February 10, 2023

Visceral Moments: Exposure at TrépanierBaer Gallery

Galleries West
Katherine Ylitalo

Barbara Steinman: Keeping Time
Geoffrey James: Trees
Evan Penny: The Venetian Mirrors
On View until March 4, 2023

The body, the poetics of memory and the passage of time.

Remarkable exhibitions by three major Canadian artists – Barbara Steinman, Geoffrey James and Evan Penny – are on view until March 4 at Calgary’s TrépanierBaer gallery in conjunction with Exposure, Alberta’s annual photography festival. Each solo show is a small gem encompassing a particular series that engages photography within the artist’s larger practice.

Steinman’s startling photographs of dying flowers encircle the main gallery and conjure an elegiac walled garden of unexpected beauty and grace. Desiccated cut flowers – mostly hybrid tea roses well past their prime – inhabit a velvety black space in unexpected ways. Some are arranged quietly, while others emerge from the darkness. Apricot-coloured petals fall freely in one composition and, in another, small dark-pink petals form a still cascade.

The exhibition, Keeping Time, was originally presented at Toronto’s Olga Korper Gallery in 2021 and is remounted here. The images are arranged in small groupings that read like poems. Held to the wall by magnets, without frames or protective glass, they offer astonishing detail with unusual clarity and intimacy – whether the puckered tissue of a rose petal or drifting pollen from a white lisianthus.

The photographs were selected from hundreds that Steinman, a Montreal artist who received a Governor General’s Award for Visual and Media Arts in 2002, produced when the pandemic lockdown prompted her to develop a new way of making art. Her daily studio practice became an antidote for difficult times. She collected discards from a local florist and organized them as a palette of colours in progressive stages of dehydration and fragility, learning how to handle them with care and experimenting with ways to structure compositions.


Meanwhile, James’ exhibition, Trees, features stunning black and white photographs he made in 2004 while living in Toronto. These silver prints are grand in scale, nuanced and beautifully printed. Their structure emphasizes the tangible character of each tree and establishes a spatial relationship with the viewer. It’s a pleasure to see them again.

“Taking a picture of a tree with a scanning panoramic camera is not as simple as it looks,” James says. “In horizontal mode the camera will distort the image – a wall photographed head on will become narrower at each end.”

“Confronting a tree, I have found it a mistake to have the camera parallel with the tree. You have to tilt it back; the relationship with the tree is intimate and visceral and a little bit unpredictable.”

These are remarkable portraits of elderly trees: their trunks are strong and weighty, scars and calluses mark their bark, and their branches create intricate skeletal networks. Light transposes them in magical ways: the smooth bark of a beech glows in gradations of grey, while a maple’s leafy canopy disintegrates into a bright halo. These works confirm the Montreal artist, a 2012 recipient of the Governor General’s Award for Media and Visual Arts, as a consummate photographer with a distinctive vision.


The third show, by Penny, revisits a theme from his 2017 Venice exhibition, Ask Your Body, that relates to an account by Ovid in which the satyr Marsyas loses a musical duel to Apollo, who then flays him alive. As Marsyas gazes at his own disembodied skin, he asks, “Why do you peel me away from myself?” This question is at the crux of Penny’s photographic series, The Venetian Mirrors. 

Two sculptures in the exhibition clarify the origins of the photographs. One is Male Torso Model, a 2016 small-scale model wrought from silicone, hair and pigment that is based on an archaic Greek sculptural fragment of Marsyas. The second is Venetian (body) Mirror, 2022, a polished bronze version of an early “body work” from the 1990s that Penny generated by pressing clay between his hands and body.

In his Toronto studio, Penny used a second gold-plated version of Venetian (body) Mirror as a mirror, photographing it with a cellphone to catch distorted reflections of a sculpture of Marsyas. The cellphone also appears distended in the image, seeming to churn in a sea of liquid gold with the sculptural head and flesh of Marsyas. At first, the resulting photographs look more like paintings than photographs, until one finds details of hair, eyes, armpits and fingers, as well as the aperture of the cellphone lens.

These small square photographs function as invitations into a house of mirrors gone awry. With this new work, Penny extends his ongoing explorations of psychology and the body through sculpture and image making. A powerful story from antiquity takes on contemporary relevance by pointing to the dark side of selfie culture and the ways we might be peeled away from ourselves.

Underpinning each exhibition is the artist’s regard for the photograph’s physical presence. Collectively, the shows offer meditations on impermanence, the life of the body, the poetics of memory and the passage of time.


Image Credit:
Barbara Steinman, “Keeping Time,” 2021
Group 9 : No. 129 and No. 8
Chromogenic print on Canson Rag Photographique paper
Edition 3/5  – each, 19″ x 15″ – each


Saturday, March 11, 2023
Chris Flodberg