BY TARA McCARTHY
Grocery stores are not terribly interesting, especially in an age where most are cookie-cutter versions of each other. That is, if you’ve never waltzed the aisles of Riverside Grocery in Whitehorse.
With its incredibly vast selection of spices, snacks, as well as strange and staple kitchen items, it seems like an understatement to say the store has something for everyone. And that uniqueness caught the eye of photographer Jen Williams for her latest show, Taking Stock.
“Having grown up in the Yukon, I kind of look at it in a different way than maybe people who have just come here, in that I can really see the changes that have occurred in my town over the decades that I’ve known it,” Williams says.
“Riverside, to me, represents one of those last frontiers of the old Yukon that is fast disappearing. [Taking Stock] is literally the objects, but I think it’s more about the loss of diversity with the big-box culture that is creeping across North America.”
The Yukon Arts Centre Community Gallery walls are crowded with various-shaped and -sized ornate gold frames. Each houses an unconventional portrait of a peculiar product literally plucked from the shelves at Riverside.
In one piece, a Blue Star canned whole chicken is brilliantly lit with a stark-white background and a touch of leafy garnish. Others include a pack of Gold Rush filtered cigarillos, a solitary purple sock and 20-amp glass fuses with the $2.29 price tag still adhered to the package.
These are Williams’ subjects, and they’re captured and displayed with the same attention one might pay to family photos.
“The can of chicken I’ve had for a few years. I think lots of people have that can of chicken kicking around their house,” Williams says with a smirk. “I know a lot of people eat it and make soup and they really enjoy it, but for me it was just this interesting object.”
The kitschy aesthetic of the digital images is heightened by the combination of the frames and Williams’ decision to print on canvas.
“I wanted to kind of contrast the really commercial look of it with a more sort of old-fashioned-portrait look,” she explains.
“And I felt like the images needed something a little bit more outrageous than just a straight black frame. I almost think of it as a surreal portrait series.”
It’s been about three or four years since Williams dove into the world of photography via studies at Vancouver’s Langara College.
Taking Stock is her third exhibition in Whitehorse. And while her last exhibited series dealt with territorial landmarks and landscapes, Williams says she favours still subjects.
“I definitely prefer working with inanimate objects. I think I’m better suited to it. I like the control and I’m kind of introverted,” she says with a light laugh. “I just enjoy being in my studio and working with objects. It’s where my comfort level lies.”
Contemporary influences are another comfort for the artist. Williams admits while Taking Stock most obviously pays homage to Riverside, it’s also a play on her love of American author Tom Robbins’ novel, Skinny Legs and All.
The novel tells tales of a man and wife travelling from Seattle to New York City in an Airstream motor home resembling a turkey. Along the way, the two interact with inanimate objects. And it’s these unlikely characters in the novel that Williams has incorporated into the exhibit.
“I think humour is a recurring theme throughout much of my other limited works that I’ve done. For me, it’s an important element in anything I do,” she says.
“So I think it was meant to be sort of surreal, a little bit silly, but also I think at the heart of it there’s some seriousness there.”
Taking Stock is on display in the Yukon Arts Centre Community Gallery until Feb. 8.
“Blue Star” may seem like a Warholian take on the everyday, but it is actually part of a tribute to Riverside Grocery and its longevity against a creeping big-box landscape. “Taking Stock” is an exhibit by Jen Williams at the Yukon Arts Centre Community Gallery that will show until Feb. 8.