Shades of Grace
Main Space, Union Gallery
Kingston, Ontario, Canada
July 12 through August 8, 2008
Located in Eastern Ontario at the edge of what some must feel is a cultural wilderness, Kingston is a thriving centre of the arts. This is the home of many rising and current stars in music, in literature, in dance, in the visual arts, in drama, in every aspect of the arts. Innovative approaches to art are common in this, by surface appearances at least, very conservative city. Once the capital city of the united Canadas, Kingston may have held on to the cultural imperatives that came along with that position. The city’s location at the centre of a cultural triangle formed by Toronto, Montreal, and New York City may also influence the unique creativity to be found in Kingston. Another influence may be that Kingston is only a short drive from the nation’s capitol. Whatever the reason, Kingston has a vibrant and interesting arts community.
Queen’s University’s Union Gallery, a student gallery with a mandate to balance 70 percent student work with 30 percent from other artists, often presents some of the most thought-provoking exhibitions in this area. The group show Shades of Grace is exciting and innovative, bringing together artists from across Canada who work in diverse media and span the generations. Less a multi-faceted diamond, this is a hall of mirrors that presents a different view at each turn and new views each time you walk through. The effect is quite wonderful. The works in this show in turns please, provoke, calm, intrigue, and even amuse.
At the centre of this show rests the idea of grace as it presents itself to each of us from time to time. Conceived by artist, performer, and poet Donnalee Iffla, this show is based on a poem she had written and the words of which pervade this show. Over a short period of time, Iffla had seen three friends quite separately fall into peril from which they should have died but survived. One fell to the earth. Another was trapped in water. The third barely escaped a terrible fire. Around the same time, Iffla experienced a surreal, dreamlike scene at dusk in a local wood, where she observed a dozen or more owls gliding above the treetops in the circles of a delicate dance. For her, this represented the fourth element, air, to complete the circle of her three friends’ brushes with death by earth, water, and fire. These circumstances suggested the presence of grace which is all around if we will only see it.
Iffla wrote her elegantly crafted poem around these four incidents and their relatedness through the grace by which they and she had been touched. Seeking greater depth for her expression, Iffla approached a group of five other artists to work with her on an exhibition to be named Shades of Grace after the poem. She presented the concept to the Union Gallery and the project was off and running. The result is an exciting melding of ancient and contemporary art forms all circling like Iffla’s owls around the central concept of grace.
Michael Davidge, known for his work with installations and in video, and currently Artistic Director of Modern Fuel Artist Run Centre in Kingston, created a perhaps disturbing illusion. It sits dead-centre in the gallery, a plywood box perhaps the size of four refrigerator boxes papered on the outside with posters for various events. The ends are open and, at about four feet wide by seven feet tall, waiting for viewers to walk through the gauntlet the box presents. Davidge says the inspiration for this piece is an old Charlie Chaplin movie in which The Little Hobo unwittingly steps into a gaping hole just as an underground elevator rises up to stop him from falling in. Walking through Davidge’s installation is both interesting and a trifle disconcerting. The middle third of the path has been built upon a foam material that leaves one feeling more than a little off balance. The experience can be quite thought-provoking.
Montreal film-maker Alain Ambrosi created three video presentations which are placed at different locations throughout the exhibition. A well-known figure in the area of alternative and democratic media, Ambrosi has produced many documentary films and published numerous books and articles in his field over the past three decades. Ambrosi’s allusive videos are quite distinct from each other, each presenting a different aspect of grace but all touching on the idea that grace must ultimately come from within. The visuals and the sounds of these videos have a haunting effect that draws the viewer in and encourages deeper reflection.
Ted Rettig works in sculpture/installation, drawing, photo/text pieces, bookworks, multiples, and video and has been exhibiting nationally and internationally since 1974. For this exhibition, Rettig has created a variety of pieces that represent the concept of grace in form and in words. These are perhaps the most formal and traditional pieces in the exhibition.
The young Vancouver – now Kingston – artist Ayaz Kamani created a dramatic interactive experience. Two video players are set up with a chair facing them. Two sets of earphones are interconnected. On each screen appears an interview. With the earphones on and the two players running, the viewer will experience an interposition of the two interviews. Complex though this may seem, Kamani has made it work well and provided an interesting interactive interpretation of grace.
Painter Anna Emburg Wright created two large-scale fan-shaped works featuring lovely, elaborate floral images within which float almost hidden human figures. These paintings are exciting and thought-provoking yet have a Zen-like calm to them as well. The effect is quite dramatic.
On one wall, a set of earphones waits the casual listener. Several readings of Iffla’s poem by the artists bring slightly different perspectives to the words. To listen is to experience the poem in new and different ways. Besides organizing this exhibition, Iffla is an active participant. She has created a variety of ceramic tiles in different sizes and shapes to represent aspects of her poem and each bearing the words of different parts of the poem. Reading the poem in segments like that also adds new perspective and depth.
Shades of Grace is an intriguing collaboration among what may at first seem an unlikely selection of artists. As one explores the exhibition space, the connections become increasingly clear. This show is thought-provoking and illuminating, with depth that reveals itself in layers that seem never to end. It’s an experience well worth the time spent exploring it.
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