Steven Leyden Cochrane

  • Immaterial world

    Video tends to leave me cold: it's a ghostly medium. It's everywhere in the visual landscape, but, like an airport terminal TV, it slides imperceptibly into the background. It's intangible. A film or photograph is still a thing you can touch, but a video is data -- a series of digital instructions set in chilly, flickering motion. At the same time, some of our most intimate exchanges now play out onscreen. New aunts and uncles "meet" baby nieces and nephews for the first time on Skype. Video provides a venue for romantic encounters and a bewildering variety of sexual expression. As a technology, it helps meet our need for connection even as it exists somewhere separate from our physical, tactile perception of the world.
  • And for my next trick...

    Sometimes art is a joke; sometimes it's more like sleight-of-hand. Both prime us for one outcome (the setup) and then deliver something else (the punchline or the big reveal), taking seemingly ordinary situations and rendering them either fantastical or absurd.
  • Finding his light

    To many viewers, abstract art can seem to speak its own unfamiliar language, making it hard to relate to or understand. Geometric abstraction, with its rigid forms and chilly precision, can come off as particularly impenetrable, detached and dull. An Art at the Mercy of Light, the current exhibition at the University of Manitoba's School of Art Gallery, proves that it doesn't have to. Highlighting recent works by Eli Bornstein, one of the Prairie provinces' most influential senior artists, the exhibition shows that even austere, highly refined abstract works can reflect a heartfelt engagement with the natural world, a sensitivity to subtle environmental factors and a regard for viewers' unique perceptions.
  • Airport insecurity

    When it opened in 1975, Mirabel Airport was the world's largest. Sitting on 400 square kilometres of expropriated farmland northwest of Montreal, it was intended to replace the older Dorval Airport (now Montreal-Trudeau), serving as Canada's eastern gateway. Instead, the federally helmed project fell into immediate decline, spawning decades of resentment. Proposed highways and rail lines linking Mirabel to Montreal were never built. Traffic flagged as Toronto became the primary nexus for international travel in the region. Kept alive artificially though the 1990s, the airport's last passenger flights took off in 2004.
  • Arctic exploration

    Nearly all artwork is the product of cultural exchange, and Inuit art in Canada is no exception. Though it was shaped by centuries of tradition and the unique constraints of arctic life, Inuit art merges traditional themes with contemporary perspectives, and it reflects the uneven legacy of contact with the south. For decades, Inuit artists have combined traditional and recently-introduced materials, techniques and subjects, balancing their own aims against those of government initiatives and the demands of southern buyers. Influence flows both ways, however, and art from the Far North has made a definite impact south of 60 degrees.
  • Wagging the dogma

    Growing up in a non-religious family, I first learned many Bible stories not in Sunday school, but art school. At least half of learning to paint is looking at other people's paintings, and until relatively recent times, the lion's share of Western art dealt in Judeo-Christian themes. As a student, between slide lectures and museum visits, I couldn't help but absorb a vocabulary of devotional imagery: Annunciations and Assumptions, Last Suppers, Doubting Thomases, and Noli Me Tangeres, the ecstasies and grisly demises of martyrs and saints.
  • Breaking down the Bauhaus

    Though it's easy to overlook, the influence of Bauhaus design is evident in everything from apartment blocks and public sculpture to sans-serif typefaces and flat-pack furniture. Operating in Germany between the wars, the school championed a unified, modernist esthetic, favouring clean lines and stark functionality, one motivated equally by practicality and idealism. Beyond architecture and design, the school sought to erase boundaries among disciplines, inviting distinguished visual artists such as Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee to serve as lecturers. In Re: Build Them, his exhibition at the University of Winnipeg's Gallery 1C03, Ian August draws examples of Bauhaus and Bauhaus-inspired architecture back into the realm of fine art, investigating how the structures and the ideas behind them have held up over time.
  • Getting to know hue

