Monthly Archives: April 2011

Dynamic Landscape

“…it’s hard times for polar bears…”

-Scarlett Hooft Graafland

Marshall McLuhan’s interpretation of the Gestalt concept of figure and ground is shown through four vividly distinct and culturally diverse examples in the CONTACT Primary Exhibition: Dynamic Landscape, which opens tomorrow, April 29, in the main space of the gallery. As I mentioned in my last article, the theme for this year’s CONTACT festival was inspired by comparing the insidious visions of environmental devastation in Burtynsky’s Oil, to McLuhan’s vision of the “figure” as the car, and the “ground” as the abundant yet often forgotten accessories to car culture.

While the “grounds” in the pieces in Dynamic Landscape all differ geographical and contextually, they are all intrinsically defined by their human inhabitants- visible or not. Curated by CONTACT Artistic Director Bonnie Rubenstein, the show is comprised of four international artists: Olga Chagaoutdinova, Scarlette Hooft Graafland, Viviane Sassen, and Dayanita Singh.

Olga Chagaoutdinova, Living Corner, Cuban Pictures, 2009, Courtesy of the Artist, Galerie Trois Points, Montreal, and Patrick Mikhail Gallery, Ottawa

Olga Chagaoutdinova gives us richly coloured, over-inhabited interiors in the contrasting climates of Cuba and Russia. The moods of the Cuban interiors are familiar to anyone accustomed Polidori’s Havana series. Peeling paint, repurposed materials and missing tiles are repeating motifs in these sometimes near-decrepit living spaces. Even tiny spaces are filled with plants that call to the heat of open-doors. The warm blues and greens from the Cuban interiors are repeated in the decorative motifs of natural landscapes within the Russian spaces. In Chair at the Beach in the Bedroom, a traditionally upholstered chair sits in front of a photographic wall mural of a tropical beach scene.

Olga Chagaoutdinova, Chair at the beach in the bedroom, Russian Picture, 2006, Courtesy of the Artist, Galerie Trois Points, Montreal, and Patrick Mikhail Gallery, Ottawa

Viviane Sassen takes us across the globe into an unfamiliar vision of Africa. Parceled glimpses of deep earthy browns are contrasted by ultra-synthetic technicolours and starched whites. Gestural dramatizations evoking pieta flood the figures in her photos with emotion, which would have otherwise been starved due to their hidden faces.

Viviane Sassen, Belladonna, 2010, Courtesy of Motive Gallery, Amsterdam and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg

Dayanita Singh’s series Dream Villa, takes us to a village in India. While the skies are dark, aggressive pools of artificial light pierce the warmth of the night-time imagery with cold reflecting hues. The stark lights seem an alien presence that conjure feelings of disquietude.

Dayanita Singh, Dream Villa 25, 2007, 2008, Courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

Dutch artist Scarlett Hooft Graafland portrays images of our own true North. An avid traveler, Hooft Graafland was attracted to the idea of visiting the Canadian north from slides shown in class by a high-school teacher who had spent time working there. On her own journey, she spent four months in Igloolik, Nunavut living with local families to immerse her understanding beyond that of the outsider who understands that the people and their lands are in danger. The themes of environmental degradation and cultural extinction appear in stunning portrayals of the northern landscape. At times, Hooft Graafland steers away from the over-politicization of her work by adding absurdist elements of humour.

Sitting amidst the stark blue and white landscape, the artist is draped with the hide of a polar bear. Reminiscent of Marcus Coates shamanic escapades dressed in deer-hide, the message behind the image is impossible to ignore, but the humour adds a palatable lightness.

Scarlett Hooft Graafland, Lemonade Igloo, 2007, Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery, London

In Lemonade Igloo, a lone figure leans agains a rusty toned Igloo. The artist explains that she wanted to construct an Igloo out of a commercially popular drink to underline the generation divide and the gradual loss of cultural traditions. The deep reddish hue of the Igloo seemed appropriately reminiscent of blood, especially as it is hung on the same wall as a gruesome portrait of a palm tree composed of entrails.

Dynamic Landscape is one of the six Primary Exhibitions for this year’s CONTACT festival. It’s always a good party at MOCCA, so don’t miss the opening tomorrow between 7-10. The show runs until June 5 alongside Fred Herzog’s photos of Vancouver in the 1950’s-1960’s, organized by the National Gallery of Canada and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art.

Scarlett Hooft Graafland will be speaking about her work this Sunday, May 1, between 12-1 at MOCCA, followed by insights into her photographic and video works offered by Olga Chagaoutdinova between 1-2 pm.

AGO Artspeak

If you missed your chance to hear me ramble about art and artists at last month’s AGO Artspeak Series due to the sudden onslaught of grey skies and cold rain, feel free to listen to the free podcast here

Contact 2011: Figure and Ground

As the five rows of black fold out chairs became occupied with familiar and unfamiliar faces, and the space surrounding them gradually filled with lanky tripods supporting cameras from the numerous media sponsors, the breadth of this year’s CONTACT Photography festival started to become excitingly apparent.  In its fifteenth year, the festival has grown to become the largest photography festival in the world.

Fred Herzog, Robson Street, 1957, Courtesy of Equinox Gallery, Vancouver and Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, Ottawa

This year it will feature an impressive 6 Primary Exhibitions, 14 Public Installations and 44 Featured Exhibitions, as well as 159 Open Exhibitions displaying the work of more than 1,000 artists in venues across the city. The month-long event is also an opportunity for career development for budding photographers through educational programs including: Magnum Photos Workshop, the week-long shooting intensive held at Ryerson University, the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Portfolio Reviews. Held at the Gladstone Hotel on May 1 and May 2, the reviews offer artists and photographers a chance to meet and critique with established professionals.

Photographers participating in the festival this year also have the chance to win $5,000 through the newly established BMW exhibition Prize, as well as $50,000 through Scotiabank’s Photography Award- also new this year. The three Canadian artists short-listed for this year’s prize include Roy Arden from Vancouver, Lynne Cohen from Montreal, and Toronto’s own Robin Collyer. Aside from the cash prize, the winner will also receive a curated exhibition at next year’s festival and a book deal with Steidl. (For some interesting background information on Steidl, check out How to Make a Book with Steidl, on at the Tiff Bell Lightbox this Friday as a part of Hot Docs).

The theme for this year’s show, Figure and Ground, evolved around discussion of the Marshall McLuhan inspired theme from last year, Pervasive Influence. After one of the most anticipated highlights of this year’s festival was secured, Edward Burtynsky: Oil,  Bonnie Rubenstein (CONTACT Artist Director) and Darcy Killeen (CONTACT Executive Director) began to discuss conceptual similarities between the human devastation on our environment shown so powerfully by Burtynsky, and McLuhan’s revisioning of the Gestalt idea of figure and ground through examination of the car as “figure” and the “ground” as the supporting structures and industries, such as the highways and the auto-industry at large.

Within the Gestalt theory, the “ground” could be said to be taken for granted, it is the unnoticed surrounding space which is influenced by the more active “figure.”  Within this ideology, Burtynsky’s photograph’s of the almost unnoticed (or at least often ignored) mass devastation caused by our unstoppable consumption of petroleum is framed with startling eloquence.

Edward Burtynsky, Oxford Tire Pile #8, Westley, California, USA, 1999, photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier, Toronto

Stay tuned for regular reviews and recommendations of shows and events within the CONTACT festival for the month of May.