Traditional Practices and Alternate Realities: The 2016 Sobey Art Award Exhibition

Update: Congratulations to Jeremy Shaw, winner of the 2016 Sobey Art Award! In commenting on Shaw’s achievement, the Jury issued the following statement: “Jeremy Shaw’s work speaks to a fundamental longing for transcendence. He creates and reflects extraordinary experiences and shows us how art can translate what is challenging to articulate.” Stay tuned for the artist’s upcoming interview with NGC Magazine.

From Cold War spies and objects falling from the sky to snake handlers, displaced persons and distorted music, this fall’s Sobey Art Award exhibition is sure to be a visual, aural and thought-provoking feast for visitors to the National Gallery of Canada (NGC).

Organized by the Sobey Art Foundation and the NGC, the 2016 Sobey Art Award exhibition profiles this year’s shortlisted artists: Jeremy Shaw (West Coast & Yukon), Brenda Draney (Prairies & North), Charles Stankievech (Ontario), Hajra Waheed (Quebec), and William Robinson (Atlantic). Through paintings, drawings, video, multimedia installations and more, the presentation showcases the astonishing breadth of artistic expression in Canada today.

“Each year, the Sobey Art Award process results in new insights for those of us who sit on the jury,” said Josée Drouin-Brisebois, Sobey Art Award Chair and Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the NGC. “Although we may have known of an artist tangentially, studying his or her work in depth for the Award introduces us to new ways of thinking, seeing, and producing. The resulting exhibition is not just an overview of the work of five individual artists, but an opportunity to see where contemporary art is headed, both in Canada and around the world.”

International Sobey juror Nicolaus Schafhausen agrees. “Although based in Europe, I have had a close connection with the Canadian arts scene for many years. Through my work with Fogo Island Arts, I feel an even greater bond with the country and its people. There are exciting ideas in the works of all of this year’s Sobey artists — in everything from traditional arts such as painting and drawing to installation and video — and it will be interesting to see how their careers develop on the international stage.”

Featuring recent works by each of the artists, the exhibition takes visitors on a cross-Canada journey through contemporary art. However, although the nominees are selected by region, the work of the artists is anything but provincial, instead addressing universal issues and ideas.

Jeremy Shaw, Towards Universal Pattern Recognition (Teen Challenge. Apr 7, 1983), 2016, kaleidoscopic acrylic, chrome, archival silver gelatin photograph. Collection of the artist

The work of Jeremy Shaw (West Coast & Yukon), for example, focuses on the polarity between science and religion, altered states of consciousness, and psychedelic experience, often as perceived through the lens of obscure traditional practices. In Quickeners (2014), on view in the exhibition, Shaw has adapted Peter Adair’s 1967 film Holy Ghost People to great effect. Using the footage from Adair’s documentary on a Pentecostal community in West Virginia, Shaw has added subtle visual and audio effects, turning the English dialogue into an abstract language and creating a new science fiction narrative reflecting a world in which religion, dancing and art no longer exist. 

The section devoted to Shaw’s work also features three photographs from a collection amassed by the artist over the years. Set in angled acrylic frames, the images of people caught in religious rapture look different when approached from various vantage points. 

Brenda Draney, Aspen, 2013, oil on canvas. Collection of the artist

Brenda Draney (Prairies & North) also revisits convention in her work, albeit in a subtle way. One of the few painters to ever be shortlisted for the Award, Draney’s paintings appear to capture brief moments in time, while implying an ongoing unseen story. Expressing both the fragility of life and the power of being alive, Draney’s work has an evanescent quality that suggests that everything in her world is on the verge of disappearing.

This nuanced teetering between existence and oblivion is on full display in the dozen works on view. Paintings such as Tent City (2011) and Peter’s Place (2013) suggest an isolated moment about to evaporate. A longtime admirer of the artist Alex Janvier, soon to be featured in a major retrospective at the NGC, Draney paints with ease and economy, frequently leaving — as does Janvier — bits of the raw canvas peeking through. 

Unknown artist (Italian, 17th century), Augustus and Cleopatra, c. 1630–1650, oil on canvas, 145 x 195.2 cm. NGC

Conceptual artist Charles Stankeivech (Ontario) has also drawn inspiration from traditional elements, weaving them into a fascinating new narrative. Created specifically for the exhibition, Stankievech’s installation is centred around the Baroque painting Augustus and Cleopatra (c. 1630–1650), from the NGC collection.

Originally attributed to French artist Nicolas Poussin, the work is now thought to have been painted by an unknown Italian artist. When Augustus and Cleopatra was acquired in the 1950s, the confident attribution to Poussin was made by art historian and National Gallery advisor Anthony Blunt. What many did not know at the time, however, was that Blunt was a spy for the Russians during both the Second World War and the early Cold War. As one of the infamous “Cambridge Five”, the British-born Blunt’s secret life was only revealed in 1979.

Stankievech’s installation is based in part on the painting’s compelling backstory. Addressing the ways in which the evaluation of art attributes truth, this work also examines the myriad factors that go into determining the value of art.

Hajra Waheed, Satellite, 2003, collage, ink and chalk on mat board. Collection of the artist

Hajra Waheed (Quebec), on the other hand, eschews tradition in favour of keeping viewers off-balance, both physically and metaphorically. Often toying with the line between fiction and reality, Waheed has a well-established multimedia practice that explores complex issues surrounding power, surveillance and displacement, and a longstanding interest in the increasing occupation and militarization of both sky and space.

The works on display include a selection of collage, video, sound and sculpture, including The Cyphers 1-18 (2016) and Study for a Falling Object (2016). Giving viewers a visceral sense of what it means to occupy an aerial environment, Waheed places viewers in unfamiliar positions as falling objects, and gives them a sense of spinning, being in motion, and looking down from above.

William Robinson, Sun Ship Machine Gun – Metallurgy, 2015, mixed media installation & performance. Collection of the artist

From aerial observation to a down-to-earth explosion of sound, the exhibition presents a work by William Robinson (Atlantic) that reimagines sound, music and materials for a post-modern world. Sun Ship Machine Gun — Metallurgy I (2015) is a mixed-media installation exploring the material and historical evolution of saxophones.

As a musician himself, Robinson often incorporates audio and accompanying mediums in his work. Equally intrigued by the notion that built spaces constitute boxes within which he must work, Robinson often plays with the history and meaning of a site, reimagining and reinterpreting it in new ways. Espousing an approach that encourages viewers to “learn with their eyes and feel with their ears and vice-versa,” Robinson is creating new hybrid forms that respect tradition while turning that same tradition inside-out to stunning effect.

“One of the most interesting through-threads in the works of this year’s artists,” says Drouin-Brisebois, “has been an emphasis on storytelling, unique narratives, and the blending of fact with fiction. I look forward to seeing what comes next for all of the artists on this year’s longlist and shortlist.”

Selected from a longlist of 25 Canadian artists announced earlier this year, the five finalists presented in the 2016 Sobey Art Award exhibition provide a striking overview of what it means to be an artist in today’s world. As Anton Chekhov once wrote, “There is nothing new in art except talent.” Clearly, he was wrong. The talent is a given, but what Chekhov likely couldn’t have imagined is the ability of this year’s Sobey artists to parse and recombine tradition and originality, creating new hybrids that continue to push the limits of contemporary art.

The Sobey Art Award exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from October 6, 2016 to February 5, 2017. The Award winner will be announced at a gala ceremony on November 1, 2016. A line-up of exciting programs will be offered in conjunction with the exhibition, including tours and talks, and opportunities to meet art experts. To learn more, please visit the Sobey Art Award website.

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