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Figurative sculptor reflects on environmental collapse in Swift Current exhibition

Posted on 21 April 2023 by Matthew Liebenberg
The Art Gallery of Swift Current hosted a public reception for the exhibition Illuminated Collapse, March 31.

By Matthew Liebenberg


The human connection to the natural world and the consequences of a consumer lifestyle are explored in a series of six detailed dioramas currently on show at the Art Gallery of Swift Current.

The exhibition Illuminated Collapse features the work of Canadian figurative sculptor Jude Griebel, who grew up on the prairies and is now based in New York.

He spoke about the sculptures in this exhibition and its connection to his other work during a public reception and artist talk, March 31.

He grew up mostly in Saskatoon, but also spent a lot of time on a prairie farm in central Alberta. He still returns frequently to the Alberta foothills, usually during the summer months, and he has a permanent studio in the small community of Bergen.

“Even though I’m living outside of Canada a lot of the time now, it’s been really important for me to bring my work back here where I began making sense of the world through making art,” he said.

All the works in this exhibition were made during a three-year residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in New York. He began working on these pieces during 2017 and the initial three dioramas were shown in New York and at the University of Calgary’s Nickle Galleries in 2018.

The first comprehensive exhibit of the completed diorama series took place at the University of Saskatchewan’s Kenderdine Art Gallery in 2021. It has already been shown at around six other venues since then.

“Some of the most important presentations of this work I felt have been in smaller places and communities where people are able to see the work and discuss the ideas with me,” he said. “So I really value having it here in Swift Current.”

It will continue to tour to different venues over the next few years. The last scheduled exhibition of these works is currently set to take place in Toronto in 2025.

“People have been quite receptive to it and I especially like that it has travelled between large centres and smaller cities, because each place is unique in their reception to the work,” he said. “When I have the chance to speak about the work with all types of people in all types of communities, it really helps me to understand the work and my thinking around it as well. So it becomes a rich experience for me.”

His formative years on the prairies and his family’s farming practice have been a considerable influence on his development as an artist.

“A lot of the work I was making when I first began creating artwork was very prairie vernacular in nature and since moving to larger centres it broadened its scope to talk about more global issues and predicaments, but I think there’s a lot of that history of my time on the prairies and my imagination developing here that still plays out in all of my work,” he said.

A lot of his earlier sculptures focused on farming and agricultural practices, which evolved into reflecting on the human impact on the world.

“I was looking at things like large agri-business and factory farming, and how that in turn impacts the land we’re on and then how that impacts our bodies,” he said. “So these sculptures are mixtures between bodies and landscapes. They’re figures embodying these quite compromised spaces.”

He developed additional perspectives about consumption, industrial activities and environmental degradation when he moved to New York. The location of his studio in an industrial area added to this experience.

“I got to see global consumption playing out on a much larger and active basis,” he said. “So really getting a sense of these global consumption habits playing out in the city, what it takes to feed a city like that and the amount of waste it creates.”

He began to collect images and articles about compromised environments that became an important reference when he started to develop ideas in 2017 for the six dioramas in this exhibition.

“I wanted to create some work that intertwined my own imagination, instances of other narratives that had spoke to me throughout my life, and these overwhelming themes of environmental collapse or planetary collapse together to speak about these themes in a more personal way,” he said.

Griebel added playful and cartoonish elements to these sculptures to provide some humour and relief to a serious topic.

“I really wanted to put forward a sense of openness rather than just closure,” he said. “Although the works are dealing with these very distressing themes, there’s a little bit of an open quality to them and I’ve left room for transformation and change as well.”

The diorama called Black Ark reflects on species collapse and habitat destruction. Animals walk across a devastated landscape and enter an ark that symbolizes extinction. The work titled Ice Cap has a mass of melting ice in the centre of the diorama and the surrounding buildings are disappearing under the rising water.

The diorama Gaining Ground was influenced by his experience of moving to a very large city with a lack of open spaces. Everything is paved over and it references the Calvary Cemetery in Queens.

“It’s one spot that really struck me moving to New York,” he said. “I was used to a lot of green space and there’s very little there. So this is based on a real cemetery that has these various freeway lanes leading through it and over it and around it, and it became a real symbol to me of an overcrowded world.”

This work can be linked to a specific place, but his works are usually based on different places that developed into an idea for a sculpture. The diorama All Consuming depicts a commercial loading dock in the shape of a human figure. Items unloaded on the dock go into the figure’s gaping mouth, which is a symbol of overconsumption.

The diorama Fully Developed is a comment on urban sprawl. He observed the expansion of an urban area over several years during visits to Alberta until it took over the remaining natural area. The sixth diorama in the exhibition is called Through Ashes. It shows a large hybrid weed growing from the rubble of a devastated city.

“I wanted to end on somewhat of a positive note,” he said “So you can see this huge hybrid weed growing out through this wreckage, sort of speaking to perhaps a new ecology taking shape.”

His intention is not to present cut and dried messages through his art, but to offer new or different ideas that can spark discussion.

“I think of them more as conversations that I’m starting that other people can take ideas from and turn them over in their heads, and maybe add something to it or take it out in the world in a certain way,” he said.

This exhibition will be on show at the Art Gallery of Swift Current until June 24. Admission is free and gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. on Monday, Friday and Saturday, and noon to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. The gallery is closed on Sunday and holidays.

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