Questions of history and identity inform strong SSNAP show
The opening of the fourth Salt Spring National Art Prize exhibition over the weekend reveals a program that is settling into its own maturity while providing the space to examine the most prevalent trends and concerns in Canadian art today.
The SSNAP 2021-2022 Finalists Exhibition at Mahon Hall brings together 52 diverse works from Canadian artists living across the country and abroad. Gallery manager Anthony Matthews has created a beautiful show with his arrangement of the leading entries, which the jurors selected from more than 2,700 submissions.
As always, this year’s jurors made their selections “blind,” without access to artists’ names or context, so it’s fascinating to see some common themes arise. A reckoning with the past in exploration of identity provides a strong stream of work in this year’s show, both by Indigenous artists and those from immigrant communities. Many explore those connections using handcrafting techniques and materials passed through generations of family. The first SSNAP of the COVID era not surprisingly finds several artists engaged with related issues and imagery, while the climate crisis forms another of-the-moment concern. Artists in this year’s exhibition are also engaged in questions around the history of representation in visual art and how it can be transformed in current practise.
Indigenous artists, so long excluded from mainstream contemporary art, have a strong presence at this show – in fact, they may be the dominant force. The conflux of traditional arts and modern practice includes several works with beading over unusual surfaces. Katherine Boyer’s lovely modern and minimalist piece recreates a strip of blue and white sky in a band of beading that’s strapped over a bundle of polished oak and maple lumber, while Devonn Drossel beads images of Indigenous food plants and animals over a vintage flour bag, and Maria-Margaretta adds beaded ornamentation and fringes to a pair of bright yellow dish gloves. The iconic Hudson’s Bay blanket shows up to expose problematic colonial history in a painting by Lauren Crazybull and a textile/sculptural work by Glenna Cardinal.
Michel Dumont deals with the traumatic intersection of national and personal history in a moving piece based on his mother’s 1955 class photo at Mission Indian Day School. Dumont fired a photo transfer onto ceramic tile and then ritually smashed it with a hammer while reciting the names of each child from that class. He then rejoined the pieces with a metallic gold-tinged adhesive – referencing “the Japanese art of Kintsugi to show the beauty in the broken” — and framed the work in live-edge cedar and historic barn board. This is a piece where concept, process and end result are perfectly combined.
Michelle Sound celebrates the strength of community in NDN Aunties, a collection of drum frames in different sizes that have been “skinned” with fabrics such as gold lame, fringed black leather and leopard print. This warm-hearted piece pays tribute to “Auntie Culture,” and the women who act as cool mother stand-ins and mentors.
Masks are not only required to enter the exhibition space, they appear in three different works displayed in the hall. Eloise Spitzer II is one of these, a searing photographic portrait by Kali Spitzer that depicts an aging Indigenous person who has been undergoing chemotherapy during the pandemic. The black and white photography and the formal pose recall the anthropological studies by Edward Curtis. The subject’s piercing eyes and bare torso create an almost unbearable mix of agency and vulnerability.
Another work that challenges the viewer to hold their voyeuristic gaze is an oil painting by Nicole Sleeth. The artist subverts the traditional female nude with her depiction of an obese brown body. Her style is a mixture between realist and expressionist, but she makes the shadows between the folds of flesh look so real it feels like the viewer could put a finger in between them. Sleeth’s question of whether painting can become “more honest, more piercing and even more real” by shedding attachment to representational qualities does not feel academic, but deeply invested.
Fans of photography will find some interesting perspectives on the art form here, from Dona Schwartz’s hyper real tableau Ordinary People, to Kriss Munsya’s allegorical approach to Black male personhood, to a lush, painterly canal view of Venice by Monique Campbell. Salt Spring’s Connie Kuhns stands tall within this group, with her Canadian Farmhouse photograph set between an atmospheric sky and a swath of grey asphalt. The sharp focus and small print size give the work a jewel-like clarity.
SSNAP’s only other local artist this year is Pender Island’s Joanna Rogers, whose incredible woven cotton hanging contains a multitude of gentle natural dye tones and the anti-Madame Defarge message Save Our Souls embedded in Morse Code. Nearly local is David Gluck, whose incredible oil painting combines modern portraiture with the lighting and depth of a Rembrandt.
Installations, while few in number this time, are impressive in creativity and scope. Viewers will marvel at For Your Own Good, Christine De Vuono’s collection of around 100 tiny figures sculpted from soap bars. Each figure is individual and distinct, and each is isolated in a mason jar and shelved – a comment on the fate of lonely seniors in care who were protected at cost during the pandemic. This is another perfect marriage of concept and execution, where the statement has a stunning visual impact.
The SSNAP Finalists Exhibition continues daily at Mahon Hall from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Oct. 25, with prize winners to be announced on Oct. 23. The companion Parallel Show featuring Gulf Islands artists is at ArtSpring from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Oct. 17. (See next week’s Driftwood for a review of that show.) Visit saltspringartprize.ca for details on upcoming artist talks and events. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination is required to attend all exhibitions and events.