    At first, your only impression of Blue, the light-based sculptural installation by David Spriggs currently at Raw Gallery, is of the colour itself. In the otherwise pitch-black exhibition space, an otherworldly blue light hangs silently in the air, formless at first but oddly contained, an indeterminate presence lacking context. Struggling to focus and find your bearings, you're left with your own freewheeling associations -- dusk light in summer, cobalt glass, Mary's cloak, a TV left on at night -- and not much else. Colour seems like an intrinsic, stable quality of the world around us, when in fact it's in a state of constant flux, vulnerable to minute variations in the spectrum of available light. What's more, it exists entirely in our heads.
  • Private stages

    For 30 years, Winnipeg photographer Bruce Kirton has been an anthropologist and archivist in other people's homes. With the aid of a large-format camera and an array of tungsten lights, he produces stunningly detailed documents of everyday domestic interiors. The images serve as indirect portraits of the friends, acquaintances, and consenting strangers who inhabit them. Kirton's eight-by-10-inch film negatives capture something like 100 times the visual data of a typical smartphone camera. Still, for all the exacting detail this allows, Kirton is a documentarian only to a point. His work acknowledges that the act of photographing a subject transforms it, as does the act of observation itself.
  • Sinister farm scenes brought to life by traditional drawings and digital animation

    Nothing is quite as it seems in Michel Boulanger's haunted countryside. The digital animations featured in Terre blanche, his exhibition at the Maison des Artistes, lead us into uncanny, unstable simulations of rural landscapes, leaving us to find our own way out. In the titular work, conflicting modes of agricultural production provide a volatile backdrop for an unseen character's inner turmoil.
  • Imperfect recollections

    Mélanie Rocan seeks out the kinds of images that we don't choose and can't control, crafting lurid tapestries from chance occurrences, dreamscapes and "involuntary memories." That last phrase comes from Proust, who used it to describe the cascading torrents of imagery and sensation that arrive unexpectedly and unbidden, set off by triggers as insubstantial as a half-remembered taste or smell. It inspired the title of Rocan's touring solo exhibition, Souvenir involontaire, which makes its third and final stop at Plug In ICA, a homecoming of sorts for the Winnipeg-based painter.
  • Cottage life

    "The cabin" has a prominence in certain regions of the Canadian psyche that I won't pretend to fully grasp, but I can certainly understand the appeal. I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida, surrounded by "vacation properties," which are something else entirely. You might have known a family that kept a "beach house" or a "summer home," but the words carried overtones of impossible privilege, conjuring images of a breezily out-of-touch lifestyle that few could reasonably hope to realize.
  • Hidden messages & love letters

    HOWEVER enlightened we might think our views on gender and sexuality have become, open affection among men remains something of a taboo. In popular culture, we only see it tempered by humour or aggression (see: every buddy flick ever, most team sports). For gay men -- even the white, educated, urban gay men who've benefited most from changing attitudes and increased protections -- those affections often remain hidden as a matter or self-preservation. The legacies of legal, medical and religious discrimination, the enduring trauma of the AIDS crisis, and the continued, constant threat of homophobic violence are at most distant subtexts in Intimacies, the current exhibition at Martha Street Studio. Just the same, the historical need for secrecy that these conditions engendered seems to have had lingering effects, with each of the show's three artists creating subtle, furtive and highly coded expressions of male attachment and desire.
  • Anticipation & aftermath

    Any catastrophic event, whether it's a major disaster or private trauma, exerts a bizarre, gravitational effect on our experience of time. It becomes the point towards which all past experiences lead and the moment from which all others follow. Like a dull ache or low-pitched rumble, it hangs in the background of consciousness only to resurface suddenly, intrusively in the present -- sometimes with overwhelming force. The moment itself can seem to last forever, witnessed as if from a distance, like slow-motion television footage. For survivors, the minutes and months that follow pass unpredictably, dragging on or flying by in irregular waves. Disaster warps our recollection of everything that came before it: the calm before impact seems eerie in hindsight; we compulsively retrace our steps.
  • Modified appliances hint at the menacing undercurrents of everyday life

