Fractured and beloved northern landscapes

A cool, open feeling struck me as I walked into the current show in the main gallery at the Yukon Arts Centre. An aqua-blue wall, a glimpse of glaciers painted on spacious canvas and metal sculptures evoked this feeling.

The gallery features the work of two circumpolar artists, mostly responding to time spent in Svalbard.

A chain of islands belonging to Norway, located between 74 and 81 degrees north, Svalbard’s history includes industrial resource extraction and serving as a jumping-off point in the race to get to the North Pole.

Are they plants or flames, Kaisu Koivisto’s green metal structures growing up and out from this log as part of ”Northern Gardening?”

In Topophilia (it means “a love of the land”), Finland artist Kaisu Koivisto creates sculptures that draw inspiration from the openwork metal crane-like structures used to load boats. Her sculptures adorn, protect or grow from utilitarian objects, including dishes, a boot, a pink child’s croc, or bicycle helmets. In “Protector I” and “II” Koivisito’s metal rods trace the vents in the helmets, making them seem like masks. Two ear-like structures point upwards from the oval face-like forms, suggesting the ears of, perhaps, a bear and a rabbit.

Koivisto’s photographs are nostalgic. Three large prints look back at a place left behind. “Leaving Pyramiden” (Pyramiden is a place in Svalbard) shows the viewer, over two sheets of paper, the sea and land on what seems like a misty, cool summer day.

“Leaving Qoornok” shows the turquoise, frothy wake of a boat as we leave a snow-cloaked mountainous landscape in Qoornok, an uninhabited fishing village in Greenland. Another series of photographs shows old painted murals, mostly peeling off the walls.

Koivisto’s video installation uses the room in an interesting way. A bench faces into the corner where a two-channel video installation is projected on the corner’s two walls. On the left, a video shot from one point looks out over the prow of a sailing ship onto a coastal, summer landscape. It pans slowly across a glacier and back again. The corner of the room mimics the boat’s prow. The right-hand landscape image, when I was there, remained still. One challenge I face when writing about video art is that it’s often hard to tell if something like this still image is an artistic choice or a glitch.

I experienced a similar challenge in the video installation “Here and there/Far and near” by Whitehorse-based artist Jane Isakson. Seated on a bench in the room, there are still images to the left and the right. They change like slides, but in a twitchy way. Sometimes they zoom in and out. They have been made to pass through cardboard frames, which softens two or three edges of the images. A shadow fell at the upper right corner of one of the projections though. It appeared to be cast by a piece of tape, but again, did the tape just let go accidentally? Or is this something to be considered when viewing the images?

Jane Isakson uses lines drawn across images of the landscape to navigate a sense of where she is in ”I am here, Svalbard.”

In the main gallery, Isakson’s large-scale paintings blend an adept intimacy with painting landscape, a sensitive investigation of acrylic paint, and a geometric exploration of location within the landscape. In the works that make up her show, Points of Reference/Fracturing the Sublime, Isakson draws lines across the landscape. They mimic the beams of light one sometimes sees in wide, open northern places. They offset the image, so mountain slopes don’t quite line up. In “They are there, Svalbard,” the lines converge on a heap of stuff surrounded by poles, giving me the impression of a garbage dump surrounded by an electric fence to keep bears out. In “I am here, Svalbard,” the lines converge on a point in the near-middle ground. The orange underpainting that peeks out makes the spots where the lines meet feel like a bonfire.

Taken as a whole, this exhibit takes us to different “norths” than we usually inhabit here in Whitehorse. At the same time, our experiences as fellow northerners give us common ground to connect with these artworks.

Topophilia and Points of Reference/Fracturing the Sublime will be on display at the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery until May 18. The gallery is open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and before performances.

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