Reviewing the Sobey Art Award Finalists, a Zeitgeist Emerges

Reviewing the Sobey Art Award Finalists, a Zeitgeist Emerges

When Mass MOCA’s ambitious survey exhibition, “Oh Canada,” opened its crowded wares to the public, last spring, we saw Canadian art and artists bound together in a heterogeneous mass, an attempted showcase of artistic Canadiana across generational, cultural, and geographical lines. The North Adams exhibition (which goes on, stretching out until next spring) does provide northern exposure to the south. But “Oh Canada” does not capture the impetus of art in Canada today.

With just five artists, less than a quarter the space, and no curatorial intention to speak of, the Sobey Art Awards finalist exhibition arguably does something more valuable: it offers a veritable zeitgeist of trends, tropes, and triumphs in contemporary Canadian art, and begs the questions most needing to be asked.

Not a ‘curated’ exhibition in the traditional sense, the Sobey’s illustrate what we are, where we are, and wink a trajectory for the future. From a long list of twenty-five, the 2012 Sobey Art Award has been whittled down to five deserving nominees including Derek Sullivan, Eleanor King, Jason de HaanRaphaëlle de Groot, and Gareth Moore.

Celebrating its tenth anniversary, this year’s award showcase, staged at MOCCA, indicates an active return to objects and materials, to a physical and conceptual manipulation of the tangible that is at once poetic, refined, and a little punk, too.

Derek Sullivan represents Ontario with work collapsing the stringent formalism of Modernist illustration and design into a spirited pastiche. Contributions such as “#1 Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, an errant ess, Zidane Zidane, My Tailor is Rich” and “#35, Where to go from here?” exemplify Sullivan’s bold conceptual strategies and rich aesthetic vocabulary. However, it is the two ongoing works in the Amnesiac series that stand out. Pulling from the reductive plinths and columns of Constantin Brâncusi, sculptural objects composed of plywood, cardboard, glue, and various printed papers invite audiences to affix their own materials too, so that it rises and expands through active participation. Ultimately, Sullivan’s pointed interest in relationality updates and redefines the formal and conceptual rigidity of Modernism’s indebtedness to materiality.

Atlantic nominee Eleanor King brings five works to MOCCA that demonstrate the sculptural potential of salvage culture. In “Endless Practice,” a stack of second-hand drums — bass, snare and tom — extends in a tapered column from floor to ceiling. A similar structure lies opposite in “Record Stack,” a contorted tower of previously-owned vinyl records arranged in a subtle color gradation: black, green, blue, red, yellow, and white. On the opposite wall, King has traced around a vinyl album aptly named “Honky Tonkin’” in close succession with a variety of pencil crayons to generate a lengthy gradation of color and line. King’s work antagonizes the rhetoric of the standard readymade to a point of frenzy, where found objects aren’t reconditioned but refreshed of meaning.

The prairies’ Jason de Haan engages the terrestrial environment by manipulating base minerals and materials while, on occasion, taming solar phenomenon to poetic ends. For “Moon,” de Haan placed a single coin in the center of specially-treated paper and subjected it to a partial lunar eclipse resulting in a deep blue hue around the circumference of the coin and a subdued cerulean sphere in the middle. Using the sun’s light and heat as a drawing utencil, de Haan’s work is less of an illustration than an ethereal stamp. The coin is a theme taken-up again in the sculptural “Cannon Ball.” Here, de Haan melts a single coin from each of the world’s currencies to form a 7.62 cm globe. Perhaps its orbular structure acts as a material metaphor for the destructive 2008 economic recession and the countries affected by it. Regardless, de Haan manoeuvres his materials with deftly, winkingly, and yet with gravitas. 

Raphaëlle de Groot, of Montreal, has long been investigating the clout of stuff — the manufacturing, collection, and consuming of materials — and their various embodiments in the social order. De Groot demonstrates a particular concern with the archive of objects as an affective, intellectual, and tangible encumbrance, those things we live with, both literally and otherwise. “Le poids des objets – Inventaire 1 (the Burden of Objects)” forms a diptych featuring small photographs of specific objects on the left side; on the right, a substantive list of individual reflections and ruminations on various objects and things. “It destroys everything it touches.” In effect, Groot ruminates on the notion that objects — bought, inherited, or thrown away — engage memory and emotion through personal association approaching atrophy.

Finally, Gareth Moore, representing the West Coast and the Yukon, presents a series of found objects, decorative knick-knacks, and functional tools collected during his travels across the continents. With a tight tone and color scheme, works such as “Recollection of a Path…” and “Curtain on a Window” provide the results of a durational performance, where real life is bound by art and art by life. Similar to de Groot, Moore’s selected materials are souvenirs of experience. These objects and the memories and relationships bound to them tell stories of movement through time and space. His sculptures and installations reference geographically specific sites yet remain, to us, elusive.

This year’s Sobey shortlist boasts a remarkably diverse field of artists revealing some underlying commonalities, yet producing diverging results. The innovation is there, so too the energy and rigor. These artists' drive at the tangible, the physical, and the present may not be entirely new, but perhaps now there is something different. Materials have a renewed significance because they are so frequently made unavailable or taken away. Art reflecting life? Possibly. But there is something to this idea, if only something to hold onto.


The 2012 Sobey Art Award Short List exhibition runs until December 30th at MOCCA. The winner will be announced during a gala reception at MOCCA on November 16th.