    Most of us use a whole roster of household appliances every day without ever stopping to think about the invisible -- but potentially lethal -- stream of electricity that powers it. In 1903, Thomas Edison infamously tried to demonstrate the hazards of alternating current, which now powers all of our homes and businesses, by using it to electrocute a circus elephant. Today, sensibly, safety precautions dictate that we keep our energy at a comfortable remove, insulated and grounded, tucked away in walls and ceilings or buried underground.
  • A river runs through it

    Anyone who's ever come back from a trip to the beach with a pocket full of rocks and shells should be able to relate to Rivers, Lyndal Osborne's current exhibition at the University of Manitoba School of Art Gallery. Where someone else might be content with a jar of beach glass on the windowsill, however, Osborne intensively combs the landscape, stockpiling what amounts to an eccentric museum collection's worth of natural specimens and cast-off human artifacts. The show restages Shoalwan: River Through Fire, River of Ice, a work first produced in 2003. The sprawling installation is built around a treasury of over 100 different found materials that Osborne collected along the banks of two rivers half a world apart. These range from rose hips and fragments of eucalyptus bark to shotgun casings, golf balls and horse bones.
  • Forgotten frontiers

    Roy Ascott, a senior British artist and theorist active since the 1960s, is an undisputed pioneer of network-based art. He also seems like a bit of a kook. In the early '80s, a decade before the Internet existed in any recognizable form, he recruited far-flung collaborators to engage in group storytelling and other activities using the rudimentary predecessors of modern email. Though technology has advanced, the ideas of virtual identity and decentralized authorship that Ascott explored 30 years ago have only become more relevant.
  • Collection of children's construction sets is both trip down memory lane and surprising history lesson

    I don't know how much the toys we play with as kids actually shape the interests we pursue as adults, but it makes sense that they might offer some early clues. With hindsight, the things we enjoy as children can often seem to predict what will eventually become lifelong passions -- and occasionally even viable careers. Visual artists cut their teeth on finger paint and Play-Doh. Somewhere right now a parent is watching their future heavy metal drummer wail away on her Fisher-Price xylophone (and having an uncomfortable vision of the future). For kids who grow up to become architects, engineers, and city planners, it might be Lego kits and wooden blocks that provide the first formative experiences of building structures and organizing space.
  • Use of multitude of techniques and concepts almost too smart

    Artists thrive on contradiction. A sculptor might try to convey a sense of weightlessness and movement in solid stone; a painter might lay down clashing hues to create tension or depth; and artists of all persuasions throw together unexpected images, themes and ideas just to see how they react. Chambre Matricielle ("Matrix Chamber"), Montreal-based printmaker Andrée-Anne Dupuis Bourret's installation at La Maison des artistes, reflects a multitude of contrasting techniques and concepts, but it's unclear whether the work manages to exceed the sum of its opposing parts.
  • Hoop themes

    If I asked you to list time-honoured forms of First Nations cultural expression, abstract painting and basketball might not immediately spring to mind. A pair of exhibitions closing Friday at Urban Shaman, however, suggest maybe they should. Jeff Kahm, an Edmonton-born Plains Cree painter and faculty member at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., offers a subtle twist on familiar strains of abstract painting in Paradigm, his exhibition in Urban's main gallery.
  • Anishinabe painter brings her distinctive blend of styles and storytelling to North Main

    Stories and symbols help us express complex ideas about who we are, what we value, and how we should behave. They come to us passed down through oral tradition, religious teaching, literature and art. Others we pick up along the way: we recount embarrassing family anecdotes, dreams, and things we saw on TV to help frame our experiences, while everyday landmarks become symbolic signposts in the stories we tell about ourselves. Like any good storyteller, Winnipeg-based Anishinabe painter Jackie Traverse draws on a wide range of sources in Ever Sick, her exhibition at Neechi Niche. Cherished teachings and time-honoured motifs intersect with wry caricatures of contemporary urban life, while events from the artist's childhood (both real and imagined) become the basis for personal mythology.
  • Collaborative duo create work that explores complex geometrics... but mostly just looks really cool

