Two local artists explore context, absence

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 24, 2004

Separate exhibits by two Cochrane artists opened Nov. 19 at The Nickle Arts Museum at the University of Calgary. Robert "Bob" Kelly's "Minutia" and the late Ray Arnatt's "The Presence of Absence" are anything but your typical painting in a frame or statue on a pedestal.

Differing radically from each other in concept and execution, the two exhibits have in common a playful profundity with simplicity. Ray's, in particular, challenges society's absence of presence.

Readers of this column will remember that Ray, sculptor and coffee companion, passed away July 3 of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. (See my July 7 column, "In memory of Ray Arnatt.") More about Ray's exhibit in a minute.

Bob, one of the great folks I've met in Cochrane coffee houses this year, is assistant professor of art at the University of Calgary.

In "Minutia" Bob explores the idea of what life might look like when its details are taken out of their usual context and placed in a new context.

For this exhibit, he had fun with language. He decontextualized the words in an 11-word phrase – "the first time I heard the sound of a page turning" – and created 11 books, one for each of the words, arranging the books, each on its own lectern, in a 30-foot circle within an otherwise empty room.

There is The Book of The, The Book of First, The Book of Time, etc. Each book begins with a foreword in the spirit of the concept, written by another artist, scholar, or in the case of The Book of Turning, by retired Anglican rector Derek Dunwoody, formerly of Cochrane.

The Book of Time, for instance, makes the reader conscious of the passing of time through random thoughts that occur to a person waiting for someone to arrive. The Book of Turning teases the reader into turning the book on its side or upside down to read what's on this page or that.

The foreword to The Book of Of was written by Ray Arnatt two years ago. In his delightful way, Ray listed over 50 examples of the power of this tiny word "of" in all kinds of contexts, then concluded: "Not bad for a word OF little importance."

Which brings me to Ray's own exhibit, for Ray had the knack of elevating the seemingly unimportant to respectability in all sorts of situations, whether the word "of" in a foreword, or an eight-year-old child with whom the senior scholar carried on a fascinating conversation for a half-hour – or an assortment of empty everyday items, the stuff of "The Presence of Absence."

"The Presence of Absence" is part of this season's University of Calgary Art Faculty and Staff Exhibition at The Nickle Arts Museum.

The 40-foot wide all-white installation against an all-white wall consists of things like a pair of nails in the wall, a coat hook, a birdcage with its door open, and a shelf in which is mounted a reflective transparency of a swallow. An empty paint can and wooden chair on the floor complete the exhibit.

According to artist JoAnne Schachtel, Ray's wife, Ray conceived the exhibit a year ago, but because of the onset of ALS was unable to realize the piece. At first Ray considered forgetting about the faculty exhibition, but JoAnne suggested he describe his vision and she and Ray's eldest son, Thomas, would make it happen.

"From the notes I had made, Thomas and I worked to bring together the components," she told me. "The last component that I finished was the bird, whose image is both a reflection (positive image of the bird) and a shadow (negative image of the bird) – a reflection of Ray's lifelong pursuit of binaries."

About the relationship of the birdcage to the bird's image, JoAnne added: "The door is now open and we see the image of a bird flying away. . . . Ray's philosophy, stemming from his interest in binary structures, incorporated all aspects of the process of being alive, so that even death was to be enfolded and made relevant."

"The Presence of Absence" runs until Feb. 5. "Minutia" runs until December 24, with a public reception from 2 to 4 p.m. Nov. 27.

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

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