November 7, 2018 –
February 15, 2019
Since 2017, Gallery 17/18, an exhibition space in the building that houses the Embassy of the Czech Republic, in Ottawa, has presented exhibitions featuring a Czech and a Canadian artist together. This salon-type space, at one time reserved for diplomatic meetings, is now fully dedicated to the presentation of contemporary art. At first sight, the visitor is fascinated by the exhibition place, but even more so by its potential as a gallery.
Karen Kraven and Radek Brousil’s exhibition, Whrrr Whrrr, is perfectly integrated into this unique space, decorated with intricate and vibrant mouldings and embellishments, as well as two marble fireplaces. Kraven and Brousil’s interventions are woven into the vernacular of the gallery, creatively changing the Victorian-style architectural elements into a comprehensive display system, having grey walls, ornate plaster decorations, impressive cast-iron heaters and dark wood marquetry. The spatial organization that the two artists use evokes the world of theatre. Indeed, the arrangement and composition of the pieces give a scenographic sense to the exhibition, while Valentýna Janů’s enigmatic essay, specially written for Whrrr Whrrr, activates the narrative dimension of their works. In this sense, the artists jointly invoke imagery that speaks to various ecological considerations via a clue-laden narrative experimentally told through textile and ceramic, a story that is revealed gradually, from one work to the next.
Montreal-based artist Karen Kraven employs used textiles to create symmetrical cloth assemblages and installations featuring clever juxtapositions of handmade simulacra. Gossypium (2018), a deconstructed pair of jeans ostentatiously cut up by hand, is presented hanging on a metal rail mounted on the wall. This artwork refers directly to a passage from Janů’s poetic and image-laden essay: “Pair of Levi’s so old you can see the sky through.” On the floor, Work Shirt (2017) presents two small bronze fish skeletons on a hole-ridden shirt. In parallel, Piece Work (2018), a sculpture made of recycled denim insulation, carries strong ecological connotations, notably through the use of plastic water bottle fragments and straws poking through the cracks and crevices of the base material. Here, Janů’s phrase “aesthetic erosion” certainly comes to mind. These two works, although quite distinct, somehow become one, both formally and materially, forming an unconscious diptych disjoined and spread out in the large salon space. Filet (2017), an assemblage of woven netting, hangs in a corner of the room and is also a reference to ecological concerns, specifically, the over-exploitation of our oceans. In sum, these present and past-tinged pieces decidedly invoke the uses and abuses of water to fulfill humanity’s needs, be it through overfishing or the mass production of consumer goods.
Prague artist Radek Brousil, who was visiting the Darling Foundry in Montreal for an International Residency from September to November 2018, proposes Hey Sorrow Where Are You? This installation is broken up into distinct pieces and exhibited throughout the space. The series begins with a grouping of cigar-shaped tragicomic ceramic figurines that seem to exude naive playfulness. These intriguing and baffling orange and mauve-tinted entities are installed in various incongruous places about the space: one is perched on a water heater, another is slumped over the mantelpiece, while a group of six others appear trapped in the fireplace itself. Dislocated, mangled and anguished, these sad cigar-like creatures – who cry ultraviolet tears – somehow seem to be alive, largely due to the unusual positions Brousil has placed them in, somewhere between mockery and artifice. The simulated embers on their heads appear to be incandescent, and indeed real. For other pieces, the Czech artist combines textile-printed photographs with floral-patterned ceramic casts and scatters them throughout the space. Over one of the mantelpieces is a veil of a geometric-but-organic looking textile work that resembles a handmade quilt, a mixture of otherworldly and multicoloured fabrics onto which photographs are superimposed, depicting thirst – the universal need for water. These images give off a sense of urgency, showing as they do the social, cultural, and especially ecological realities of today’s world. On the wall, the question, “Hey Sorrow Where Are You?” is spelled out in damaged green letters. This questioning of generalized indifference to suffering resonates in all of Brousil’s works.
Karen Kraven and Radek Brousil’s formal and material assemblages presented at Gallery 17/18 speak to the ecological tribulations of a seemingly doomed society. Through art, this former site of diplomacy has clearly gone far above and beyond its original vocation. It indeed remains a space of negotiation, but it has also become a space for reflection, in this instance, deduction and articulation on the overuse and abuse of natural resources. This now-irreversible situation is presented here through nuanced artworks, allegories rendered via an impressive diversity of materials, tinged with a nostalgia for the world of the past, and a certain melancholy faced with the world of today.
Jean-Michel Quirion is an MA candidate in museology at Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO). His research focuses on the development of a typology of museum-based presentation methods for performance art. He currently works at AXENÉO7 artist-run centre, in Gatineau. Quirion is also a member of Montreal-based research collective CIÉCO: Collections et impératif événementiel/The Convulsive collections. As an independent curator, his most recent project, Tout contexte est art, was presented at the Galerie UQO in 2018. His writing is regularly published in art magazines such as ESPACE art actuel, Inter art actuel, and Ciel variable.