Thursday, July 17, 2008

Interview: Joan Stebbins on Southern Alberta's artistic advantages

(This post has been corrected to clarify Joan Stebbins' career development. Apologies to Stebbins and the SAAG for any misunderstanding.)

Every area of Canada has its own artistic advantages and disadvantages. I spent my teen years and part of my 20s in southern Alberta—and while I hated the conservative politics, I loved the consequent sense of tight-knitness and support in the arts community. It's also kind of nice to be away from the reputed centres of creativity, as it lightens the pressure on curating and artmaking efforts. And that intense, pure, high-altitude light shining on a big-sky landscape—I'll take it over a smoggy, hazy Toronto heatwave any day.

Joan Stebbins (pictured above with artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller) understands my yearnings, I think. For more than 25 years she headed up the Southern Alberta Art Gallery's very strong and inventive programming, even earning an Order of Canada for her efforts last year. Lethbridge, after all, is a wee arts powerhouse of a kind, breeding everything from the world-renowned sound walks and installations of Cardiff and Bures Miller to the less well known but just as powerful works of David Hoffos. Stebbins has been a key part of all that. But since her well-deserved retirement this summer winter, she's moving onto other things, which may soon include curating a young painters show and visiting the Sharjah Biennial. She told (or typed) me all about it in a recent email exchange published today at Canadian Art Online. Click here to read the exchange with some pics of Stebbins' last official project as director/head, or continue on after the jump for the full transcript.

The following is an email exchange between Joan Stebbins and Leah Sandals that took place between July 11 and July 14, 2008. The emails were exchanged on the occasion of a Marie-Josee Laframboise show at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery that had been curated by Stebbins, as well as the occasion of Stebbins retiring this past year from her longtime post as full-time curator of the SAAG.

LS: Why did you bring Marie-Josée Laframboise to the SAAG?

JS:I've been following her work for a number of years. I thought her sculpture would be an interesting adjunct to the architecturally-based exhibition (Common Ground, Yvonne Lammerich, Jean van Wijk, Nicholas Wade) that I was planning in the same time slot for our larger gallery space. I knew her net installation would look spectacular in the upper gallery with its clerestory windows and natural light..

LS: What do you think is so interesting about her work? When and how did you first encounter it?

JS: Marie-Josée is basically a landscape artist, but she works three-dimensionally. For her net installation, she studies topographical maps of the region in which she is showing, and then installs her netting to reflect some of that. But, of course, that is just one part of her practice. I first saw her sculpture in 2001 in Point de chute an exhibition Louise Déry curated for Galerie de l’UQAM. In retrospect, it was a brilliant curatorial stroke on her part: she presented five young Montreal artists who have since become rather well known; along with Marie-Josée, there was the work of David Altmejd, Jérôme Fortin, Raphaëlle de Groot and Manuela Lalic.

LS: What does the installation in the SAAG consist of?

JS: In 2003 Marie-Josée participated in a residency and exhibition, Within/Without at Kunstraum Dornbirn in Austria. She was struck by the pale green netting they used there to protect their trees, so she purchased a continuous 40 metre length of the fabric which is 6 metres wide. She completed her first net installation there and has done a number of them since; even one in the space of her then Montreal dealer Pierre-François Ouellette. SAAG’s exhibition is lit entirely by natural light, therefore light becomes part of the piece; the work changes by the hour. She is using the architecture of the gallery space to contain her net; the combination offers a rare opportunity to the viewer. I like to think of her “casting the net;” that’s very Canadian. She has used only 30 metres of her net for our installation; the remainder is coiled on the floor of the gallery space.

LS: Will the show travel?

JS: SAAG is partnering with the Musée de Joliette on a publication in which Marie-Josée’s installation will be documented, but I don’t think they are including that work in their exhibition next May; in any case, it is totally site-specific, so it wouldn’t be the same work. I’m sure anyone interested in hosting the net installation could contact Marie-Josée. It’s sort of “have net; will travel”.

