MAIN SPACE EXHIBITION
JUNE 10 – JULY 22, 2011
RECEPTION: FRIDAY, JUNE 10, 2011 AT 8 PM
ARTIST TALK: SATURDAY, JUNE 11 AT 1 PM
LOCATION – STRIDE GALLERY
1004 MACLEOD TRAIL S.E., CALGARY, ALBERTA
Fabricated from scavenged car parts, Elinor Whidden’s sculptural assemblages reference modes and accessories of transportation used during the opening of the Western Frontier: canoes, dogsleds, knapsacks, walking sticks, and snowshoes. These objects are then portaged, dragged, or carried along early fur trade routes where the waterways and footpaths of this historic period stand in as the forefathers to our current system of highways and over-passes. Whidden’s work depicts a nostalgic attitude towards the wilderness and a romantic belief in the dream of the Western Frontier, and prompts us to ask questions about how we will survive once the Fordian empire finally collapses.
ELINOR WHIDDEN’s multi-disciplinary art practice has become a quest to survive and adapt in a world increasingly threatened by contemporary car culture. Whidden received a BA in Canadian/Environmental Studies from Trent University, a BFA from NSCAD University and a MFA from the State University of New York at Buffalo.
ELINOR WHIDDEN: STAGING THE IRONIC SUBLIME
BY TRUDI LYNN SMITH
Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, it is about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true. Irony is about humor and serious play.
Elinor Whidden brings together the powerful myth of the frontier with the refuse of contemporary car culture to seriously play with notions of wilderness, a distinct Canadian Art History, and progress. Four 28 x 42” wood-framed colour photographs documenting the artist posed in a landscape with the sculptural assemblages accompany the installation of Windshield Wiper Tent and Side Mirror Musket. Upon first glance, the photographic documents and sculptural installations fit into a powerful myth-making megalith, replete with familiar images of the Group of Seven’s Canadian Shield topography: gentle sloping hills disappear into an isolated background, pine trees frame the foreground, and lakes intersect the midground between. Solid bedrock forms the stage upon which the figure of Whidden stands, gazing out at the scene. These distinctive landscape features are matched with technological prosthetics that conjure the historical imaginary of progress—a tent and a musket.
And yet, the iconographic obsession that finds Whidden re-staging these powerful myths is also the ironic play that finds her salvaging the discarded relics of car culture. Whidden’s practice is organized around scavenging familiar car parts and refashioning them into forms one might find in an iconic Paul Kane painting: Whidden uses tire skins shed by trucks that land on the sides of highways to build oversized and unwieldy snowshoes. She collects discarded mirrors and windshield wipers from automobile scrap yards to build walking sticks, modified muskets, or the skeleton framework needed to build tent structures.
An aesthetic and historical toil is at the heart of her working process and social commentary. In earlier works Whidden disassembled a car by breaking it into pieces shaped like canoes, knapsacks, paddles and a dogsled that she then carried on her back while following the eight mile portage path around Niagara Falls. This effort demarcates a space of performance for opposing and celebrating both past and present, iconic and ironic, wilderness and industry: she brings these diametrically opposed concepts together into an unresolvable whole. The sculptures used in staging her photographs fit into a history of Canadian Art and a modernist painting tradition populated by “rugged virility and hard work”. 2
Two narratives of Canadian landscape are joined in her work in interesting ways: the construction of landscape as pristine, and the construction of landscape as ‘roaded’. Whidden’s work suggests it is not so easy to find pure truth or pure fiction in a Canadian landscape: even fictions have real effects.
RE-STAGING the Pristine
In the photograph, Georgian Bay (2009),Whidden is pictured gazing onto the landscape, holding a musket with a side view mirror attached. The mirror reflects a partial view of what is to the side of the artist and beyond the frame of the camera. Like Jimmy Durham’s response to Joseph Beuys’ use of the automobile mirror (Not Joseph Beuys’ Coyote), Whidden’s re-staging of a colonial space and pictorial memory offers critical reflections on our histories; who or what is just outside the frame, or never depicted within it? The small size of such a mirror, one intended for quick glances, acts as a metaphor for the partialness of historical accounts. Addressing a legacy of Canadian Art History in her constructions, Whidden follows her forbearers and purposefully avoids the reflections of the snow fences that she acknowledges can often be found just outside the frame of her wilderness scenes.
At a time when Canadian artists and scholars are trying to reanimate ideas of landscape with habitation and presence, Whidden re-stages iconic images from a history of Canadian Art in order to address the wilderness imaginary that she is both attracted to and subsequently compelled to challenge. Whidden mediates this landscape and history, bearing witness with her body and with salvaged and repurposed car parts transformed into sculptural assemblages. Whidden embodies the historically positioned and celebrated role of the explorer, fur trader, or guide found in the history of landscape painting in Canada from Cornelius Kreighoff to Paul Kane. The re-staging of something that has been, (as something recognizable in a Canadian Art History), and never was, (as an exaggerated construction, and a studio creation by Kane and others), is part of the tension of a cultural imaginary that Whidden exposes. Therefore, Whidden’s photographs are not simply playful re-enactments revealing history’s construction, rather they are a powerful emotional signifier and embodiment of history’s impossibility: historical events always exceed our documentations of them, and we can never perfectly return to either events or the origins of iconic representations.
Paul Kane’s iconic painting, Scene in the Northwest (1845-46) is a symbolic space that conjures the Dominion of Canada. It includes the figure of John Henry Lefroy, the man credited with calculating magnetic north, and nearby his scientific equipment is piled on a sled. While LeFroy is foregrounded in a place depicted to be Canada, he is also on the move, in the midst of an historical moment and engaged in the progress of science within the ‘new world’. Playing with the notion of progress, in Sunny Lake (2009), Whidden reproduces a Canadian pictorial space that Kane brought into being and populates it with Windshield Wiper Tent. Not only does the artist place her scrap yard collection into what is understood as a pristine wilderness imaginary, but the tent is the dismantling of progress in the form of hundreds of discarded windshield wipers built into a dwelling that would not function as protection. Refigured into an aesthetic art object, it bears the truth of the ends of the romance with car culture. Whidden is a master of simultaneity, or as Haraway would write, holding incompatible things together. Bringing a meticulous care towards the grand narratives of a Canadian Art history together with a particular history of the automobile, Whidden forestalls a too-easy distinction between truth and fiction.
2 Reid, Dennis. A concise history of Canadian Painting 2nd edition. Oxford University Press. 1988.
TRUDI LYNN SMITH brings anthropology, art and curatorial practice to bear on her studies of Canadian National Parks. She holds an interdisciplinary PhD in the Departments of Anthropology and Visual Arts from the University of Victoria and has recently taken up a SSHRC Post-Doctoral position at York University.