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Art explores sense of belonging

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IN a country made up of people from every corner of the globe, the question of our national identity is one that has long occupied the Canadian imagination. Margaret Atwood might have expressed it best when she wrote: "If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia."

In simpler terms, Atwood suggests that, as a nation, we seem to be almost constantly fretting about who are we, why we can't get along, and what it means to be us.

This confused national identity might come from the notion that we should all belong somewhere and to something, that we should have some shared cultural values, something that ties us to the place we live and to the people with whom we share it.

At Outworks Gallery, recent University of Manitoba grad Miriam Rudolph is presenting work that investigates these ideas of identity, place and the experience of being an immigrant in a country full of them. Made up of nearly two dozen paintings and prints, it's an impressively large body of work that she's created mostly in the last year, her thesis year in the fine arts program.

Done in a deliberately child-like style that recalls the work of untrained folk artists, Rudolph's work documents her travels and movements before and after she came to settle in Winnipeg. Despite its apparent simplicity, she packs each work with details that indicate a whole range of events, emotions, and cultural difference and similarities.

In her two Travel Journal paintings, for example (from B.C. and Chicago), she layers the work, with its basic tones of blue, so that the sky is at the top, with a strip of mountains or skyscrapers underneath, followed by a strip of lake, river, road, a city sidewalk with buskers and pedestrians, and so on.

In My Winnipeg, Rudolph looks at her new city, and highlights some of the important locations for her. Typical of the folk-art style, things don't quite work in terms of perspective or scale, and yet we're given symbols that help us understand the geography of her city clearly. West Broadway is instantly recognizable, for example, as are other downtown neighbourhoods.

The Golden Boy and Legislative Building also show up here, and in her giant three-panel work that sits on the gallery floor. Titled Winnipeg, Highway 75 and Fields in Southern Manitoba, the three works give a bird's-eye view of the diverse landscape of this part of the province. And more than that, they give a sense of the artist developing an attachment to this place.

In the Winnipeg work, the city slowly gives way to the countryside of Highway 75. There, we see stately old churches, the Red River and the fertile farmland that continues into Fields in Southern Manitoba.

In other works, an interesting mix of cultures happens. In Hibernation, for example, a young woman (perhaps the artist herself) lies dreaming about the Winnipeg winter, wrapped in a blanket that's decorated in the same style as the travel-journal paintings.

In this case, though, the blanket's rows of symbols recall the marketplaces of her South American works. These recurring motifs tie the whole exhibit together, help narrate the artist's experience with movement, travel and a search for identity.

Rudolph's show gives us the dazed and bewildered feeling of someone looking for a place to call home, and in that sense, is quintessentially Canadian. Her rich, detailed prints and paintings explore those same questions that generations of newcomers to this country have pondered, about how someone starts to belong to a place.

In exploring these issues, Rudolph is certainly not alone, and if nothing else, at least she's found a home among the artists, writers and millions of ordinary Canadians who have asked themselves these very same questions.

Art Review

Experiencing Places, by Miriam Rudolph

Outworks Gallery, third floor, 290 McDermot Ave.

To July 15

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2007 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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