BY PAUL GESSELL
The individual works in a new exhibition at Gallery 101, Material Witness, have considerable “wow” factor. But put these works together haphazardly in a crowded, badly lit, grey room, and the “wow” factor melts away. Simply put, Material Witness is far less than the sum of its parts.
Material Witness is meant to highlight the ways contemporary artists are exploring and expanding “fibre art” or art that is made of textiles and other materials from the traditional, predominantly female, sewing room.
“Textile is a powerful and versatile medium put to use throughout human history for travel, clothing, agriculture, architecture, historical documentation, expression of identity, and experimental art,” says the Gallery 101 promo for the exhibition.
“Barry Ace, Karina Bergmans, Bozica Radjenovic, Mona Sharma, and Emily Rose Michaud are each occupying creative termini at the edges of fibre art. Each artist has followed the path of their artistic practice to an expression that is as logical to the heart as to the formal and aesthetic conversation of professional contemporary art practices.”
Laura Margita, gallery director and exhibition curator, chose the works wisely from the five artists for Material Witness. It’s a pity the former industrial garage that is Gallery 101 still looks like a grim, dimly lit, artphobic space.
The room is dominated at one end by an 11-foot-high, floor-to-ceiling, cloth depiction of human bronchi, in which the passageways resemble a maze of plant roots and carry oxygen to the lungs. Artist Karina Bergmans has attached a hidden blower that pumps air into the giant bronchi, making them sinuously move, as if they were alive and sustaining a body. Bergmans has nicknamed the piece “Take a Deep Breath,” although the official name is Bronchi. Last summer at Ottawa City Hall, Bergmans had an impressive solo show of oversized body parts made from different fabrics.
Bergmans’s sculpture is so large that it overshadows the intriguing photo beside it, which is part of a body of work by Bozica Radjenovic. In this photo, the artist wears a red dress, which she knit herself and covers her from face to knees. Dressed this way, Radjenovic holds in her arms a knitted red body suit, minus the body, making the suit appear to be that of a deflated person.
The resulting image references Michelangelo’s famous Vatican sculpture, The Pietà, showing the Virgin Mary holding the body of Christ after the crucifixion. Radjenovic’s photo is dramatic, moving, and mysterious. But surrounded by far larger sculptures, the photograph is lost. It needs to be viewed on its own in a more intimate space.
The works of Aboriginal artist Barry Ace, best known for his beadwork, were displayed better. One of them, Nigik Makizinan — Otter Moccasins, sits in a vitrine in the centre of the room and can be viewed from all sides. The arrangement consistently drew a crowd on opening night.
Ace has taken a “found” pair of men’s brown shoes and decorated them with Aboriginal-style beadwork. Attached to the shoes are “trail dusters” — long, flowing strips of otter fur attached to beaded material. The “trail dusters” were originally meant to obscure a walking person’s tracks in the dirt. Ace has cleverly used tiny computer parts as beads, so these dusters — metaphorically speaking — can eliminate cyber trails.
The artist-run Gallery 101 has been in Ottawa since 1979. It has constantly lived hand-to-mouth, surviving numerous near-death experiences. Maybe this lacklustre space, which the gallery moved into this past spring, is the best it can afford. But couldn’t some creative minds have brainstormed a way to use the space in a better way? It is possible for art to impress when viewed in old industrial spaces. And given that the gallery was able to attract some of the city’s most daring artists to participate in Material Witness, it’s a shame the gallery could not show off these works better.
Material Witness continues at Gallery 101 until Oct. 4.