Eyes on the prize

On Monday, one of five nominated Canadian artists will become this year’s Sobey Award winner, thanks to five curators working behind the scenes.

Jean-Denis Boudreau (Atlantic)

Downstairs at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, what you see in the Sobey Art Award exhibition is the work of five young artists from across the country.

The five regional finalists in this year's running—the first year of the annual iteration of the award—are as follows: Moncton-based Jean-Denis Boudreau (Atlantic), Michel de Broin (Quebec), Shary Boyle (Ontario), Rachelle Viader Knowles (Prairies and the North) and Ron Terada (West Coast).

What you see behind the work of these five—or what you sense is present in the room—is the work of five Canadian curators who, as jurors, ultimately decide the winner, which will be announced at an invite-only reception on October 15.

"The heart of the Sobey is that it is a process driven by curators and constantly focused on the art made by artists. Five curators, from across the country, pick five artists, again from across the country, based on their work, their careers to date and the curators' sense of their potential for the future," writes Sobey Art Award and AGNS senior curator Ray Cronin on a panel introducing the work.

Robin Metcalfe, director/curator of Saint Mary's University Art Gallery, says he didn't know Boudreau's work until Atelier Imago, a printmaking studio in Moncton, nominated the 32-year-old artist for the Sobey. It was one of three outside nominations Metcalfe received and put into a long list of 20 to 24 choices, which he then presented to his fellow jurors to whittle down to a regional finalist.

Boudreau is just now gaining attention across Canada and internationally through the artist-run gallery network, explains Metcalfe. "It's nice to be 15 minutes ahead of the curve," the Halifax-based curator says with a laugh.

As a juror, Metcalfe had to carefully weigh Boudreau's work in, and of, itself but also in the context of what is going on throughout Atlantic Canada. What he found made Metcalfe smile. He describes it as "fresh, sassy and humorous. But the humour has a dark edge to it."

Boudreau's pieces in the Sobey exhibition reflect that humour in different ways. First, there's the "deformed prosthetic" arm—as Metcalfe calls it in his catalogue essay—like an artifact in its clear case. Then there's the instructional drawings done right on the gallery's walls—how to use the stairs, plug something in—that begin upstairs and take you down into the exhibition space and which hark back to the artist's training in graphic design and animation. "The provisional, the paradoxical and the absurd continue to characterise Boudreau's work. For the Sobey exhibition, he suspends ice cream carts upside-down from the ceiling with balloons pointing downwards as if dragging them towards the earth. This inversion is inspired by a quote from the French philosopher, Simone Weil, who described "obedience to gravity' as "the greatest sin.'"

Saintly Boudreau also comes from a double-minority, points out Metcalfe, which increased the curator's interest further. A francophone in Atlantic Canada, Boudreau is also Acadian. Plus the fact that artists from Moncton, on the larger map of Canada, if not the world, "have to struggle against obstacles to being known."

Visitors to the Sobey exhibition will also notice in Boudreau's work, as with the four other finalists, a staunch interdisciplinary approach to art with, arguably, an emphasis on the object-based and installation. While there is video and video of performance here, some may ask, where's the contemporary painting or photography, for example?

With Boudreau, printmaking is a big part of his practice, Metcalfe says. Shary Boyle's work draws on ceramics, drawing, performance and film. The highlight of this show are several of her exquisitely monstrous porcelain dolls: From a distance they look like tchotchkes your grandmother would have on display, until you realize they carry their own severed heads or there's a lacy boil growing out of a cheek. "The point is it's the artist does this and this and...and...," says Metcalfe.

The work of Rachelle Viader Knowles is noted on the Sobey website, sobeyartaward.ca, for its use of "a broad array of media including video, digital imaging and text, selecting media as appropriate to the content and context of display, to create dynamic environments that the viewer enters into, both physically and metaphorically."

Dan Ring, acting head curator at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, covered the vast prairies/north. He writes in an email that "categorizing artists by medium is somewhat limiting. I'm seeing many artists these days who have a hybrid practice that involves aspects of many approaches including painting, photo-based, digital, performance, etc."

There's nothing in the nomination requirements saying that an interdisciplinary practice is more or less favoured. To be nominated, artists must be, according to the Sobey Art Award website, "39 years old or younger, who have shown their work in a public or commercial art gallery in Canada in the past 18 months." Furthermore, they must have "shown commitment to artistic practice" and have "received recognition from peers, critics and/or curators."

In his essay, which hangs at the entrance to the exhibition, Ray Cronin offers this, "There is no guesswork here, no blind faith, but there is passion and belief based in experience. Curators choose—in the end that is the core of our profession, everything else revolves around articulating, supporting, and otherwise implementing those choices."

Sobey Art Award 2007, until December 5 at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1723 Hollis, 424-7542.

Sean Flinn is a freelance journalist.

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