Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Strange bedfellows

Exhibition looks at how Winnipeg's climate and isolation bring us together; the results can be kinda hot... or deeply chilling

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Like the instalments preceding it, the third exhibition in Plug In ICA's kaleidoscopically dense, four-part My Winnipeg project, Winter Kept Us Warm, pairs significant installations and distinct bodies of work by individual artists with curated selections featuring literally dozens of contributors to address aspects of life in the city and of its singular contemporary art scene.

It's a format that allows for an impressive degree of both breadth and depth, one or the other of which is frequently lacking in supposedly "definitive" surveys like My Winnipeg.

"Friction" seems to be the overarching theme of this chapter, the political, psychological, and sexual contact and conflict that keeps things simmering (or seething) just beneath the city's frozen exterior. "Friction" of the -- ahem -- physical, interpersonal variety is perhaps the best represented of these, with concerns and imagery of sex and sexuality bubbling up throughout.

The seamiest section is the one curated by artist and filmmaker Noam Gonick, which lends the exhibition its title. Secreted away in the smallest, rearmost gallery, its walls painted a luminous bordello-red, is a collection of small works by more than 30 artists, all with regional ties, who take both explicit and allegorical approaches to the themes of winter, warmth and sex.

Selected works include Melanie Rocan's voyeuristic watercolour miniatures, Paul Robles's delicate papercuts made from the pages of pornographic magazines, a contact sheet of Larry Glawson and Doug Melnyk's more intimate snapshots, and Kevin B.C. Stafford's charming ceramic figurines engaged in Erotic Encounters of the Third Kind.

Pieces like Krisjanis Katkins-Gorsline's screen-prints of seemingly unconcerned figures engulfed in flames and Karel Funk's tightly rendered portrait of a parka-clad man seen from behind draw out connections to the winter landscape, while the inclusion of works by a number of noted feminist artists -- restrained but sensual abstractions by Sharron Zenith Corne; a video of Sharon Alward's infamous 1990 performance Totentanz, in which five gallons of blood and semen notably featured; and Phyllis Green's comically bizarre, crocheted Boob Tree from 1975, among others -- adds a welcome measure of historical and political depth.

Guy Maddin and Kent Monkman explore not-unrelated themes in their respective large-scale installations. Most of Gallery 1 is taken up by a collection of cubicles -- hybrid peep-show and confessional booths -- screening Maddin's 2003 film, Cowards Bend the Knee, a lurid film-noir fever dream combining personal and local mythology, psychological trauma, and outré sexuality (just like all his other movies). Monkman's Two Kindred Spirits presents a life-size pair of dioramas that reimagine two fictional cowboy-and-Indian duos, the American Lone Ranger and Tonto and the German Old Shatterhand and Winnetou. The piece weaves together threads of colonialism, ethnic representation, art history and homoeroticism with the artist's characteristic sardonic humour.

Amidst the persistent debauchery, Jeff Funnell's Notes from the Inquest, a body of work documenting the investigation into the 1988 shooting death of Cree community leader J.J. Harper at the hands of Winnipeg police constable Robert Cross, is a distinct outlier. Tables are spread with Funnell's heavily annotated drawings, made at the time of inquest and recalling courtroom sketches; a slow-motion video lurches through a staged re-creation of the shooting, and the full text of the inquiry's findings is available for study.

While Notes from the Inquest isn't the only work to tackle serious issues, it marks an abrupt change of tone in the exhibition, as well it probably should. Though the work might seem like a strange inclusion initially, Winter Kept Us Warm is above all about the way Winnipeg's climate, geographic isolation and culture makes for strange bedfellows. The resulting "frictions" can be pleasurable or tragic, sustaining or catastrophic.

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

Art Review

My Winnipeg: Winter Kept Us Warm

Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art

1-460 Portage Ave.

To Jan. 20, 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 20, 2012 C17

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About Steven Leyden Cochrane

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

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