In his text introducing The Undesirables, the exhibition of new sculpture currently at Graffiti Gallery, School of Art professor Gordon Reeve praises the work as "raw, unpredictable and untainted by editing." I was standing on the second-storey catwalk that skirts the main exhibition space as I read this, acutely aware of Rex reading over my shoulder.
"Rex" is a four-metre-tall dinosaur.
Built by Josh Roach from assorted building materials and actual garbage, the massive sculpture looks like a Grade 3 science project that got left in the rain and then brought to scale (if not to life) in some kind of nuclear mishap. While this was presumably the desired effect, in that moment I couldn't help but wonder if a little "editing" is necessarily such a bad thing.
Curated by artist Sarah Anne Johnson and Border Crossings magazine editor-in-chief Meeka Walsh, The Undesirables showcases ambitious, large-scale sculptural works produced for the exhibition by five recent U of M graduates. Their efforts were underwritten by real estate financier and arts patron Michael Nesbitt, with some artists receiving additional support from the Winnipeg Arts Council. The goal was to ease constraints on funding, resources and physical space that can hobble the efforts of artists in the early stages of their careers, allowing a rare chance to see their unchecked (and unedited) ambitions fully realized.
The resulting works are monumental without exception, densely built, and defiantly unrefined. Salvaged wood, spray-foam and dumpster finds are the materials of choice, and the work's chaotic, ramshackle construction emphasizes its handmade character. The artists' uninhibited, even playful approach to material masks an underlying concern with emotional trauma that unites the works, a surprising number of which (at least four out of five) come across as disillusioned reflections on the loss of childhood innocence.
Sherrie Rennie's Child's Play is an untrustworthy-looking hot-air balloon that deflates and re-inflates theatrically based on audience participation. In Tamara Weller's Hamza, the title character, a young boy, peers into a rickety religious structure at a scale model depicting armed conflict in the hills of the West Bank.
Laura Magnusson imagines her grandmother's nursing-home bedroom as a rotted-out and capsized ship half-embedded in the shoreline of Lake Winnipeg, and there's Rex, of course, sweetly naive and aggressively ugly.
Ben Bonner, for his part, makes a notable departure in tone and tack: his towering cloudghoultrillghost, an exhibition highlight, is a slickly crafted, candy-coloured mishmash of natural, supernatural and cartoon elements that suggests a Hieronymus Bosch painting reimagined as a high-end Japanese designer toy.
When I revisited the show a few days after opening night, there were paint-spattered card tables set up among the sculptures, a reminder of Graffiti Gallery's primary commitment, providing art classes to North End youths. In a way, they also hinted at The Undesirables' most significant accomplishment. The gallery works to expand horizons for kids who get the message all too often, from all too many sources, that they should limit their expectations. More than "refinement" or "clarity," and like the venue itself, this exhibition is concerned with helping emerging artists explore and expand the range of what is (or seems) possible.
That's important, and there's always time to edit later.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based emerging artist, writer, and educator from Tampa, Fla.
Ben Bonner, Laura Magnusson, Sherrie Rennie, Josh Roach, and Tamara Weller: The Undesirables
Graffiti Gallery, 109 Higgins Ave.
óè To Dec, 15