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Making a day of it

Group exhibition draws together far-flung network of Prairie artists

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With Labour Day behind us, it pains me to report that summer-road-trip season is officially over. But even if it's back to school and busy fall work schedules for some of us, there's still time to squeeze in one last inter-provincial outing courtesy of the University of Manitoba's School of Art Gallery.

For five years starting in 2007, independent curator and arts writer Amy Fung (then based in Edmonton) crisscrossed the Prairie provinces, connecting with artists and reviewing exhibitions for her Prairie Artsters blog. The wide-ranging exhibition They Made a Day Be a Day Here is the product of those travels and connections. Showcasing 12 Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta-based artists, all women, the show serves as both an insightful scene report and a subjective mental map of recent art in Western Canada.

Macklin-born abstract painter Agnes Martin (1912-2004) is among Saskatchewan's best-known artistic exports, and many of the artists featured suggest parallels between her obsessively rendered, graph-paper grids and the charged monotonies of daily life, labour and love. Jennifer Bowes weaves hundreds of her own diary pages and love letters into a porous honeycomb of origami boxes that conceals more than it shares. In a similar spirit, Mary-Anne McTrowe encodes Fifty Songs About Love (Love Will Keep Us Together, Love Will Tear Us Apart) into poignantly unplayable crocheted piano rolls.

To create Whisper, Maria Madacky coated a panoramic grid of acrylic panels with an atmospheric haze of textured gel medium, echoing both minimal painting and privacy glass. Known for her surprising transformations of everyday materials from Slurpee cups to sprinkles, Jennifer Stillwell fashions lengths of climbing rope into an angled cascade of frayed blue, red and white fibres. In an exhibition highlight, painter Tammi Campbell relocates a flat-file full of works-in-progress -- greyscale value wheels and vacant mandalas of masking tape -- from her Saskatoon studio, inviting us into the midst of her own fastidious practice.

You make your own fun on the Prairies, and it's hardly surprising that featureless geography and punishing winters might inspire some artists to spin a few fantastical yarns. In a trio of cinematic, warm-hued photographs, Amalie Atkins summons a spooky, roller-skating phalanx of retro-uniformed, pigtailed young women. Sarah Anne Johnson's sumptuously overpainted photos blur the line between inward and outward vision -- a glittering mushroom cloud rises from a desolate clearing, and a quavering mandala hovers over an informal (and vaguely sinister) outdoor conclave. Heather Benning draws from family history, crafting an armoire-sized sculpted altarpiece that illustrates a grisly (and dubiously factual) tale of murder and retribution.

The show takes broad aim, and not everything hits its target: Brenda Drainey's own "unfinished" paintings based on snapshots fail to inspire confidence, and Wednesday Lupypciw's Portlandia-aping meta-mockumentary, ostensibly about the 1975 founding of an Alberta weavers' guild, falls disappointingly flat.

For her part, Fung gives a written account of her meetings with each artist, but these tend to offer more name-dropping than actual substance. Still, with so many artists represented there's ample room for compelling patterns to emerge, while the work's diversity all but ensures there's something to suit all tastes.

Up since June and running through October, They Made a Day helps kick off a month-long whirlwind of events celebrating the 30th anniversary of Mentoring Artists for Women's Art. While the gallery is normally only open during weekday business hours, a closing reception is scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 5, following the annual Wendy Wersch Memorial Lecture at 2 p.m. The lecture delivered at U of M ARTLab by recently announced Plug In co-director Sheila Spence on the topic Possibility: Art, Community and Changing the World.

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2014 C15

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