I'm pretty sure I gasped out loud when I walked into Actual Gallery for the first time last Thursday. Judging from the wide-eyed expressions of friends and colleagues already inside, I wasn't the only one caught off guard.
The quantity and calibre of the work (both impressive) came as no great shock. The roster had been announced weeks earlier, comprising 18 of Winnipeg's best-known and most well-regarded visual artists. Even the massive opening-night turnout, which gallery director Lisa Kehler estimates topped 400, was to be expected given the reputations involved.
Instead, it was the gallery itself -- which is enormous and beautiful -- and what it might mean for the city's evolving cultural landscape that had every other person I talked to that night stammering "I can't believe I'm in Winnipeg right now."
With some 3,000 square feet of renovated exhibition space at the corner of Ross Avenue and Princess Street, Actual became one of Winnipeg's largest venues dedicated to contemporary art the moment it opened its doors. With its understated design, even lighting and polished concrete floors, it looks like a major commercial gallery in a major city.
The artists, for their part, have all made names for themselves at the national or international level (or seem poised to), and many are already represented by galleries in places like Toronto and Montreal. Actual's prices reflect what they're already commanding elsewhere, a decisive show of confidence in local artists who've always had to leave town for a shot at commercial viability.
Still, nice digs wouldn't mean much without good work, and Actual Artists doesn't disappoint. Mid-sized paintings and works on paper predominate, but together the nearly 30 individual works and series reflect a remarkable diversity of styles and approaches.
In a trio of digital diptychs, painter Wanda Koop pairs her otherworldly prairie cityscapes with more down-to-earth imagery of wintertime parking lots and crumbling interiors. Emerging printmaker Jeanette Johns's meditative aerial photographs appeared in her solo show at Aceart earlier this year. Suzie Smith's eye-catching, self-reflexively cheeky prints (silkscreens of silkscreens being silkscreened, fittingly titled Silkscreen-Silkscreen) are pretty much irresistible, and Paul Robles continues to work magic with meticulously hand-cut paper. His distinctive, lacelike birds flit among charred lunar outcroppings in a series of textural collages.
The show includes especially strong works by painter Mélanie Rocan, a pair of characteristically woozy, sickly-sweet-hued landscapes strewn with gauzy lengths of tattered lace and burning drive-in movie screens. 2014 Sobey Award co-nominees Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber (nominated by fellow Actual artist Paul Butler, who concludes his run as the WAG's contemporary curator next month) both contribute paintings, as does 2014 RBC Painting Competition finalist Robert Taite.
Taite is scheduled to show his unclassifiable, painting-based constructions in Actual's smaller back gallery starting in September while an exhibition of Krisjanis Katkins-Gorsline's densely-layered abstractions occupy the main space. These will be the first of what Kehler hopes will be 10 to 12 solo shows annually -- a hugely exciting development in its own right.
Actual Artists presents a terrific opportunity to catch up or get acquainted with an extensive cross-section of the city's most innovative artists in a first-rate gallery the likes of which it's never really had before. This is actually Winnipeg, if you can believe it.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.