Peter von Tiesenhausen is an artist from Demmit, AB whose sculptures and mixed-media works have been shown nationally in both gallery and site-specific public sites. FOREST FIGURES is a residency project including an exhibition at the gallery and two site-specific special events. The project continues Peter’s investigation of the ever-changing natural world in relation to society. Specifically, the artist will present a group of life-sized charred male figures carved out of fallen trees from his farm. These forms suggest proud figures that have gone through a drastic transformation metaphorically represented by charring the sculptures’ surfaces. Charring these sculptures a societal transformation or the gentrification of nature. Installing the charred figures in an abandoned, urban, public site furthers this discussion. The exhibition will include photographs, video and drawings documenting the burning and installation of these figurative sculptures.



PETER VON TIESENHAUSEN’s sculptural and mixed-media works have been shown nationally in both gallery and site-specific public sites. Most recently, von Tiesenhausen’s large-scale sculptures have been carved and woven out of large but flexible tree boughs to resemble boat, sphere and figurative forms. The artist also documents the processes by which the work is conceived and constructed through a proliferation of charcoal drawings, small wooden maquettes, and paintings. Depending on the context in which the completed works are shown, the work’s meaning can shift dramatically.



In the Gus Van Sant film “To Die For”, a trashed-up Nicole Kidman—mildly disturbing in the clarity of her obsession—observes that “if you’re not on TV, you don’t matter.” Cheek aside, I can’t stop thinking about that line. And, no matter what I do, I cant she the visual image created by Sant’s character. Consider the scene as millennium approaches: Trump on the shopping channel, Bosnia on Channel Four, OJ on Quaaludes and the dog chasing its tale: a fury of events, as viewed through the hall of mirrors that is contemporary media culture.

What’s intriguing is Sant’s analysis of what happens to the individual who lands on Planet TV without critique. “To Die For” lays down the koan of the century: even as people continue to do that people thing –obsess about meaning –the conditions that create meaning are increasingly manufactured, obscured and diffuse.

How, then, to start making sense? What drew me to the work of artist Peter von Tiesenhausen was the stylish way in which he does just that. When it comes to purchased identity and 20th century razzle dazzle, Peter just says No. No to the media hype, no to the urban rat race and no to the fashions of the cultural industries.

This became apparent when I first met the artist, in the fall of 1995, while he was taking part in a residency at the Banff Centre. Wearing denim (GWGs), abusing rendered canvas with a staple gun (because in the current state “it sucked”), the dude was plainly misbehaving: he cranked Nirvana when I’d expected Bruce Cockburn, recounted his days as a gold miner when I’d been thinking tales of art college, made smart jokes instead of smart talk.

That day, rifling in his studio, we spoke mostly about being off-the-grid. Not with the fanatic ‘tude of famous hermits like, say, the Unabomber: were talking Walden Pond and the kind of lofty self-reliance Thoreau expounded. At the time, Peter was making large drawings of assorted vessels: boats that foretold escape, baskets that recalled entry. “Every day, I get up and I walk my land and think,” he told me, interrupting the silence that followed with a crack about lead poisoning in his mining days. “Artists need time to filter.” The tone her: serious. And so he lives with his wife Teresa and two sons Magnus and Alexander in Demmitt, Alberta, away from the crowds, cameras and consumption.

Demmitt is a town that doesn’t exist. Comprised of one store with a post office, it was once an outpost fro area farmers. But the place literally fell off the map in 1988, when mail services stopped. If you drive six hours northwest of Edmonton, into the oil, logging and farming region that is Peace River country, you may find the spot that he continues to call Demmitt, the town where he grew up.

Are you with me?

Out on the plains, it’s hard enough for artists to find their place on the funding map, let alone the art map. But to root one’s practice in the kind of remote area that is Demmitt seems almost perverse. Who see the work, when do they see it, under what conditions, how is it documented? Does it matter?

Apparently, yes. Within a few months of being in Calgary, a number of critics and curators—people like Mary-Beth Laviolette, Katherine Lipsett, Catherine Crowston—had put me in the know. The artist makes large-scale sculptures from natural and found material located on his 600 – acre parcel of land, then leaves them there to deteriorate in what he reads as a dialogue with the natural world.

But, in this bull session, each word is a mouthful. In Peter’s argot, the spiny hull of an unnamed boat abandoned on the prairie landscape is a visual requiem for a threatened environment. Or nest-like orbs hung from wiry trees are he aberrations of a mutant power source, waiting for the arrival of malignant birds. Then again, a steeple reaches upwards 45 feet: part prison watch tower, part beanstalk magic, part belfry spire. All of these are made from the willow that is abundant locally, with a grow-back rate of six feet a year.

Translation: fully drawn symbols of beauty and doom, humanity and alchemy, continuity and destruction. We’ve seen this kind of imagery throughout romantic traditions in visual, literary and performing arts: think Runge, Coleridge and Wagner, even. With an unrockable trust in “what feels right,” Peter consistently delivers work that’s at once political, recording the tension between the human and natural worlds, and sensual, reveling in thick oils, charred woods and supple willows.

