The annual Sobey Art Award, which will be announced Nov. 18 in Ottawa, is a handsome prize for an emerging artist. But artists who are still emerging may not be ready for their close-up.
Take, for example, a small sculpture by the Inuvialuk artist Kablusiak, one of five finalists for the 2023 prize, currently showing at the National Gallery of Canada. It’s a stone carving of a kneeling figure with dollar signs attached entitled TY Again Mr. Sobey. In French TY has been translated to Merci so the piece is apparently a thank-you to the founder of the feast, but it feels both simplistic and sarcastic. Kablusiak’s investigation of the familiar figure of the Ookpik owl in various guises displays a gentler and more effective humour as it considers how southern culture commodifies Inuit art.
Still, this is not a strong year for the prize. Many of the pieces in the National Gallery’s annual show of the finalists’ art feel promising but immature.
The most engrossing is Michèle Pearson Clarke’s Quantum Choir, a video installation in which four queer masculine women (including the Toronto artist herself) perform vocal warm-ups and then sing the John Grant song Queen of Denmark (famously performed by Sinead O’Connor). At first they are tentative but gradually they get their groove.
The piece is a performance about mastery – that loaded word – as the female nonsingers gradually gain confidence. It is surrounded by soccer balls and pylons, apparently because soccer is an area where these four excel. It’s an unnecessary gesture that clutters the installation, but the work remains powerful, full of touching moments as one of the women reaches passionately for a stanza or the finale brings tears to Clarke’s eyes. As they belt out that final line, the parallel between self-revealing performance and queer self-acceptance resonates deeply.
Montreal artist Anahita Norouzi is represented by a giant classical head, cracked open and weeping black oil in a piece that refers to the plunder of the Middle East for archeological remains and petroleum. (The head is a reproduction of a terracotta from the ancient Persian city of Susa, and is surrounded by blackened reproductions of crown imperial flowers, which were introduced to Europe from Iran in the 1570s.)
One issue with the Sobey Award exhibition is that it asks the jury and the public to judge artists on a handful of works. Norouzi is currently showing a more complex piece in the Royal Ontario Museum’s Being and Belonging show, a video work that uses the blooming of five irises as a visual metaphor for the systemic racism of U.S. immigration controls. In comparison, the large head created for the Sobey show seems bombastic.
On the other hand, the Métis artist Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill is represented by multiple works that don’t offer any clear stylistic direction. The B.C. artist contributes three pleasing collages of deep pigments studded with dried flowers, beer caps and other charms; two rabbits made of pantyhose stuffed with tobacco, and a puzzling installation involving two 16 mm film projections screening scratchy patterns that supposedly say something about motherhood and kinship.
Halifax artist Séamus Gallagher is showing their camp series about gender fluidity, A Slippery Place. In outlandishly decorated settings established in both photos and installations, they pose as a drag clown figure with a hairy body and breasts. In the documentary video associated with the show, Gallagher talks about their love of camp, describing it as a form that completely fails to achieve the glamour and beauty it seeks. Failure, they go on to say, is full of creative possibility. Words of wisdom from an emerging artist.
The Sobey Art Award exhibition continues at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa to March 3. The winner of the award will be announced Nov. 18.