Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Enjoyed: Real Life and More at the Glenbow Museum

Over the holidays, I visited family in Calgary. While there, I had a chance to see the show Real Life at the Glenbow Museum. Now, it's been a long, looooooong time since I went to the Glenbow; typically when in town I've tried to hit up the commercial galleries and artist-run centres. The Glenbow just has more a reputation for historical and anthropological stuff than art stuff, a reputation further consolidated by its well-publicized and abrupt parting with contemporary-art proponent Jeffrey Spalding last year. In any case, since smaller galleries seemed to be on holiday break--and the Glenbow was hosting Real Life, comprised of some massive works by Ron Mueck, as well as work by Guy Ben-Ner, that I've never seen before--I decided to give it a whirl.

Real Life is a touring show organized by the National Gallery of Canada, so a lot of folks from coast to coast have likely seen it already. Still, I'll put my two cents in and say that I enjoyed it. This was one of those shows where supplementary material was really engaging--though the Mueck component only showed three sculptures, a vitrine of studies and (in particular) a video of Mueck at work seemed to really captivate visitors. The Ben-Ner stuff was also enjoyable, though it felt a bit too cute at times. I do envy the dude's ability to integrate his family time into his work--a nice device, that! A couple of the videos on view also have Youtube teasers:

There were a few other contemporary-art things going on at the Glenbow as well. More notes on that after the jump.

I looked at the show on Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas and thought the large manga-pictures installation looked really good. As usual, I had seen reproductions of this, but the wall-long scale worked really well in person. In terms of genre, I was reminded of one of the first big shows I ever went to see, Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre? at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, another attempt (albeit waaaaaay huger) to tell a story in pages and pictures, with the result then getting splayed big on the white wall. This memory likely applies to any book-turned-to-wall-work show, but nonetheless popped up here.

Though time was tight, I also scrambled to take a look at contemporary interventions by Paul Wong and Jeff Thomas in the Glenbow's historical exhibition spaces. The historical show in question, Mavericks, is actually something I wish I had had more time to take in. For one, it really hooked me with the fact that it now plays home to Calgary's once-iconic neon Telstar Drug sign. I remember driving by this drugstore repeatedly in my teens and twenties, so it's that slightly uncanny time of life when one starts seeing things from one's youth presented as history. Ah, well. I'm glad the sign, abandoned just a couple of years ago when the drugstore closed, now has a permanent home. I have to say I also really enjoyed similarly immersive installations as a Winnipeg kid visiting the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature--Mavericks takes a similar tack to prairie history with reconstructed storefronts, diners, signage, train cars and the like. Some might call it cheesy, but I know for a damn fact it's engaging to a lot of people.

Of course, exhibitions like Mavericks leave out a lot of historical complexity, which is why it's wise to integrate interventions from the likes of Wong and Thomas.

Wong's work, in a room adjacent to the Telstar sign, focused on Alberta's gay rodeo circuit, and juxtaposed photographs of same with rodeo bronzes from the Glenbow's collection. Though Wong's aesthetic was a bit over the top, with lots of rodeo double-entendre text scrolling across the screen, I really appreciated the artist making space for this often overlooked group, who challenge stereotypes both of Albertans and of queer culture.

As for Thomas, I've long admired his photographic projects documenting and juxtaposing representations of First Nations culture in the North American landscape. It's good to see a few of those works integrated into various locations throughout Mavericks, because First Nations history is a fraught topic, largely because of ye olde maverick-style colonization. However, I wish there had been more space to show Thomas' work on its own as well--maybe that's just because that's how I first saw Thomas' work, or maybe it's because it's work that really speaks for itself.

In any case, I hope the Glenbow welcomes more interventions of this kind--these so-called grand narratives certainly need it!

Finally, I have to make note of the Glenbow's weird internal layout, particularly the brassy, gold-tinged 70s/80s staircase, the centrepiece of which is a multi-story glass chandelier. I think this element is getting to the point of shifting potentially from "dated" to "retro", though it is far from white-cube asceticism. It actually makes me think of an hipster-glam nightclub opportunity waiting to happen, something the Glenbow could in future think about capitalizing on, perhaps, for rentals or fundraisers. After all, if we can't capitalize on weirdness, what kind of (art) mavericks are we, really?


Butzis Aroma said...


I work at the Glenbow, and have lived in Calgary for most of my nearly 40 years - I've been a fan of the museum since I was a child visiting with my school groups.
I'm so happy you enjoyed your visit. The Guy-Ben-Ner/Ron Mueck exhibit is leaving January 24th, and so is the Haida Manga exhibit. Bev Tosh's installation, War Brides is staying a little longer. i thought it a bit curious you didn't mention bev's exhibit - it is very powerful and one of our most popular recent installations.
We are acquiring our first work by Tom Thompson - his 1916 painting, Autumn. it will be hung in the Modernist Art collection as a permanent addition from a donor and patron.
Beginning February 13th we have a new exhibit entitled The Nude in Modern Canadian Art, which follows the history of the nude in Canada through the 1020's, 30's and 40's. Artist's represented will include Jean Dallaire, Paul-Emile Borduas, Alex Colville and Edwin Holgate.
Also showing will be an exhibition of Kent Monkman's work.
The Maverick's exhibit is very popular, and actually does go into a fair bit of detail from the historical perspective.
I can tell you though, we are quite often not very busy with patrons unless, as you say, everything else is closed or we have a wave of tourist's come through the city on holidays. But each and every day the museum is filled with School groups of all ages, we provide them with full-day guided tours with interpretors, and teach them a little about what a museum does, conservation, preservation, etc. We have a native Gentleman named Clarence who gives the children a guided tour and interpretation of the First Nations exhibits.
In short, we are much more than just a museum, and very committed to education in our community.
It is a joy to be working there (and I get to see the archival floors and storage areas on the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th floors...most of our collection is in storage or in conservation areas.

Thank you for taking the time to share your impressions, and please come back to see us again! (We are working on the Grand Staircase, New carpeting is going in on them. And yes...people use the staircase for their wedding photos,etc, and we do have after hours functions and events throughout the year.)

Thanks again!

Darren Roy - Glenbow Museum, Visitor Services.

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Darren,

Glad to see your Google Alerts must be working!

I know the Glenbow does good stuff, but fact is the break with Jeffrey Spalding does leave it in a position of having to prove itself contemporary-art wise, at least to the rest of the country.

Time limits prevented me from taking in War Brides, though I'm sure that did strike a chord as well. I appreciate your elaboration of outreach and related efforts, though.