Monday, December 31, 2012

Over the bridge

The Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown PEI is hosting an exhibition of paintings by David T. Alexander.  It's part of "The Shape of Place" curated and circulated by the Kelowna Art Gallery, and this pared-down Maritime showing features a selection of Alexander's large-scale landscapes.

Prince Edward Island is connected to NB by the Confederation Bridge, a 12.9 km structure that is the longest in the world spanning an ice-covered body of water.  The arch of the bridge carries vehicles to a height of 60 metres above the Northumberland Strait on an elevated roadway that's high enough to allow fishing boats and cruise liners to pass between the piers below.  On the day of our crossing wind gusts reduced traffic to 60 km per hour, a slow touring speed that allowed me to enjoy a spectacular view of white-capped waves and the distant red earth shoreline.

The Confederation Bridge viewed from Cape Jourimain, NB 

Confederation Centre of the Arts houses a gallery, theatre and restaurant
David Alexander's paintings are grouped according to subject matter with mountain, woods and water displayed on three walls of the central main floor gallery.  The show charts a circular progression from an early dark Saskatoon sky painting to the recent series of water reflections, a path that travels from the Prairies to the Rockies to Iceland to Tokyo and back to the artist's home base in Kelowna, BC.  "Place" for David Alexander encompasses considerably more than the look of a specific geographic location and although the works are recognizable as renderings of the land, they lean toward metaphysical concepts.  I tend to think of Alexander's artistic oeuvre (over three decades of painting) as the construction of a bridge between the phenomenal and the numinous aspects of nature.

Installation view

"Wet" paintings

On the end wall, "Entering the Beginnings of the Big Dipper's Horizon" 1989

David Alexander is an adventurer, an avid hiker and skier, an outdoors man whose wanderlust is matched by an endless enthusiasm for observing nature first hand.  He is not content to pass through a place - whether city or wilderness -  without taking the time to tune in to the forces within it.  Informed by pages of exploratory sketches, his studio-completed canvases are charged with echoes, rhythms, questions, enchantment and (sometimes) angst.

I am snared by one of the water paintings, a vertical high-contrast piece composed of concentric rings and zigzag lines.  It is a complex painting that expands the beauty of a rippling, elongated reflection far enough that it opens to reveal a threat. The comeliness of Nature, the seductive camouflage of her colours, forms and patterns, fools us into thinking that she is benign.   Look long enough and Alexander's work will pose a challenge, compelling you to go beyond the surface.

David T. Alexander, "Salient Rings, Bisque Camouflage" 2009, acrylic on canvas, 80" x 48" 
"All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.  Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.  It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors."  
                                          - Oscar Wilde, preface to "The Picture of Dorian Gray" 1891

"David Alexander: The Shape of Place" continues at the Confederation Arts Centre until January 20th, 2013.  Here is a link to the artist's website.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A taste of Acadie

My glasses steamed up the moment I entered the Community Hall at Shemogue NB this morning, making it difficult to navigate the stairs leading to the basement. The interior high humidity did nothing to dampen the festive mood of the women serving at the annual Poutine Sale.   By the time I made my way to the lower level and cleared my lenses, one of the ladies had invited me to join an assembly line of jolly helpers rolling fat potato and pork dumplings by hand.  Local customers (the ones who knew the drill) brought their own pots to take home traditional Acadian poutines rapees.

Kitchen crew in the steamy workplace

Uncooked poutines rapees

Simmering the poutines takes 2 hours

A traditional Acadian dish

Interior, ready to eat

 The Acadians borrowed the recipe for potato dumplings from American settlers who arrived in this region around 1766.  The savoury German "Knodel" was adapted by the Acadians who added a salt pork filling, thereby transforming a side dish into a "meal in a ball."  To create poutines rapees, each hand-formed globe of grated and mashed potato is split in half and a small portion of meat is added to the centre before rolling the dumpling up again.  The ball is dropped into boiling water and simmered for 2 hours.  The Shemogue women told me that they like to eat poutines sprinkled with white sugar, while their husbands prefer a drizzle of blackstrap molasses.  

 When I get home and try the dish for the first time, I am a bit put off by the gluey, greyish appearance of the poutine.  Naked and split open, it is not an attractive or appetizing sight.  The potato layer is thick and rubbery and reminiscent of the gnocchi served in Argentina.  The pork is bland, not spicy like the Chinese pork filling used in dim sum dumplings.  I imagine that in the past poutines rapees provided a hearty filler for hard-working farmers and fishermen at times when meat was not plentiful. Acadian comfort food may be an acquired taste, but as one of the cooks at the sale commented,   "Noel ne serait pas Noel sans poutines rapees!"   

NB  The poutine enjoyed in this area of southeastern New Brunswick is not to be confused with the poutine of Quebec which is a combination of french fries, cheese and gravy.  Here is the recipe for authentic NB poutines rapees.   There are other innovative versions on the menu at a Restaurant L'Idylle in Dieppe, NB 

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Sustaining Infinite

Last week I had a glimpse of infinity at the Owens Art Gallery in Sackville NB.  A series of works by Karen Reimer touches on the concept of the infinite through textile models.

The base for each unit in Reimer's "Endless Set" is a standard 20" x 30" pillowcase, to which she sews patchwork pieces and a prime number cut out of white cotton fabric.  The project is structured by rules that govern the format and outcome of the work:

  1. The number of patchwork pieces in the composition is equal to the prime number represented ( 7 is made up of 7 pieces)
  2. The height of the fabric number in inches is equal to the prime number represented  (the cut out number 7 is 7 inches high.)
  3. The pillowcase size remains the same for each work.  This requires folding the fabric as the prime numbers increase.  
"Endless Set" by Karen Reimer

The series resulting from Reimer's rigorous concept and careful craftsmanship becomes increasingly abstract, as the large white numbers take over and obscure the multitude of coloured patchwork pieces that lie underneath.  The viewer can only imagine what a prime number as high as 1399 or 1543 might be like.  In theory the series goes on forever, but in reality a point of collapse arrives as the pieces of patchwork are reduced to minuscule and the prime numbers enlarged to gigantic.  Reimer defines her art-making as "a contest between the concept of infinity and the limitations of the physical world, including my body."

Karen Reimer, "Endless Set", Detail of 101

I love the large-scale ambition demonstrated in Reimer's work; it's as if she's attempting to pull her needle and thread through a model of the entire universe.  After seeing the "Endless Set" I read an intriguing article "Our Place in the Universe" by Alan Lightman in the December issue of Harper's Magazine.  It  describes the XDF (Extreme Deep Field) project headed by astronomer Garth Illingworth, a professor at the University of California. Using the Hubble Space Telescope, a photo of a small section of deep space has been retrieved, rendering the most distant of galaxies visible.   It is a red spot in the night sky dubbed UDFj-39546284.

Illingworth admits to being occasionally overwhelmed by his own probing into a vast, remote territory.  "Every once in a while, I think: By God, we are studying things that we can never physically touch.  We sit on this miserable little planet in a mid-size galaxy and we can characterize most of the universe. It is astonishing to me, the immensity of the situation, and how to relate to it in terms we can understand."

Perhaps the artist and the scientist should get together and compare notes.  Both are working with the tantalizing concept of infinity while confronting the challenges of being merely human.

"The Endless Set" by Karen Reimer is on display at the Owens Art Gallery, Sackville NB until December 16th.

"To those leaning on the sustaining infinite, today is big with blessings."  
                                                                      - Mary Baker Eddy