Materiality and Perception in Contemporary Atlantic Art at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton

By Jon Claytor

Every exhibition has a key to unlocking the curator’s vision. One certain piece or didactic statement that opens the door to understanding the show. In this particular case it is the title: Materiality and Perception in Contemporary Atlantic Art. The word “material” leads us to contemplate the physical medium of the work, be it plastic, wood, metal, video, etc. The word “perception” invites us to consider how we perceive the materials and how they interact. Do the materials have political or cultural baggage to unpack? How do they affect each other? How does the medium carry the meaning? And how does placement and display affect perception? All these things direct how we perceive the works individually and as a whole. Simply put, curator Tom Smart’s title tells us that what you see is what you get, but then again, nothing is ever that simple.

Deanna Musgrave, A Conversation with Emma Kunz (detail), 2019, acrylic on canvas

So what do we see? The gallery walls are hung with many paintings. The paintings run the gamut from retro abstract expressionism to lush realism. Many of them are poignant and beautiful, but they are what we’ve come to expect to see in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. However, there are also some pieces that almost jump off the wall. Like the wooden masks by Charlie Gaffney. Or the tragically playful carnival game-inspired piece by Raven Davis titled Child’s Play For Them, Murder For Us that forefronts the genocidal assimilation of Indigenous people due to the policies of Canadian government. Or Ursula Johnson’s brilliant video work, The ITHA Shopping Network, that highlights the commodification of Indigenous art forms using humour and parody. These works resist the wall and push against the passive gallery experience, asking to be interacted with.

Similarly, in the middle of the room, there is a wooden race car by William Forrestall that almost begs to be played with, a ladder that morphs into drooping birch bows by Ann Manuel, and an eerie finger standing guard by Dawn MacNutt. But they have an easy freedom contrasted to nearby work in a series of clear boxes on plinths. Each houses a single item or small collection such as Psihqiminsok, handcrafted strawberries made of white ash and sweet grass by Katie Augustine, and the stunning Chief’s hat by Kim and Wayne Books. More than any other works, these beg to be touched and used. But they are untouchable in their boxes and one wonders if this was the artist’s choice or that of the gallery. Either way it affects the work and here, more than anywhere else in the show, the material of the work and display case impacts our perception. Do these Plexi-boxes preserve or imprison the objects they house? It’s a question you could ask of almost everything in a colonial gallery or museum. Simply by being placed in an exhibition or collection with the colonial cultural baggage of the Beaverbrook, the perception of all the work changes.

If I learned anything from this show it’s that the materiality of art is only part of what shapes our perception. What we see is also shaded by the work’s historical and cultural context. In many ways the unifying factor of this exhibition is simply time and place. The pieces in this collection share a moment in time and a meeting of many perspectives (including settler and Indigenous, among others) in a space that is haunted by the past.

Materiality and Perception in Contemporary Atlantic Art: The 2019 Marion McCain Exhibition continues until January 26.
The Beaverbrook Art Gallery:
The gallery is accessible.

Jon Claytor is an artist living and working in Sackville, New Brunswick. He is the co-founder of Sappyfest and Thunder & Lightning Ideas Ltd.