Curated by Carmen Robertson, writer and scholar of art history and indigenous people, Anxieties is a mix of sculpture, painting and photography by established and emerging contemporary Saskatchewan artists from both indigenous and settler backgrounds: Lionel Peyachew, Kevin McKenzie, Audrey Dreaver, Sylvia Ziemann and Sarah Ferguson. Anxiety is certainly a timely theme for discussion in these unsettled days where photo- shop, fake news, and alternate facts threaten to erode the foundations of rational argument. What is more real, tangible physical evidence or powerful sensorial affect? Is seeing believing, or is feeling believing? In this exhibition, Robertson explores what artists bring to the complex matter of discerning truth using the tools of the Prairie Gothic aesthetic. In Western culture, the Gothic traces back to the paradigm shift from religion to science. It provides for a subjective, poetic understanding of self, in resistance to pure empirical rationalism.1
Exemplary of the Prairie Gothic, Sylvia Ziemann’s work forms a magical, but dark world. In her doll-sized neighbourhood the houses invite us to peek in through lit windows; some are animated with tiny videos. The detail in her work adds plausibility to what we see. Tiny dramas loop like endless CNN news stories, hinting at serial killers, post-partum murder, and acts of domestic terrorism. Statistics show rates of violence are falling each year in Canada; in the headlines, bad things happen relentlessly. Ziemann’s work gives form to the amorphous dread we feel each time we hear of tragedy. For me, her work also warns of what the world could become if we allow the dark to overwhelm us.
Sarah Ferguson’s black and white photographs of a nude model in the landscape reference the history of photography. Ferguson stages her own body in scenes that are surreal, reminiscent of a b-movie or a terrible dream. In Sucker she lies tangled in a net on the banks of a creek, grotesquely masked: a discarded victim, or an inverse mermaid. Her curvy flesh is very real, but the image presents a body that is rarely published, neither idealized nor erotic. The difference between the body we know and the retouched body we see in the media has become profound, a discordance that Ferguson finds grotesque.
Métis artist Kevin McKenzie is a master of assemblage, often mixing Western and Indigenous symbolism in his sculpture. In Dead Apostle an acrylic cross lies glowing on top of a buffalo skull which is laid to rest in a coffin lined with branches. Votives fashioned from the tail-lights of a Cadillac glow red on either side, creating an hermeneutic shrine. As we commemorate Canada’s 150th anniversary, we will need to reflect on our colonial history, re-examine old symbols and stories, and lay them to rest.
Audrey Dreaver grew up in Prince Albert; her family comes from the Mistawasis and Ahtahkakoop Cree Nations, multi-generational survivors of residential school. Dreaver’s painting, Dark without Black is based on an archival photograph Native children praying to statue of the Blessed Virgin newly arrived from France.2 The photo records some of what First Nations students endured in residential schools. Dreaver’s painting is not a reproduction of this image, but a retelling of events, incorporating personal stories. Her composition ellipses the sides and the top half of the original photograph, to focus on the children kneeling before a packing crate labelled “statues”. The girls wear braids pinned up; the boys’ hair has been cut short, and their genders are further delineated in pink and blue uniforms. These colours are a fictionalization standing in for the families who were separated by the residential school system; they stand for the emotional truth at the root of Dreaver’s anxiety. Loss of language, loss of parents, loss of community.
Scaled up to human size and poised to snap, Lionel Peyachew’s enormous wooden mouse-trap is at first, quite funny. It lures us closer with an iconic, red-and-white striped bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, a fast-food guilty pleasure.3 Standing next to the trap’s coiled spring and feeling the dangerous temptation to touch, one can read that the red, mouse-eared “V”ictor logo on the trap has been tweaked to spell “V”ictim. By titling this sculpture Contagion Peyachew draws a sinister connection between poverty, disempowerment and trauma.
In these works meaning is read through the juncture of materials and reference. We come to understanding through relational evidence: truth based on circumstance, context and plurality. These works defy absolute, empirical translation. Though science, with its reliance on tangible evidence has given us the tools to parse out the mechanisms of the world and build material comfort, it is clear that more than ever, we need narratives to create and transmit meaning. Artists build fairy tales and images that can carry warnings, inspire hope, and sow compassion.
Curator: Carmen L. Robertson
Art Gallery of Regina
December 7, 2016—February 2, 2017
(1) Ross Melanson , on the work of Heather Benning gets to the heart of Prairie Gothic: “… Gothic thinking challenges all forms of classicism, which deny any authority to subjective human experience in order to accomplish an objective, conceptual and rational basis for truth or self- understanding. In contrast, Gothic thinking takes a more subjective, poetic and narrative approach that often uses heroic, cataclysmic, magical and mythic narratives that can only be accessed through the suspension of disbelief.” From Melanson’s essay, “A Prairie Gothic: Let Our Fields Be Broader, But Our Nights So Much Darker” Moose Jaw Art Gallery, 2016.
(2) “Holy Angels Boarding School, Fort Chipewyan, AB/June 1931” Prov. Archives of Alberta OB.735, published in The Face Pullers. Photographs of Native-Canadians 1871-1939, by Brock V. Silversides (Fifth House Ltd., 1994) (page 135)
(3) The white and red striped bucket of fast-food fried chicken is fraught with cultural references. In America, it is connected to racist portrayals of black people. First seen in D.W. Griffith’s film, “Birth of a Nation” which cemented the idea of blacks eating fried chicken with their fingers as a sign of low-class, compulsive greed. Along with watermelons, the KFC stereotype has been promoted by racists for over a century in various degrading forms. Despite this, fried chicken remains a popular meal. In “Sunday Morning comin’ down” songwriter Kris Kristofferson uses the smell of chicken, battered and frying in oil to evoke the domestic comforts he has lost through alcoholism. In Canada, Drew Hayden Taylor cites KFC as part of indigenous humour, citing the Whitehorse based comedians Sharon Shorty and Jackie Bear, who tell jokes as Sarah and Susie, two elderly aunties who love bingo and Kentucky Fried Chicken. [“Me Funny”, Drew Hayden Taylor, 2006 (page 26)]