Subconscious City at the Winnipeg Art Gallery

by Catherine Toews
Catalogue Essay, Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg, Manitoba

_Subconscious City_, currently on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, is an exhibition filled with a lot of quiet, quirky pieces, but the show’s impact comes through loud and clear. With an impressive, diverse roster of both emerging and established artists working in a variety of media (including video, painting, ceramics, and electronics), Subconscious City attempts to examine and explain Winnipeg’s curious civic identity. Curated by Shawna Dempsey and Lori Millan, two well-known local artists who are steadily gaining respect for their innovative curatorial work (their last offering, Supernovas, was a slick and sassy roundup of some of Winnipeg’s best young artists), the overall mood of the show is necessarily melancholy and is set immediately by a pair of photos by David Wityk. The photos are named after their subjects – BDI is an eerie night view of the Bridge Drive In, Winnipeg’s most popular summer ice cream spot, and Mitzi’s shows the home of the best chicken finger in town. Because the shots are devoid of happy customers, our eye turned immediately to the upbeat signage plastered in and around each establishment. The trash can in front of Mitzi’s is scrawled with the oft heard and ignored municipal slogan, ‘Take Pride, Winnipeg!” and a sign on the side door of the BDI shows a single red rose and reads, “Love me. Love my Winnipeg.” The placement of these photos at the beginning of the exhibit provides a smart, subtle intro. Much of the work found deeper in the gallery also pokes fun at Winnipeg’s earnest tendencies. Winnipeg is a strange combination of a close-knit small town and an unfriendly big city. It seems fitting, then, that feelings of loneliness, longing and isolation permeate the gallery. Simon Hughes, a man who somehow manages to make glitter stickers of walruses look sophisticated, contributes River Saga, an epic, mixed-media landscape of snow and ice. A sign in the middle of the composition encourages, “WE WILL SURVIVE.” Kristin Nelson’s lively, painted city scenes have blank, deserted spaces where telephone booths should be. Jake Moore’s Portage, a set of 4 apothecary jars connected by speaker wire, has an audio track of Winnipeggers sharing their memories of what Portage and Main, the windy downtown corner, was like before it was barricaded to pedestrian traffic over 30 years ago. These and other strong, sad pieces exemplify Dempsey and Millan’s commitment to unearthing Winnipeg’s “myths, forgotten communities,” and everything else “which we would prefer remains unseen.” There is one potential misstep, however. A major corner of the gallery is filled to the brim with Drift, a massive installation by Jennifer Stillwell constructed out of stacked Bounty paper towels, related detritus (cardboard tubes, plastic wrappers), and 3 video monitors with footage of people ripping and stacking the towels. The work is undoubtedly provocative, but feels too disconnected in tone and intent from the rest of the show to justify occupying so much gallery space. Yet, this show, like the city Winnipeg itself, is worth visiting and experiencing despite its petty aflws. The public opening, scheduled for Valentine’s night, promises to be an event to remember, with performances by Weakerthans vocalist and local hero John K. Samson, songbird Christine Fellows, and dancer Freya Olafson. _-This piece was contributed by Catherine Toews, an interdisciplinary artist currently completing her BFA in Sculpture at the University of Manitoba._