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The birth of Canada's largest visual-art prize last December was a quiet, orderly affair with no complications. The Sobey Art Foundation, with holdings of roughly $1.6-million, was built from fortunes made in the Maritime family's grocery-store empire. A year and a half ago, its directors announced that they would donate a whopping $50,000 every two years toward a prize for a Canadian artist under the age of 40. (The much-publicized Turner Prize is £20,000, or roughly $45,000.) The Sobey winner would be selected from a shortlist compiled by a panel of contemporary-art experts from across Canada, and the Sobey family (and its foundation) was to have no hand in the selection. Those choices, they reasoned, should be left to the curators.

Don Sobey, who is chairman of the family foundation and of Empire Co. Ltd. (the Sobey chain's mother company), looks confused when you ask if the Sobeys were tempted to seek a stronger role in the selection. What would be the point of that? (He himself is a lover of the Group of Seven, though he recently acquired a landscape painting by Canadian expatriate Peter Doig.) So it was that the jurors were selected by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia's contemporary-art curator Ray Cronin to include, in addition to himself, Jessica Bradley (until recently at the Art Gallery of Ontario), Pierre Landry of Montreal's Musée d'art contemporain, Bruce Grenville (the Vancouver Art Gallery) and James Patten (formerly of the Winnipeg Art Gallery).

The shortlist they came up with was predictably strong: David Hoffos from Lethbridge, Alta., Marla Hlady from Toronto, Jean-Pierre Gauthier from Quebec, Colleen Wolstenholme from Hantsport, N.S., and the winner of the first Sobey Art Award, Brian Jungen from Vancouver.

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Works by the five artists were shown at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia last winter, and the directors then decided to tour the exhibition in order to create national awareness of the prize and its recipients -- a great idea, and one that hopefully will grow to include more stops in its 2004 incarnation.

The problem with the award show's first incarnation is that the touring version -- on display now at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto (MoCCA) -- appears to be weaker than the original staged in Halifax, so much so that it may leave even seasoned gallery-goers scratching their heads. Substitutions have been made throughout, and this has turned out to be a problem.

It's most regrettable in the case of winner Jungen. Two of his famous masks fashioned from Nike and Air Jordan sneakers, and one of his "Mounties and Indians" drawings from the National Gallery of Canada's collection, have been replaced, in the current show, by just one of his masks and his 2002 work Beer Cooler, a Styrofoam cooler carved in low relief with intricate biker-cult designs (skulls, flames, eagles). The artist has added a few crushed beer cans to the work, which are displayed lying on the floor. For audiences new to Jungen's art, and even for those that know his work well, this is a less compelling work than his masks, lacking the brilliant formal ingenuity and intellectual nimbleness that can be seen in so many of his other sculptures. As the winner of the prize, it was particularly important for Jungen to put his best foot forward. He didn't.

Hlady, too, has been done a disservice. Her original contribution to the award show was her most successful work to date: She Moves through the Fair (Pipe Whistle), a gorgeous tangle of metal pipes, wooden boxes and haunting sound. Instead, she is now showing Electro-magnetic Chihuahua-nod Machine (2002), a video-projection work that shows a rear view of traffic as seen from a moving car, with the nodding little dog toy, seem from behind, occupying the centre of our field of vision. Closer inquiry reveals that the traffic imagery is actually a projection, and that the Chihuahua head is being powered not by a bouncing car but by a hidden machine, whose workings we can hear.

Where the Pipe Whistle gave us Hlady at her best, this work indulges Hlady's only weakness -- a fondness for cutesy that sometimes obscures the seriousness of her interests and her gifts as an artist.

Hoffos, too, is showing different work than he did in Halifax, but here the shift is from a work of more heightened theatricality to one that is more subtle; it's not a lesser work, just different. Hoffos has developed a reputation for his painstakingly executed mini-stage sets in which figures move about as if by magic.

The work in the Halifax show featured a UFO landing and several burning buildings, drawing more obviously on the sci-fi film genre.

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Redwood Downs, as this work is called, is a little harder to pin down.

We observe a city at night, far below us; suburban tract housing gives way to the twinkling high-rises of downtown and further urban sprawl beyond.

Hoffos says Redwood Downs reflects his personal memories, not movie history, but to my eye it has the look of a big-screen thriller. This is the kind of spooky place -- an unpoliced urban fringe remote yet close to a big city -- where things can go badly wrong.

Wolstenholme's work has not really suffered in the translation here. For some time, she has been making outsized pill sculptures; the ones in the current show are giant anti-anxiety meds which she has scattered across the floor. Wolstenholme has interesting things to say, particularly about the treatment of women by the psychiatric profession and the current feminist backslide in popular culture. But these ideas don't really make their way into the work.

Instead, the sculptures seems to make a much simpler point, making conspicuous an industry that -- for better or worse -- burgeons away below the radar.

Montreal's Gauthier, too, is in characteristic form here, showing one of his rangy mad-science-style installations. Titled Ressortir, the piece consists of an elaborate web of cabling linking together various jerrybuilt sound-making devices, some the size of crickets. The sounds are picked up by tiny microphones and then broadcast very loudly from a series of overturned garbage cans.

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Gauthier's work connects with the tradition of flamboyantly non-utilitarian machine-making as art -- a tradition with roots stretching back to the contraptions of Jean Tinguely. But is he really the best artist under 40 in Quebec?

The show, then, could have been better, but there are some good things to look at. Enough to whet our appetite for the second instalment next year. The new jurors have already been at it, and their long list of contenders has just been released. Selected from the West Coast and Yukon (by the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria's Lisa Baldissera), John Boehme, Alex Morrison, Marianne Nicolson, Lucy Pullen and Althea Thauberger; from the Prairies and the North (selected by Catherine Crowston of the Edmonton Art Gallery), Paul Butler, Dean Drever, Marcel Dzama, Shelley Ouellet and Taras Polataiko; from Quebec (selected by Stéphane Aquin of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), Nicolas Baier, Jean-Pierre Gauthier, Marc Séguin, Michel De Broin and Massimo Guerrera; from Atlantic Canada (selected by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia's Cronin), Chris Lloyd, Cal Lane, Greg Forrest, Will Gill and Alexandra Flood; and from Ontario (selected by MoCCA's David Liss), Germaine Koh, Kelly Mark, Shaan Syed, Jubal Brown and Nestor Kruger.

Never heard of any of them? Well, the list is a mix of established young artists, along with a few surprises. But even the best among them are far from household names. The Sobey Art Award is in the business of building reputations for visual artists. We need it badly.

The Sobey Art Award 2002 continues at Toronto's Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art until Dec. 20 (416-395-7430).

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