Canadian Art


Sobey Award Recap: Best of the Best

Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax Sep 5 to Nov 22 2009
David Altmejd  <I>The Settler</I>  2005  Courtesy David Altmejd and Andrea Rosen Gallery  © David Altmejd  /  photo Steve Farmer
David Altmejd The Settler 2005 Courtesy David Altmejd and Andrea Rosen Gallery © David Altmejd / photo Steve Farmer

David Altmejd The Settler 2005 Courtesy David Altmejd and Andrea Rosen Gallery © David Altmejd / photo Steve Farmer

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Last week in Halifax, New York–based, Montreal-born artist David Altmejd walked away from a gala affair at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia as the winner of the 2009 Sobey Art Award. Since its inception in 2002, the Sobey has been Canada’s top prize for contemporary art, with works by a shortlist of five regional artists, all under the age of 40, undergoing the scrutiny of a panel of leading national curators. Being nominated for the Sobey carries a definite prestige but the award also, as the saying goes, “puts its money where its mouth is,” mounting a feature exhibition at the AGNS of new and recent works by all of the shortlisted artists and doling out a total of $70,000 in prize monies—$50,000 to the winner and $5,000 to each of the regional finalists. Past winners include Tim Lee, Michel de Broin, Annie Pootoogook, Jean-Pierre Gauthier and Brian Jungen.

Winners and prize monies aside, the Sobey prize shake down, with its initial longlist of 25 regional semi-finalists eventually pared down to the top five, is an important opportunity to take stock of the state of contemporary art-making across the country. Past results have been interesting if arguably uneven, but this year's Sobey finalists truly represent the cream of the Canadian contemporary art crop—Luanne Martineau (West Coast and Yukon), Marcel Dzama (Prairies and the North), Shary Boyle (Ontario), Altmejd (Quebec) and Graeme Patterson (Atlantic). The award’s curatorial panel of Liz Wylie, Kitty Scott, Ivan Jurakic, Louise Déry and Terry Graff deserve credit for that and it explains why, as the official press release reports, some “spirited discussion” ensued among the curators around the final selection.

After gaining national recognition in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a member of Winnipeg’s Royal Art Lodge collective, Dzama has gone on to become internationally known for his own whimsically drawn and darkly edged multimedia fantasies. Altmejd’s shattered-crystal sculptures of natural and supernatural forms have an equally A-list reputation and were a critical hit at the Canada Pavilion during the 2007 Venice Biennale. Both artists work out of New York and are established figures on the international exhibition circuit, with blue-chip gallery representation on both sides of the Atlantic.

Boyle is another rising star whose finely rendered ceramic sculptures and collaborative projection-music performances have garnered a wide following both inside and outside of Canada. Martineau’s monumentally scaled and socially satirical textile sculptures and drawings are slated for a major exhibition in 2010 at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, a venue highlight that has been a proven career-launching point for many Canadian artists. And Patterson’s scaled-down multimedia reconstructions of wrestling grudge matches, famous hockey games and art collectors have made him the most recent darling of the Canadian art scene.

All things considered, it’s hard not to see the strength of this year’s Sobey award, which resonates not only nationally but internationally, as a watershed moment for contemporary Canadian art.

This article was first published online on October 22, 2009.


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