Critics’ Picks

View of “Sarah Pierce,” 2014.

View of “Sarah Pierce,” 2014.


Sarah Pierce

Walter Phillips Gallery
107 Tunnel Mountain Drive Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity
January 18–March 9, 2014

Befitting its dyadic title, Sarah Pierce’s exhibition “Lost Illusions/Illusions Perdue” prompts two possible interpretations: one based in denotation and the other in connotation—although trying to untangle one from the other is not so simple. Forming something akin to an institutional memory-based scatter piece, Pierce’s recent work taps into the Banff Center’s varied history, with its assortment of ceramics from former artists-in-residence, kept by instructor Ed Bamiling, and a four-channel video displaying students participating in Brecht-like learning plays. Meanwhile, copies of archival material, placed casually throughout the space, track correspondences between artist Mark Lewis and the institution following the vandalization of his photograph in 1989. The unearthing of the imbroglio over Lewis’s piece, which was allegedly attacked by a group of women because of its perceived pornographic contact, is almost institutional critique; it implicates the center in political discourse, countering its image as an idyllic alpine retreat, removed from the art world.

While looking at the exhibition as a literal portrait of an institution raises rewarding questions, this perspective alone hazards reducing the show to a litany of overt references while failing to account for its aesthetic presence. It might be precisely what Susan Sontag, in her 1964 essay “Against Interpretation,” deemed “the revenge of the intellect upon art.” More rewarding is when viewers take in the exhibition as a mixture of seemingly unrelated materials, discourses, and ambiences. The totality becomes an ephemeral landscape of form and content that provides space for viewers to experience place in its rich complexity, where meaning is not prescribed by the artist, but becomes an active agent—unsettled and unsettling.