June 29, 2017

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Three artists explore form, function and ideas of gender in group show

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/3/2015 (833 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Tools, which opened earlier this month at Gurevich Fine Art, is a packed, playful exhibition showcasing impressive workmanship and inventive use of materials.

You could also view it as a challenge to pervasive gender stereotypes, but I wouldn't.

Marc Courtemanche's Precious Arrangement 3.

Marc Courtemanche's Precious Arrangement 3.

Kyle Herranen's Untitled (yellow).

Kyle Herranen's Untitled (yellow).

Clint Neufeld's Satin Myford Lathe.

Clint Neufeld's Satin Myford Lathe.

In the exhibition text, artist Kyle Herranen explains that "while the pieces themselves are hyper-masculine, they are beautiful objects with feminine qualities." Cool story, bro, but reiterating tired stereotypes is not the same as "challenging" them. It also presupposes that we need male artists to provide male perspectives on gender, as if these were suddenly in short supply.

Clint Neufeld and Marc Courtemanche both make convincing ceramic replicas of tools and industrial equipment, while Herranen contributes brightly coloured wooden reliefs and layered resin panels. All three artists unquestionably make "beautiful objects," but strong-arming them into a reductive and frankly irritating conversation about masculinity doesn't do them many favours. We can, I think, appreciate the skilful execution and surprising contrasts between rugged subject matter and fragile materials, functionality and decoration, without reaffirming schoolyard notions of "hyper-masculine" and "feminine qualities."

A Saskatchewan-based ceramic artist, Neufeld uses slip (watered-down clay) to cast delicate and minutely detailed copies of heavy machinery and engine parts. Along with pretty stamped embellishments and floral decals, the sculptures receive confectionary coatings of gloss and satin glazes. Set out on wooden shipping crates that double as plinths, Neufeld's Slightly Purple Slush Box (a car thing, apparently) takes the form of an industrial wedding cake, while his lathe and valve grinder each become Victorian-styled curios. The material transformation and timeless, utilitarian elegance of the original objects are equally striking (the design of Neufeld's Myford lathe, for instance, hasn't changed in 60 years).

Effecting a similar transformation, Courtemanche crafts handmade ceramic duplicates of hand-held carpentry tools, which he hangs from nails set in ceramic scraps of wood. With rich hues that mimic the patina of age and floral motifs blossoming on every awl and hammer handle, the works are both more intimate and sentimental. With sweetly evocative titles like Precious Arrangement, Heritage and Mini Memories, they speak to how, with time and tradition, even humble implements can become cherished heirlooms.

Herranen offers several related groups of slick, wall-oriented work. Splashy abstractions made with stripes of exotic wood veneer, photographs, layers of translucent acrylic and crystal-clear resin would be at home in a well-appointed reception area; his four Leatherman photographs add the iconic multi-tool to the mix. In the most compelling series -- The Hand Saw that Made the Frame, The Drill that Made the Frame, The Plane... The Spokeshave... etc. -- brightly coloured plywood cutouts of tools blend seamlessly into the picture frames they were used to build, which in turn become the focus of the work itself. They're hard to describe, but the idea is clever and well-executed.

All three artists transform sturdy, functional tools into fundamentally "useless" (if attractive) art objects, each with distinctive and thought-provoking results. Unfortunately, the work is framed in a way that insistently and uncritically associates "femininity" with beauty and fragility, "masculinity" with strength and usefulness. Women, like artworks, are there to be admired, but men get the job done. Please.

Those misgivings aside, the show is definitely worth a visit. Taken on their individual merits, the works are interesting, impressively crafted and nice to look at -- there's no need to be a tool about it.


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

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