A Prairie Vernacular, examines historic and contemporary representations of the vernacular in artistic practice on the Canadian prairies, considering the relationship of folk art to contemporary art produced in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. This cross-provincial exhibition creates opportunities for dialogue and exchange in regard to the art histories and practices of visual artists in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba. The work presented is diverse in media and will be derived from the collections of the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery and the Esplanade Arts & Heritage Centre, as well as the collections of provincial arts funders – Saskatchewan Arts Board and Alberta Foundation for the Arts, museums and galleries including the MacKenzie Art Gallery, Remai Modern, Art Gallery of Alberta, Glenbow Museum and Winnipeg Art Gallery, along with work from private collectors and individual artists.
Featured Saskatchewan artists include: Henry Beaudry, Heather Benning, Frank Cicansky, Victor Cicansky, Allen Clarke, Wesley Dennis, Joe Fafard, Richard Gorenko, Ann Harbuz, Jerry Kaiser, Molly Lenhardt, William McCargar, Harvey McInnes, Fred Moulding, Wendy Parsons, Lawrence Pederson, William Philpott, Allen Sapp, Sam Spencer, Dmytro Stryjek, David Thauberger, Jeanne Thomarat, Russ Yuristy, and Jane Zednik.
Organized by the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery and the Esplanade Arts & Heritage Centre in Medicine Hat in partnership with the Art Gallery of Swift Current and other presenting galleries. The Curators are Jennifer McRorie, MJM&AG, and Joanne Marion, EAHC.
Vernacular art is largely defined as a genre of art made by individuals untrained in the visual arts, who may not even identify themselves as artists. Artists represented in the exhibition include historic and contemporary untrained or self-taught artists, as well as academically trained artists whose works speak to the vernacular, the locality and history of the Prairie. These representations of the vernacular not only adopt the materials, methods and/or motivations of a folk aesthetic, but speak to shared contexts and subject matter, either reflecting on memories and histories of life on the prairies or presenting visual narratives rife with humour, fantasy, myth, politics, religion, and the prairie gothic. The relationship on the Prairies between folk or vernacular art and contemporary art that engages in the vernacular has been complex and, perhaps, somewhat symbiotic, stemming from a shared interest in Prairie experience, culture, environment and sensibilities as compelling sources for artistic practice.
While the emergence of vernacular art in galleries and the art market dates back to 19th century France to the symbolist work of Henri Rousseau, the significance of vernacular art in western Canada became recognized in the 1960s and 1970s by curators, contemporary artists, art dealers and collectors, who appreciated, what they considered to be, its honesty, integrity and raw expression. This interest came at a time when contemporary prairie artists were looking for an alternative to New York modernism and its universal values that had pervaded the prairies since the late 1950s. They were wanting to make work that was situated in this place, not the larger urban centres, and spoke to the world and experiences that they knew. Saskatchewan artists, who were introduced to California Funk, a ceramics movement that engaged in humour and surrealism to focus on everyday subjects, popular culture and personal narrative, felt a natural affinity with vernacular art. Its prevalence and precedence of making work about life on the Prairies provided them with a context or model to respond to their own regional experience within mainstream contemporary art. These Regina Funk artists formed relationships with many of Saskatchewan’s recognized folk artists, supporting their practices by collecting their work and curating it into exhibitions, as well as collaborating with them. The exhibition examines these connections and the influence of these genres on following generations of artists, who either adopt and incorporate elements of a folk or funk aesthetic or make work that speaks to the Prairie vernacular, in regards to its realities, memories, cultural myths and visions.
Interest in vernacular art in the past has often unquestioningly overlooked the fact that this genre of artmaking usually represented pioneer or settler culture, the modernist myth of the West and white European ethnicity. The inclusion of Indigenous artists’ work in the exhibition, and the writings of Indigenous art historian and curator, Dr. Carmen Robertson, to provide context for these works, allows for alternate representations of Prairie experience and histories that diversify and build on the previously prescribed concepts of vernacular art.
The layout of the exhibition, in terms of real and perceived relationships and shared thematics, allows the works to dialogue, weaving overarching, complex narratives of Prairie sensibilities and experience. It also encourages audiences to draw connections between the work of these historic and contemporary artists to not only consider the prevalence of vernacular art on the Prairies but the impact it has had on our art, collective culture and identity as Prairie people.