Two shows tackle artifact–to-art transubstantiations

by Gregory Beatty

From What Remains - photo by Darrol Hofmeister

art-2The Harder Softer Side
Until Nov. 26
From What Remains
Until Nov. 13

In the consumer electronics world, Sept. 19 was a much-hyped day. That’s when Apple released the iPhone 6. First weekend sales, Apple reported, topped 10 million units, which was one million more than for iPhone 5 when it debuted in September 2012.

While all that retail excitement was going on I bussed to the Dunlop’s Sherwood Village Gallery to see Saskatchewan sculptor Jasmine Reimer’s exhibition The Harder Softer Side. Then after supper, I went to an artist talk and reception for From What Remains­ at the main Dunlop Gallery. It features a mix of installation, sculpture and video by Jason de Haan (Calgary), Kerri Reid (B.C.) and Kara Uzelman (Nokomis).

Although not directly linked like this summer’s two-gallery exhibition Tragedy Plus Time, there were major connections between the two shows. And they served, for me anyway, as a neat counterpoint to the consumer frenzy over iPhone 6.

I saw The Harder Softer Side first, so I’ll start with it. When you walk into the gallery, it’s like you’re at a garage sale. In five spots on the floor and two on the wall, objects such as an old wooden step ladder, grocery pull cart, plastic milk crate, crumpled water cooler jug and three ironing boards, are bunched together.

Actually, they’re more than just bunched. In most instances, they’ve been fused by Reimer into sculptural configurations using Apoxie putty — a malleable goop that you can manipulate like putty, and which subsequently hardens into a rigid adhesive coating.

I don’t want to overplay the Duchamp card, but the sculptures do evoke thoughts of his early 20th century readymades where the French artist took mass-market consumer goods such as a snow shovel, coat rack, perfume bottle and, most famously, a urinal, modified them in different ways, and then displayed them as fine art.

Like Duchamp, Reimer is pushing the ‘What is art?” button with viewers. And she does so with a similar degree of wit (the step ladder, for instance, is paint-splattered — kind of like a Jackson Pollock action painting when you think about it) and delight in subverting each object’s utilitarian function.

Just as Duchamp mounted a bicycle wheel upside-down on a stool, rendering both essentially useless, Reimer has placed a big metal pot atop her step ladder — thereby limiting the scope of its function. In another work, she’s mounted a metal step stool on an overturned roaster so that the stool’s four legs don’t reach the floor. Step on it to perform a chore of some sort, and you risk a face-plant.

One final comment on Reimer’s show. Take the title into consideration when you’re looking at the sculptures as they do mix concepts of hard and soft — not only in a material sense, but also with symbolic associations tied to male/female, outdoor/indoor and workplace/home.

Found objects figure prominently in From What Remains too. Most (but not all) are of the consumer variety too. It’s certainly fertile ground for inquiry. Aside from sheer utilitarian value, the goods we purchase and use have all sorts of potential significance. Depending on the extent to which we embrace consumer capitalism, they can connote gender, sexuality, status, tribal affiliation (as in sports gear or band t-shirts) and other facets of our identity.

But as I noted, not every found object in From What Remains is manufactured. Kerri Reid, for instance, has two works featuring stones that she’s collected while visiting various places including Vancouver, California, Banff and Iceland.

Once collected, she’s replicated them in stoneware. In Souvenirs, she has both the original and copy on display, and I defy anyone to distinguish which is which in the glass display cases. In a successor project Souvenirs Returned, Reid has started to replace the stones in their natural settings. She then photographs them and displays the photos with the ceramic copies.

Kara Uzelman has some rocks in her installation too, and a tree trunk section, but most of her found objects are manufactured. In some instances, as Reimer did, Uzelman alters their functionality — mainly by wrapping or covering them. By doing so, she strips away surface signifiers like those discussed above (gender, sexuality, etc) to reveal the object’s core essence. There’s a bit of trompe l’oeil too, especially with the tree trunk, which is partially wrapped in a chunk of carpet with a tree bark-like pattern.

Taken as a whole, the objects Uzelman presents in her three installations are meant to reference research she’s done into a period in the 1950s and ’60s when a group of Saskatchewan doctors and academics pioneered the use of LSD as a psychiatric agent. It’s not a well-known story, and certainly worth exploring, but for me the links between the objects and the history she’s referencing were pretty opaque.

Conceptualism is a big part of Jason de Haan’s work too. In Free and Easy Wanderer (Yellow River), for instance, he’s set out to use moisture to erode a brachiopod fossil and disperse its molecules into the gallery, where viewers will inhale them into their lungs — thus creating a chemical bridge between us and a life-form from Earth’s distant prehistory.

The set-up, which consists of an upside-down water bottle attached to a mini-humidifier, with the fossil enshrouded in mist next to it, looks legit — although why de Haan chose to mount his contraption on a concrete plinth I’m not sure. So I’ll take him at his word that that’s what’s happening.

Although in the seven weeks the show’s up I don’t know how much the fossil will actually erode. I guess we’ll see.