Art explores the people, places, values and concepts that connect us over time

Art | Gregory Beatty | May 13, 2021

Wilf Perrault, Guiding Light, 2002, Photo: Don Hall

Community Watch
MacKenzie Art Gallery
Until May 2022

In the Zoom interview I did with two of Community Watch’s four curators, I didn’t think to ask if the title riffed in any way on the famous (and somewhat unsettling) crime prevention program Neighbourhood Watch. But the thought did occur to me later.

Community Watch is the second in a series of year-long exhibitions that take a deep dive into the gallery’s permanent collection. The curators are Timothy Long, Nicolle Nugent, Tak Pham and Janine Windolph, and if they did intend a Neighbourhood Watch reference it would add a bit of frisson to a show that already packs extra wallop because of the pandemic times we’re living in and the impact that’s had on our sense of community.

The timing is strictly coincidental, though, as planning was well underway before Covid-19 struck, says Long.

“We came together as curators and tossed around a few ideas,” says Long. “One that resonated was community, and how its definition continues to change. We were thinking of social media, and how that’s changed the way we relate to each other, but also about how artists look at community.

“Artists are great watchers of community, and that’s where we got the title.”

While the exhibition pre-dates Covid, the pandemic had an impact, Nugent says.

“It’s been amazing to look at some of the works that were pulled 18 months ago and relate them to what is going on in the world today,” she says. “That’s been really cool to think about — how pieces in our collection can constantly be in dialogue in a changing world.”

Long uses Caroline Dukes’ 1975 painting Interior #8 / Exit as one example.

“It’s set in a long-term care home,” says Long. “Everybody looks isolated, and the scene has almost a monotone colour palette so it’s a bleak look at life inside those facilities. Then Covid hit, and all of a sudden, a scene which had been on the margins of society was in the centre. That painting took on a whole other kind of urgency.”

Community: The Ins And Outs

“I’ve thought about community engagement a lot in that time, but I still can’t tell you how I would define ‘community,’” says Nugent, who’s worked as a MacKenzie educator for 18 years. “No matter how hard I’ve tried to dig down, it’s been elusive as it changes all the time.

“We had difficulty thinking it through because there are so many ways to understand community,” she says. “We talked a lot about exclusion, and who is excluded from an understanding of community. Because our collection has a strong local and provincial focus, some of those stories are Saskatchewan stories.”

For a starting point, the curators chose 1960 — so 60 years, which is a lot of ground to cover. The permanent collection constraint means the show is light on works exploring digital technology’s impact on community, as few have entered the collection.

Even with that gap, a lot has changed in the province in the last 60 years.

Yeah, I know it sometimes seems as if Saskatchewan is stuck in neutral — if not actively reversing. But think about it.  

One big change is a steady drift from rural to urban living — leading to the decline of smaller towns and villages and the growth of suburbs and urban sprawl. Indigenous people have been part of that transition, to the point they form a significant portion of Regina’s population, along with Saskatoon and Prince Albert and other cities.

LGBTQ+ people are in our communities, too. They were always there, of course, but with homophobic laws and attitudes (slowly) fading, they’re becoming more visible. Then there’s immigration from all corners of the world, which has made Saskatchewan more culturally diverse.

Society is also taking tentative steps to be more inclusive for disabled people.

That’s not to say that Community Watch will tick all those boxes, plus potentially many more. Rather, it’s just the socio-cultural context in which the show is taking place.

That context, plus each viewer’s past life experience, creates plenty of room for ambiguity, says Long.

Complexity And Ambiguity

The 2002 Wilf Perreault painting Guiding Light, which the gallery is using in its publicity, is a perfect example.

“It’s a great urban image of a back alley which has positive connotations for many people,” says Long. “The back alley was a space where you could play shinny as a kid, where neighbours would meet over their fences. But it’s also the urban trapline, so to speak. It’s where people go around looking for bottles and whatever else they can salvage. The image captures some of that ambiguity.”

Community is like that. It’s complex. And that makes it a perfect subject for art, says Nugent.

“I’m thinking of the conversation I had with Martha Cole for the artist video where we talked about her work Cygnus Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy, and the macro approach it takes to considering our connection to one another,” says Nugent. “We talked about the galaxy and spirituality, but Martha also talked about driving around in pick-up trucks and mourning the loss of grain elevators. It was cool to experience that layer of local community and the changes that have occurred in light of a work about this broader idea of a cosmic community.”

Nugent’s artist video is part of the support programming. The other curators did video interviews too: Long with David Thauberger, Pham with Jennifer Hamilton and Windolph with Michael Belmore.

A film program curated by Windolph is another highlight, says Nugent.

“It will run parallel to the show until the fall,” she says. “It’s a series of shorts that reflect experiences from Indigenous and other Canadian filmmakers, either before or during the pandemic, so the shifts and changes in our sense of community will be seen and felt through many cultural perspectives.”

Pham made a unique contribution to the curatorial team too, says Long. To begin with, he only recently moved to Regina from Ontario, so he brought an outsider’s perspective to a show with a strong Saskatchewan focus.

“Another thing Tak brought to this project was his interest in architecture and its impact on how communities interact — what it enables them to do, and what it prevents them from doing,” says Long. “He has a background in architectural history, so there is a focus on that in the show.”

About a third of the works in Community Watch will switch out this fall. The show will run until May 2022.

Nugent is curious to see how it evolves in that time.

“Over the next year, we can anticipate so many changes with the world and the way we gather, connect and live together,” she says. “I look forward to standing in front of these works and revisiting them.

“And the works that change out will give people a chance to come back and get a fresh perspective.”