LS: You recently did a show of Shary Boyle's work with a substantial catalogue. What convinced you it was time for a publication like that for Shary?

JS: SAAG is interested in documenting exhibitions with a publication. This is often achieved by partnering with another institution. In Shary’s case, it was Conundrum Press in Montreal. The publication was already in the works when we invited Shary to exhibit. Rather than strike out on our own, we were pleased to be able to contribute to a really superb publishing project. The book is amazing and we are proud to be part of it.

LS: Since when have you followed Boyle's practice? What drew you to it in the first place?

JS: I drop by all of the major commercial galleries when I am in Toronto. Aside from the work on display, there is a lot of stuff in the back areas that you can look at and I enjoy talking with the dealers. In an odd way, I think I’ve learned more from this process in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, than by going to institutional exhibitions (which of course I also do). When Jessica Bradley opened her gallery a few years ago, she let me know of a number of young artists that excited her; Shary was one of them; I did a studio visit and she just blew me away. Here’s somebody that spent three years learning to work with porcelain and mastered the art of lace-draping. Her subversive porcelain work is brilliant. But…she also does incredible paintings, drawings, zines, projections and performance. I can’t believe her national profile is so low; but that’s very Canadian too, isn’t it?

LS: You’ve just retired from full-time work at the SAAG. What were some of your favourite moments working as a curator at there or elsewhere? (I suspect this Laframboise show might be one of them, but I'm sure there were others…)

JS: I worked at SAAG for 28 years; for me there was value in staying with one institution. I’ve seen a lot of art and done hundreds of studio visits; by the time I invited artists to show, I was totally committed to them and their work. I didn’t really curate in the traditional sense, as I believe in the judgement of the artist and we worked it out together. So, for me, your question is like asking a mother which of her children she likes best. I will say that I am particularly attracted to artists who reflect something back to us about where we are and who we are. We are located in a spectacular part of the country. I have often invited artists to interpret that for us from their own point of view. Marie-Josée Laframboise is one of those.

LS: What's your take on the programs now springing up across the country to train curators of contemporary art? What was your own training like in comparison?

JS: These often emphasize theory; I think practice is the real teacher. I have a degree in studio art and was lucky to have a wonderful mentor at SAAG in Alf Bogusky; it was all very practical, but enormously inspiring. Somewhere in there, I learned that looking at work was of paramount importance; I have looked at work continually across Canada and abroad for many years. New York’s art museums provide a wonderful glimpse into beautifully curated exhibitions that really privilege the work of the artist; that’s always been a model for me.

LS: What are you looking forward to doing now that you are no longer committed full-time to a gallery? (Curating independently? Travelling? Enjoying life at home?)

JS: I would love to do a show of young painters; it seems to me that painting is rearing its head once again. I think teachers such as Eleanor Bond in Montreal and many others are turning out these really accomplished new artists. It reminds me of when I started curating in the ‘80s; wonderful installation artists were coming out of NSCAD, OCA, and ACA; I believe it was because of the teaching. Yes, travelling is on the agenda. The Sharjah Biennial is next on my list. My youngest son and family are presently living there. Life at home is a priority; I have a huge cookbook collection that requires curating and a partner that needs a bit of attention too. I also have my ongoing dinner table of visiting artists.

LS: What have you most enjoyed about working in Southern Alberta? And least?

JS: Well, this does seem to be a very isolated and weird place to work; however, it has its benefits. One is the fantastic natural environment that we encounter every day; the light quality here is amazing, I often sit for hours watching it play out on the landscape. Artists who come here to work tell others about that and soon everyone wants to come! Another benefit is the small but totally supportive arts community; the presence of the University of Lethbridge has played a large role in our success. SAAG has also been blessed with many committed board members who have a vision larger than location. Other than that; what can I say? We have a terrific airport that gets me out and gets me back. Where else in the world would they have your boarding pass ready before you’ve reached the check-in counter! Just one of the benefits of living in this great place. (Don’t tell anybody!) I can’t think of one single “least”.

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