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Askevold's mystery tour

The death of pioneering artist David Askevold leaves a sense of loss in the art community.


There are elements of David Askevold’s video and photographic work that make people uneasy. They evoke a sense of arriving during the aftermath of a crime, or an accident. You’re not sure what happened, but there’s residue. Take one of the cibachrome prints from Askevold’s well-known series, “The Pit:” ghostly figures linger in a backyard, as if waiting for the burgers to be cooked. No one seems too concerned that smack in the middle of the grass, there’s a giant, burned-out, star-lit, black hole. 

“What I love about much of his work is that the images look so exotic and provocative, and mysterious. And many were shot right in his own backyard,” says Victoria Page, who co-owns Gallery Page and Strange, with Victoria Strange. “The Pit” was shot off Askevold’s small back porch in Dartmouth. “It was astonishing to think that he was doing this from a very humble studio.”

Askevold was a recent addition to the Page and Strange family. He came in one night near closing during an exhibition of John Greer’s sculptures. As soon as Page realized who it was, she turned the lights back on. With some help from Gerald Ferguson---
who taught Askevold at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1966 and later brought him in as NSCAD faculty in 1968---he joined the gallery. From a commercial standpoint, Page says Askevold’s theatrical style “appeals to people in film or theatre sets; people who have that creative bent towards the imaginative tend to connect to his work.” 

His imaginative approach and seemingly boundary-free art practice often left critics puzzled, and Askevold, by all accounts, enjoyed his enigmatic reputation. Ray Cronin, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia’s chief curator and acting director, suggests that Askevold’s work “had a narrative component, but he would lay out the individual stages or parts, and you had to fill it in yourself and tell your own story. Engaging with his work was like standing at the edge of a cliff. There was a risk in letting the work wash over you.”

Take 1998’s “Love Mansion:” nine colour prints arranged tic-tac-toe-style, along with a didactic panel, stored in a red lacquer box. It’s based on the history of the Norma Talmadge mansion where Sharon Tate was murdered. Askevold references the mansion’s intriguing life and famous residents well before the horrific crime, using shiny dice, ethereal interiors stained with blobs of liquid and neon Xs and Os. Cronin says, “It’s not that the content is scary or that he’s dealing with themes of violence, it just has this sense of oddness, but it’s so compelling, it pulls you along.” 

Askevold is currently represented at MSVU Art Gallery, in the exhibition Top 100: The Art Metropole Collection, which highlights works from the artist-run centre that has early ties to NSCAD-affiliated artists. 

As a NSCAD sculpture instructor, Askevold became famous for his “Projects Class,” in which he commissioned New York conceptual artists such as Lawrence Weiner and Sol LeWitt to send written instructions for works, on which students would collaborate.

“It was regarded as groundbreaking in the conceptual art world, because of the method of pedagogy,” says Ingrid Jenkner, director of MSVU Art Gallery. 

The Metropole show includes handwritten instructions from the artists and also the typed transcriptions onto cards. “It’s the idea that instructing an art class in an art college could be considered a work of art, which it is. “Projects Class” is considered a work of its own.”

Cronin, who was taught by Askevold, says that as an instructor, he was “terrifying. He expected you to act like an artist; he had a high expectation for everyone. He was really open and generous with his time, opinions and thinking about things, but if you weren’t doing the work, if you were slacking off or completely clueless, you heard that too.”

The AGNS, along with the National Gallery, are working on an international touring retrospective. Although Askevold did most of his art production here, he exhibited more often abroad than in Nova Scotia. 

“He was always getting good shows and good press, and the art world always knew who he was but he never became a famous artist that way,” says Cronin. “I think history will put him as one of the most important Canadian artists of his generation, no question.”

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