Art School High exhibit revels in nostalgia, and darker memories too

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      Art School High
      At the Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art until August 26

      High school leaves few of us unscarred. Often, however, it can be a proving ground—a place and time to forge a sense of who it is we are. Or, at least, who it is we aspire to be. Although a few individuals tragically succumb to the horrors of teenage bullying and depression, most survive to reflect upon the experience later. Reflect with varying degrees of humour, bitterness, or cynicism—a twisted form of nostalgia.

      Writer, curator, and academic Patrik Andersson has put together a mostly upbeat exhibition (and catalogue) that considers the high-school experience from different creative angles and perspectives. Art School High features a range of works by 12 local artists, most of them acclaimed and admired (at least now, in adulthood).

      A few pieces make their debut here, including Scott Livingstone’s reproductions of vintage surf-movie posters and Rodney Graham’s Robert Rauschenberg-like collage-paintings. However, many of the works, such as Ken Lum’s 1994 Hum, Hum, Hummm and Ron Terada’s "Grey Paintings" from 1996-97, have been exhibited and admired before. While previewing the exhibition with the Straight, Andersson said that this retrospective aspect is intentional, metaphorically paralleling a high-school reunion. (Andersson, by the way, has never attended a high-school reunion.)

      Kathy Slade’s Chart, a wall-size grid of 105 machine-embroidered canvases, calls up recent art history (the minimal-conceptual grid) and fine-art hierarchies (embroidery interjecting ideas about craft, domesticity, and the feminine) while also alluding to creative aspiration (a teach-yourself-guitar book). Her black dots on fretlike graphs represent guitar chords and signal the adolescent impulse to identify with antiestablishment music as either maker or consumer. (A number of Slade’s projects reference the punk movement of the 1970s.) Paradoxically, as Andersson points out in his catalogue essay, they also imply the creation of new orthodoxies and the imposition of new forms of discipline.

      Indie-rock musician John Collins (of the New Pornographers, Destroyer, and the Evaporators) is represented here by a handful of homemade cassette tapes from his 1980s high-school days. They’re amusing as much for their naively hand-drawn covers as for what they reveal about Collins’s adolescent musical taste. Former radio host David Wisdom has compiled a playlist of songs that express the high-school experience, along with a slide show of personal and appropriated high-schoolish images. Also amusing, if not exactly profound.

      Kyla Mallett digs deeper, exploring the dark side of high school with her single-channel video Bully. Here, women artists, aged 25 to 40, stand alone in front of the camera, recalling their experiences of, yes, female bullying. Made in 2003, this work anticipates the intense media focus on the subject in recent years. While it reflects on the cruel rules of social and physical conformity teenagers impose on one another, it also suggests that many of those kids who can’t or won’t conform are the highly creative outsiders who become artists in adulthood.

      Jean MacRae's Untitled (Staff Meeting).

      Jean MacRae represents a rarely portrayed high-school perspective—that of teacher. Bored teacher. She is represented here by a series of elaborate doodles on faintly lined graph paper, which she made during interminable staff meetings. According to Andersson, when MacRae noticed that her doodles resembled Zentangles, she crumpled them up in disgust. Smoothed out again, framed, and mounted on the wall, they are now, Andersson writes, “elevated to artwork status… aesthetically important and conceptually fascinating”.

      The fact that a number of the artists here employ found and appropriated images, objects, and texts, reproducing or reinterpreting them in paint, video, photography, sculpture, or stitchery, is, Andersson suggests in the catalogue essay, core to the high-school experience. Teenagers (and he includes his high-school self here) may spend hours obsessively drawing images of their pop-culture heroes, the originals sourced from magazines, newspapers, and the Internet. Andersson doesn’t use the word appropriation or even interpretation, but says, instead, that these artists “copy signs, symbols, and structures from the world around them”. The word copy is curious here, in the context of acclaimed, mid-career artists, but perhaps Andersson’s sly intention is to undermine standard artspeak. And there it is, copy, casting its adolescent shadow across the exhibition.