Why do we want stuff? Do we want stuff? Let’s talk stuff.

ART by Gregory Beatty

photo by Darrol Hofmeister

Neutral Ground
Until Dec. 12

I don’t know if this Elizabeth Matheson-curated exhibition featuring work by seven international artists was deliberately timed to run during the build-up to Christmas, but it’s entirely appropriate that it does.

That’s because, as the title Wanted hints at, it critiques a central ritual of the season: consumption, and the whole idea of market-driven desire.

Outside of a couple of works, the show doesn’t do it in an especially flashy way. The critique is more of an understated one. But reinforced by the seasonal excesses we’re about to be exposed to, it’s effective nonetheless.

Artists typically have an ambivalent attitude toward consumption anyway. To begin with, most aren’t well paid, so they’re not exactly shopaholics. Yes, fueled by the excesses of 1% capitalism, the contemporary art market has exploded in recent years. If you’re one of the anointed, you can make multi-millions and join the one per cent yourself.

But for the remaining 99 per cent, commercial success usually proves elusive, and they have to rely on “real’ jobs to support themselves. Because most artists live relatively modestly, they’re less likely to get caught up in all the frenzy of consumer culture. That, in turn, gives them the distance they need to critique it.

Sour grapes, the philistines would probably say. And maybe it is. But many artists, as progressive thinkers, lean toward the environmentally aware end of the social responsibility spectrum, and aren’t fans of the massive damage we’re doing to the environment as we relentlessly ramp up our lifestyles to meet the media-fueled ideal of what constitutes “the good life.”

Still, at the end of the day, artists are in the business of producing objects to be bought and displayed — be it by a museum, private collector, or civic agency. And in doing so, they often pursue aesthetic strategies designed to make their “product” appear desirable.

For my money (pun intended), Darren Lago’s contribution to Wanted is the highlight. Hailing from the U.K., he’s produced six wall-mounted sculptures made out of what looks like sugared jelly candy. The sculptures are actually composed of tinted resin and glass. But if you’re partial to that type of treat, the sculptures literally look good enough to eat.

Kiwi, lemon lime and sour apple are some of the flavours Lago uses in his titles. The overall series is called Candy Colts. That’s because the “candies” are shaped like life-size Colt revolvers and other handguns.

They still look yummy. But the gun reference does shift our focus to how violence is glamorized in our society, and how the presence of otherwise problematic objects can be normalized by replicating them as child-friendly toys or treats such as candied cigarettes or guns.

Kevin McKenzie’s Ghost and God is pretty spectacular too. Sequestered in a darkened side room, it consists of a Christian-style acrylic cross illuminated by a circular tube of pinkish-white neon. Installed at the crux of the cross is a bison skull made of cast polyurethane.

Ghost and God can be read on many different levels. Regina-born, McKenzie is of Cree/Métis ancestry. If you’re familiar with plains First Nations history, you’ll know that until they were wiped out in the early days of European colonization in the 1870-80s, the buffalo was a huge part of the First Nations economy.

Vast herds roamed the prairies, and harvested animals helped indigenous people meet their daily needs for food, clothing, shelter, tools and even fuel (courtesy buffalo chips). When the herds were hunted to extinction to pave the way for colonization (spawning a thriving side industry in fertilizer made from the bones), First Nations lost their economic independence and were coerced into signing treaties to receive food rations.

Then there’s the religious angle to consider. Through missionary work and residential schools, Christian churches played a major role in colonization. Bison hold spiritual significance for indigenous people, so McKenzie’s placement of a replica skull against a Christian cross (à la a crucified Christ) is plenty provocative.

I’m running out of space, so here’s a brief rundown on the rest of the show. Marla Hlady’s contribution, Mixer, consists of three stainless steel cocktail shakers. Pick them up and tilt them like you’re mixing a cocktail, and you’re treated to audio excerpts from different sources that expand your perception of the objects beyond simple tools for consuming alcohol.

Manuela Ribadeneira presents a wall-mounted sculpture of cut aluminum inscribing the Spanish phrase Tienes Miedo? which translates as Are You Afraid? For me, that evokes thoughts of a common marketing strategy where advertisers prey on our fears and insecurities to soften us up for their commercial message.

Both Jack Anderson and John Noestheden riff on the role of conspicuous consumption in bourgeois society — the former through prints of an ornate chandelier that one might find in a mansion, the latter through a drawing using silver crystals that recalls both the cosmically grand (a star field) and depressingly mundane (costume jewellery).

Finally, New Zealand-born Brett Graham, who is of dual Maori and European descent, presents four shields adorned with geometric designs. Historically, Maori weaponry apparently included a puapua or disc of protective padding, but these shields are made of an industrial plastic called corian that DuPont manufacturers to make countertops. So while they do allude to traditional Maori culture, they also reference the mass production of goods in our modern industrial society.