Walter Phillips Gallery: The Shape of an Echo
By Carson Tarnasky
Written on 06 December 2022
f you didn’t get a chance to see The Shape of an Echo, a thematic curation of works from the Walter Phillips Gallery (WPG) permanent collection, it was a thoughtful reminder of the impact the Banff Centre has had in our creative community. It was also a rich visual montage of artworks throughout time that are still relevant today. An artwork is never finished so long as it is seen again with fresh eyes.
The selection of photographs, prints, paintings, sculptures, and sounds that made up this show were laden with a sense of place, the scope of which was broadened by the sensibility of the WPG crew to tie it all together under the metaphor of ‘the echo.’ The effect was a rich tapestry of poetic connections that became better the more time you spent with the collection. The central piece, which carried the theme, was Rebecca Bellmore’s performative artifact: Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother. The large gramophone made of wood and skin undoubtedly stole the show as it confronted visitors entering the gallery with its dominant presence, but it also served a point of comparison that nurtured insight as, thread by thread, the tapestry between artwork and viewer was woven.
One excellent feature of this show was that it spilled out onto the campus. This exhibition gave the gallery the chance to pull in outdoor works that are part of the collection as a way to add depth to the theme and expand upon an experience that is usually isolated to the four walls of the ‘white box.’ I think that our experiences in galleries and museums are too often separate from real life, and so I was impressed as I left the gallery searching for more artworks that may or may not be a part of the dialogue.
However, this exhibition, for all its richness and subtlety, I believe, falls into a common fault of contemporary visual art presentation which is to present culturally significant works without due care for the interpretation of those works. The impact of art can be lost in the ambiguity of presentation. With this exhibition, the curatorial statement was concise and intriguing enough to kindle an attitude of so-called informed viewing. But it didn't do the artwork justice, particularly the indigenous artwork. Perhaps this was because ambiguity, in this field, is considered to be necessary for the kind of dialectical interaction artists are looking for. But what about visitors who may lack the prior knowledge to engage with the works? Could we think of a middle ground between ambiguity and expository? If not, I fear not only for the future relevance of these artworks within our public galleries, but for the art community that becomes more and more insular as it alienates those of us who are on the outside looking in.
All together, it was an impressive collection of works that helped to put ‘brushstroke to name,’ as it was my first time seeing the household names of the early Banff Centre faculty connected to prints, paintings, photographs, and sculpture. What is clear to me now is that there are countless artistic echoes bouncing around the Bow Valley and it is a continually evolving relationship. Some echoes still reverberate and some are new. So next time you are in Banff, keep your eyes and ears open to see if you can pick up on the artistic voices out there. The winter may be a time of stillness, but listen closely and you just may hear the shape of an echo.