Dawson’s art students put imaginations on display

Each spring, the graduation show by the Yukon School of Visual Arts students offers an intriguing sampling of how imaginations have been stirred up at the corner of Queen and Third in Dawson City for the past eight months.

Meg Walker

Special for the News

Each spring, the graduation show by the Yukon School of Visual Arts students offers an intriguing sampling of how imaginations have been stirred up at the corner of Queen and Third in Dawson City for the past eight months.

The year-end exhibitions, which wrapped up this week, filled two spaces in town with art by the 15 students. Paintings and sculptures occupied the SOVA gallery, and video, sound and photography works transformed the ODD gallery.

Seen together, the works revealed that part of attending art school is learning to crack open difficult puzzles and secrets to the world, and in the world. Personal and public rituals, creepy circus games, and ideas of self as a multiple, not-unified identity are prominent themes in this year’s works.

Sarah Miller’s “Childish Game” is one of the interactive sculptures. It’s sourced from the crossover of Miller’s fascination with circuses and the observation that exaggeration (masks, carnival games, the visual cliches of advertising) can be a safety release for the darker side of social norms. The result: when the viewer pushes a small switch on a carnival “game,” a babydoll’s head with the scarlet, dripping word “Bullseye!” painted the forehead spins at slower or faster rates. Is the viewer joining or observing the macabre?

Across the room, Chantal Fraser’s sculpture literally overturns the function of a familiar wooden chair, hanging it upside-down under strong lighting that adds a linear echo of shapes on the wall. “One Chair and Five-Thousand(ish) Staples Later” glints like frost on a winter morning, or a dream chair pulled dripping from water and left to crystallize.

Nearby, a grid of five-by-four white plaster breasts make up Dana Levine’s installation “cc.” Levine cast the breasts of several classmates to explore how gender identity is formed in part by what genetics dictates. Replication, she points out, makes “the pieces become abstract when they are no longer linked

to the individual from which they came. … The body is turned into an object, which then becomes part of a collection of larger objects.”

With the expanse of two exhibitions, though, Levine does provide the link back to the individual bodies. She recorded the process of casting the breasts, and it becomes her video work over at the ODD Gallery. It’s a sophisticated expression of what was clearly a vulnerable process for both the sculptor and the sculptees.

Mathias MacPhee’s video art is exceptional. For “Veve Legbe,” an 18-minute video desiring the power of personal transformation, MacPhee slowly stitches onto his shoulder a print-on-cotton version of what he calls a voodoo symbol. The soundtrack is a blend of relentless media voices and his own thoughtful musings. The work could have easily become nostalgic or self-indulgent, but ends up as a surprisingly calm – and again, vulnerable – exploration of endurance.

In the centre of the ODD Gallery, a listening station presents visitors with a tempting view of 10 pairs of luxe headphones. Hints of their sounds tendril the air from a distance.

Here are audio works prepared after classes with Terrance Houle, a visiting artist who spent time with the students in March. Here are stories based on fiction, metaphor or dreamlike worlds.

A standout is a recording of a young woman laughing and slipping down the hill. She describes living behind a post office, earning a nickel for each letter she sorts, before she begins her surreal hike (“Listen” by Lindsey Johnson). It may be a projected or fictional self, but perhaps it’s a remembered one. In each audio piece, the blur, the pleasurable uncertainty of “who” speaks each piece, expands precisely because there are no images locking identities onto one face.

After all, how can photography, which is locked to a literal recording of what the cameras see, create a sense of mystery or uncertainty? Amy McAllister’s “Natural Habitats” prompts laughter as well as admiration when viewers listen to the narration that accompanies seven photos of young people in almost-ordinary surroundings. A male “British” voice narrates the movements and habits of each person as if they are a wild animal, caught in wilderness surroundings. Humour opens the way to thinking about how cataloguing leads to colonizing.

Yukon SOVA offers a foundation year visual arts program that gives students a first year they can use to transfer to most universities in Canada. Making art inside a media-saturated, photo-drenched, sound-stuffed culture is a challenge these students took on with passion. They were ably instructed by Veronica Verkley (sculpture, drawing); Nicole Rayburn (video, photography, sound and cultural studies); Justine Hobbs (English) and Bill Burns (sculpture, drawing).

Many more artworks deserve discussion here, but there isn’t enough room. Three last notes, though: Justice Colwell’s nine-part, hyper-saturated paintings “A Progression of Self-Portraits” demanded multiple visits. “Seen and Not Heard” is a visually stunning and literarily fascinating book-transformation by Samantha Mederios that would benefit any library. And Malanka Topper’s gentle “Moon Catcher and the Ghosty Fish” offers a sensitive response to the willows and rivers that so strongly shape Dawson City.

This year’s crop of Yukon SOVA artists remind viewers of how much there is to learn, to feel, to make, to dream, and to do.

Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist in Dawson City

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