Tension | Selections from the Permanent Collection
November 13, 2021 - February 26, 2022
Opening Celebration | Saturday 13, November at 1:00 p.m.
One of the largest works in this exhibition is Edmonton-based artist Catherine Burgess’ Portrait VII. It features raw, geometric forms cut from sheet iron and assembled together like a three-dimensional collage. Being non-representational in nature, Burgess notes that within this work the notion of portraiture is less about the representation of the self or another and rather a cue to inspire more intimate forms of looking. It is not an act of creating a portrait, but rather the act of close looking and attention that one gives when looking at a portrait that is most important to the work.
Tension | Selections from the Permanent Collection features 6 sculptural works from the Art Gallery of Northumberland’s Permanent Collection. The works are tied together through their visual and material similarities and the responses they elicit. Each is a blank slate open to interpretation and hold the ability to be shaped into whatever metaphor the viewer wishes. The materials of each piece—such as stone or metal—feel hard, sterile and distant despite having been transformed into beautiful works of art. Through their tough and ridged materials, through a balancing act, a push and pull, lack of information or lack of engagement the sculptures evoke an air of tension.
This material theme brought to mind a quote from professor of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh who focuses on public monuments and sculpture, Kirk Savage, regarding the nature of the discipline being that “sculpture earned whatever prestige it had from the permanence of its materials—marble and bronze were preferred for this reason—yet the supposedly eternal quality conferred by those materials interfered with its representing modern life, which is defined by its very evanescence.” Savage’s observations of sculpture’s contradictory existence, combined with Burgess’s slow, deep form of looking prompt an exploration into the language and metaphors that materials produce. For much of the planning of this exhibition I searched for a texts and theories to outline some universal, symbolic understanding of the materials present—an academic backing to support what I felt of the works in order to translate that to you. But the language of materials cannot be surmised by one individual nor a handful of them, instead it must be an ongoing search, a continual conversation, a reading and rereading of what we see.
What I present to you is not an authoritative opinion of what these materials mean, but rather are the metaphors and stories that speak to me; the main one being tension.
Untitled presents an interesting perspective on the role of materials within an artwork. There are many things about the work that make it quite a frustrating object. We don’t know the name of it, artist, or background for one. Sight alone it is tricky to quickly determine the material and to complicate it, I’ll let you know that it is heavier than it looks.
With its fuzzy, mirrored surface the piece is perpetually viewed and understood differently. Each viewer will see something a little different on the surface, each has a different face peering back at them. As I look at it, I think “is this really how I look when I look at art?” It’s a disturbing moment of personal intimacy similar to hearing a recording of your own voice.
And so yes, the work is made of metal, but also no.
The work is made of my face and your face and the reflection of the gallery walls when no one is around. It is made of metal, but also everything around it—simultaneously stable and shifting.
Another piece that provoked a few points of contention and frustration was Ted Bieler’s Uxmal. It was a part of ARTARIO in the 70s, a travelling exhibition designed to make art more accessible and engaging to the public. The work was originally meant to be exhibited in a way that allowed viewers to rearrange and manipulate the modules. Each unit is free of a designated place, meaning that the work has the freedom to move and evolve. Interaction becomes an essential component given that “to be effective [the modules] need to be manipulated.” This was an aspect I was incredibly drawn to, only to then be reminded of its unfeasibility. Not because of the usual art gallery motto ‘Don’t Touch the Art,’ but because the plaster and concrete composite that the work is made of doesn’t lend itself to easy or safe disinfecting, a necessary factor needed in the new Covid-19 era.
Bieler’s Uxmal becomes even more reminiscent of the Mayan ruin of its namesake. A work solely to be looked at; just as the city Uxmal no longer contains the hustle and bustle of those who lived within it, the concrete modules no longer get to live out their lives of movement and creative reshuffling from visitors. Instead, they must remain static and motionless for the duration of the exhibition.
Tension isn’t only an effect of many of the works, rather to some it is a fundamental element in bringing the work to life. Kosso Eloul’s piece Unexplainable U is transformed when put under tension. The thin sheet of aluminum and the X that cuts through the centre become protruding when flexed, transforming from a passive object to one that is active, defensive and protective. The motion becomes reminiscent of a breath filling the work with life. On that deep inhale you can see the puffing of a chest, as if in preparation to bear whatever is next to come.
With each work’s abstract nature allows them to be open for interpretation. The artists have employed skillful manipulation to similar materials, resulting in diverse stories to be told. The shapes created are evocative and beautiful. This response comes from material formed into purpose which is where the question of material language come into play. It is where the need for individual interpretation sits and it is where I encourage you to share your translation of material.
To me it is tension. But what is it to you?
By Avery Geboers, Collections and Curatorial Assistant
 Art Gallery of Northumberland, Artist Accession File, June 1990
 Savage, Kirk. “The Obsolescence of Sculpture.” American Art, vol. 24, no. 1, [The University of Chicago Press, The
Smithsonian Institution], 2010, pp. 9–14, https://doi.org/10.1086/652736.
 Bhangu, Noor. "Once a Total Art Happening: Revisiting 'artario 72.'" University of Manitoba School of Art.
November 24 2018. https://umanitoba.ca/schools/art/Artario.html.
Bieler, Ted A. "Re: Exhibition: Art Gallery of Northumberland." E-mail message to author. January 31, 2021.
Meet the AGN’s Collections and Curatorial Assistant, Avery Geboers! Avery graduated from the Criticism and Curatorial Practices program at OCAD University Spring 2020 and has been with the Gallery since January 2021. Her time spent at the Gallery has involved collaborating with coworkers to create at home art activity videos, online programming, research and writing about works from the Permanent Collection, and the creation of an exhibition of sculptures from the Collection!
Avery is beyond excited to finally have Tension| Selections from the Permanent Collection on display for visitors.
“This was my first time working with a Gallery’s Permanent Collection, let alone one that has such strong sculptural works. It was the materials of each that first caught my attention – and held it. I love that each work is completely open for interpretation, so my goal was to really highlight the material aspects of the works and focus on what emotional or mental connotations they evoke. It’s something that everyone will have a different response to and I can’t wait to hear how our visitors interpret the story!”