The Winnipeg view of art in Border Crossings
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, December 31, 2002)

It's been a baffling year for art lovers, like most years, but there are more than enough compensations for anyone with the necessary patience. As usual, two obstacles face those who hope to enjoy art without spending every waking moment contemplating it. One obstacle is overabundance. Every spring an army of talent breaks out of the art schools and tries to break into art, making the art world a terrifying microcosm of the global population crisis. Today Calgary alone has more interesting artists than Toronto had 30 years ago, and in Toronto no one can count the number of exhibiting artists. No one can even count the galleries.

The other obstacle is that much of what happens in any given year, including 2001, strikes most people as crazy. This is a world, after all, in which Louise Bourgeois, the famous avant-garde artist, turned 90 on Christmas Day and The New York Times celebrated her birthday by saying, "She puts demands on her viewers to go with her into a discomfiting zone of trauma and endurance." That was the writer's idea of a compliment. It preceded the mention of sex organs Bourgeois carved out of marble. "Art is the guarantee of sanity," Bourgeois told the Times.

No one professionally involved in art thinks that's funny. Nor do they appreciate the annual jeering at the Turner Prize in England; the recent winner (who got a light to turn on and off in a room) was considered a sensible choice. At the Banff Centre in Alberta, an artist from Mexico exhibited vials of his own semen. That was the best part. The worst was his insistence on explaining why he thinks this act was significant. "Thinking" of that kind now destroys more artists than absinthe killed in the Paris of the 1890s.

Many magazines offer to guide us through this rich, often risible landscape. One of my favourites is a quarterly from Winnipeg, Border Crossings: A Magazine of the Arts, which celebrates its 20th birthday with the current issue. The other day, reading the articles on David Urban's paintings and on Guy Maddin's film version of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's Dracula, I realized it had been a long time since I'd let myself miss an issue. Somehow, Border Crossings (500-70 Arthur St., Winnipeg, Man. R3B 1G7) has become indispensable without becoming really well known. It sells 6,000 copies and deserves to sell many more.

Just to get the unpleasant part out of the way early, its design tends to be chaotic; in my experience, professional art directors run and hide at the sight of it. It unfortunately comes across as "visual racket," a phrase Max Kozloff applied in a recent Border Crossings piece to Michael Walker's florid colour photographs of New York.

The content is another matter. Meeka Walsh, the editor, and Robert Enright, the founding editor and now editor-at-large, engage their subject with sophisticated enthusiasm and always leave their readers better informed about the range of current art. Visual art dominates the magazine, but Walsh places it within a context that includes fiction, poetry and film criticism. The reviews illuminate their subjects, the reporting is lucid, and the editors choose their portfolios of drawings and photographs with careful intelligence. Sometimes they fit everything into a theme issue, on a subject like art and technology or homoeroticism.

Like all the best magazines, Border Crossings works hard to sift through a mountain of competing information. That done, it tells us not what we should think but what we should consider thinking about. For a quarterly, it manages to stay amazingly on top of the news. Just when Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller were scoring their great triumph at the Venice Biennale last summer, Border Crossings was on the stands with an excellent story about them ("We knew they were going to win," Walsh says). And as Daniel Libeskind was being named a finalist in the competition to redesign the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the new Border Crossings was on the press with a serious analysis and photographs of his work in Germany and England.

Enright, the CBC's main arts broadcaster in Winnipeg, conducts for Border Crossings some of the best published interviews in the country; Bain & Cox of Winnipeg published a collection of them in 1997 as Peregrinations: Conversations with Contemporary Artists, and a second book is on the way. He has a way of eliciting frankness from artists. A few years ago, Tony Scherman, whose pictures are admired for their painterly quality, told him: "The truth of the matter is that none of us at the end of the 20th century can paint."

Photographer Helmut Newton, a staunch admirer of David Cronenberg's films, expressed reservations about Crash: "I thought that the costumes looked like very old Helmut Newton ... I think garter belts are finished." Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, a Coast Salish artist with an aversion to academics, delivered a sharp, vivid metaphor: "I was probably one of the first artists to pry the anthropologists from my leg, where they were hanging like little puppies."

Writers in Border Crossings accomplish, better than most, the critic's most difficult task: communicating art ideas to non-artists and artists alike, explaining what matters to the first group without boring or appalling the second. For the most part, they avoid artspeak, the private language that disfigures many magazines. Occasionally a phrase like "undisciplinable interdisciplinarity" floats down the usually free-flowing river of Border Crossings prose, leaving shore-bound spectators dumbfounded. Walsh's elegant and forceful writing is more typical. In the Venice issue, she proved that even in the 21st century it's possible to write with originality about both Venice and a Venice painting by J.M.W. Turner.

There was a time when a dominant international style seemed essential to painters, sculptors and collectors. Art was much easier to understand then, but less interesting. The complex, spontaneous and totally unpredictable art world of the present encompasses more styles, schools, media, mannerisms, and madnesses than anyone could have imagined a few decades ago. No one can sort them out entirely, but Border Crossings tackles this intimidating assignment with exceptional audacity and considerable success.

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