Art of the Peace Symposium ’07

by Wendy Stefansson

On October 12th and 13th, the fifth annual Art of the Peace Visual Arts Symposium once again brings together artists and art lovers with four fascinating presenters in Grande Prairie, Alberta.

Chris Cran, Chorus Painting (orange)

Chris Cran

Renowned Calgary painter Chris Cran is interested in the way that a painting is perceived. He contends that we are “hard-wired to stare at a rectangle with coloured stuff on it that’s almost dead flat” and see a vista in it. That the way we look at a painting is “the pleasurable side of looking for a tiger in the bush.”

In his well-known series of self-portraits from the 1980’s, Cran made paintings that consciously denied the viewer the illusion of looking into a vista. Rather than seeing through the artist’s eyes, the viewer was looking at the artist who was looking back at him/her with a directness more evocative of advertising than of art. With such iconic works as My Face in Your Home and Self-Portrait Accepting a Cheque for the Commission of this Painting, Cran poked fun at the pretensions of the art world while begging a more serious question about art as conspicuous consumption and the complicity of artists in making it so.

Throughout the 1990’s Cran played with the optics of perception, imposing a pattern of stripes or dots over an image to obscure or dissolve it. Most recently, he has been making portraits which deliberately do not look back at the viewer. Rather, the faces are depicted glancing past or around the viewer, presumably taking in what is on the opposite wall of the gallery. About these works, Cran claims: “It’s a really sneaky way of appropriating other people’s work!” Cran contends that he paints and assembles the works in a given show like disparate elements in a story, but that it is up to each viewer to compose a unifying narrative. Ultimately, it is the viewer’s perception of a painting – or a show – that completes it.

Jane Ash Poitras, Potato Peeling 101 to Ethnobotany 101, (detail)

Jane Ash Poitras

The experience of looking at a Jane Ash Poitras artwork, especially a large-scale piece, is an investment. It takes time. It’s a bit like putting together all of the pieces of a puzzle; or perhaps, in this case, more like investigating the scene of a crime.

I am looking at a detail of Poitras’ Potato Peeling 101 to Ethnobotany 101. It is long and horizontal in format, an alphabet frieze in big white letters all along the top edge. Below that there are pages from a book or books, collaged and painted over loosely with stencilled words and simply rendered horses reminiscent of Aboriginal pictographs. There is a photograph of a student with his back to us, working out an equation on a chalkboard, a smaller one of a formal class picture, a hand-coloured student’s map of Canada, and a painting of a tipi encampment by the edge of a river. In handwriting it says: “A government official came to my father and asked him to send me to a place called Qu’Appelle school ….” The third visual band is crowded with sepia-toned photographs of Aboriginal people, most of them children in school settings. At the bottom, there is the Union Jack centrally imposed on a band of Hudson Bay Company stripes. And that’s just the first of three panels.

This, as most of Poitras’ work, is endlessly evocative. As a mixed media artist, Poitras uses collage, printmaking, and painting to bring together diverse fragments, both visual and textual, and challenges the viewer to identify the references and “read” the story. Robert Rauschenberg once said, “The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.” Poitras appears uniquely poised to witness hers.

Artist’s rendering of the north elevation of Grande Prairie’s Cultural Centre.

Stephen Teeple

Stephen Teeple is an award-winning architect, three of those awards being Governor General’s Awards for Architecture. He’s also the architect of the long-awaited 8000-square-foot expansion of the Prairie Art Gallery, the adjoining Grande Prairie Public Library and their common central hall – collectively known as Grande Prairie’s Cultural Centre.

Teeple says that his design for the Centre was “very definitely inspired by Grande Prairie and the landscape around Grande Prairie.” From the ground up, he tried to “reference the local colour.” He sourced out new bricks with colours and textures similar to bricks once made from local clay; they will form the exterior walls of the building. But it is the “flowing zinc roof” which will really be the centre of attention, abstractly recalling the “billowing fields of the prairie.” The silver-coloured zinc will change with the light from moment to moment, reflecting the natural colours of the sky. The angles of this roof, in combination with strategically placed glass walls will bounce light into the building and reflect it off interior roof structures, causing subtle shifts in the play of light throughout the day.

According to Teeple, the “poetics” of architecture have changed. Today architects conceptualize a “building as a natural system.” The light, the shadows, the colours, the materials, the way the building absorbs heat and moves air – everything is part of an organic whole. Teeple’s building has been “imagined in terms of the earth environment.”

Edward Bader, The Beaver Hunters.

Edward Bader

In his artist’s statement, Edward Bader says that “Drawing is a tool of inquiry,” which he uses to explore ideas and convey his emotional responses to life. Although he paints, does film work, and teaches a range of subjects from drawing to new media at Grande Prairie Regional College, Bader finds that he continually comes back to drawing.

Bader’s drawings have an elegant simplicity reminiscent of Chinese brush paintings. Balancing large areas of white space against intricate brush or pen strokes, he embraces an aesthetic in which “the void is just as important as the marks on the paper.”

However, unlike Chinese brush paintings, Bader’s drawings tend to be site-specific in a way that I usually associate with installation art. He responds not only to the specific landscape around him, but also to the social and political aspects of place. For example in The Beaver Hunters, the sexual references – the hunters with their phallic guns, the beaver representing the female for reasons I need not explain – speak of the skewed demographic of northern Alberta where men, especially young men, have numbers and power disproportionate to the population as a whole. However, the piece is also intended to question the role of Canada (symbolized by the beaver) as a resource-based economy. Beavers, it is well known, destroy their own habitat. The Beaver Hunters suggests that in our current commitment to resource extraction, Canada may be exceeding ecological limits.

As in The Beaver Hunters, Bader’s “inquiry” sometimes morphs into satire, resulting in works which function much like oversized political cartoons. Yet the sheer mastery of his drawing keeps them solidly within the world of fine art.


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