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Jeff Nachtigall smiles even as his graffiti-style paintings disintegrate in their ephemeral cardboard quality.
Gary Milner/the Gauntlet

This thing called art

The Art Gallery of Calgary hosts two new exhibits, challenging ideas of modern art

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You're five years old, and you have an idea. You take old magazines, cardboard boxes from the garage, paint and duct tape, and you create art.

The result? A ripped magazine print covered in duct tape and paint. The tag on your artwork? Priceless.

You're 32 years old, an artist with a fine arts degree, and you have an idea. You take old magazines, cardboard boxes from the garbage and, of course, paint and duct tape. You create, you design and eventually your work is framed and hung at a gallery--an exhibit, a masterpiece.

The result? A framed magazine print covered in duct tape. The price tag? Dare I say?

Art is tricky, and analyzing it is, at best, bullshiting. So I embark.

The difference between child and trained artist lies in the motivation behind the work. The child acts on pure instinct, while the artist assigns meaning to his or her actions. A piece of artwork is valued not only on the physical result, but the method behind its creation. So, prior knowledge of artwork is helpful before gasping at its price tag.

"Most people feel intimidated by the art world," notes the young, laid-back Paul Butler as we walk through his new exhibit, My Mad Skillz, at the Art Gallery of Calgary.

Butler and his artwork contradict modern art elitism with a simple air of familiarity. Recycled magazines, old sketches and pictures of women from Perfect 10 magazines are the material of Butler's artwork, in a theme that confronts mass media, consumerism and his own art obsessions.

"At a certain point, you feel like a slave to artÂ-, you want to make art out of everything," he confesses.

We stop at one of his exhibitsÂ-: a stack of papers Butler bound together into a hardcover book, filled with personal lists of things he has to do. We all write those lists, Butler makes them into art.

Butler goes further than simply transforming his life into art. He subjects art itself to be recycled into new art. Here lies the premise of Butler's collage works.

"It's interesting to work back-wardsÂ-, to make art out of the art world," muses Butler.

He is referring to pieces like "Positive Mental Attitude," a display of natural landscape art prints from magazines, defaced by tape and scrap paper and by type-written phrases like "don't smoke." The motivation behind Butler's art? To alter the mass-media images we let slip into our subconscious.

"We don't have a choice but to see all this stuff," says Butler.

The artist's work is an attempt to make us, and himself, see these cultural mass-media symbols differently. But is there method to his duct-taped madness?

"I can lie to myself, but I never really know what my intentions are until I do it," he confesses.

The motivations might not become clear even after a piece of art is finished. Art is constantly being judged and reevaluated, and its meaning morphs.

The meaning of art itself morphs in the work of Jeff Nachtigall. His exhibit, Re, is the second one featured at the Art Gallery of Calgary.

"The end of everything. The end of eve. The beginning of life." Ironic phrases buried in cardboard paintings, where colours are smeared, dripping from recycled canvas.

"She swallowed you whole" strikes the eye in another painting. Each piece is a unique juxtaposition of darkness and colour, depth and surface beauty, reflecting the artist and his state of mind.

"I'm interested in anti-aesthetic awkwardness, as awkwardness is more universal than beauty," notes Nachtigall.

The down-to-earth artist finds comfort in working against traditional art conventions.

We talk about his art, about modern art and about a common argument against it--the fact that a kid could do it. But art is more than just production.

"It's the market that has to turn art into something great," he explains.

Nachtigall is interested in challenging this type of art market. Working with cardboard canvases gives a certain lifespan to his work, an ephemeral quality that throws the traditional art market for a loop.

"Timelessness is no longer a prerequisite for fine art," notes Nachtigall.

Nachtigall incorporates the ephemeral material into the subject of his artÂ-. Cardboard addresses issues of consumer society, acrylic paint creates an anti-aesthetic and both break down conceptions of traditional art.

"When working with unconventional methods, subjectivity comes to the top," explains Nachtigall.

Cardboard lives somewhere between paper and wood, a material that is all around us. Some use it to pack belongings, others as a source of shelter and Nachtigall as a source of art and income.

The artist shows his love for the cheap, natural and recycled materials around him in his other show, Un, at the New Zones Gallery of Contemporary Art, where wood becomes the material of his art.

Nachtigall confesses to be a dumpster-diver for his raw material.

Now that's motivation.

Paul Butler’s My Mad Skillz and Jeff Nachtigall’s Re show at the Art Gallery of Calgary, 117, 8th Ave SW, Feb. 5-Mar. 20. Nachtigall’s Un runs through Feb. 28 at the New Zones Gallery of Contemporary Art, 730, 11th Ave SW.

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