Father-daughter art shows make for a great outing

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Published on: April 3, 2015
Last Updated: April 3, 2015 12:29 PM EDT

And now, a suggestion for an afternoon road trip to two provinces to see two art exhibits by two members of one family.

Dale Dunning has the exhibition Personae, at the Espace Pierre Debain in Aylmer, while Annie Dunning, his daughter, has Sapsucker Sounds at Gallery 101 in Ottawa. On the surface the shows are very different, but a closer look reveals how both artists have turned ordinary objects into artworks that are anything but ordinary.

Gallery 101 is an unforgiving space for an art show. It’s in a garage that sits in the shadow of the Queensway. Hints of spring have turned the driveway to mud, which a visitor cannot avoid while navigating between the neighbouring businesses’ pick-up trucks. (When I opened the gallery door to leave I banged the back of a pickup.)  Inside, the gallery space is industrial bland, all concrete and exposed piping, with a forced-air heating system that is loud, oppressively windy and difficult to avoid, like Tom Mulcair during Question Period.

All of which makes it more impressive that Annie Dunning has managed to establish in the space a sense of being in a forest glade. In Sapsucker Sounds, Annie has used a few pieces of wood and metal, seasoned with sound and light, to create an atmosphere that is reflective and surprisingly calming. It all began, the artist’s notes say, “with a found log, filled with holes made by a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Woodpeckers hammer their heads into trees to both find food and mark their territory, and — this part was news to me — they sometimes hammer on metal road signs, “taking advantage of the amplification” that results. It’s this “inter-species cultural influence” that interests Annie.

It’s not a large show, only a half-dozen or so pieces, but they are bound by theme and imagination and work together to affect the viewer. One piece, Record, is a small, rustic turntable that spins a brass disc that in turn is read by a sensor. The sensor transmits the signal to a device overhead that fires small hammers into a short log, producing the recognizable sound of a woodpecker pecking. But that’s not all: the sensor also reacts to the propinquity of the viewer, and sometimes produces the same pecking on a metal sign positioned 20 or so feet away (and covered in a painting of a woodpecker on a tree).

I tried to figure how the sensor was reacting to my movements, but it was elusive and I couldn’t quite see the answer. It was a lot like trying to get a good look at an actual woodpecker but having it hop around to the other side of the tree.

Another piece, Music Box, produces a woodpecker sound, but only if the viewer turns a crank. Next to it is a pile of firewood, topped by a video projection of woodpecker at work. Then there’s a pile of metal “logs” that are lighted from the inside, so the light streams out through a pattern of holes left behind by a woodpecker.

There’s more, and every piece helps to create the feeling of being out there, among the trees, in the presence of an industrious and impressive bird. This is a great exhibition for children, as it’s interactive and entertaining. But more than that, it is transformative, as it takes you from a bland space and transports you to someplace wild and enchanted.

A bust made of bolts, by Dale Dunning at Espace Pierre-Debain in Gatineau.

A bust made of bolts, by Dale Dunning at Espace Pierre-Debain in Gatineau.

Over at Espace Pierre-Debain in Aylmer, Dale Dunning’s work looks to another sort of enchantment, one that is darker, and more introspective. Personae is built around a series of large, metal masks and busts, each inspired by mythology and history, and made of repurposed materials.

There are bronze masks, in which Dale has turned familiar patterns of decorative wrought metal into enigmatic faces. Another mask has a vague human face fashioned entirely from individual letters made of aluminum type, as would be used on a press — hence the mask’s title, Palimpsest, a thing to be written on over again and again. A mask titled Prometheus is made of larger bronze letters, all welded together and with a few stray ends sticking out the back, which made me think of Medusa and her coiffure of snakes. Another, titled the Ineluctable Dream, is, as its name suggests, impossible to ignore, with large wings for eyes.

Other busts are made entirely of small bolts, thousands of them welded together and pointed outward, creating considerable depth and unique texture. How endless and meticulous the manufacture of these masks must have been. Dale Dunning creates that rare sort of art in which the process of creating it impresses almost as much as the end result.

Detail of Palimpsest, by Dale Dunning. (Photo courtesy the artist)

Detail of Palimpsest, by Dale Dunning. (Photo courtesy the artist)