When you walk into the AGA’s exhibition Living Building Thinking: Art and Expressionism, you are greeted by lines of text that cover the wall from floor to ceiling. It explains that Expressionism is a movement conveying “the human condition through art.” The text educates the viewer on the historical context, but it is also a warning: the human condition can be unpredictable, violent, full of agony and despair.
These conditions are hung, one by one, on the gallery walls. They seem to interact with the gallery space, telling the lighting to cast a kaleidoscope of shadows as you walk, giving you the sensation that something is hovering over your body. The noise of other gallery visitors is filtered through the space, sounding like you’re submerged in a pool of water while people talk above the surface.
All the works exhibited in this show have one trait in common: they plunge the viewer into uneasy feelings. Not all of the works chosen for the show are part of Expressionism, which began in the early 20th century and ended around the Second World War. Some of the pieces in the show, such as Richard Hamilton’s “Kent State” (1970), were created well past the end of Expressionism. This can be confusing, as you wonder why all the works were organized together. Is the curator trying to show elements of Expressionism in dissimilar styles of art?
One way the works are united is through their disconnection with the viewer. You feel separated from what you’re seeing, as if there is a barrier between you and the artwork. Something is off; you look deep into the images, but they cannot be understood. This is because you are looking at feelings, ephemeral things that come to you as quickly as they pass. Although we relate to each other through feelings, we cannot understand a situation and its grasp on a person unless we personally feel it. What we see on the gallery walls are echoes of situations and feelings past, the lingering aftermath of personal dystopias.
August Sander’s The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha, 1925-1926 emphasizes this disconnection. In the black-and-white print, a man is turned to his right and is fiercely concentrating on a woman seated next to him. His gaze is intent yet looks directly past the woman, as if she isn’t really there. The woman looks out at the viewer with dull and lifeless eyes. Like the man, we seem to be looking at the shell of what was once human flesh with a beating heart. The woman in the image is visible yet intangible, like the feelings and concepts evoked in all of the images in the exhibition.
Sander’s work, and each of the images in the exhibition, surround you with a sense of death. But in some bizarre way, they leave you breathing, drinking in their forms like toxic nightmares. Once you circulate through all the works in the gallery, you leave much heavier than when you came in.
Until Mon, Feb 15
Living Building Thinking: Art and Expressionism
Art Gallery of Alberta