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Sobey Art Award 2011: Excitement, and an Exhibition

From left: 2011 Sobey Art Award emcee Adam Gopnik; artist Charles Stankievech; artist Sarah Anne Johnson; artist Manon de Pauw; artist Zeke Moores; artist Daniel Young; artist Christian Giroux; and Sobey Art Foundation director Rob Sobey / photo Stev

With the longlist for the 2011 Sobey Art Award released in mid-April and the shortlist of five finalists—Sarah Anne Johnson, Charles Stankievech, Manon de Pauw, Zeke Moores, and duo Christian Giroux and Daniel Young—coming little more than a month later, it’s hardly a stretch to say that momentum was slowly building towards last week’s gala announcement of the Sobey winner at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. There are logistical explanations behind this somewhat lengthy pause and, being the country’s most significant award for contemporary artists under 40, it never hurts to encourage a little speculation (and grumbling, no doubt) as to who should have taken home this year’s $50,000 first prize.

Yet none among the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd hustled into the AGNS on the evening of October 13 might have guessed how quickly the Sobey’s extended period of calculated suspense would turn to uncalculated anxiety. The names of this year’s winners—Toronto artists Christian Giroux and Daniel Young—had been (inadvertently) leaked via the Internet and social media from an embargoed press release sent to media outlets earlier in the day. “A tempest in a teapot,” one might say, and aside from a slightly rushed presentation, the fact seemed to make little difference to the nominees or the crowd—the envelope was opened, Giroux and Young offered gracious, exuberant thanks, and everyone set their sights on the party ahead. Still, the leak was a nice (if unintentional) touch of last-minute intrigue that made the Sobey announcement that much more worth the wait.

As always with the Sobey Award, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will walk away with bragging rights and the big payday (runners-up receive a smaller prize of $5,000 each), and this year was no exception. Drilled down by the five-member curatorial jury—made up this year of Bruce Johnson, Gaëtane Verna, Marnie Fleming, Ryan Doherty and Mary Bradshaw—from that initial longlist of 25 artists, the award really is a snapshot of the best in Canadian contemporary art. Downstairs from the gala event space, an ongoing exhibition of works by all of this year’s finalists offers solid proof not only of the exceptional diversity of art practices across the country, but also of the deep critical (and sometimes emotional) engagement found therein.

Perhaps fittingly, Giroux and Young’s geometric array Mr. Smith dominates the exhibition’s main room. The pair is well known for sculptures and film works that tap into the skeletal remains of modernist aesthetics, often striking an uneasy balance between past, present and future. Drawing intermittently from the utopian mechanics of R. Buckminster Fuller and Alexander Graham Bell, the “spatial matrix” derived by American sculptor Tony Smith, and perhaps even the free-form play of Tinker Toys, Mr. Smith is a work about the infinite potential of space and structure. In an adjacent room, the duo’s Every Building, or Site, that a Building Permit was Issued for a New Building in Toronto in 2006 offers a fascinating serial take on the urban fabric in flux with a 14-minute film of 107 new building developments in varying states of completion across the Greater Toronto Area.

These formal and ideological concerns gather an emotional, and often existential, charge in works by Winnipeg’s Sarah Anne Johnson and Montreal’s Manon de Pauw. In her delicately rendered Arctic Wonderland photo series, Johnson transforms void-like arctic expanses into a trenchant, highly personalized vision of dangerous beauty and development’s threat to untouched nature. That emotive material play continues in De Pauw’s installation of videos and photograms, where ephemeral geometries of light and movement merge and overlap in a push and pull between abstraction and figuration, presence and absence.

A near-perfect curatorial bridge between the works of Giroux and Young, Johnson and De Pauw comes by way of Dawson City– and Berlin-based artist Charles Stankievech’s installation LOVELAND (also currently on view in Montreal as part of the Quebec Triennial). With conceptual ties to a monumental 1968 abstraction by American painter Jules Olitski and an obscure 1901 science-fiction dystopia titled The Purple Cloud, the work weaves an immersive narrative centred on a large-scale video projection depicting an ominous cloud of purple smoke drifting across a barren arctic landscape; the cloud moves slowly toward, and then rushes past, the viewer with visceral affect. Shot on the Bering Sea—a site of increasing international contention over massive oil reserves—LOVELAND draws meaningful if cautionary connections between environmental extremes and complex fantasies.

Walking out of the Stankievech installation puts viewers smack in front of Newfoundland-born, Ontario-based artist Zeke Moores‘ to-scale, fabricated-steel version of a porta-potty. At a glance, it’s a work, among others by Moores in the exhibition, straight out of the NSCAD tradition of sculptural simulacrums—a perspective-bending turn on the positioning and privileging of ordinary materials and forms. And it’s an admirably wry and bold move for Moores to present a toilet in the middle of the Sobey exhibition (at the media preview, AGNS director Ray Cronin was quick to point out that until a few weeks earlier, a real porta-potty was sitting in front of the gallery’s main entrance as part of ongoing construction). Perhaps I was still caught in the heady, sci-fi blur of Stankievech’s LOVELAND, but standing in front of Moores’ Port-o-Potty it was hard not to think of the dimension-travelling Tardis phone booth from Dr. Who. That’s probably far from an intentional link, but at that moment, and even though it was after the fact, Moores got my vote.

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