Reviews

Biomythography: Keith Harder and Julian Forrest

Biomythography-Exhibit-Julian-Forrest-Keith-Harder-FAB-Gallery-from-Oct-2-to-27-1-768x497 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/

Reviews

Film City

While updating my Bullet Journal, I realized that I had taken notes about three film screenings that I haven’t posted about!

Edmonton has had several different film festivals, but the current big one is the Edmonton International Film Festival, which takes place in late September. (EIFF recently became an Oscar-qualifying event: the winners of the short and live film categories at EIFF are now eligible to apply to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to have their films considered for an Oscar award.)

I made it to a couple of screenings at this year’s EIFF. Not only that, but the week before the festival, I had attended another film premiere. At the end of September, Festival City was looking a lot like Film City.

Necessary Evil

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Banner for Necessary Evil (2018).

I’ll start with the project that I’ve been following the longest, Necessary Evil, directed by Chris Donaldson and written by its lead actor, Randy Brososky. I first met Randy back when I was co-hosting an arts and culture show on CJSR radio. Randy was one of our guests, promoting a comedy theatre show. Fast forward a “few” years, and Randy was working in a new medium: he was making a webseries.

Randy and his team campaigned for TELUS Storyhive funding, which is determined by a public vote, so the project always had a prominent place in my Facebook timeline. The premise of  Necessary Evil resonated with anyone who has worked in an office from Hell: in Necessary Evil, the office is actually Hell. The project succeeded in securing Storyhive funding based on the quality of the work and the popularity of the premise via online voting. It also has a great tag line: “If Joss Whedon combined Supernatural with The Office“. I’m biased, but I thought the pilot was fun. Randy plays Azmodeus, a seemingly average demon working a dead-end bureaucratic job in Hell. Bullied by his co-workers, he is emboldened to stand up to his supervisor, which earns him a call to visit the head office—that is, Lucifer’s office. Prepared for the worst, he discovers that Lucifer has abandoned Hell, and left it to Azmodeus to run. There are a lot of great jokes about working in Hell, and a few fresh surprises, such as Persephone (played by Kimberly Philpott), the angelic worker who has been seconded from Heaven. She’s very helpful to Asmodeus in his new role as boss, but there is a complication: he’s sweet on her. The office is populated by various other demons, including Aaron Talbot’s comically meek Xaphan, and Mark Meer’s ingeniously efficient Mephistopheles, who barely breaks a sweat when bargaining for a human’s soul. He tells Azmodeus, “The amount of effort required to enable humans to be terrible to each other is remarkably small.”

It was wonderful to see the show on the big screen, in a real cinema, with so many of the people involved in the production and success of the show. Randy’s team wants to make more episodes, so check out the the Necessary Evil website here: http://www.necessaryevilseries.com/

 

Until First Light

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Still from Until First Light (2018).

To back up about a week before EIFF, I was at another independent film premiere, this time at the Garneau Theatre, which is programmed by the Metro Cinema film society.

The film was Until First Light, written and directed by Kyle Armstrong. The movie is about a city man who must wind down the family farm after his brother, who operated it, committed suicide. It’s an atmospheric film that’s focused on the surviving brother’s emotional response. I was reminded of the subjective lens and non-linear narrative of Terance Malik’s Tree of Life. In the question-and-answer session after the screening, Armstrong noted that there was a lot of improv and that the film evolved as they worked in it: “It revealed itself,” he said.

Armstrong likes to work with non-actors, including the film’s star, Darren Frank, who had never acted before. My friend Blair Brennan, a visual artist, was cast in a small role as a neighbouring farmer. Going to the premiere with Blair and his family, and other friends who were supporting their friends, was a blast.

Although I turned to congratulate Blair after his scene, I don’t think I was distracted from the film’s main point, which was the hardship of dealing with major losses: of a loved one, of a family home, of a legacy business, of a way of life.

One of the topics that came up in the Q&A afterwards was funding. I didn’t fully realize how ironic this was until I began to write this post. Funding is a huge issue in both the arts and in agriculture. Family farm revenue is from selling crops and other products, but there are also subsidies and other modes of funding, which are constantly being debated, tweaked, enacted, or repealed. A couple of weeks after seeing this film, which includes footage of a dairy farm,  the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was renegotiated and re-branded, unpoetically, as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). One of the major concessions made by Canada was to allow U.S. vendors more access to the Canadian dairy market. Dairy prices are expected to drop. It was the kind of decision that might have made it easier for the protagonist of Until First Light to make a decision about the fate of the farm.

You can read more about Until First Light here: https://untilfirstlight.com/

 

ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch

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Potash mining in Russia, from ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch (2018).

Exactly one week after seeing Until First Light, I saw ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch at the Edmonton International Film Festival. This, too, was a film that revealed itself. Filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky, and Nicholas de Pencier were not in attendance, but explained in an end-credit note that they had worked without a script.  They essentially pointed a camera and let the world reveal a story to them. (Editing and narration came later.) Their philosophy is that the visual is visceral.

