Last Friday I attended the book launch of BLIZZARD: emerging northern artists at grunt gallery, which was the first time I have attended a catalogue launch. As grunt is such a small space and I arrived at the event just after 6 pm, I didn’t stay for long but was able to meet the exhibition’s curator, Tania Willard as well as artist Skeena Reece, both of whom are indigenous women I greatly admire. Their sons played beneath Cal Lane’s Gutter Snipes I, a sculptural work constructed from a quarter section of a sewer pipe that intersects the gallery wall and floor and is carved with ornate figures and designs (this exhibition ended on Saturday). It was an intimate affair without much ceremony, which gave me the opportunity to meet and chat with some of the fine folks at grunt. I purchased the catalogue (apologies for the poor quality of my images) and was on my way to dinner within thirty minutes.
After having the weekend to look over the publication, a number of things come to mind. First and foremost is the publication’s release date seven months after the closing of the exhibition (it ran from July 5 to August 3, 2012). There are any number of factors that may have contributed to this and speculating as to the reasons would be a fruitless task. That being said, however, the late release date does strike me as less than desirable, considering its modest scale of forty-some pages.
The catalogue contains all the necessary parts: a forward by writer and curator Candace Hopkins, Willard’s curatorial essay, artist plates and biographies. Hopkins’ forward provides an introduction to the exhibition by way of her experience of the exhibition after it had been installed, which is admittedly not how one often encounters an exhibition text. It is my feeling, however, that the exhibition would have benefited more being accompanied by the catalogue rather than as an afterthought. Even if it wasn’t an afterthought in the curatorial process, it becomes one when released so far after the exhibition has occurred.
Willard acted as designer, editor and writer for the catalogue, which was produced (in some part) with funds raised through an indiegogo campaign, which may offer somewhat of an explanation for the release date. The catalogue unfortunately suffers from a number of grammatical errors, including inconsistencies in the information on the artist plates (primarily in missing dimensions) to missing punctuation and spelling. These are small errors but they nevertheless interrupt the transmission of the text with its significant message about contemporary art by artists from the north.
Criticisms aside, I found the publication to be an important contribution to the history of art from the north. Willard points to this significant aspect of the exhibition in her text, in that Inuit art (the art historical categorization of art from the north) is rarely encountered outside of a commercial gallery or museum context. Its relatively short existence as an art market (which has developed over the past sixty years), coupled with the paternalistic attitude of the south toward the north has kept such artists’ work from being considered in contemporary contexts. This serves to further uphold outdated and often racist assumptions about “traditional” practices and notions of cultural “authenticity” – with Canada’s Igloo tag or Alaska’s Silver Hand program serving as markers of “native-ness” to prospective buyers. Willard succinctly describes the contradictions inherent in this development, stating “In the rapid onset of christianizing and colonization taking place in the Artic many ‘traditional’ ways of life, arts and Inuit languages were actively suppressed by church and state, yet it was the representations of these traditions which captured the attention of art audiences” (12). Willard argues that the interest in such representations of culture allowed artists from the north some degree of creative independence but it is clear that these habituated ways of seeing are still very much with us today.
The artists in BLIZZARD work to disrupt these conventions. Jamasie Pitseolak’s soapstone sculptures are perhaps the best example of this, as soapstone carvings are almost exclusively found in museum and commercial galleries along with high-end tourist shops. Pitseolak’s sculptures, which he pieces together rather than carving from one block of stone, are humorous charming but not in the paternalistic sense of laughing at an Other – they rather make the viewer laugh at themselves through the use of visual puns. In Chicken Nuggets (2011), for instance, a small stone chicken peers down at a number of pyrite stones, which are gold in colour. By making the English words literal through sculptural form, Pitseolak makes the language strange for the viewer. Willard describes this as a cultural translation, wherein “we, as viewers, end up laughing at ourselves and are compelled to examine our own cultural perceptions” (15).
Many of Pitseolak’s sculptures seem to refer to his personal life, from childhood memories of his grandfather (Grandpa’s Corner, 2006) to his experience in a day school and the abuses he suffered there, which may not be immediately recognized and is not discussed in the catalogue. Lady (2011), a heavy high-heeled shoe decorated with a somewhat comical flower suddenly accrues much darker meaning than what one would expect to find in a soapstone carving. This may refer us back to Willard’s above quote about the expectations for Inuit art that Pitseolak’s work is in tense relation with. Both the oppressive nature of colonization and the creative independence gained by Inuit artists are evident here.
In Hopkins’ text she discusses the works in the exhibition as being loosely organized around – or using strategically – both intimacy and distance, which characterizes Pitseolak’s works on many levels. His sculptures draw the viewer in closer with their small scale while encouraging them to reexamine their larger cultural assumptions. Similarly, in Tanya Lukin Linklater’s smudged prints of her nose covered in red lipstick placed before a sterile white tile wall with a neon sign above that reads (in the artist’s handwriting) “eskimo kissing booth,” the viewer simultaneously occupies positions of intimacy and distance (Eskimo Kissing Booth, 2012). Distance as a voyeur of the human displays the installation references (as took place historically in numerous world fairs) while offering an intimate gift for the visitor to carry with them from the gallery (Hopkins describes the cultural practice of “puvipsuk, where friends and family members press their lips and noses together in a form of greeting and affection.” (4)).
There is much more to explore in the catalogue’s two texts but I will conclude by saying that the works presented within in constitute a significant contribution to the history of art from the north as they scrutinize stereotypical assumptions of the place, its peoples and their art. These works belong squarely within contemporary discourse and hopefully this exhibition will encourage more curators to include such work outside of the confines of false categorizations of the north.
** Derek Aqqiaruq’s documentary about the Inuk rock/metal band Northern Haze, which was screened in the back room at grunt during the exhibition and book launch, can be watched in its entirety here.