Conversari opening night review

A portrait by artist Denise Tierney. (Ben Sopow)
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Conversari, the current exhibition at VIU’s View Gallery, is sure to provoke some interesting conversation. The display runs from January 11 to February 22 and features an avocado, a pencil, and a mitten; the disparate approaches of three different artists. Yet, there is a unity of purpose that shines through the shape and style of their works. While artists often work largely in isolation to make meaning of the world, here three have united to share their intensity and strive together to probe questions of existence.

The exhibition is a collaboration of VIU alumni Nan Goodship, Denise Tierney, and Gem Chang-Kue, and showcases the results of their artistic conversation and engagement over the past year.

Tierney works with portraits, people, relationships, and human interactions. She is the ‘front man’ for the group. Goodship is introspective, finding nourishment and spiritual sanctuary in the power and beauty of nature.

“I think of art and painting as soul food,” Goodship said.

Protest Painting by Nan Goodship. (Ben Sopow)

Chang-Kue brings a conceptual and cerebral poignancy to the group. For her, “art and creativity isn’t just something in galleries. It’s a way of thinking.” The recognition of similar motivations and methods, victories, and frustrations formed the basis of the conversations that inspired and supported these three artists in their preparation. Conversari, the theme of the show, is based on the Latin root word for ‘conversation’, and arose as the artists recognized the preciousness of the space they had created for meaningful conversation. These conversations have inspired and nurtured the artists to grow creatively together.

The question is whether or not the viewer is able to perceive the trust and nourishment the artists felt during the process of producing this exhibition. Have they made it tangible? Buoyed by the support of this collaboration, Goodship has challenged herself to leave her comfort zone and mastered watercolour technique that renders hyper-realistic visions of natural beauty that demand our presence in a compelling and satisfying way. She is moved to lend her artistic voice in support of environmental efforts to protect the natural world.

Inspired by her courtroom visits to witness the heartfelt and often poetic statements made by those arrested in the Trans Mountain Pipeline blockades, Goodship ventures into a narrative piece that merges her artist self with her activist self. She experiments with an art form that collapses time and place by the use of scale and size of the figures, some colourful and others black-and-white ink drawings. This is the pivotal work of the show and a jarring intrusion in the sanctified world gallery; there is awkwardness in confronting the viewer with the urgency of the danger to the planet. Yet, the painting succeeds in raising the alarm and enlists the viewer in the battle to protect and save our natural world. Goodship credits the trust within the group for giving her confidence to try something new. “Trust is a quality that allows us to be who we are in life and in conversation,” Goodship said.

If Goodship’s work takes an experimental step from the world of nature to the dynamics of political conversation, Tierney’s is all in on human conversations. At the heart of Tierney’s work is the question of how much of ourselves we bring to the conversations we have with other people. Are we truly present? She addresses the conventions and dynamics of human interaction through a series of portraits, each expressive, moving, and rich with story, awaiting only the viewer to fill in a narrative. The subjects for Tierney’s portraits are chosen for their nuance, gesture of their expression, and the potential for informing our understanding of human conversations.

Several of her paintings are exhibited back-to-back in wooden frames atop steel poles. They are set away from the walls so that the viewer is able to walk among the portraits and view them at eye level, simulating a party setting. Before spinning the frame to see the other side, the viewer feels compelled to peer around the portrait to make sure they weren’t turning the frame before the viewer on the other side was done looking. This results in courteous, playful encounters that create opportunity for conversation with fellow gallery visitors. Still in the early stages of establishing her art career, Tierney is the new kid on the block in this trio. Awed and inspired in the presence of two accomplished and skillful artists, she ups her game and is wildly successful at expressing her conceptual ideas in her painting installation.

Gem Chang-Kue’s video installation casts mystifying green and purple light. (Ben Sopow)

For Chang-Kue, whose creative process involves, as she puts it, “connecting thinking with what [she is] making,” the space for conversation allows her ideas to take form. In one of her installation pieces, the ceramic pages billowing out of an open suitcase beautifully represent the baggage of our accumulated thoughts: a lifetime of journals and writings that formed the basis of an identity having become clutter that denies the immediacy of the present.

Chang-Kue’s work is conceptual but not without emotion. Her video and clay installation pieces work in concert with emotion to awaken feelings the viewer may not have anticipated. In one video, the gross transgression of boundaries as a subject places rock after rock into her mouth may rouse a visceral reaction from long-suppressed places in the viewer’s psyche. Tension fills this video, emblematic of the Chinese saying of ‘swallowing bitterness’. Here, the artistic collaboration that inspired Conversari offers the comfort of being held while hosting darker, harmful visitors. Chang-Kue’s third installation piece offers solace and hope with its softly bent and distorted video of a river’s confluence. Working with her fellow artists, Chang-Kue has produced works that allow viewers to explore how themes of letting go, negative emotions, and new beginnings resonate in their lives.

One measure of success for each artist would be that, upon reflection, it was evident they were trusting, non-judgmental, and ended up knowing more about their craft. The question of whether the nourishment and support these three found in conversation together raised the level of their work is answered unequivocally by the brilliance and strength of the exhibition.

The thread that connects all three is the importance of being present: present in our awareness of the natural world, present in our conversations and interactions with other people, and present in our own inner world of thought.