Thursday, 11 April 2013

Tom Brenner at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery

It’s a pleasure to walk into a big room filled with oversized objects. The size and repetition of certain objects can inspire a sense of awe very quickly. Large and foreboding objects can make you feel overpowered and fearful, or illicit warmth and mystery depending on the materials. You can be made to feel like a child.
     Tom Benner’s work at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery in his show, Call of the Wild, gives the immediate sense that one has entered a room full of the remnants of a storybook world, told primarily in sculpture. It’s size and variety makes a great impression.
     Brenner’s work follows a trend that’s been going on in the contemporary art world for about ten years now, which is to mimic and reference children’s stories and folklore. Last year at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, a freak show called Fairy Tales, Monsters, and The Genetic Imagination, featured a collection of contemporary artworks by artists who, in one form or another, referenced stories usually aimed at children. These artists were trying to invert and shock the audience, taking the familiar and making it “different” with a dark twist. They justified their intentions because the stories that inspired them were often reinforcing “beliefs that are now discredited, such as male superiority and the benevolence of the ruling class.” These fine artists were going to “bring to light the messages inside the fantasy.”
     The trouble with correcting the past, and one-upmanship, “I’m smarter and more open minded than you are,” is that those who judge often get judged themselves. And one can ask, for all their analytic intelligence, could the fine artists at the Winnipeg Gallery write a story as good, and as memorable as the stories of which they are critical? And do it without scaring the children.
     So, with relief, Brenner’s show is actually inspiring, for adults and for children. His work pays some homage to the past and to folklore without inverting or shocking. Although he isn’t trying to tell a complete story, he does allow for positive interpretations of the work he’s accomplished. Each piece appears as if a scene from a different story. He employs the repetition of images very well. Individually a fin might look like something else, but many of the same objects means there is a pod of whales in the gallery. One beaver approaching a canoe is just a beaver approaching a canoe. A gang of beavers approaching a canoe is a problem.
     As a whole, the entire show holds together very well, revealing Brenner’s playful love for a variety of materials. He employs familiar techniques, using sculpture, relief, painting, printmaking, and found objects.
     Holding together the show, A Thorough or Dramatic Change In Form or Appearance, is its theme, stated in the title. Transformation and spirituality, which can be demoted to New Age thinking, still resonates deeply for indigenous peoples all over the world. This show brings together a disparate group of artists who often dealt with these themes throughout their careers, offering up examples of how one theme can be credibly accomplished by so many artists in so many different styles.
     Using humans and animals to interpret something as mysterious as a netherworld or underworld without making the art tacky, requires deep-seated beliefs and respect. Your Facebook friends who post images of tacky paintings of swirling galaxies over translucent naked models could learn from this show. There’s a lot to be said for subtlety, simplicity and the defined focus of true believers. 
     These shows and Duane Linklater’s solo exhibition of videos will be opening tomorrow at 7:30pm, running through most of May. Duane Linklater will give a talk. Tom Benner will have a reception and artist talk on April 25th at 7:30. More information is at:

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