There's something weird going on in Canadian art, easily evidenced by this year's crop of Sobey Art Award nominees. Fantastic, dark, playful and pop-culture influenced, nominees David Altmejd, Shary Boyle, Marcel Dzama, Luanne Martineau and Graeme Patterson all share similar sensibilities and themes, making the award exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia one of the most cohesive shows since the award's inception in 2002. Orchestrated by the Sobey family and the AGNS, the annual prize awards $50,000 to a Canadian artist under 40.
Local nominee Graeme Patterson enchanted Halifax with his solo exhibition Woodrow at the AGNS in 2007, showing his large-scale models of a prairie town and stop-motion animations. The tiny community of Woodrow, Saskatchewan, was the NSCAD graduate's home base at the time, but Patterson's visits to Halifax over the course of the show led him to move back here a year-and-a-half ago. Long-listed for the Sobey award in 2007, Patterson was a nominee for the prairies then, and now for the Atlantic region.
"I was living by myself on a farm in Saskatchewan---it just wasn't sustainable," says Patterson, who grew up in Saskatoon. The opportunity to buy a house with a friend came up---what he calls a "mini-mansion" in Clayton Park. Patterson is comfortable back in Halifax, happy to show his work at the AGNS, which he refers to as his "home ice."
Patterson's piece, "Grudge Match," is a diorama and animation about wrestling, friendship, school and anime. "It's a common wrestling term, a match with a familiar opponent...you both respect each other's ability, and the matches are really, really tight," says Patterson, who used to wrestle in high school.
He wanted to create a piece about a childhood friend, Yuki, who moved to Japan with his family when the two were around nine years old. Patterson lost touch with his friend, who he used to playfight and watch anime with. Combining what he calls the factual elements of the friendship and his wrestling history into a fictional element, "Grudge Match" consists of an enormous diorama of a high school gym, topped by a bunk bed-like ceiling and flanked by a projection of his stop-motion animation of teenage wrestlers.
It's a bit laughable to visualize the lithe, long-haired artist as a wrestler. "I was really good when I was little, when I started in the smallest weight category," he says. "Later I sort of became the joker on the team. I'd draw portraits of my teammates, joke comics."
Where many artists remember gym class as awkward and painful, "the gym ended up being an OK place for me," he says. Patterson's diorama is visceral, the locker room minutely detailed down to weird stains and hair glued onto the shower tiles, the blonde-wood gymnasium floor conjuring up memories of sitting cross-legged through boring assemblies, staring at your toes and waiting for the bell.
Patterson's next months look busy, with plans for a summer camp-themed installation, making puppets and a trip to Japan to seek out his lost friend, where he hopes to do a residency as well. The interdisciplinary nature of his practice is typical among this group of Sobey-nominated artists.
When you visit the AGNS, don't fear the yeti with mirror stalagmites jutting out of its body. Quebec nominee David Altmejd represented Canada at the 2007 Venice Biennale. His Biennale piece, "The Index," a room-size construction of mirrors and taxidermied birds, was subsequently snapped up by the Art Gallery of Ontario. His sculpture on display here uses the same elements of mirrors, fake fur, skin and gore, glitter and crystal trees; the crystal sasquatch is somewhere between a hipster band mascot and a starchitect's construction.
Toronto's Shary Boyle, who was also short-listed in 2007, shows a fey white figure which a projection flickers on and off of. Boyle has done everything from zines to porcelain ladies to live projection performances, so combining several of these in one piece comes as no surprise. Rainbows, insects and tree branches dance across the sculpture when it lights up, creating a truly bizarre experience that almost looks like something dragged out of your typical new age-occult boutique, but not quite.
Perennial favourite Marcel Dzama, Winnipeg-born but living in New York, contributes a short film, The Infidels, based on a Rachmaninoff piece, as well as its accompanying detritus, from sketches to a demonic hooded, twirling sculpture. Dzama's work is the most gothic on offer here, recalling the faux-nostalgic eeriness of fellow Winnipegger Guy Maddin's films.
Victoria-based Luanne Martineau's textile work has a fantastic element as well, with felted body parts and scratchy drawings that look like they're somewhere between knitting patterns and collage. Her textiles seem like winter clothes that happened to pull the skin off with them when they were removed.
Graeme Patterson has nothing but praise for his fellow nominees. "I think it's great that David Altmejd and Marcel Dzama are nominated, they draw a lot of attention," he says. "I don't expect to win. I'm younger and I have less experience. But I'm happy to be a part of it. I've always kind of considered my work to be part of this grouping, so it's great to be included."
Sobey Art Award gala on October 15, exhibition on display until November 5 at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1723 Hollis Street, artgalleryofnovascotia.ca