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Norlen's wire sketches come to life

posted January 23, 2013

Alison Norlen's (professor, Art & Art History) exhibition Luna, opens Friday, Jan. 25 at the Mendel Art Gallery.

Read the article in The StarPhoenix.

'Necessity of forms' on display

By Stephanie McKay, The StarPhoenix January 23, 2013

Alison Norlen captures ghosts of the past in her new exhibit at the Mendel Art Gallery.

Large steel structures, both the familiar and the fantastical, fill the space in a dreamlike world where past, present and future blur. Once-impeccable bridges, theme parks and other manmade places give way to deterioration. It's nostalgic, yet somehow full of life.

The exhibit Luna is based on England's Brighton Pier, a pleasure pier that weathered hurricanes and fires, at one point partially disintegrating into the sea.

"It kind of melted and it was sort of horrific and beautiful at the same time. It became this beautiful abstracted shape," Norlen said.

Norlen has recreated the pier, and other time-scarred landmarks, in the Mendel's rear gallery. The stainless steel and carbon sculptures are a totally new process for Norlen but still relate to her longtime work. The artist and University of Saskatchewan professor - currently on sabbatical - is best known for her drawings of such structures. Several years ago, she started making small wire maquettes to assist her in the process of drawing.

"I started building these little things to try and understand its structural part, its functional part. It became really, really different than when I drew it because I realized the necessity of its forms," she said.

Her current work took off from there. At Norlen's last exhibit at the Mendel in 2002, she showcased the maquettes - she calls them "wire sketches" - and noticed people were very interested in the pieces. Though she wanted to work on the same themes, Norlen also wanted to do something different from her usual practices. Welding is brand new territory.

"I like the risk of that," she said. "But I see the pieces as drawings in a sense, at least really related to drawing."

In addition to Brighton Pier, the show also features theme park elements and architectural follies, buildings constructed primarily for decoration. The show is named for Luna Park in New York's Coney Island. It includes sculptures of the pineapple-shaped Dunmore folly in Scotland, a zeppelin and a wooden fireworks thrower from Mexico.

One of the standout pieces is a steel reconstruction of the Thunderbolt rollercoaster. The Coney Island ride was condemned and, until it was demolished in 2000, was topiary-like with a thick cover of ivy.

"I love these sort of transforming, changing objects," Norlen said. "All of these really important objects have changed their purpose, which I find really interesting. These places are iconic and now have new identities."

The pieces are welded with a specialized low-voltage tool usually used to manufacture medical equipment or make jewelry. Nor-len was unable to use traditional welding equipment because of its high voltage.

"I had some spinal surgeries and had a device put in that was a spinal stimulator. I was a bit of a cyborg for a number of years and couldn't be around high voltage," she said.

The tool allows Norlen to weld in a very organic way. Thanks to hand tool attachments like tweezers, she can create shapes instead of being restricted to post-and-lintel design.

"It's very much like drawing because the lines can change and you can weld any shape," she said.

Eventually, the creative process will come full circle. Norlen plans to have a photographer come to shoot the exhibit so she can then draw the structures, transforming the pieces once more.

"I think these things began because I was really curious. When you look at these things you take it for granted, but when you have to build it you're sort of understanding what it is," she said.

"It's sort of romantic in a way. I want to know it and the way to know it is to play with it, to build it and tenderly understand it."

Luna opens Friday at the Mendel Art Gallery and runs until March 10. An opening reception takes place Friday at 8 p.m. A talk and tour of the exhibit is scheduled for Feb. 3 at 2 p.m.

ALSO NEW AT THE MENDEL

STEELING THE GAZE: PORTRAITS BY ABORIGINAL ARTISTS

Drawing on the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, Steeling the Gaze includes works by some of Canada's most celebrated indigenous artists. The show features 51 portraits by a dozen artists with a focus on contemporary aboriginal artists and self-expression. The opening talk and tour takes place Friday at 7 p.m.

STEPHEN HUTCHINGS: LANDSCAPES FOR THE END OF TIME

This exhibition of large-scale landscape paintings by Ottawa's Stephen Hutchings was inspired by Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. The pieces combine old-style photography with computer design. Members of the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra will perform the music that inspired the paintings on Sunday at 2: 30 p.m. in the gallery. Hutchings will host a talk and tour of the work earlier that day at 2 p.m.

ZACHARI LOGAN AND HUMBOLDT MAGNUSSEN: OUTSIDERS

This exhibit in the Artists by Artists program features Humboldt Magnussen's work, which focuses on themes of home, belonging and survival. His visual narratives include flora and fauna that reflect his rural Saskatchewan upbringing. His mentor Zachari Logan's work has been included in group and solo shows across the Americas and Europe.

smckay@thestarphoenix.com
© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

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