What’s fresh is not the resistance to what is, nor the commitment to what may be. It’s the willingness to practice from the margins, outside the orthodoxies of contemporary art and the post-industrialized world. In an age where modernist values are terribly unfashionable, this work springs from a rigorous work ethic and seeing man’s faith in the ideals of self-expression.

Here is a secret about Peter von Tiesenhausen. One afternoon in the spring of 1994, he was walking along the Bow River, near Banff, axe in hand. Coming to a thick bank of ice by the shore, he paused, then spent the next six hours carving a boat into the frozen patch. The river was high, the effort intensive: there were no tourists snapping photos. By day’s end, he’d made a luminous skiff, eight feet in length, the first in his boat series.

Stand back, scratch your head, think some more. Find a large, angular rock from the ground nearby. Place it on the boat, then push the pair out into the flux. Follow along the shoal for the better part of an hour. Run to keep up. When your path is blocked, follow with your eyes until it’s out of sight.

But not out of mind. Peter spoke at length about how much he loved the idea of that rock: the only scraggly object in an otherwise smooth field of stones on the fiver’s floor. He imagines it still, being rendered by the elements, gradually changing over time, with only the trout as its witness. I was struck by the invisibility of this effort, and the clear line of pleasure that related the two. Recall the elation of a late night bike ride, through city streets, when no one is around and you’ve left your light at home. If a tree feel in the forest, would I perhaps hear more?

What’s compelling is the privacy of a moment that measures zero on the Richter scale, refuses to register on the cash box, cannot be evaluated on any scale but the one you devise. See the artist name the unseen. Imagine the dignity of the unwatched. Relive the mystery. Be amazed at the freedom.

Cut to 1997. There’s not a lot to believe in, and then there’s Peter, who smacks of the preordained. Despite extensive travels through North and South America, Europe and the Antarctica, he’s lived in Demmitt for over 30 years, working as a miner, a labourer, an artist. It was land he chose to live on at the age of 9. It was a career he presaged at 7. Largley self-taught, he dropped out of Alberta College of Art after two years in 1981 because the singularity of his then-focus on representational work was at odds with much in contemporary art. Today, he paints, draws and makes land-based installations. He’s let go of strict representation to create muscular images of a landscape in crisis. He supports himself largely through exhibitions, gallery sales and independent means. In the most literal understanding of the word, Peter is a mystic: when the guy gets out of bed in the morning, he believes in the spiritual apprehension of a knowledge that is inaccessible to the intellect. Ditto for going to bed. This is what he paints. Resisting the very idea of being seen? Hell, yes! Popular notions of what matters? Just Say No.

So what if Peter von Tiesenhausen had an audience? From his first solo exhibition—the Prairie Gallery’s “Disturbing the Peace” in 1990—to the Whyte Museum’s “Making Myth in Landscape” in 1995, his painting has been well received. The Globe and Mail’s John Bentley Mays calls Peter an “outstanding new landscape artist,” and finds the work “infused with the beauty of the world.” An article in The Edmonton Journal declares tha his “bold, rugged landscapes are putting Demmitt on the map.”

But this time out, it’s different. The Stride Gallery’s presentation of “Forest Figures”, September 2 – 27, 1997, includes a series of events, as well as a formal exhibition of works on paper, wood and cloth. For the project Peter carved five male figures from fallen trees taken from his land. These will be charred black, then affixed to the top of an abandoned building, in what marks the artist’s first staged performance. A certain task will be executed and observed, under a certain set of conditions, within a certain time frame. There will be spectators, and a film crew, watching.

Strange bedfellows, perhaps. Yet, like his dwindling will boats, the gesture cuts through time and space, signaling its own arrival and departure. During the public burning and process of installation, Peter’s figures become active symbols of the ephemeral. Transfigured by history, warning of apocalypse, the charred sculptures suggest a ghostly presence—the protective ancestors watching over us or powerless voyeurs, bystanders of dubious innocence. After the exhibition, they will be returned to Peter’s land and left to languish: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

“It’s the process that’s important,” says the acutely savvy artist, who doesn’t live up North out of shyness. “There’s a transformation but I can’t predict what’s going to happen, that doesn’t concern me.” What does concern him is the dynamic and ongoing relationship of artist to object and object to land. In this case, he ups the ante by inserting an audience directly into that discourse. I like thinking about a collective response. I like to imagine people standing around as if at a campfire, their breath marking the air, the soft voices acting as an intervention on the landscape of his art.

If Peter had an audience, the readings of the work could be endless. In this case, the fire cold invoke the destruction of wilderness areas for man’s presumed and greater good. Or it might recall the history of public burnings –of women from Joan of Arc to the witches of New England –with an ironic twist. Reverberate, resonate, resound…this is rich material, with great detail and many entry points for viewers.

Wait a minute, in moving to staged events, is there not a change that the artist who continues to be known as Peter von Tiesenhausen will lose ground? Is he at risk of entering the flotsam of the Western mainstream? Always. And the eloquent manner in which he maintains an intimate practice. Even as he stys hip to the edgier realities of an imperfect world make his work all the more compelling.

MJ Thompson

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