Modern illusions

By Karoline Czerski

When Jacek Malek became director of the Triangle Gallery of Visual Arts in 1997, the outdated artspace suffered from financial difficulties, questionable presentation, fluorescent lighting and cheap carpeting.

Today, the Gallery has a first-rate appearance, a renowned reputation and international allure. It has a clear focus at its core: the presentation of contemporary Canadian visual arts, architecture and design in the context of international art.

"You have to trace links within international art," explains Malek, the Polish-born art historian, museologist, art activist and critic.

Malek emphasizes artists do not create in isolation, but are influenced by schools, thoughts and philosophies which transcend conventional borders. Successful contacts and exposure essentially forge the international arts community.

The essence of Malek’s job is attracting international exhibits while supporting and promoting Canadian artists at home and abroad.

He does it well.

Working with a shoestring budget, Malek has developed contacts and recently brought in exhibits from Sweden, Finland, Japan and South Korea, to name a few. He has also been instrumental in sending Canadian exhibits abroad.

Last year, local artists went on a European tour that featured their work in Amsterdam and the Czech Republic, among other art hubs. In 2004, the Gallery will help send five leading Alberta sculptors to the Arts Olympiad in Greece.

"We’re the only gallery in town that has taken local artists on an international tour. We work to build a two-way highway," boasts Malek, alluding to the international presence at the Gallery.

In the early 1900s, Calgary hadn’t caught on to the growing modern art movement; the city was often branded as a conservative, traditional community. The Leighton Arts Centre’s unique focus on landscape art, and the influence of A.C. Leighton at the Banff School of Fine Arts and the Arts Association in Alberta, were instrumental in maintaining that status quo.

Then, in the 1930s and ’40s, key figures like Jock MacDonald, an instrumental professor at the Provincial Institute of Technology in Calgary (presently ACAD), rebelled against local tradition, helping to pave the way for Calgary artists into the international community and founding the Calgary Group.

Marion Nicoll, the first woman instructor at what is now the Alberta College of Art and Design, was among the first to study in New York at the centre of abstract expressionism.

"Calgary at the time was bouncing back from the traditional to the modern," explains Malek. "But it never established something of a landmark."

In Alberta, Edmonton dominated modern and abstract art collections. By the mid-1960s, it developed a clean school of formalism and abstraction on par with Regina, an important international contemporary arts centre nestled by the serene Emma Lake retreat.

Malek has continued in MacDonald’s tradition. He is passionate about developing educational links that breed, develop and expose students of all ages to Canadian and international art.

"It is a good eye-opener for students," says Malek of the strong international exhibition program.

The present exhibition at the gallery is a collection from the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery’s permanent collection, which focuses on abstract painting in Canada from the 1950s to the 1990s. The collection boasts key Canadian works that are a part of a broader European and American tradition in modernist use of colour, texture, form and space.

"It is a jewel in the badlands," boasts Malek.

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