Arts Visual Art

Ramble in the Bramble

Natural art

Many established galleries in Canada are in trouble. People are simply not attending in droves nor are they crying out when major institutions slash staff or reduce shows. For example, the Vancouver Art Gallery approached a one-million-dollar deficit around its 80th birthday. In 2012 the Glenbow Museum in Calgary had its fourth consecutive deficit of more than one million. In anticipation of a $2.5-million deficit, the National Gallery of Canada eliminated 29 staff positions. The Art Gallery of Alberta's financial problems are well known, too. The why's and wherefore's could fill a book, but it may be an image problem: galleries are not renowned for hospitality or community outreach skills. Whatever the cause, the results are disconcerting.

Developing innovative ways to exhibit art and reach out to the broader community is vital for generating enthusiasm, and that's where the Edmonton Arts Council Public Art program has taken a significant lead. Its latest brainchild, Ramble in the Bramble, is a transitory exhibition in Whitemud Park. Seven artworks by eight local artists line a beautiful path in the river valley. (Ten artists in total are involved if you include a musical composition by Nulle Part that can be downloaded for the walk from the Ramble website.) Robert Harpin, one of the organizing public art team members explains, “there is nothing more exciting than running into art in a space where you weren't expecting to see it.”

Harpin is right. Strolling in a beautiful setting and running into art concealed between trees transforms formal art-viewing into a treasure hunt. It's pure fun. You have to look up to see some works; Amy Malbeuf's and Alma Visscher's artworks hang high up in the trees. Sherri Chaba's and Jes McCoy's installations are secret forest hideouts. Tiffany Shaw-Collinge's plywood construction is a ziggurat-like shape in a clearing that viewers climb onto. Leslie Sharpe's series of discreet installations lie along a hidden path: for instance, you suddenly hear the mysterious sound of a brook beneath your feet. It is a recording buried beneath a log.

One of the least noticeable works in the show is, in my view, the most successful one. “Don't Look Now” by Rachelle Bowen and Mackenzy Albright is made out of a recycled palette. In a symbolic return to the forest, this palette has been refashioned back into tree trunks by human hands. It's a conceptually witty piece that doesn't strive to compete with the beauty of the forest—a battle nature is sure to win. And this work is unimpeachably environmentally friendly.

This entire show inevitably raises the broad question of environmentally friendly art. The EAC considered this issue and asked for art made primarily of recycled materials, but it's not clear how many artworks followed this directive. For instance, the “Fox Farm HQ” was created out of large quantities of plywood and painted bright orange. While the paint and the wood may or may not have been recycled, the piece seems intrusive. The large quantity of plywood and paint would not have been disconcerting in the city—it would have been a lovely interactive work—but here, with the forest all around, it seems like a loud, insensitive guest at a party.

Yet, as a whole, this is a strong show that stretches physical, psychological and conceptual boundaries that galleries impose. (Sadly this will also be the last event organized by the EAC. The transitory art program will go on, but on an individual-artist basis.) It does, however, bring into focus environmental art issues. None of the works approach the sensitivity of British land art. Artists such as Andy Goldsworthy worked with materials that returned into the earth without a trace. For example, he used urine to connect his ephemeral icicle sculptures. Most of the works in Ramble in the Bramble are still heavily gallery influenced and seem conspicuously perched in the forest. Yet, for a first show to be found in such a natural setting in Edmonton, it is a trailblazer. Let's hope that it's the beginning of a new trend.

Until Fri, Sep 27
Whitemud Park

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