Turning art on its head

Confrontational art exhibit challenges the norm

Jim Logan’s ‘The Diner’s Club, No Reservations Required’ plays on Manet’s ‘Déjeuner sur l’herbe.’
Jim Logan’s ‘The Diner’s Club, No Reservations Required’ plays on Manet’s ‘Déjeuner sur l’herbe.’
World Upside Down features frames from Marvel’s ‘What If’ comic series, which addresses the possibility of Superman landing in Soviet Russia and becoming a Communist superhero.
World Upside Down features frames from Marvel’s ‘What If’ comic series, which addresses the possibility of Superman landing in Soviet Russia and becoming a Communist superhero.

Oh, inverted world of contemporary art. Breaking down traditional Western binaries is tough work, but armed with clever artistry, entertaining and meaningful results can ensue. Despite the daunting task of reversing age-old symbols and dichotomies such as savage/civilized, good/evil and Christian/heathen, World Upside Down, the newest exhibition at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, produces thought-provoking works that create a space for dialogue and suggest a collapsing of restrictive views.

Upon entering the exhibit, viewers are confronted with quotations ranging from Marx to Monty Python scrawled on brightly coloured walls, which act as an off-beat prelude for the bizarre and confrontational artistic conversation to follow. The exhibit itself presents the world as we know it—cultural, popular and biblical references alike—twisted into new meanings and contexts. Take Jim Logan’s painting, “The Diner’s Club, No Reservations Required,” which is a play on Manet’s “Déjeuner sur l’herbe.” Here, a serene and conventional picnic tableau is carried out, except the four players in the scene are Native and the two men are nude. The piece re-imagines traditional art subjects by juxtaposing a European landscape with Native male nudity. Because of Western art history, a complicated crossroads of meaning concerning gender and race emerges from this simple scene.

This piece is what caught the eye of curator Richard William Hill and inspired the creation of the show, which he has brought to the Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff and now to Kington.

“[Logan] got my attention and I focused on artists who were playing with inversions within the canon of Western Art, who were trying to make sense of it. … I realized they had something going on,” Hill told the Journal.

What follows Logan’s painting is an exhibit where artists take the pieces of familiar symbols and present them in new, jarring ways that tell us a bit about the way the world is run and represented. In World Upside Down the American, capitalist hero Superman is a comrade, fighting for Stalin’s USSR, the American flag is completely white and the Christian nativity scene is recast with animal spirits and aboriginal people. These pieces challenge the viewer by asking if these new scenarios are any less plausible than their original models.

Renée Cox’s “Yo Mama’s Last Supper” was a source of controversy when it appeared in the Brooklyn Museum of Art when then-mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani criticized it and called for a censorship board to monitor art. The photographic composite is a rendition of The Last Supper with the apostles represented by African-American men and the artist herself as a naked female, black Jesus. Depictions of Jesus have been adapted to suit cultures for centuries and the controversy surrounding this piece brings to light issues our society still has to face. Cox’s photographic montages fit in with the exhibit as many of the pieces deal with inversion of binaries to confront gender, racial and religious tensions.

Many of the pieces hit close to home as they were created by Canadian artists of aboriginal descent. Terrance Houle’s photographs emphasize the merging of binaries as he depicts himself in full aboriginal regalia shopping at a food market and on the phone at the office. The piece is humourous, but Houle also offers a tongue-in-cheek challenge as he defies the stereotypical context for his garb. This inversion of dichotomies doesn’t seem to serve as a complete reversal, but rather a look into society’s thought process.

“It’s partly how humans organize their concepts, into dichotomies. Often they’re organized hierarchically and so it seemed interesting to think about what it means to turn those around. … In turning them around, they begin to break down,” Hill said.

Although the exhibit is deeply serious, there are twists of hilarity. Hill’s exhibit shows snippets of Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail spliced with drawings pulled from the margins of early modern manuscripts—absurd depictions of rabbits chasing hunters. This hunter-prey turnaround initially served as a way to reinforce the conservative order and mock folly. But at the same time, their existence and pulling them out of the margins and setting them at centre stage sets up another reversal with regards to an already topsy-turvy concept.

The show isn’t as confusing as it may sound. Conceptually vibrant and challenging, the pieces play with such well-worn symbols that you’ll want to look twice and then stare at them for a few minutes, unable to look away until you’re not sure which way, exactly, is up.

World Upside Down runs at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre until Feb. 17, 2008.

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