2 April 1998 - 9 May 1998
Opening Reception 2 April 1998 8pm
Many cities have an emblematic promotional image and for Calgary its the skyline with the Saddledome, the city’s hockey arena, looming in the foreground. As an architectural trope of its western image, the Saddledome perfectly encapsulates a civic narrative, a story which Luanne Martineau’s recent installation Ryan’s Arcade circuitously evokes. Calgary’s paradigmatic story is staged every year during the Stampede. For ten days in July, shop windows are painted with grizzled cowboys, hitching posts, cowboy hats, saddles, swaybacked horses and countless other symbols of the wild west. These cliche depictions of the American west have taken on their own cultural currency. In Alberta this simple, albeit fictitious past joyfully replays itself in a kind of frenetic erasure of any ‘real’ history as it consolidates a unifying popular myth. Because the Stampede has such a carnivalesque warmth, its embracement within the collective imagination can paradoxically make it difficult to participate in. Martineau lives and works in Calgary, the city where I was raised. Looking at Ryan’s Arcade I remember the surreal displacement I felt when I lived there, the sensation of amnesia necessary in order to be included in the party.
Similar to the painting found on the shop windows, Ryan’s Arcade is peopled with characters and imagery collaged from a host of popular sources including cartoons, book illustrations, and paintings. Martineau pilfers and recombines characters from The Little Prince, Little Black Sambo, Goya’s drawings, as well as from lesser known sources – almost forgotten turn-of-the-century comic strips like Little Nemo and Buster Brown. Ryan’s Arcade also employs rudimentary available craft techniques:small framed watercolour landscapes; little oven baked portrait busts made from hobby store Super Sculpey placed somewhat haphazardly on the floor or on small shelves; needlework embroidery over heat transferred photos on fabric. I seriously doubt that Martineau is questioning an essentialist binary like home/studio or the kind of gender divisions this mode of working raises. Like the crude images adorning the strip malls and plazas of Calgary in the summer, its more a question of how Martineau can effortlessly invoke narrative with the lowest and most simple techniques. Perhaps the simplicity of construction parallels a desire for a conspicuous thematic. When Ryan’s Arcade was exhibited in Vancouver, visitors repeatedly asked about Martineau’s sources and if there were a story to her pictures. Without a key to the code of Ryan’s Arcade, it seemed impossible to understand what the artist was trying to say. This hunger for a cohesive tale – for a hidden but extant text – is at the core of Martineau’s project. Her intentional ambiguity, compounded by her use of genre and the structural elements of narrative, instills a powerful desire for meaning. Her choice of mediums refer to sources with unmistakably transparent signification: landscapes based on book illustrations, together with sculptural busts that recall those weird ceramic heads of pirates and pseudo-Dickens characters that populated suburban living rooms in the ’70s. We’ve become so accustomed to the blatant referents of a cartoon or kitsch home decoration, it’s difficult to avoid the impression that Martineau is intentionally hiding her story.
There is a clue, however, in the stereotypical portrayal of the emigre – the kilted Scot and bikini-clad Little Black Sambo are the most obvious–which appears repeatedly in Ryan’s Arcade. In Martineau’s drawings, these personalities haphazardly occupy the landscape, heads and bodies interchanging, they are dissonant and unsupportive of each other, both within each image and as a whole. In this context, to look at Martineau’s images and come to a narrative conclusion is impossible. They offer too many possibilities. A place like Calgary, in contrast, is embedded with the cut and paste anthologizing of one cultural stereotype; the cowboy. This figure, patched together from novels and Western movies, is ahistorically re-deployed in an act of civic transcription. Wearing cowboy boots and hats, Calgarians are mirrored in the painted windows, creating for themselves a cohesive and durable story of genesis – but it’s a reflection of imaginative blindness infused with historical forgetfulness. Martineau’s figures work in opposition to this and inhabit a space of alienation. This isn’t because her cast of disparate characters refuse to act out a story. They avoid consolidation and, as a result, narrative. Whether for Martineau this is a method of questioning her surroundings, I don’t know, but I do think Ryan’s Arcade is an act of resistance.