Little art scene on the prairie; Art journal Border Crossings finally looks at its Winnipeg home
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 16 September 2008)

Regular readers of Border Crossings: A Magazine of the Arts know that it has become one of the best journals of its kind by maintaining, from its Winnipeg base, a resourcefully internationalist stance. But the current issue, its longest ever at 215 pages, turns out to be an exception: It's a hometown celebration, devoted almost entirely to artists (plus a curator and a filmmaker) who are or were Winnipeggers. In this context, Jon Pylypchuk, an artist who now works in Los Angeles, gets star treatment, a long interview and reproductions spread over 15 pages. There are good reasons for his prominence.

Pylypchuk has made his international reputation with installations, three-dimensional dioramas showing imaginary cities filled with imaginary creatures. They combine folk-art elements with a whiff of children's-book imagery and the scattered, casual, what-the-hell tone now popular in avant-garde galleries. He speaks of his work with good-humoured confidence and an insouciant attitude to the audience, apparently a result of the casual, open-ended art scene of Winnipeg.

In one of Robert Enright's many deft interviews, Pylypchuk catches the spirit of the Royal Art Lodge, a flock of half a dozen artists who came together (under an eccentric, self-satirizing name) at the University of Manitoba in 1996. They met once a week to talk, listen to music and draw. Sometimes they constructed art out of junk that fell more or less accidentally into their hands. Often three of them would work on one piece.

They were not an instant success. Pylypchuk recalls the time when "Michael [Dumontier] and Adrian [Williams] and I were sitting around making scrap art one night, and we thought we'd put some work in a show at the university." Each of them submitted 30 pieces. All of them used pseudonyms, perhaps because the art they were doing was far outside anybody's idea of the curriculum.

The next day they discovered all of their work stuffed in a dumpster.

They retrieved the pieces and re-submitted them. "A few hours later we found them in the dumpster again. It just wasn't the right time."

They mounted their own art shows, also without acclaim. "At one point we had a table at the university where we were giving stuff away for free, including drawings, and nobody ever took anything."

During Pylypchuk's time as a student, the professors went on strike. "Much as I appreciated my professors, the strike was one of the best things that happened." It made him realize the importance of self-motivation. He went off to study at UCLA and stayed in Los Angeles.

Marcel Dzama, another member of the Royal Art Lodge, now lives in Brooklyn. An article called "The Infinitude of Cool: Marcel Dzama's Grave New World" describes, among other things, a snowman sculpture commissioned by the Mexican city of Culiacan, which he calls A Gift from Winnipeg. Now that he no longer lives there, he finds himself thinking more about Winnipeg. A recent Dzama painting, Even the Ghosts of the Past, is the cover of this Border Crossings.

Various ghosts of Winnipeg's past crop up elsewhere. Wayne Baerwaldt, a much-admired curator who works in Toronto and Calgary as well as Winnipeg, ruminates on Winnipeg's economic failures of the past, notably its one-time belief that it was "the Chicago of the North" and its disappointment in 1913 when the opening of the Panama Canal limited its role in cross-continental trade. Baerwaldt takes an unfriendly view of Winnipeg's suburbs ("cultural death traps") but enjoys "the tentatively revived inner city." He offers a historic survey of the gallery he ran for years, Plug In ICA, and delivers a judgement obviously based on his successful experience there: "What Winnipeg offers, in spades, is lots of free parking for intellectual development."

Guy Maddin, whose list of films includes his recent My Winnipeg, has an article titled "My (Other) Winnipeg: Excerpts from a Phantom Film." He calls his hometown "a city that no longer recollects why it's even here" but argues that the more Winnipeggers forget, "the more their genetic memories push through the fog." He, too, writes about the Panama Canal's frustration of Winnipeg's business plan and tells a melancholy and grotesque story from his own family. He also dredges up a Winnipeg art scandal that made national news long ago: the case of Emmanuel Hahn. In 1925, when Hahn was teaching art in Toronto, he won a competition to design a war memorial for Winnipeg. When Winnipeg learned that Hahn was German-born, this revelation produced so much anger that the commission was rescinded. The controversy made him something of a national figure and helped him to build to a successful career.

Memories of another kind, grimmer and more intimate, unfold in Enright's and Meeka Walsh's interview with Sarah Anne Johnson, an artist who uses autobiography in her work. These days her work focuses on heartbreaking events in the life of her grandmother, Velma Orlikow, who died in 1990. The extensive illustrations running with this interview suggest that Johnson is coming to terms with a painful form of emotional ambivalence.

Velma was the wife of David Orlikow, the NDP member of parliament for Winnipeg North. More important, she was an unknowing victim of Dr. Ewan Cameron's CIA-subsidized experiments with LSD in Montreal. Like several others, she went to Cameron complaining of depression but emerged from his care in much worse health. A class-action suit forced an out-of-court settlement from the CIA after a long battle. Velma never recovered.

"Her nerves were shot," says Johnson. She loved her grandmother, but didn't love the tension and hysteria Cameron's experiments had apparently induced. "Even if you dropped your fork on your plate at dinner, she would hit the ceiling." The most arresting image in this Border Crossings is an altered photograph of Velma holding two children. Johnson has extended her fingers into long, sinister vines that turn her into a wicked witch from a fairy tale.

Walsh, the editor of Border Crossings, writes in her column of Winnipeg as a chimera, an illusion, an idea of a city. "The geography's delights require subtle and schooled looking; the weather tests your sincerity." Like most of the issue, her piece is an imaginative, rueful and affectionate paean to the city that has gives Border Crossings its special sense of life.

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