we get to that, there are the straightforward paintings of Brenda Draney to remind us that art doesn’t have to be coy; it can simply be expressive. She’s already been celebrated by that other national art contest – the RBC Canadian Painting Competition – and manages to evoke the unresolved remnants of history and memory in her unfinished paintings on raw linen. That said, the work didn’t blow me away; it instead left me thinking about paintings I’d seen in the last year that made a stronger impression by demanding my attention. While there’s nothing wrong with reticence, it doesn’t strike me as an award winning quality.

Next up, Charles Stankievech describes himself as an artist, curator and writer, but I’d argue that he’s much more the latter two than the first. His voluminous research and love of parallel discourses culminate in a densely packed and densely informative installation that folds art history over espionage to blend truth and fiction in the administrative voice I mentioned earlier. However, if I had my druthers I’d prefer it in the form of a book or a documentary film. As a visual art exhibition, it demands more reading than looking, and that misses the point.

Hajra Waheed, The Cyphers 1–18, 2016, found objects, cut photograph, Xylene transfer, glass, ink, printed Mylar and archival tape on paper (photo: Colin Davison)

Hajra Waheed also draws on the discourse of administration in her documents of possible trauma or political strife, but she tones down the texts and simply uses graph paper or official forms to frame drawings and objects that suggest larger events, particularly when torn from any clear context. There is an automatic appeal to such ordering practices for anyone overwhelmed by the barrage of contemporary reality and the work presented here is seductive, but it is also so reminiscent of Walid Raad’s quasi-official documentation of partially fabricated histories that it loses much of its power.

Which leaves us with William Robinson’s video Sun Ship Machine Gun (Metallurgy I), which recounts in a non-didactic way the transformation of church bells to munitions and then on to saxophones. Relying solely on visuals and music, he leaves enough space for the viewer to grasp the alchemy he’s documenting while also allowing for an openness to interpretation that invites the contemplation of more elemental transformations as well as the consideration of the whole thing as a metaphor for universal flux. By treating this conjunction of philosophical themes, poetic images, and a particular historical episode with a light hand, he wins the game of making the best art in the room – at least according to my vote.

National Gallery of Canada: 2016
2016 Sobey Art Award continues until February 5.

Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow his quickie reviews and art news announcements on Twitter @TerenceDick.



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Posted by K.I.A., on 2016-10-14 08:33:37
Agree with you that what might be a great article in Wired magazine doesn't always work as a visually compelling show. That administrative voice is very much part of the current curator/collector-as-artist conflation, where assembly or archive of historical objects (or images), connected with an expository scholastic narrative, is often well-researched and interestingâ?¦ but also visually stultifying (even when amped up with sheer volume of objects/words). Can't help but wonder if it's because it's interpretation, not creation (acquiring is not the same as generating), and so it all feels kinda familiar, especially when there is reference to art history or say, war (which is shorthand for "This is Academic" or "This is Important"). Is the didactic voice a result of the MFA-ification of art, grantspeak, or a type of super-sophistimicated Pinterest?