Halifax needs its university galleries. Without them, there’d be roughly 100 fewer art exhibitions per year in the city (by our calculations); space for emerging talent would be even more competitive; and the stepping stones to larger venues would essentially wash downstream. With all this in mind, it’s no wonder the visual art community in Halifax was chewing its lip last year as whispers of the Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery’s closure swirled.
The school was quick to deny the rumors, telling The Coast via email that just because the gallery’s longtime curator Robin Metcalfe was leaving, that didn’t mean the space was drying up. “With the retirement of Robin Metcalfe who led the Gallery for 17 years as Curator and Director, it is opportune to look for a new individual to fill this important role,” the Associate VP External Affairs Margaret Murphy wrote in an email to The Coast last April. “Under Robin’s tenure the Gallery achieved greater prominence across Canada and beyond, and we are confident of attracting new leadership through a national search.” Yet, while other galleries began reopening, the SMU gallery held fast, continuing to focus on window-only installations throughout 2021.
That all changed last week, when the gallery unlocked its doors to the public for the first time since COVID-19’s arrival. The new, in-person exhibit on view now is decidedly worth the wait, too: Titled Phase Variations, it’s an installation by three-time Sobey Art Award shortlister Lou Sheppard, one of the brightest stars on the rise in the Halifax scene.
“Phase Variations has been a year(s)-long research project, culminating in a series of performances, exhibition and publication. Created by Lou Sheppard and curated by Robin Metcalfe the project draws on Metcalfe’s archive of queer history in the Atlantic region, exploring the queer ways that we as queer people find our histories, our ancestors, and imagine our futures,” offers a press release from the gallery. “Digging through these archives Sheppard reads the collected objects and stories for the spaces and slippages they reveal in the dominant historical record.”
The result? A series of graphic scores performed and installed within the gallery. “Rather than housing straightforward video/audio documentation of a performance, the gallery will become an affected and affective site—another iteration of the scores themselves,” the release adds.
Throughout the pandemic, Sheppard has been making art that traces movement patterns to engage with the ways people pass through spaces. "I feel like I'm tired of this idea that art—I mean it's an old conversation—but like, just the idea that art is not for everybody or that it can't be something that everybody can engage with," Sheppard told The Coast one morning last spring, speaking from their front porch on IG with us. "I don’t think my work has to be opaque or difficult to enter into."