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Winnipeg Free Press, June 18, 2009

PhD not required to enjoy philosophical art

Artist shows off technical skill, sense of absurd

By Stacey Abramson

It's hard to deny the influence that the Royal Art Lodge has had on artists everywhere. Slowly, this locally formed collective's style has seeped into the work of emerging artists, popping up in drawing, painting and printmaking works. But it appears to be something that many emerging artists from Winnipeg have in their subconscious creative memory -- it's no longer a style that artists are trying to mimic, but something that is part of Canadian art history and influence.

I say this because the work of Ben Clarkson, a recent University of Manitoba School of Art graduate, in the show The Goal, currently up at Semai Gallery, immediately reflected this influence. Although Clarkson's treatment of his work is not like that of the group, his style most certainly is.

According to his artist's statement, the work in The Goal branches from his "recent obsession with the story of Don Giovanni and Soren Kierkegaard's salient essay on the subject from his book Either/Or." In the most crude interpretation of the essay, the choice between living a life that is ethical versus one that is esthetic is discussed. In The Goal, Clarkson has plucked the esthetic-leaning creatures from this book and his imagination to create a body of work which he says, "exists as a record of an attempt to quantify the lifestyle of the amoral with no intention of judgement."

I take this statement -- which has an air of affectedness to it -- to be something that a young, emerging artist needs to get out of his system before he further develops his work. Regardless, the work does not suffer as a result. Clarkson does explore these themes, often with a sense of humour.

In the small space of the Semai Gallery, the works are divided into two sections. The left wall holds the pieces in The Goal, while the right wall is a collection of his work that complements this series and gives viewers an indication of his style outside this philosophical theme.

Clarkson's drawings in The Goal depict bizarrely humorous scenes of various creatures and characters that are devoid of any history or context. These small squares are filled with detail -- Clarkson's drawing skills are impeccable. A screeching bird-headed woman reaches her shopping bag-filled arms to the sky. An uncomfortable and brutish-looking man stands over his babies, which were cursed with his unfortunate face. Chained, faceless slave women pillow fight in the light of a white dove.

Clarkson creates scenes that play with the ideas he was so inspired by, producing works that are contained scenes of peculiarity.

On the right wall, the pieces that are separate from the show's theme are displayed. The viewers are given a little bit more detail about the characters through the brief captions and settings. A deer in office attire is caught watching porn in one, while a quick-witted line about jealousy of an imaginary sister is the subject of another work. This style of comedic representation works perfectly with his style of drawing.

Detail is important and extremely well executed in all of Clarkson's works. In many of these pieces, he mixes Victorian and ornamental costume and dress with a 1950s nostalgia of men in suits and children in knee-high socks and jumpers with the hairstyles to match. In doing this, Clarkson creates a timeless zone were styles mingle with one another.

Clarkson's technical skill and sense of the absurd is what makes this show fascinating. All of the work in The Goal is strong, witty and beautifully detailed. It is also what will hopefully take him to new levels as an artist, once the philosophical cliché's are dropped for more thoughtful and honest ones.

The Original Article by Stacey Abramson in Winnipeg Free Press