The big, gloopy abstract paintings of Graham Peacock, 55, are my favourite things in the third Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art, a province-wide survey that opened Saturday at the Edmonton Art Gallery. An innocent statement of preference, you'd think, but I'm told it may get me in more trouble than any non-Albertan could imagine.
Every time I ask Edmonton-bred friends about art in their home province, I hear the same story. I hear about the imported Brits and Yanks who invaded Edmonton's art classes in the 1960s and 1970s, and brought with them a devotion to heroic abstraction that steamrolled every other option. I hear about the visits of New York mega-critic Clement Greenberg, and the help he gave the guys in keeping their defences up. I hear about the 1980s, and the gradual rebellion of younger artists -- often they were women, or ghettoized printmakers, sometimes both -- against the big boys of Heavy Metal welded sculpture and Big Brush abstract painting. I hear about the fight to get representation, and real-world content, into art-making.
And then I hear . . . silence.
No stories of victory for one side or the other, the way you get elsewhere, or even of a settled peace. (In most of the international art world, veteran abstractionists were officially declared old fogeys some time back, and have been forced to endure worshipful retrospectives off in the historical galleries.) At best, I've felt a kind of brooding calm wafting out of Edmonton, more a sign of ceasefire than of the eclectic co-existence that you'd find most other places.
And now that I'm here, and looking at the art that's being made, sight confirms what I've been hearing: Those long-standing battles still have echoes in the art being made today. There are those bellowing Graham Peacock abstractions I've confessed a fondness for, asserting the value of messing around with paint as forcefully as anything Greenberg ever gave the nod to.
"No matter how many ever-popular attempts are made to forge, discredit or replace painting with new paradigms and other mediums," reads the Edmonton painter's artist statement, "expression through the medium of painting, though challenging, continues to grow in the hands of those who take on that challenge." Man the barricades! To the ramparts! The Postmodern enemy is upon us!
And yet, for all his embattled rhetoric, Peacock's abstractions don't just read as the latest in Modernist effusions from an enduring old fart. They are way too weird, and funky, and somehow down-to-earth dumb for that. Giant kidney-shaped canvases get acrylic paint glopped all over them, until it looks about ready to fall off. Surfaces break up into rivulets and streams and deltas of aggressive, impure colour -- blood-clot red meets bile yellow -- until they look like cheery satellite pictures of environmental disasters. Clear glass baubles, like transparent Smarties, stick here and there on the surface, as do clumpings of paint like overroasted marshmallows, included for no discernible reason other than because they could be.
This isn't the Platonic, elevated apotheosis of the visual that a true Greenbergian would have espoused. It seems an almost friendly poke at that tradition, a recognition that painting, no matter how big and brash, is no more heroic than all the other weirdly fun stuff that humans get up to. In fact, Peacock's pictures look an awful lot like material that much younger painters have been turning out lately, as they horse around in the abstract clothing of their predecessors, without caring too much about the details of a period fit.
Even the much purer colour studies of 61-year-old Edmontonian David Cantine, for all their hard edges, seem to move away from what abstraction used to be. For 26 years now, Cantine tells us, he's been repeating more or less the same painting, of four stacked circles floating in an empty ground -- apparently derived from a long-ago still life of two apples and their shadows, though you'd never know it. For more than a quarter-century, Cantine's entire art has apparently consisted in subtly varying the colour relationships between his abstracted apples, to see the kind of visual space they can take up. Compulsion like this leaves plain abstraction of the past behind, and brings us smack into the Neo-Dada land of younger folk, where art, no matter how good-looking, is as much about process and attitude as about a finished object.
Oddly, it's the opponents of the older abstract school who sometimes look tired and old-fashioned in this show. Their attempts to inject content into art often read as an empty gesture -- as clichés of knee-jerk 1980s anti-formalism -- rather than as a real commitment to what there is to say.
A good number of the works bear portentous inscriptions that mean just about nothing. How about, "The distance from here to there is still precisely nowhere," or a pile of rocks with million-dollar words such as "fertility," "equity" and "buffalo" carved into them? Everyday objects, such as the five canoes plopped down in one space at the gallery, no longer gain meaning through their repetition, the way they seemed to several years ago. (Even when you burn assorted astronomical facts -- "The sun contains more than 99.8 per cent of the total mass of the solar system," for instance -- into their paddles.) And coarse, cartoony drawings don't always seem a brave embrace of childlike directness; they can seem cloyingly faux naïf instead.
In places where abstraction was less dominant, heavy-meaning posturing could fade away more quickly; with the straw man of Alberta abstraction less easily blown away, it looks as though the cawing out against him kept on, too. Luckily, a number of the 25 artists chosen by curators Catherine Crowston and Allan Harding Mackay for inclusion in this show seem to be moving on from the embattled positions of the two opposing camps, mostly by embracing strategies from both. (It's worth noting that a biennial, meant to give a snapshot of a moment in an art-scene's life, doesn't involve the kind of curatorial commitment to every work on show that another exhibition would; it's hard to know where exactly Crowston and Mackay might stand on the issues being played out in their survey.)
Calgarian Angela Inglis, 36, makes things that look like subtly textured abstractions, à la Cy Twombly, until you get closer, and see tiny fragments of printed text peeking out from her web of markings. The materials listed on the wall labels further give the game away: We're told a triptych called The World is made of Pizza Hut flyers and glue; the mixed-up media of a green-tinged Self-Portrait include "personal non-taxable receipts," along with glue and drywall mud. Inglis casts her pictures from shredded remnants of our paper-laden world, then sands their surfaces down again to only just reveal the stuff they're made of. Recycled into subtly poetic, very pretty objects, Inglis's trash does some of the same work as classical abstraction, but without its frosty distance from reality.
Fellow Calgarian Blake Senini, 10 years older than Inglis, works some of this same middle ground. The eight wall sculptures of Senini's brand-new work called Ether look like giant Rorschach blots rendered in 3-D, or maybe like eroded scallop shells, from a time when molluscs still grew metres wide. But mostly, glowing with silver or soft copper paint, they look like manmade objects carefully constructed to tickle eye and mind. And they do this by invoking abstract form, and evoking worldly wise content while they're at it.
Call it peacemaking, in an art world where High Noon wasn't all that long ago. The Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art 2000 continues at the Edmonton Art Gallery, 2 Sir Winston Churchill Square, Edmonton, until Aug. 27, before moving to venues in Calgary. Call 780-422-6223 or go to http://www.eag.org