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Wednesday, 30 November 2016 11:13

Prairie Gothic provides an intriguing perspective on rural life

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A male figure on a sarcophagus is part of the art installation "Larry and Rosalie" by Saskatchewan artist Heather Benning for the current exhibition at the Art Gallery of Swift Current. A male figure on a sarcophagus is part of the art installation "Larry and Rosalie" by Saskatchewan artist Heather Benning for the current exhibition at the Art Gallery of Swift Current. Matthew Liebenberg/Prairie Post

The current exhibition at the Art Gallery of Swift Current by Saskatchewan artist Heather Benning presents a perspective on rural life that is both familiar and unusual.


The exhibition, A Prairie Gothic: Let our fields be broader, but our nights so much darker, opened on Nov. 5 and will be on display at the gallery until Dec. 30. The artist was present to speak about her work during a reception for the exhibition, Nov. 23.
She has created a number of large art installations in rural settings, but this exhibition represents another aspect of her work that involves gallery installations and working in video.
She grew up on a farm in the Humboldt area and now lives on an acreage at Spalding. Her rural upbringing had an influence on her development as an artist.
“I was given spaces in the yard that could be my space so that an old granary became like my first studio or my father gave me the hayloft of our barn and that became a place where I would spend all of my time,” she recalled. “I didn’t know I was making art up there. I was just making things. So that definitely affected my time as an artist and I think affected me to become one.”
She felt her preference for creating large installations was a result of growing up on the prairies, where she was surrounded by vast space as well as large pieces of farming equipment.
“When I’m doing these smaller works, like in this project, I find they become very tedious at points and quite frustrating,” she said. “That could just be a skill level thing too, but I find larger work a lot more simple for me to work with and I think growing up around large things kept me comfortable with it.”
The video in this exhibition, titled The Dollhouse, is a documentary of one of her large outdoor art projects. She converted an abandoned old farmhouse near Sinclair, Manitoba, into a life-sized dollhouse. The north-facing wall was replaced with plexiglass to allow people to see the interior, just like a real dollhouse. After six years the house became structurally unsafe and the video records the end of the project, when she burnt the house down. Her gallery-based art works are naturally on a smaller scale, but the pieces in the exhibition still require a significant amount of space. This exhibition, which was organized by the Moose Jaw Museum and Art Gallery in partnership with the Art Gallery of Swift Current, allowed her to bring three works together.
“I did always hope that I would be able to get these three large works together as one full show,” she said. “So that’s why I’m really pleased that I was able to do a show here in Swift Current and also in Moose Jaw, which had the space that would accommodate a large body of work like this.”
Each work on its own presents a significant visual impact. The installation Larry and Rosalie are sculpted works of a man and a woman, based on her parents. Each figure is placed on a sarcophagus.
Benning was inspired by the sarcophagi of medieval Europe that were used to present the greatness of the nobility, but she gives it a completely different context through the use of figures that represent ordinary working people from the prairies.
Another work in the exhibition, The Altar, was inspired by medieval altars. She has seen these altars in Scotland while she worked on a Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture at the Edinburgh College of Art and Design.
She again uses this historical object in an unorthodox way. Her altar has the shape of a grain elevator and the objects on the altar present the true story of an immigrant couple’s tragic end on the prairie.
Her intention was not to present a bleak vision of prairie life with these works, but at the same time she is not trying to avoid that impression.
“I think I am presenting that,” she said. “I don’t mean to do it in a super negative way, but it is a difficult bleak existence. It can be and a lot of it has to do with isolation. We live a lot more in isolation than a lot of other places and so I think it’s talking about that a bit too.”
Another installation in this exhibition, titled Work hard, be nice, provides a striking commentary on gender roles. A group of 29 girl statues are placed on the ground while six statues of boys are placed on pedestals. Passive female figures are placed behind them against a wall.
“I wanted to talk about gender politics, but I didn’t want it to be the main focus of this work, although it is the main focus of this work,” she said. “So I chose to have them dressed in more fifties clothes. You can look at it and reflect back on what was happening then, but we see in what was going on in the political environment right now this very much is still what’s happening in the world.”
She noted this gender imbalance is still evident in the art world. There are more female students than male students in art schools, but male artists are still over-represented in the National Gallery of Canada. In that sense her interest in large art installations is also a gender statement.
“I make large work because I like to make large work and because I want to show that anyone can,” she said.
Art Gallery of Swift Current Director and Curator Kim Houghtaling is impressed with the exhibition.
“This show is an ideal example of contemporary artwork reaching a maturity and sophistication in Canada, because it brings together media pieces and large-scale installation works and handmade art objects and really just employing media in such a variety of ways,” he said. “There are overall themes and connectivity amongst the work, but also very specific concerns are being addressed. It is just a great example of good quality contemporary art.”
He has also been impressed by her commitment to create large-scale, site-specific installations. Benning has participated in solo and group shows in Canada and abroad, and she was nominated in 2010 for the long list of the Sobey Art Award, a prestigious award for young contemporary artists in Canada.
“I think that she has a great future,” Houghtaling said. “I think she is going to be a major power in the art world, certainly starting with Canada, but she’s already made connections internationally. So she’s definitely somebody to watch.”

Read 2786 times Last modified on Friday, 02 December 2016 12:26
Matthew Liebenberg

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