Art is once again hanging from the walls of the Nanaimo Art Gallery.
On July 24, the NAG is unveiling Small Gatherings, its first exhibition since COVID-19 precautions forced the gallery to close to the public in mid March. It’s also the first exhibition happening under new executive director Carolyn Holmes and the first to contemplate this year’s thematic inquiry, ‘what moves?’
Jesse Birch, NAG curator, said ideas about a gathering-themed show were already percolating as COVID-19 restrictions were being implemented and people were barred from meeting in groups. When this spring’s exhibition Boarder X was postponed, Birch quickly moved to bring Small Gatherings into being.
“With Small Gatherings I wanted to think about what it means to be in an intimate space with other people again … and how that might change the way that we look at encountering art,” Birch said. “And so I decided to put together a show that is not only small and quiet and imitate, but also is really about this place.”
The show features works by local artists Tyrone Elliott, Sheri Bakes, Sara Robichaud and Charlotte Zhang, as well as pieces in the gallery’s permanent collection by Vancouver artists Carole Itter and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. Zhang’s piece is also in the NAG collection.
Birch said Robichaud’s work immediately came to mind. In her ongoing project An Unapologetic Affair, Robichaud turned her home into an art installation and welcomed guests to visit and view paintings made directly on the walls, as well as on canvas. In Small Gatherings, Robichaud is exhibiting five of those canvas paintings, which depict household objects including an ironing board and hair brushes.
She said the most personal work is Vanitas, a painting of a cluttered bedroom vanity she was working on when she learned that her father died. The piece is named after a genre of still life paintings that represent what a person enjoys in life while alluding to the inevitability of death.
“I thought that’s what I’ve done, in a way,” Robichaud said. “Objects that were meaningful to me, but then related to his death. So the ideas of mourning and gathering go along with that.”
Bakes’s piece is a painting inspired by a visit with former Vancouver Symphony Orchestra conductor Bramwell Tovey in his garden called Bramwell’s Garden.
“It’s a kind of gathering of creative force in the space of a garden, which is a space of gathering and care,” Birch said.
Elliott’s work is a selection of garments made from woven cedar and dyed wool.
“Whenever he’s weaving, he’s engaging in a form of gathering because he won’t go and collect cedar by himself, it’s always a community affair,” Birch said. “And the gathering that happens in his work, in his skills, comes from generations of knowledge being shared.”
Zhang’s film The Lining depicts a young woman in discussion with her best friend and mother as she’s “figuring out things in her life,” Birch said, adding that “the scenes are slow enough that you feel like you’re almost part of the conversation.”
From the collection, Itter’s piece is a collection of eggs and small objects related to chickens placed in a kitchen drawer called Chicken Cabinet. Birch calls it playful and surrealist.
“I see it as the kind of beautiful absurdity of collecting and gathering things, but also this nice way of thinking about people’s relationships with these objects around us,” he said.
The final piece in Small Gatherings is Yuxweluptun’s painting Reservation Natives Surrounded by Supernatural Clearcut, which shows figures standing near the site of clearcut logging.
“In this case ‘gathering’ is thinking about a different kind of gathering, which is wholesale resource extraction on unceded indigenous territory,” Birch said. “So the clearcut as a different kind of gathering and maybe some of the more problematic aspects to this notion of collecting, of taking.”
Birch said art shows usually spend a year in development, but as a curator it’s important to be flexible.
“Some of best exhibitions happen when you’re open to chance. This show was almost all chance,” he said with a laugh.
WHAT’S ON … Small Gatherings takes place at the Nanaimo Art Gallery, 150 Commercial St., from July 24 to Aug. 29. Only six visitors will be allowed in the gallery at once and guests will be asked to socially distance themselves and adhere to COVID-19 safety protocols. No opening reception will be held.
SEE RELATED: Artist delves into the myriad of life’s roles