Sonja Ahlers: Classification Crisis
Sonja Ahlers, Hawks, 2020, mixed media. Courtesy of the artist.

Sonja Ahlers: Classification Crisis

Richmond Art Gallery, Richmond, BC - Sep 9 - Nov 5

by Michael Turner

The identification of art scenes or movements with cities goes back centuries. Florence is the seat of Renaissance art; New York is the home of the Harlem Renaissance. Both movements are known for a range of cultural activities, whereas the moniker “Vancouver School” (c. 1987) refers to three or four photo-based boomer artists conversant in conceptual art and monochrome painting. For earlier Vancouver-based artists working outside that classification, it was as if they lived elsewhere. For one-time Vancouver resident Sonja Ahlers, this alienation amounted to a crisis.

Billed by the Richmond Art Gallery as a “major survey exhibition [that] provides an important glimpse into this under recognized artist’s expansive output and ability to capture the cultural moment,” Classification Crisis treats viewers to 30 years of Alhers’ drawings, paintings, collages, sculptures, zines and trade publications. These years, spread out over the landscape, follow a pattern of movement that begins in Victoria, then on to Vancouver, to Whitehorse and back to Victoria – “geographic moves,” writes curator Godfre Leung, “that correspond with major shifts in her artistic practice.”

By the late 1990s, Ahlers’ archive-based collage works were circulating in feminist Riot Grrrl and zine subcultures. Her Vancouver years (beginning in the early 2000s) marked a shift to installations and trade books. These years coincided with an acceleration in market housing development, renoviction and gentrification, to say nothing of an international art market that assisted in the classification of Vancouver as a “pictures” town, one of the most photographed cities in contemporary art. Ahlers’ Classification Crisis is the story of the life of an artist. Reading between its lines, it is also the story of a time and its places.

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