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Free Press: Thorny dilemmas

June 16, 2016 — 

A Steven Cochrane, a sessional instructor in the School of Art, writes in the Winnipeg Free Press:


I didn’t think to ask why the School of Art’s graduating MFA candidates called their joint thesis exhibitions Grasp the Nettle, but I have a pretty good idea. The two years of intense focus, outside scrutiny and self-doubt can certainly feel like self-inflicted torture. By the end, though, it’s less painful and more productive if you just knuckle down, get a grip and yank the thing out by the roots.

Judging by the quality of this year’s exhibitions, that’s exactly what these four emerging artists have done.

Shaun de Rooy tackles eternal, academic questions: what is art, and what’s the use of it? (The usual answers are that art is whatever an artist decides to call “art” and that it has no set “function” — each viewer decides for herself what she’s going to do with it.) In response, de Rooy has built a fleet of fantastically complex crank- and lever-operated “apparatuses” that complete certain tasks: semi-abstract conveyor belts, hoppers, choppers and the like. The work explicitly but imaginatively channels Marcel Duchamp, who took everyday objects (a urinal, a chocolate grinder, a bicycle wheel) and asked viewers to ignore their function, viewing them instead as sculpture. Turning Duchamp’s so-called “Readymades” on their heads, de Rooy laboriously constructs engaging, fully operational but ultimately “useless” artworks.

Phoenix Thomas shows personal identity to be a different and decidedly dysfunctional kind of construction. A self-described “half-native who appears Caucasian,” he lays out the uncertainties and equivocations of dual heritage, racist expectation and art-making in messy, improvisational agglomerations that combine abstract painting, found objects, raw materials, colonial-kitsch souvenirs and items reflecting indigenous knowledge and history. The wall works are surrounded and overwritten with pencil-scrawled confessions, notes-to-self and fragments of personal narrative that spill across the walls and onto the gallery floor. He admits, “I don’t know how to spell Ojibwa. I don’t know how to spell Ojibwe…” “Ojibway,” “Ojibwá, etc.,” …and I’m sorry.”

Grace Han likewise examines identity and cultural exchange in a masterful installation combining functional and sculptural ceramics. Her work admixes and updates techniques and concerns drawn from traditional Korean and western pottery. Two imposing towers of slip-splattered, hand-built vessels form a Gate, which opens on a Path of modular honeycomb tiles and wheel-thrown cups and bottles, ending finally atScholar’s Dignity, a beautifully cluttered, high-relief stoneware cupboard overflowing with weightless-looking ceramic books and vases.

Gwen Freeman’s exhibition title asks, provocatively, Who’s Afraid of Female Pleasure? (The answer: nearly every society in recorded history, apparently.) Her salon-style installation of sumptuous, saturated and ambiguously erotic photomontages and videos incite and confound the viewer’s gaze. If, as in some feminist art theory, male desire is visual and acquisitive, women’s intimate and tactile, Freeman’s work embodies and subverts both sides of the equation. Expectant, amorous figures double up and dissolve amid overlapping imagery, bubbling burned-film textures and chemical spills like a ’60s lightshow. There’s no clear sense of up and down, top or bottom. The works produce enthralling, ambivalent and — yes — frightening forms of pleasure.

The works are as ambitious and accomplished as they are diverse. Grasp the Nettle closes at University of Manitoba’s School of Art Gallery June 24.



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