Brenda Francis Pelkey: Photographing Inner Lives

Brenda Francis Pelkey, Front Garden, Kim Kimberly (detail), 1989, Cibachrome photograph print on paper, 50.7 x 190.0 cm (5 panels). Collection of the Art Gallery of Windsor. Purchased with the Contemporary Art Fund and the support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisitions Grants program, 2016, no. 2016.005

First, a neighbour of photographer Brenda Francis Pelkey’s built a fantastical structure — a castle that was a full storey high — in his yard. A year later, both the home and the castle project were abandoned, and Pelkey knew she had to photograph them.

She shot the yard at night with colour film and a large-format camera, illuminating the castle using movie lights. The theatrical lighting and vivid colour gave the image a magical quality, transforming a residential space into a dreamscape.

For the next two years, Pelkey searched neighbourhoods in Saskatoon for highly ornamented properties. “I was interested in how people make their interior world manifest. These decorated backyards were each a material manifestation of the imagination of its creator,” said Pelkey in an interview with NGC Magazine.

Brenda Francis Pelkey, Paul Smith: Grinder, 1988, silver print on paper, 56.3 x 45.8 cm. Collection of the University of Saskatchewan. Gift of the Artist, 1995, Accession 1995.008.028

Several of these otherworldly images are included in the exhibition, Brenda Francis Pelkey: A Retrospective, on view at the Art Gallery of Windsor (AGW). Showcasing everything from documentary black-and-white photographs from the mid-1980s to Pelkey’s current series, Site (2013–ongoing), the exhibition features loans from a number of institutions, including the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). It is the first retrospective of her work, and her first solo exhibition at the AGW since she moved to Windsor.

Exhibition curator and AGW director Catharine Mastin sees strong feminist themes in Pelkey’s art practice. “Her work navigates social and political geographies. In her series Spaces of Transformation (2003–2008), Pelkey depicts strip clubs, bars, courtrooms, and hospital rooms,” Mastin told NGC Magazine. The series depicts these venues when empty, suggestive of drama yet to come.

Brenda Francis Pelkey, Cheetah’s, 2004, colour photographic print mounted on aluminum, 101.6 x 182.9 cm. Collection of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery. Gift of the Artist, Windsor, Ontario, 2006. Accession 2006.6.13

Pelkey, whose father was in the military, was born in Kingston, Ontario, but spent much of her childhood in other parts of the world. “My family moved from one end of the country to the other, and to Europe and back,” she says. “That set the stage for me. I was always looking at things from the outside, so being behind a camera is a very comfortable place for me.” Pelkey later took art classes at Sir Sanford Fleming College of Applied Arts and Technology in Cobourg, Ontario, and attended Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, where she took courses in English and Native Studies.

Pelkey moved to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1980, where she became involved with the arts community through venues such as the Photographers Gallery, and the respected Saskatoon-based magazine, BlackFlash, which promotes photo-based and new media works.

Pelkey’s series …the great effect of the imagination on the world (1988–1990) was a turning point in her career, as she moved away from documentary photography toward images that acknowledged the hand of the artist. “Photography is not a completely transparent medium,” says Pelkey. “I wanted to make my ideas visible.”

Brenda Francis Pelkey, Front Yard with Hayrake Planter, Anna Rusteika, 1990, azo dye print (Cibachrome), 52 x 103.2 cm; image: 48 x 97.5 cm. NGC

Front Yard with Hayrake Planter, Anna Rusteika (1990), for example — on loan from the NGC — shows a yard adorned with farm implements and plastic animals, along with the decorator herself, Anna Rusteika, who had moved to the city, but missed her farmstead. According to Pelkey, the embellished yards were attempts by the decorators to bring their pasts into the present, to make the past visible and integrated into the everyday.

Much of Pelkey’s practice during the 1990s included images of spaces connected to her personal history, or that of her family and community. Some of her photographs are rural, but they are not images of the Canadian wilderness. Instead, they subvert the idea of untouched landscapes. As Martha Langford — Professor of Art History at Concordia, and a contributor to the upcoming catalogue — told NGC Magazine, “These are images of much-travelled spaces, even if there are no homes in them. Roadways, cultivated land, fields. There is a history of settlement in them. These are places associated with collective memory.”

In the mid-1990s, Pelkey often concentrated on night imagery. The series Memento Mori (1994–1996) comprises photographs taken at night of urban and rural Nova Scotia. The images were matched with stories about those places that reveal the memories and psychological meaning attached to them. Untitled (1995) shows a road bordered by fir trees, leading towards a dark sky. The accompanying text is meant to function like a historical marker: one that comments on the changeability of memory, rather than immutable fact.

Brenda Francis Pelkey, Untitled (1995, printed 1996), azo dye print (Ilfochrome) and text mounted on aluminum, image framed: 128 x 102.6 cm; text framed: 16.2 x 102.8 cm. NGC. Gift of the artist, Saskatoon, 1998

“Historically, women haven’t had the privilege to move through the night, urban or natural,” says Mastin. “In the art historical canon, the artists known for their imagery of nocturnal subjects are dominantly males, such as the sunsets and moonlights of Monet, Turner and Whistler.”

In 1994, Pelkey received her MFA at the University of Saskatchewan where she worked as an associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History. Between 2003 and 2012, she was director of the School of the Visual Arts at the University of Windsor, where she now serves as a professor.

Brenda Francis Pelkey, Pool with Stanchions, 2012–13, printed large format, 2015–16, inkjet on bonded aluminum, 76.0 x 110.0 cm. Collection of the Artist

“Pelkey’s work brings attention to the female lens,” says Mastin, “which still needs to be attended to in the historical record. Her work challenges the idea of the photograph as fact, as document. She makes her own subjectivity visible with her formal choices.”

Pelkey is adept at inviting viewers into her work. Whether capturing residential properties featuring plastic animals and architectural re-creations, or depicting empty courtrooms and abandoned prairie towns, she leaves the narrative open to interpretation. Through work that explores both external realities and inner landscapes, the artist also reflects elegantly on the presence of the universal in the everyday.

Brenda Francis Pelkey: A Retrospective is on view at the Art Gallery of Windsor until January 22, 2017.

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