A couple of weeks ago, I attend the opening reception for Biomythology, a visual art show at the FAB Gallery at the University of Alberta. FAB openings are great, by the way. They’re free, there’s food, and the artists are often in attendance because the gallery most often shows work from current students and faculty members.
The featured artists in Biomythography are Keith Harder and Julian Forrest, both Fine Arts professors at the University of Alberta’s Augustana campus. Both presented fascinating work.
Keith Harder: ILL Winds and Anamnesis
FAB Gallery describes Harder’s work thusly: “In Keith Harder’s interconnected series, ILL Winds and Anamnesis, he examines the breakdown of materials and paints metaphorical images that speak to trauma and resilience.” Harder’s work is on the first floor of the gallery, which means that it occupies five or six (depending on how you’re counting) exhibition bays. There isn’t really a proscribed order to the show, but as I walked through the spaces, I felt the show had a strong narrative, as if each bay were a page of a comic, and each painting a panel.
Admittedly, I started with the corner immediately after the hors d’oeurves table. In my defense, this was also the corner where you could watch a video of how Harder salvaged old World War II planes and turned them into art. I actually went back to FAB Gallery yesterday to watch the video in full, and with the headphones. The video is actually a seven-minute short film called Gravitas, by Harder in collaboration with director Christopher Markowsky. Gravitas is the name of a work of land art that Harder has made. He landscaped the outline of 12 planes, some filled with surviving parts, arranging them in a circle like a clock. In the video, Harder talks about how these pieces act as memento mori, of the type found in vanitas paintings that contained reminders of mortality. The work obviously could not be moved, so it is represented on the walls of FAB by an aerial photo.
Harder’s studies and paintings inspired by these plane carcases appear to have formed the basis of a group of paintings and large-scale sketches in the adjacent bay and smaller, photorealistic paintings near the gallery entrance. The central bay of the gallery is triangular; each of its three walls is adorned with a massive painting of a storm, the type through which one could easily imagine the warcraft flying. In the corner of this triangular bay is a video showing how Harder painted one of them, ILL Winds: West (2016). What looks from a distance to be a “simple” monochromatic painting is actually the result of several layers of paints, washes, and finely detailed painting technique. If you view the other work in the exhibit as Harder using art breaking down material visually, then this was a display of how Harder used painting material to build up a visual.
Julian Forrest: False Dilemma
Upstairs at FAB Gallery was a show of paintings by Julian Forrest, collectively called False Dilemma. Here’s FAB’s short description of the show: “Julian Forrest’s series, False Dilemma, examines instances of personal and historical migration and conquest, and ponders the loss of masculine archetypes.”
At the opening, a mutual friend introduced me to Forrest, who was gracious enough to chat with me about his work for a few minutes. I thought I had recognized some of the figures in his paintings. Forrest said he has used historical photos in the past, but decided to hire actors for this series. He said he had a narrative in mind, but let the actors play. The actors’ energy and personas really come across in the paintings, especially in Torshlusspank (or, The Death of Kurtz), which featured Edmonton actors Chris Bullough, Troy O’Donnell, and Michael Peng at its centre. Several of these paintings could have been set during the heyday of vaudeville, when Edmonton experienced an economic boom and blossomed into a cosmopolitan.
This suggested past contrasted with the mood of a diptych, Fugue State #1 and Fugue State #2, which shows mirror images of a man sitting in the wreckage of what might have been his home (perhaps the victim of a tornado), being approached by an older man in a bear suit, as if life could be any more surreal for the distraught man. It’s a complicated moment, both private and public, worthy of Shakespeare.
Compare and Contrast
I really appreciate thoughtful pairings of artists and work in shows like this, which present a yin and yang of a subject.
Harder depicted the past with monumental, dark hues, emphasizing things, such as weather and warcraft. Forrest painted people with sketch-like gestures, almost as if he had torn pages out of (a fairly giant) plein air watercolour sketchbook. With these paintings, Harder immortalizes pieces of public history; Forrest brings moments of private history to life.
Both series were beautiful, grand, and thought-provoking. Biomythography is at FAB Gallery at the University of Alberta campus until October 27, 2018.
FAB Gallery: https://www.ualberta.ca/art-design/fab-gallery
Keith Harder: http://www.keithharder.com/
Julian Forrest: https://julianforrest.com/