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Established Winnipeg curator draws on years of collecting to craft evocative, fictional portraits

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/6/2015 (735 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The drive to collect, like the impulse to make art, suggests a certain degree of wishful thinking.

It's comforting to imagine the things we make and acquire might "live on," "speaking" for us after we've quit the scene, but can they? Like artworks, personal collections -- from shoeboxes crammed with tchotchkes and dog-eared letters to climate-controlled museum archives -- imply an intimacy that transcends time and absence, but they can only bring us so close.

Gilles Hébert's Momento Wall Station 15 -- Evening in Paris, 2015.

IMAGE COURTESY OF ASHLEY GILLANDERS

Gilles Hébert's Momento Wall Station 15 -- Evening in Paris, 2015.

IMAGE COURTESY OF ASHLEY GILLANDERS

The product of frequent moves and extensive travel, itinerant curator and serial Winnipegger Gilles Hébert's first solo exhibition in years opened at Actual Contemporary last week. Comprising meticulously and imaginatively arranged collections of found and purchased personal effects, PullFreight reflects a curator's eye for order and a literary concern for character development. It also betrays a sardonic self-awareness and a certain degree of personal vulnerability.

Hébert arranges snapshots and studio portraits, spectacles and costume jewelry, pocket knives, holy cards and other ephemera -- acquired here and there but notably in Cuba -- to loosely evoke 25 fictional but presumably deceased characters. We meet the aspiring actress, the ambivalent mother, the avuncular barber, the hollow-eyed hunter, the zealot, the closet case, the spy, and so on, each marvellously distinct while strongly reflecting Hébert's own sensibilities.

In the main gallery, 13 wall-mounted wooden boxes split the difference between shipping crates and votive offerings. Each character, portrait ensconced in a scalloped gold frame, is given form and substance by a sampling of "his" or "her" supposed possessions. Hébert's arrangements are layered, complex and highly specific, but the characters really coalesce in each viewer's individual interpretation. (I found myself returning to the would-be starlet's bowerbird-like nest of royal blue baubles, her glamour shots set against an anonymous prairie landscape, her Eiffel Tower figurine and cloying Evening in Paris perfume.)

Other characters "inhabit" more modest Cuban cigar boxes, which visitors can browse on request. It's a more immediate, active and possibly more rewarding way to engage with Hébert's fictions -- the wall works, for all their careful staging, don't always fully hold their own as sculptures.

Abruptly cutting through the wistful atmosphere, a side room houses a tongue-in-cheek but fully operational souvenir shop hawking branded fridge magnets, ashtrays, coasters, novelty catalogues and faux wooden matchbooks. The setup is as clever (and convincing) as it is crass, an impertinent reminder that even "personal" collections are subject to commercial and institutional mediation.

To "pull freight," in 1950s train-yard slang, was to "take off," "check out," or die, and PullFreight's oldest work highlights an unease around mortality and legacy that permeates Hébert's entire project. Shot in the '90s in the style of a 1920s silent film, the newly digitized and edited video stars Walter Lewyc -- a longtime fixture of the Winnipeg visual arts community and a friend of Hébert's -- as a toga-clad Orpheus pursued by someone or something that we never see. A digital echo of a fictional artifact, the video takes on new connotations in light of Lewyc's death in 2006, and it casts new, if faltering, light on the rest of the exhibition.

The exhibition invites us to consider what we'll leave behind and what -- or rather who -- others will make of it. With its archival density and openness to interpretation, I can imagine PullFreight gaining further depth and nuance over repeat visits.


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

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