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Reviews / February 9, 2016

The Mid-Life Creator & The Blur in Between

Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton January 23 to May 8, 2016

What does a busy, tired, 52-year-old poet with three teenagers, a mortgage, and as many adult years behind him as ahead of him, want from an art exhibition? Escape? Not really. An acknowledgement of life’s ceaseless complexity? Perhaps. A challenge to his value system or to his own artistic process? Possibly.

Feeling distinctly blurred and in-between myself, but with my senses open to all stimuli, I recently visited the Art Gallery of Alberta to experience the intriguingly titled “The Blur in Between.” Upon entering the space, I encountered a wall of bold red letters on which the show’s raison d’être appears:

The Blur in Between is an exhibition about the practices that occur without division of discipline between those historically demarcated as either art or design: the blurry areas between fields of contemporary art, architecture, industrial design, craft, digital art, fashion, publishing and typography.

Further on, the copy stresses the long-standing but also increasingly contemporary relationship between the “functional design in art-making” and the “conceptual design that questions both form and aesthetics.” Near the bottom of the wall, the reappearance of the exhibition title in black letters suggests both a playfulness and attention to detail that promised similar qualities as I turned the corner, curious but not knowing exactly what to expect.

And, really, how could the curatorial description prepare one to see a short Swiss video about the disappearing craft of traditional charcoal-making as a way to introduce and enhance the stunning charcoal and glass, and sycamore and shellac, sculptures designed by the Italian team of Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin of the Amsterdam-based Formafantasma? The surprising marriage between a vanishing breed of crafters and a contemporary design team whose work is characterized by “experimental materials investigations” and attention to issues of environmental degradation and the cultural significance of objects is as carefully presented as it is thought-provoking and aesthetically pleasing.

And when a young gallery guide informed me that the traditional method of charcoal-making has largely been banned because it produces alarming levels of CO2 emissions, I became even more intrigued by the graceful sculptures. Especially striking is the charcoal ladle inside a tall glass bowl and the charcoal hoodoo in a low glass bowl: the contrast of this stylish and fragile artistry with the images of gum-booted Swiss crafters tamping down with shovels a massive beehive of smoking charcoal dramatically highlights the exhibition’s whole purpose.

“The Blur in Between” is nothing if not varied and (mostly) surprising. The crafted Italian design leads into a series of 10 etching and aquatint prints by Vancouverite Michael Morris. These visually striking typographic concrete poems celebrate the relationship between art and language—yet there is a feeling of nostalgia hovering over the display (not surprising since the works were originally done in 1968) that seems out of keeping with the show’s initial impression of novelty. Indeed, this curious imbalance between the surprising and the predictable eventually comes to define the exhibit, as the functional craft elements are fresher and more inspired than most of the typographic and video elements.

For example, Brent Wadden’s massive Keystone XL Rag Rug #2, spread out in all its striped blue, black and white glory on the floor, starkly contrasts with the tired, overly academic video essay purportedly unveiling fresh ideas about love and labour in the digital age that monotones on in a room at the opposite end of the space. While Metahaven’s City Rising feels exactly like the sort of language/other-media collaboration that gave me migraines 30 years ago, Micah Lexier’s This One, That One at least possesses the virtue of a graphic playfulness that more comfortably embraces the exhibition’s spirit. A digital video in which a pair of hands, in a series of vignettes, rearranges a variety of items (cardboard cut-out shapes, a book, etc.) might sound like something you once watched on Sesame Street, but…well…there’s nothing wrong with what you once watched on Sesame Street, and Lexier’s demonstration of “a live process of graphic elements in formation” displays a whimsy and innocence much to be preferred over Metahaven’s pretensions to profound cultural analysis.

Happily, though, “The Blur in Between” occupies more of the playful and provocative territory than the incomprehensible and self-satisfied art-jargon-and-theory terrain. By the time I had passed the eye-catching lightbox installations of Toronto’s An Te Liu, I had mostly left my weighty mid-life baggage behind, which was appropriate, given that Liu’s sequence EROS/ID/EGO/SUPER is part of his ongoing reinvention of airport taxiway signs. As I followed the bright yellow and black EGO sign’s arrow to the rest of the show, my own ego was mostly subsumed by engagement.

Vancouverite Kathy Slade’s simple but unapologetically direct poster-edition riff on the Queen lyric “I Want It All I Want it Now,” which is basically a stack of offset prints on paper that resembles a giant book, cries out for each visitor to take the top poster. Several people did during my visit, and the diminishment of the work from an elephant folio to (eventually) a single broadside speaks clearly to the artist’s exploration of art’s “inherent matter-of-fact generosity” in relation to its commercial making and possessing.

The site-specific installation In the Minds of Others (Anonymous) by Maaike Anne Stevens and Maite Zabala Meruane firmly re-establishes the exhibition’s overall claim to celebrate the union of functionality and conceptuality. Three separate works—two free-standing and one attached to the wall—that combine wood, veneer, velvet, Plexiglas, ceramic, cast concrete, screenprint, and watercolour on paper essentially appear as unorthodox art-display units. And while the catalogue copy’s explanation that the installations “investigate the effect of global online communication through theoretical discourse and the enactment of a material dialogue investigating regional mediums and traditions” makes about as much sense to me as my 17-year-old’s video games, I nonetheless found the blend of functionality and conceptuality to be both stimulating and visually appealing.

A similar effect occurred when I came to the completely surprising and innovative Bottles Under the Influence, a series of hand-blown glass bottles, each one on a thin white pedestal under a single white lightbulb hanging from a long cord. An inspired collaboration between artists Julia Feyrer and Tamara Henderson and several glass artisans, the yellow, black and amber vitrines are actually the material products of dream-induced sketches provided by the artists to the artisans. Each wood-stoppered vitrine contains a liqueur designed to reflect its character, which is certainly engaging, but would undoubtedly be more so if a tasting was part of the experience. Nevertheless, the hybrid of dreams, alcohol and glass-making certainly brings home again the primary purpose of the exhibition, and it sent me back out into the world with a greater appreciation for the traditions of interdisciplinary artwork.

Overall, I came away from “The Blur in Between” feeling even more impressed than usual with the actual making involved in all the various disciplines, as opposed to conceptualizing and theorizing—approaches which, fairly or unfairly, often seem like substitutes for talent rather than urgent expressions of it.

Of course, as a poet, a makar (to use the Scottish word), I have always highly valued the articulation of lived experience in the material form of language; words, for me, are the dough I use to make the bread in that dark bakery most people never choose to visit.

But then, who among us is not a mixed-media installation, with our pasts in the material world and our presents and futures increasingly in virtual realms? To deny that there’s always been power and beauty in the blurred, between experience is, in essence, to deny the human condition.

So while I remain an admirer of craft and making over concept and theory, I can certainly appreciate how “The Blur in Between” provokes an ongoing and essential discussion amongst contemporary artists and audiences—particularly, perhaps, for those of us in mid-life who find ourselves, to quote Eric Burdon of the Animals, with “one foot on the platform, the other foot on the train.”

Tim Bowling is a novelist, poet and past Guggenheim Fellow based in Edmonton. His most recent book, Circa Nineteen Hundred and Grief, won the 2015 Canadian Authors Association Award for Best Poetry Collection, and he was also a juror for the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize.