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Confederation Centre Art Gallery

Review by Pan Wendt

The summer exhibitions at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery this year seem more than ever geared toward presenting visitors to the Island with a sense of local artistic production, historical and contemporary. On schedule, Robert Harris is trotted out for the tourists, but this time, with In/Flux: Migrating Culture and Cultural Modernisation in Prince Edward Island, 1969-1980, two whole floors are devoted to Island artwork from the 1970s, a period contemporary with the arrival of the Centre itself as a force in Island life. The Harris show, Leaving a Mark: The Harris Family in Prince Edward Island since 1856, curated by Kevin Rice and R.C.Tuck, is a skillfully designed overview of the arrival of official culture to P.E.I., in the work of the Anglo-Welsh Harris brothers. The Confederation Centre is itself a natural heir to their project of bringing an academically-informed and to a great degree institutionally-based idea of the fine arts to the Island.

In/Flux, curated by Shauna McCabe, documents a contemporary phenomenon that parallels the arrival of the Harris brothers in 1856, the migration of what the wall texts describe as a “creative class” from away in the 1960s and 1970s to the Island. But where the Harris brothers inaugurated a coherent aesthetic tradition, In/Flux obviously means to present the 1970s version of “cultural modernization” as something much more fragmented and ambivalent about the role of official culture. A dazzling array of mediums, approaches to technique, and notions about art and its role in daily life, give a strong sense of the richness and variety of the visual art of the period, but also present a confusing picture. It’s hard to know where to begin: from a Lawrence McLagan documentary photograph of a farming family in Alaska, P.E.I., say, to Bill Vazan’s conceptual photowork, “Sandpiece P.E.I.,” from Lindee Climo’s iconic “Door” and papier-mache “Pig,” to Terry Dunton Stevenson’s large landscape “The Narrows” (from 1986, oddly enough) there are long distances to travel. And it’s unclear how Ahmon Katz’s wild bicycle sculpture can be related to Henry Purdy’s model for a monumental outdoor sculpture, other than by the fact that they are both, well, welded. The problem may lie in the fact that much of the work in the show was not really meant to be presented as art at all (some of the most intriguing objects shown were journal entries from the 1970s by Megan Williams, blown up to the scale of a painting), and also that the people making it were often actually exploring ways of making art that somehow integrated itself with while still challenging the environment and traditions of the Island, and had little to do with the idea of high art propagated by the Centre itself. Removed from its place above the box office doors and hung on a giant white wall, Malcolm Stanley’s ceramic “Sun” was still impressive as an individual work. But, like many pieces in In/Flux, it was obviously meant for a certain missing context. Perhaps the solution for a show like this would have been to destabilize the clean white walls of the gallery somewhat, and pack it to the gills with more of that context: I would have loved to have seen more stuff, arranged haphazardly and crowded like things at a yard sale, against the grain of the architecture’s pomp and formality. This was a great idea for a show, and I applaud the attempt, but I’m still waiting for an exhibition or book that really gets to the heart of that influx and the challenge it presented, and still presents.

The third show to grace the main galleries of the Confederation Centre this summer is Eric Walker’s Railway Lands, an absolute triumph of busywork and audacious literalness, including videos of what you see when you look out the window of a moving train, and flat metal trains and container ships. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s a must-see.

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