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arts and environment

                                                                                                                   Courtesy of Matthew Hollett

A House by the Water :: A Recent Exhibit by Matthew Hollett

October 2, 2015 – January 3, 2016
The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery
St. John’s NL

by Mary Macdonald

There’s a new vernacular aesthetic emerging across the island of Newfoundland. Prefab homes dot the coves where once stood stalwart salt-boxes. It’s a contemporary rural suburbia, infused by new money from the Alberta and offshore oil industries. 

The latest exhibition from multi-disciplinary artist Matthew Hollett A House by the Water is currently on view at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in St. John’s. The exhibition sets forth to investigate the changing architectural landscape of Newfoundland and by association its residents’ conceptions of home. In this exhibition Hollett presents a series of images that ask viewers to consider these new forms alongside that which has been historically lauded as authentic Newfoundland. 

House House Image :: Courtesy of Matthew Hollett

Conversations around the kitchen table attest to a significant shift in how Newfoundlanders engage with ideas of home and their relationship to the water. The collapse of the Northwest Atlantic cod fishery in the 1990s led many to turn to the developing oil industry. Many would take temporary jobs out west and whole communities would be resettled. On the other hand this newfound economic reality brought an influx of wealth, bolstering a local tourism industry that focused on Newfoundland’s “original” qualities, its Ancient Land, its unique Conversation, and indeed its original Architecture. These once experienced realities have now transformed into a symbolic field that plays at the hearts of many who long for home. 

House Bridges Image :: Courtesy of Matthew Hollett

The exhibition’s most striking works are the two video pieces, which stand projected on either side of a large partition wall in the centre of the gallery. On one side A City by the Sea reminds viewers of the close relationship between home and the water in the province. A slightly out of focus wave laps at the shore, but instead of dots of light, the bokeh are converted into tiny houses. On the opposite side of the partition the projected digital work A House by the Water depicts falling pre-fab homes into an enigmatic Newfoundland bay. It could be one of a hundred coastal communities. According to the wall text, the amount of viewers in the space results in how many houses will fall playfully into the water. Some bob for a second or two before disappearing into the digital depths.

So what of these new structures that are appearing in clear cut lots and squeezed into historic villages? Are they to be included in a contemporary idea of home?

It cannot be denied that Newfoundland is a part of a globalized economy and thus access to affordable housing materials, foods, clothing, and technology has had its effect like anywhere in North America. Yet until now, these comforts of industry have yet to be recognized by the Newfoundland public as a part of their story or indeed cultural field-makers who tend appeal to more touristic aesthetics – see jelly bean row houses. In this, Hollett’s work is successful at bringing a new proposition to the public. Should we include these new realities in our contemporary idea of home?

House Image :: Courtesy of Matthew Hollett

Further disrupting a practiced cultural symbology, a photograph entitled Remarkable Views of Bridges in Various Provinces (after Houkusai) appears at the gallery’s entrance. Placing an idea of the Newfoundland landscape in association with the celebrated Japanese printmaker breaks the tendency to navel-gaze, bringing the work into a broader more global context if still highly popularized. The image, a partially covered blanket in the snow, would be a familiar sight to many local residents. In St. John’s, households are encouraged to cover their garbage pick-up with blankets or fishing nets to keep birds away. The fresh layer of snow transforms the candy colored blanket into a vast mountain range, hence at the relationship to the Japanese printmaker. Here Hollett seems to suggest we look to the now, to the everyday instances where place is affirmed, rather than the past alone. It is a soft and beautiful work that hints at broader questions. 

The final work in the exhibition, Dwall, a hanging sculptural piece made of 22 found bricks is found at the back of the gallery. Strung up with fishing line, the bricks evoke a gathering, a community to be sure. Some are stamped with the Newfoundland family name Pelley, marking their origin from a local bricksmith who operated in King’s Cove (now Milton) until 1969. The bricks, now worn by their exposure on a beach in Ferryland, hang in quiet community, perhaps silently conversing about their neighbourhood. This is the most open-ended work in the exhibition suggesting anything from the broken pieces of resettlement, to individuals within a community itself. What is certain however is Hollett’s resourceful approach and provocating inquiry into a timely cultural issue. What will home look like, and who will be there? It’s an important question for the future of many rural and urban communities in the province.



Mary MacDonald. is an artist, critic, and independent curator currently residing in St. John’s, NL. Mary graduated from Mount Allison University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2006 and continued her practical education through Zwicker’s Gallery (Halifax) and the Owens Art Gallery (Sackville). In 2012, she completed her MFA in Criticism & Curatorial Practice at OCAD University and an internship at C Magazine (Toronto). In 2012, Mary organized the W(here) Festival, a performative exploration of artistic practices in rural Pictou County, NS. From 2012-2015 Mary was the Director of Eastern Edge Gallery, an artist-run centre in St. John’s NL, leading over a hundred events, exhibitions, workshops, and summer festivals with local, national and international artists as well as an international video art series entitled Wade In.  Mary is also an active member of the Atlantic Canadian arts community encouraging critical discussion about contemporary art both here, away, and in-between on committees, panel discussions, and social media.

Mary specializes in temporary and ephemeral exhibition structures and collaboration. Her research interests include artists working within rural communities and contexts, interdisciplinary approaches to curating, and alternative locations for contemporary art.

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