    Raw: Gallery often plays host to artists concerned with "architecture" in the broadest sense, as an umbrella term for all the ways we occupy, manipulate, understand and organize the space around us. Their work can be deceptively simple and sometimes tricky to talk about because of that. Exhibitions last year saw Crys Cole scraping contact microphones across the walls, transforming invisible variations in surface texture into audible sound, while Patrick Harrop created the illusion of weirdly undulating, luminous columns using only lights and twirling lengths of fishing line. Like those earlier projects, Caustic, up for just a week and closing July 12, functions as a subtle, surprising demonstration of spatial phenomena. The installation by Kyle Janzen and Chris Burke, who work together as Jnznbrk, is also essentially a room-sized, walk-in lava lamp functioning as a wholly engaging, purely sensory experience that neither relies on nor demands critical analysis. It's "trippy." Even "bitchin'."
  • It's how you play the game

    TWO slides stood out during Winnipeg printmaker Suzie Smith's artist talk for To Break & To Build, her solo exhibition at Aceartinc. Tucked among images of her own recent work and the artists who've influenced her, she included examples of a simple pen-and-paper game, the sort of thing kids might be encouraged to play on long car trips to pass the time. The first player dashes off two squiggly lines, and the second has to find some way to work them into a picture -- a bear, a bug, a boat, or anything else. She shared it as a fun aside, but it went a long way towards illustrating her approach to art-making, which is at once methodical in its focus and irrepressibly playful. "Conceptual" and "process-based" art, both central to Smith's practice, emphasize the idea of the work and how it's made -- the materials an artist uses, what she does with them and for how long -- over the form and appearance of the finished object. While this can yield work that looks clinical (or like nothing at all), Smith chooses to work within the familiar technical and visual framework of fine art and commercial printmaking. The results are accessible and engaging while showing a level of restraint that highlights the inquisitive, exploratory nature of her methods. Smith is playing games, but the rules are always clearly defined.
  • Artist uses an array of handmade wallpapers to subtle, refined effect... or whatever the opposite of that would be

    I've always said, it's amazing how a little wallpaper -- a tasteful accent wall, say, or an elegant border -- can transform a room's entire look and feel. (I have never in my life actually said this, FYI). In the case of Hotline, Montreal-based printmaker Dominique P©trin's current exhibition at Martha Street Studio, that transformation is certainly... pronounced. Plastering every available inch of wall and floor space with a literally dizzying assortment of retina-searing silk-screened patterns and poppy, cut-and-paste graphics, the gallery becomes something like the imagined interior of a teenager's smartphone. The broad outlines of P©trin's approach will be familiar to those who remember last summer's exhibition at the Maison des Artistes by Seripop, a collaborative duo who similarly use reams upon reams of brightly coloured screen prints to transform the gallery environment. (Both P©trin and the members of Seripop also played in noted, noisy, now-defunct Montreal rock bands, the former in Les Georges Leningrad, the latter in AIDS Wolf.) But where Seripop crumple and sculpt their prints into entropic sculptural installations layered with references to modernist architecture and political philosophy, P©trin is in every sense and almost exclusively interested in surface. And parrots. And a lecherous cheeseburger.
  • A walk to remember

    Countless artists have found inspiration on long walks in the outdoors, and their works help us visualize and understand our place in the landscape. Nineteenth-century painters expressed wonderment (and ownership) over the North American colonial frontier in their theatrical canvases; in the 1960s, the Situationists tried to experience familiar cities in new ways, using randomized walking routes and remixed maps. Members of indigenous societies around the world have developed practices combining visual art, map-making, spiritual tradition and oral history. Contemporary artists such as Richard Long have framed walks in the countryside as artworks in their own right.

About Steven Leyden Cochrane

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

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