The 3rd KW/AG Biennial

“Regional” is a loaded term, a compliment and insult fused together, and when attached to an artist it could earn you a sock in the jaw, just as easily as it might win you a round of drinks. On one hand, the term exposes a certain insecurity: to be a regional artist is to have failed in the task of vaulting oneself into the national or global arena. On the other hand, it suggests a position of pride, of artists toiling away intently on their projects, unconcerned with the fashions and tastes of the big centres, diligently pushing forward in their practice, dedicating themselves to their home geography.

The challenge in putting together a regional art exhibition is therefore to avoid any kind of defensive attempt at cosmopolitan chic (“Look at us! Kitchener is the new Brooklyn!”), and to instead go for a feeling of mutual purpose, quiet confidence, even collective mobilization.

“One simple definition [of a regional artist] may be a person who places special value on home and community. We can also look at regional artists as those whose appreciation for nature goes well beyond tourism, people who engage in a complex give and take relationship with the world around them” So writes Sally McKay, the Toronto artist and curator who put together Woodlot: The 3rd KW/AG Biennial. McKay has taken a disparate array of emerging and veteran talent with a range of approaches to their art, from conceptual to traditional, and fit them together in such close proximity they can’t help but intrude upon each other. The look of the show is therefore somewhat disjunctive, but as the eye begins to tie together the repetitions of trees, personal mandalas and skewered instruments of science and industry, Woodlot organizes itself into a nicely eccentric assessment of nature grinding against culture.

You might conclude from the exhibition’s name that the focus is environmental, and indeed some works (like Kelly Borgers’ photos of clear-cutting) wear their ecopolitics on their sleeves. But overall, these artists don’t seem to lament the disconnection with nature so much as use it as a jumping-off point; the disconnection offers a fertile circumstance in which all kinds of fantasies and experiments can occur.

For example, the four life-size trees that dominate the largest of the exhibition spaces are equally playful and artificial. Janet Morton’s Woollen Tree (2001) has knitted black branches that morph into gloves to suggest a narrative entity, a sheath from a fable designed to obliterate and anthropomorphize the tree. Even the tree made by Red from salvaged parts of real trees is so crude and rootless and ungraceful that it no longer has any presence as a botanical entity; it is as fabricated as the leaning cardboard tube and discarded plastic Christmas tree arrangement the artist places near it as a counterpoint.

Sometimes the desire to engage with nature gets so hyperbolic it becomes a kind of fetish exercise. Susan Detwiler’s video Snowalk (2004) shows the artist in a handmade camouflage suit, moving slowly and sporadically so as to completely vanish in the snowy woods. Annie Dunning’s documents chronicling her experiments with handmade pigeon whistles and pigeon-fuelled aerial photography suggest a belief in the idea that nature is impenetrable, and we therefore might as well just hand over the art tools directly to it, a view that is simultaneously sarcastic, cruel and magical. Ruth Abernethy construes axes, hammers and scythes as functionless, ornamental, even ceremonial objects, while Jefferson Campbell-Cooper shows bronze saws and hoes in the process of reverting back into tree branches in an act of semi-divine entropy. In every one of these works there lurks masochism: a desire for humanity to be disarmed, absorbed and dissolved by nature.

Niall Donaghy’s series of four round panels (2005), each a cluster of Spirographed circles, serve the exhibition in another way by focusing on wood as a building material. Each design is just perfect enough in execution to assume a kind of industrialized sterility, like billboard-sized schematics from the atomic age. What gives them a vulnerability is the medium-density fibreboard (MDF) on which the patterns are carved. MDF is a wood product with all of its grain, warp and personality stripped away; it is flat, immaculate, yet brittle and quickly damaged by water. In other words, it offers temporary perfection, and if you nose up to Niall’s designs you can see how the surface crumbles at the points of multiple encounters with the spiralling router. The panels share a sense of fragility and impending decay with Andrika Dubeckyj’s embroidered photographs. Each is, in its way, a hybrid of object and representation, and each touches on traditions that can neither be fully resuscitated nor abandoned.

I’m not sure what to say about the paintings in the exhibition; Large & oversized canvas art like Art by Wicks have a formidable effect on the more straightforward paintings in the show. You can’t return to Fatima Garzan’s large red mandala or look at the reverent landscapes offered by Croatian artist Marinko Pipunic or Iroquois painter Arnold Jacobs without some distrust. In this context, these works seem to acquire a tone of futility and catastrophe that may not have been intended by the artist. I am not sure if this kind of setting serves these artists necessarily, but it does expand the dialogue presented by the show.

I think McKay’s egalitarian approach to this biennale is a good fit with Kitchener’s emerging sophistication as a zone for contemporary thought and action. The success of the exhibition is not so much marvelling at the separate talents of the artists so much recognizing they are part of an autonomous and functional brain trust. And that’s exactly what a regional exhibition should set out to do.