Review by Ben Reeves

Its 7 pm, the weather descends undecided, caught somewhere between a rainy drizzle and a half-hearted snowfall. It is the opening night of Rebellious: Alberta Women in the 1980s in the Art Gallery of Alberta and I have come to review. It was something that had piqued my curiosity. Looking for something of note to entertain myself and learn more of the past of my province, my discovery of this exhibition then seemed fortuitous, as I had no previous knowledge of any big artists having come from the same stock as I. So then is this a show celebrating the best of them? I simply had to know.

I saw no mention made on the gallery’s site of an entrance fee, but I payed the $13.13 charge nonetheless. The flavour of the night was black tie and cash only bar, as the aimless throngs of well-to-do and well-wrinkled faces grouped and chittered, and a few more unsociable souls such as myself trickled into the giftshop for something to distract us from our boredom.

Finally, the announcements came: the usual listings of thanks and gratitude, and the name dropping of a few of the twenty-four-woman artists in attendance whose works were being displayed, though I could not separate them visually from the crowd of politely clapping attendees. Finally, the banal ceremony ended, and the guests were herded into off into the gallery proper by the cacophonous poundings of the band.

The resulting display of artworks was… eclectic to say the least. The gallery had been configured into two ‘L’ shaped patterns tetris’ed against each other and cut into four distinct areas: the entryway, the nudity room, the tv room, and the one with the hair thing.

While the layout of the exhibits may leave something to be desired, there remain a few artworks that hold good interest in and of themselves. Two pieces from Arlene Stamp’s “Gladys M. Johnson” series, are fascinating in their attempt to recreate the works of another artist, scratches, dents, warts, and all. I just wish I knew more detail about what went into the works and originals present for comparison, something that’s much harder to do on an electronic screen.

Arlene Stamp: “Lost Painting: Cartoon for Detail G3”. One-shot lettering enamel on aluminum. Art Gallery of Alberta Collection, gift of David Stamp and Emily Menezes.

Katie Ohe’s interactive sculpture “Nightwatch (a placing of four bullet shaped sentinels set into a cross formation with metal bars connecting each across from the other, so that when one head is jostled his twin does the same) is, while simple in its mechanics, enough of a novelty for me to regard it as suitably pleasant.

“Atuan”, by Lylian Klimek, entices the mind with thoughts of sustainability, environmental impact, materialism, and where the heck the other three parts of the sculpture went to. The plaque says its part of a four-piece exhibit, but no explanation is given where the other three are, did the band break up?

Lylian Klimek: Atuan (1986): shredded rubber, wood
photo: The CCCA Canadian Art Database

The first items on display are quite misplaced in relation to the plaques describing them. In the first instance I highly doubt most people will encounter the information until they’re leaving, given that both plaques are placed right next to the doorway, well out of eye-shot. Just reading the things turns you into a traffic hazard.

The first item is a record of an old art installation that references gentrification through constructed and subsequently destroyed model homes, called “Feminist Reconstruction of space”, by Rita McKeough. The titling of the piece honestly felt inaccurate as I felt the issue connected more to one of economics, time, and changing environments, so the feminism angle felt a bit pasted on honestly. (Weirdly enough I couldn’t find any pictures of the exhibit I saw when I googled it, so I might have the wrong display title here, I’m not sure.)

Normally any sane person would put an art piece’s title plaque right next to where they’ve installed the thing, but no. They’re just somewhere off to the side and in some instances on the opposite end of the room. It makes it really confusing to tell which plaque fits which exhibit – especially here, given that it’s the first one directly next to the sculpture on display at the entrance’s immediate right.

This sculpture is titled “Portrait VI”, part of a collection of sculptures by Catherine Burgess, and just to compound the silliness of the plaque placement, its sister constructs “Full Tilt” and “Locus VI” are far off in a completely different room.

Other misplacements include splitting the collection of Liz Ingram’s works across two separate ends of the tv room, which just turns the nearby sculpture “Kali” by Isla Burns into a tripping hazard for anyone desperate to know which piece of mesmerizing surrealism is which. Alexandra Haeseker’s “Dogwalk-the dunes” and “Windbreak” are nearly impossible to tell apart from each other, due to the similar subjects, except for the materials used.

Alexandra Haeseker: ‘Dogwalk-the Dunes’ (1980) acrylic on canvas
Collection of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts

I have no idea why they felt the need to turn an art gallery into a scavenger hunt, but here we are.

I leave the exhibit as the band announces their last tune of the evening. Snowflakes kiss the windowpanes on their slow dance to the pavement and pile into the streets, the weather now descends decided and chilled, and so have I. Ultimately I am here to tell you what worth I feel there is in this exhibit, be it the visit of your time or scorn, and in truth it is both.

While the layout is not particularly friendly, nor the placing of the plaques very convenient, many of the pieces prove fascinating in their own ways, and provocative in their handling of their respective mediums. For all my complaints there are many more works that I just don’t want to spoil, the signage pieces in the entrance room, the weird hair thing, the down right creepiness of Jane Ash Poitras’ works. 

Yet I must emphasize that the charm of these pieces largely shines only despite their arrangement. I do say it is worth checking out for variety of unique artistry alone, just don’t expect to know what the hell the artists are supposed to be rebelling against by the end.

Rebellious: Alberta Women Artists in the 1980s runs until February 16, 2020
Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA)
2 Sir Winston Churchill Square, Edmonton