Paris of the Prairies: My Winnipeg Art Exhibit Woos the City of Love
Prominent Parisian art collector/gallery owner, Antoine de Galbert, has turned over La maison rouge, his contemporary gallery in Paris, to a sweeping survey of Winnipeg's current art scene.
The exhibition sheds light onto Winnipeg as a leader, even if off the beaten path, in contemporary art. It showcases Manitoba's best known proponents of "prairie surrealism" including filmmaker Guy Maddin, Kent Monkman, Marcel Dzama, and other members of the former Royal Art Lodge collective.
In total, seventy-one Winnipeg artists showcase their talents over all types of genres: paintings, video, collages, installations, creepy/funny hybrid characters, sculptures and a revamped image bank of archetypal Winnipeg pop culture.
"We wanted to point out that Guy Maddin and the Royal Art Lodge didn't just pop out of the ground fully formed. Their art was responding to a culture that was very particular," said Anthony Kiendl, the director of Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art in Winnipeg, which is a co-producer of the exhibit.
Buzz about "My Winnipeg" has been building in the French capital long before its official opening June 23. That's in part because of a growing mystique about Winnipeg in Paris since a retrospective of Guy Maddin's films, including the genre-bending, docu-fantasia "My Winnipeg" (which the art exhibit was named after), was held there to huge success in 2010. Even many Paris newspapers, which haven't sent art critics to La maison rouge before, are assigning coverage of "My Winnipeg."
The exhibition begins with filmmaker Noam Gonick's snapshots of Winnipeg, taken when researching locations for his film Stryker. These edgy urban photos only reinforce Guy Maddin's description of Winnipeg as a "rich and strange place." And it's a place where artists create cheeky spins on Winnipeg iconography, from winter to Winnie-the-Pooh.
"This exhibit is refreshing that it is far from the romanticism that a French person might have of Canada. It went beyond the clichés of polar bears and lakes," says Benedicte Ramade, art critic at L'Oeil magazine. "You see how the long winters feed the imagination."
"I am surprised by the high quality of the work coming from Winnipeg and especially impressed by the great sense of humour, irony and sense of macabre," said Heidi Ellison, of www.parisupdate.com. "The impression you get of Winnipeg is that it's a surreal place. It definitely makes you intrigued about the city."
The exhibition is spawning an interest in Winnipeg as a cultural destination for French tourists. Visitors to La maison rouge say they are curious about the Winnipeg places that inspired the works in the exhibition. Those would include the University of Manitoba, where many of the featured artists studied, Gallery One One One, the Winnipeg Art Gallery (and its stellar collection of Inuit art), and Ace Art Inc. in the city's Exchange District. And of course, Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art, which just moved into cool new digs next to the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Parisians are even intrigued by the Assiniboine Riverwalk that inspires Wanda Koop's work, and the immense flatness of The Prairies, which featured photographer Sarah Anne Johnson poetically describes as, "so flat that it is full of nothingness and that nothingness is full of possibilities."
The exhibit has also sparked a genuine interest about life as an artist in Winnipeg, one of few cities in Canada where an artist can not only afford to live, but also afford their own studio space. Parisians are asking about the places the artists hang out at, like Rae and Jerry's, the frozen-in-1960s bar/lounge with its all red leather interior, or The Tallest Poppy, an organic brunch spot owned by Talia Syrie who sees herself as the tattooed den mother of many of Winnipeg's young artists. And if looking for filmmakers Guy Maddin or Noam Gonick on a sunny summer day, chances are they'll be on the patio in Bar Italia on Winnipeg's Little Italy. (But you don't have to travel to Paris to view "My Winnipeg" to see that Winnipeg's art community is very much like a big family).
Many of these places are outlined in the exhibition's catalogue, which is brilliantly designed like a travel guide, an idea of La maison rouge. Along with history of Canada's art scene, the brochure has sections on Winnipeg facts, geography and maps, and lists of places to go, recommended by the artists and curators of the show. Parisians can also learn local lexicon through a listing of Winnipeg words like Golden Boy and Garbage Hill.
The "My Winnipeg" exhibit runs until September 25 in Paris. It then opens at a museum in the southern French city of Sète in November. It will return to Winnipeg in 2012 at Plug In, in time for the gallery's 40th anniversary.