Before this screening, I’d only seen their first film, Manufactured Landscapes, which primarily focuses on Burtynsky’s work as a large-format photographer of the largest human endeavours: quarries, mines, dams, and factories among them. ANTHROPOCENE picks up on the terraforming theme. As explained in the voiceover by actor Alicia Vikander, the Anthropocene is the current era, in which the biggest geological changes are made by humans.

This film is beautiful and terrifying, like many of Burtynsky’s best-known images. In a segment which bookends the film, Kenyan activists against elephant poaching arrange to burn stocks of illegal tusks that were confiscated by the authorities. They wanted to publically show that there is no market for elephant ivory, so they piled 10,000 elephant tusks into structures that resembled huts and set them afire. Watching the fire burn, I cheered the anti-poaching actions, but became sombre as it dawned on me that these 10,000 husks represented 5,000 senselessly murdered elephants.

During the course of the movie, we visit several huge projects, including:

  •  Nigeria’s Olusosun landfill, the largest garbage dump in Africa, where there are 1,000 homes and at least as many people who scavenge the site for a living;
  • a massive marble quarry in Italy, where a handful of workers use machines to extract in less than a day what 1960s workers would have taken 15 or 20 days to extract (in a clever bit of wordless commentary, the film shows the fate of all that newly machine-quarried marble by cutting to a workshop where sculptors make hundreds of hand-crafted reproductions of Michaelangelo’s “David”); and
  • the world’s largest potash mine in Russia, where massive boring equipment leaves psychedelic patterns in the rock.

Baichwal, Burtynsky, and de Pencier work on the philosophy that seeing is believing. However, while some of the scenarios were given full explanations during the course of the film, others were not. For example, one of the most stunning sequences shows massive excavators on unfamiliar terrain, with mist all around. It looks like something out of one of the Alien movies. We are told that the machines are being used to turn farmland into some other industrial use. One of the locals tells us that four towns have been destroyed for this expansion. But expansion of what? Why was it allowed to happen? How did people feel about having their entire town moved? I would have liked to know more.

As stunning visual after stunning visual is presented, segments are shorter and aren’t really followed through as much as, say, the Italian marble story. By the time we got to the time-lapse scene where coral dies before our eyes in a process called coral bleaching, I felt overwhelmed and distressed. I had the impression that the filmmakers did not want audiences to leave the film feeling that way. They gave Vikander some reassuring lines to deliver in her Oscar-award winning, plummy tones. She said that we still have time to turn this all around. However, because the film had not given us enough to go on, the words sounded sincere, but untrustable.

I wrote this post a few days after the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report estimating that we have 12 years to make changes to get the effects of climate change to a manageable level. The panel gave some actionable items, and I was reminded recently that humans got together managed to correct the damage to the ozone layer. This type of information is valuable as follow-up to ANTHROPOCENE.

ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch also has an accompanying book and photographic exhibit (at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada): https://theanthropocene.org/film/

 

Follow-up Festival

There are opportunities to see all of these projects, like a virtual festival.

Reviews

Art and the City

 

I recently had the pleasure of reading N. K. Jemisin short story, “The Great City Born”. In her world, cities go through a life cycle. Some cities may gestate for a very long time without being born, but when a city is ready to be birthed, it chooses an avatar, a kind of midwife. The avatar is a human being who can hear the city breathing and feel what the city feels. The person eventually becomes the city in a kind of multiple state of being that is well-conveyed by Jemisin’s poetic fiction.

The story was fascinating, and especially appealed to me as a fan of the WildStorm comic The Authority (created by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch, and elaborated upon by subsequent creative teams). The Authority was a group of unlikely superheroes led by Jenny Sparks, the human embodiment of “the spirit of the 20th century”, and is probably most famous for including the gay couple Apollo and Midnighter, who were analogues of Superman and Batman. One of the other team members, Jack Hawksmoor, had the ability to talk to cities, but it was not a natural superpower, nor was it one that he agreed to acquiring. As a child, Jack was weaponized by 70th century humans who subjected him to painful body modifications that gave him the ability to fight a future monster by harnessing cities’ power. Jack–whose namesake is the English Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor–could communicate with cities, but they remained separate entities.

Jack Hawksmoor was built infrastructure, a human-engineered city utility meant to work with other human-engineered city utilities. In Jemisin’s world, cities and humans live  symbiotically in a natural ecosystem: humans build cities that contain humans; cities choose which humans can contain cities.

I like the way cities are presented in both works. They are technological and biological, engineered and natural. Cities are the work of humans and they work with humans. Cities and humans shape each other.

This is the type of work I want to explore in this blog. I’m  interested in the relationship between art and cities: how art portrays the city; how cities affect the making, presentation, and perception of art; and experiencing art and my city. Arts City is in its infancy. I’m looking forward to see what happens as we grow together.

“The City Born Great” is collected in Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Tor.com Short Fiction. It can also be read online at Tor.com or via Kindle.

Jack Hawksmoor starred in his own mini-series, Secret History of The Authority: Jack Hawksmoor, by writer Mike Costa and artist Fiona Staples. Here’s an interview I did with Fiona before Saga and soon after the Hawksmoor series wrapped up in 2009.