August 22, 2017


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Fireworks and folly

Dazzling large-scale drawings and intricate wire sculptures explore themes of architecture and collapse

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/4/2015 (852 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There's no denying the visual impact of Leoht, Alison Norlen's appealing and impressive exhibition of drawing and sculpture at Actual Gallery. Titled after the Old English word for "light," the impossibly detailed and occasionally massive works sparkle and ricochet off one another like successive rounds in a firework display.

Touching on themes of fantasy, industry, utopia and collapse, there's more to the show than spectacle, but a little razzle-dazzle never hurt anybody either.

Installation view of Leoht by Alison Norlen

Installation view of Leoht by Alison Norlen

Ranging from mid-size to mural-scale, Norlen's mixed-media drawings of seaside carnivals, iron bridges, industrial sites and fountains buzz with frenzied activity. Scaffolding and baroque architectural flourishes glow like electrified filaments, illuminating and charging the darkened atmosphere around them. Her sculptures are wonderfully intricate models of disintegrating roller coasters and lopsided architectural follies, countless lengths of shiny stainless steel wire welded together to form airy and seemingly ephemeral birdcage forms. A trove of smaller works -- sketches, studies, tiny handmade journals and process photographs -- offer glimpses into a sustained whirlwind of creative activity and attention. (Born in Kenora, educated at the U of M and Yale, and based in Saskatoon, Norlen seems to take the warning about idle hands to heart.)

Three imposing pastel, chalk, charcoal and spray-paint works on paper are stapled directly to the gallery walls, the largest spanning 6.7 metres wide and three metres tall. In the panoramic images, taken from a body of work called Glimmer, a wooden roller coaster, a vertical lift bridge and a Zeppelin ensconced in scaffolding alternately ripple like desert mirages and radiate with the intensity of chemical fires.

Norlen's smaller works in the same vein don't communicate quite the same mix of wonder and menace, but a number of captivating drawings of darkened factory interiors and construction sites create their own ambivalent ambience.

Taken individually, the sculptures lack the drawings' overwhelming atmospherics and presence, but they're beautifully crafted and fascinating to look at. In a previous exhibition, they were shown together on the floor, miniature pagodas and carnival rides improbably clustered together like attractions on a whimsical wireframe pleasure pier. Isolated on their respective pedestals, they lose some of their impact but none of their charm.

Because Norlen's work appeals most forcefully to the senses and because what most unifies it are formal concerns, it leaves itself open to a range of interpretations. For all its incandescent beauty, Glimmer (Zeppelin) most pointedly evokes the Hindenburg disaster, while other works assume a less complicated, more wistful and romantic tone. Norlen never loses her analytical edge, however, and even the prettiest and most playful works carry a whiff of instability and danger.

Given own her work habits, it's no surprise that Norlen is drawn to heightened expressions of human ambition, from high-minded feats of engineering to pleasure-driven hubris. Even at their loudest and most celebratory, Norlen's glittering images look like they might evaporate, collapse, or combust at any moment. That sense of impermanence, of personal, societal and architectural folly, leaves a ringing in the ears that lasts well after the fireworks are over and the smoke begins to clear.


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


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