Breaking loose in the ’80s

Latest Glenbow exhibit showcases an artistic ‘jailbreak’

“What I wanted to do was to make sure that I represented the extraordinary diversity that started to happen in Calgary” says Jeffrey Spalding of curating Made in Calgary: The 1980s . The exhibition is the Glenbow Museum’s latest instalment in its decade-by-decade survey of visual art made in Calgary.

Spalding a painter himself is currently the artistic director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary but has a long history with the Glenbow Museum. He served as curator of the Glenbow’s art department right at the cusp of the era he showcases in this exhibition (1978 to 1981) and led the Glenbow as its president from 2007 to 2009. He has also served as a director at the University of Lethbridge and Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and has artworks in the collections of prominent galleries across the country. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 2007.

Trying to define any decade within finite gallery walls is a difficult task and there are a number of strands running through this exhibition for viewers to explore. Perhaps one of the most unifying themes for art though is how during the 1980s “things all of a sudden bust loose” says Spalding.

Let’s back up a few years for context. In the 1970s he explains the art world trended towards a reduced modernist style that “led to artists the world over trying to empty content out of work to be become clearly more and more about solely visual experience.” And while that philosophy did produce beautifully understated abstract works having zero representation in art risks making it boring. The show includes a painting somewhat in this style by Bruce O’Neil but also works that begin to push the abstraction back towards landscapes and other recognizable forms.

The thing was Calgarians never fully bought into the spartan reductivist movement. In the ’70s in Calgary “You’ve got extraordinarily interesting artists who are making things that no one else is making in the world but nobody apparently wants them” says Spalding.

“Where does Duchampian late collage fit in? It doesn’t fit in anywhere” he goes on asking about a dominant artistic style in the Calgary scene. “Where does humour fit in? It doesn’t fit in anywhere. Where does being eccentric fit in? It just doesn’t fit in. Calgary’s artists in the ’60s and ’70s looked a little bit like they were out of step. They may have been idiosyncratic and personal but the art world would be very quick to rush to another judgment.”

And so when the flip finally happened and artists began pouring meaningful shapes back into their work Spalding says “that is sensational for Calgary because it actually has nothing but idiosyncratic nutcases as artists.”

“They already were making work that nobody else made and nobody else wanted. But all of a sudden now it was understood that there was a jailbreak and a lot of it was coming from Calgary; it wasn’t coming from Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal because they had bought into that [style] it was going to take them longer to retool.”

And so we get pieces by John Will cheekily informing us in block letters that his painting is indeed of a prairie landscape; we have Gisele Amantea switching gears and delving into her Italian heritage; we have urgent sketches by Marianne Gerlinger depicting a woman tortured by the thought of an adulterous lover or classy nudes by Joice Hall. Chris Cran showcases both his photorealistic talent and his own effacement of his paintings with cool repeating stripes; eccentric mixed-media pieces hang like bizarrely modern coat of arms; giant canvases fill one wing of the exhibition almost entirely by themselves with an artistic hubris that Spalding says began in the ’70s. And this is only a small sampling of the work included in this show which includes sculpture and photography in addition to its larger-than-life canvases.

“By the ’80s it was time for us to grow and feel very confident” says Spalding of Calgary. “You have a lot of the very strident paintings; a lot of them are just very confident even the goofy ones — full of confidence that they are artists and what they do is of value and they’re not really worried about being validated…. There’s good reason to be proud of the city.”

Besides reaction to the earlier art styles there were other factors that made Calgary a little more mature in the 1980s than previous decades. Spalding notes a feminist theme running through some of the work by female artists and also reminds us that the Glenbow and artist-run centres were hitting their stride by the 1980s. Downtown Calgary was getting a major makeover complete with swanky interior design that drew on the local artistic scene; as part of that commercial galleries became a more significant presence in Calgary’s cultural landscape. Also in the 1980s Spalding says that “Calgary stops being a city state and becomes something of a metropolitan collection centre” meaning that the city was no longer an insular world for only its own artists (who often left the city for more favourable artistic climes) but began to have enough wherewithal to support artists living in surrounding towns and cities.

All this context may help warp you back in time about 30 years; after all just as art has changed so too has its audience. The experience of this exhibition in 2013 is decidedly different than it would have been in say 1985. Today according to Spalding “We’ve become so ingrained with the idea that art can be about just about anything that you expect artists to reach into their deep well of personal experiences and come up with something exquisitely insightful and new. You don’t expect it to be just what you’ve always seen.”

But regardless of the perspective you view this work from — whether you personally remember the ’80s-era art scene in Calgary or not — it’s the work itself that makes this exhibition significant. “What I’ve tried to do is let the art speak” says Spalding. “To me a show is about visual experience and if it’s not about visual experience you’ve failed.”

Made in Calgary: The 1980s is the third in the Glenbow Museum’s five-part exhibition series that explores the character of Calgary’s artistic community from 1960 to 2010 and runs until January 5 2014.

Read quotes from local artists looking back at the city in the ’80s.