Robert L. Peters

11 September 2010

Congratulations… Wanda Koop!

Winnipeg, Canada

Thursday’s ‘Arts&Life’ section of the Winnipeg Free Press ran a full-page cover feature on one of Canada’s leading painters, Wanda Koop, highlighting her solo show which opens today at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG). I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of becoming friends with and working with Wanda over the years (see samples of the identity design and print collateral materials we developed for her a few years back at Circle here) and I’m truly delighted at this opportunity she will have to showcase a lifetime of work.

Following is the text of the Free Press’ online article

by Alison Mayes (link here):

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Wanda Koop is so prolific, so constant in her art-making, that to mount a true retrospective of her distinguished four-decade career, the Winnipeg Art Gallery would have to lease practically all the exhibition space in town. That’s especially true when you consider that many of her paintings are enormous.

“Wanda could take over this building, the Manitoba Museum and maybe the Convention Centre,” jokes Mary Reid, WAG curator of contemporary art. “I’ve never seen anybody work at the level that she works at—flat out, all the time. It’s amazing that it all comes out of one person.”

Reid has been wrestling with the challenge of how to present the oeuvre of the internationally exhibited, senior Winnipeg artist in a major solo exhibition, organized in partnership with Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada. The curator came to the conclusion that she couldn’t tell the 58-year-old Koop’s entire art story, so she would survey 25 years, from about 1983 to nearly the present. The result is an overwhelmingly varied, interconnected, multimedia exhibition titled Wanda Koop… On the Edge of Experience.

Trust us: it really is an experience. The much-anticipated show has a quiet opening Saturday, but its splashy opening will be Sept. 25, when the city throws its first Nuit Blanche all-night art celebration and the WAG stays open from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., with free admission. “It will give (viewers) hours and hours to look at things,” says Koop, describing the show as “almost a kaleidoscope of information.”

The show is on view here until Nov. 21. It will be shown at the National Gallery—which has Koop works in its collection, but has never presented a solo Koop show—from Feb. 18 to May 15, 2011, coinciding with the Prairie Scene art festival. A national tour will follow.

The exhibition is a significant honour for the Elmwood product, a daughter of Russian Mennonite immigrants whose childhood talent was nurtured at WAG Saturday-morning art classes, and who first had work shown at the WAG at age 19. “It’s not that often that women artists in Canada get to have what I’m getting—especially when they’re still alive,” says the world-travelled painter and video artist.

WAG director Stephen Borys notes that Koop graced the cover of the inaugural issue of Canadian Art magazine in 1984. “She could have prospered in any city, in any country, but she’s stayed in Winnipeg,” he says.

A number of Koop’s key paintings on plywood are to hang in lobby spaces at the WAG. The gallery space displays huge canvases from important past shows, some of them landscapes superimposed with technological symbols, for a total of 26 large-scale paintings. There are also monitors showing Koop’s video works, and countless other paintings.

One of Reid’s challenges was that so many of Koop’s past achievements were large installations—shows in which the entire gallery space was designed as an immersive environment. Here, the viewer gets to time-travel and see these installations in miniature, thanks to Koop’s partner, Stephen Hunter, who has meticulously crafted 16 maquettes—architecture-style tabletop models—of past shows.

These environments are complete with teeny gallery-goers—simple black, genderless figures—and mini reproductions of the real works. The viewer can play a sort of “Where’s Waldo?” game, says Koop, by spotting which full-size paintings link up with miniature ones, as well as by discovering connections between early sketches, preliminary paintings, and various versions of the paintings.

For instance, Koop has repeatedly painted Native Fires, based on seeing aboriginal people gathered around open fires near The Forks. In the very large version hung in the show, the orange fires are abstracted into teardrop shapes. “She distils images down to their most powerful essence,” says Reid.

Part of the show strives to recreate the flavour of Koop’s studio. On table after table, sketchbooks, notes, drawings, collected photographs, ephemera and even gunked-up paintbrushes are displayed. This “studio environment” provides insight into Koop’s process and the amount of investigation that goes into the major paintings. “These large-scale canvases just don’t appear out of nowhere,” says Reid. “I think of myself as a visual-language researcher,” adds Koop.

One table is covered with hundreds of jumbled Post-it Notes, on which Koop compulsively sketched while watching CNN coverage of the Iraq war. The overarching theme of Koop’s career has been examining how modes of technology affect nature. In the show’s final gallery space, her new installation piece Hybrid Human is the climax of the show. It’s a collaborative work that combines Koop’s paintings, video projections, a group dance piece by Winnipeg choreographer Jolene Bailie, a sound piece by Susan Chafe and lighting design by Hugh Conacher.

An enormous video projection of Bailie, resembling a black silhouette like the tiny people in the maquettes, will be installed after the dance component premieres at Nuit Blanche. Hybrid Human explores, in part, robots and artificial life. Reid notes that for Koop, “a painting is a type of screen that holds the potential to morph into a mirror.” Four huge Koop paintings each depict a tiny human figure contemplating a vast screen. In a fifth painting, the human is missing. As you stand in a rectangle of light, “You won’t know if you’re looking at a painting, or you ARE the painting,” the artist says.

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Photo: Wanda Koop with a piece from Hybrid Human, part of a solo exhibition opening 11 September at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

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