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Photos provided by The Sussex Contemporary.

Exhibition: Modern Hyenas at The Sussex Contemporary

By Brenda Dunn on February 12, 2018

A conversation is buzzing at The Sussex Contemporary and you will want to be a part of it. Photographer Joyce Crago, sculptor Wendy Nichol, painter Natalie Bruvels, and curator and director Rosalind Breen have made for a dialogue you’d be happy to just listen in on.

Modern Hyenas is a show about finding forms and scavenging means in order to provide. Breen made the bold choice to show these three very different artists when the dialogues she was having began to uncannily mirror each other while being expressed very differently in their pieces.

The title Modern Hyenas nods to this practice of finding forms, materials, and subject matter. Breen shared “Hyenas are matriarchal… they scavenge to provide and they don’t just provide for one offs–they work in a team… everything is shared and everyone prospers.” I asked the two Ottawa-based artists their take on the title. Bruvels shared that the nod to scavenging “speaks to the efficient use of resources and circumstance along with parental responsibility which were collectively the initial and continue to be impetus for this project,” in reference to her ongoing use of her former partner’s canvases. Crago delightedly chuckled “it fits! They’re women who scavenge–and who laugh!”

Breen noted “Joyce’s works come from collecting items from the women’s march in Washington… Natalie’s painting on the canvases of her ex that she scavenged. Wendy talks about ‘finding’ form that mirrors sentiments of scavenging.” The three mediums are indeed working and prospering from the shared space.

Painter Natalie Bruvels echoed these relationships, and felt that she and Joyce Crago work from very different scavenged material “but our vantage points are complimentary–her work is the gaze of observer/ researcher / advocate whereas my work is from the point of view of case study or subject. Joyce is a dear friend of mine and so it’s very exciting to see our work together in this context.” On Nichol, Bruvels shared “Wendy’s monochromatic work (often with blue markings) feels like it’s a historical reference to Wedgwood which adds an element of knowledge and humility to the dialogue that exists between my work and that of Joyce Crago.”

It was an intuitive move on Breen’s part and the disparate forms and mediums would run the risk of looking disjointed in a less carefully curated show, but the Sussex team have placed the pieces in mindful conversation, with eyes on the congruent colours, complimentary forms, and attention to the architecture which Breen confesses could “swallow” some works. Breen placed Wendy Nichol’s smaller ceramic pieces through the center of the gallery on low surfaces, “weaving them through” the show as a whole and guiding the gaze from the ground up. In Breen’s composition, Bruvels frenetic paintings have the effect of projecting energy out into the world, while Crago’s works were “quieter” portals into a specific place and time.

The idea of prosperity as a group effort is one the gallery also keeps in mind. The price points are deliberately wide-ranging and incredible accessible, starting as low as $40 for some of the smaller sculptures. Both Bruvels and Crago have created smaller scale pieces at the encouragement and support of the gallery. It’s an effective strategy judging by the red dots already scattered through the show on opening night. Conscious of galleries’ potential to feel uninviting, or of large-scale pieces to be out of many budgets, Breen specifies, “I want people to feel like they belong in this space. If you go in and you see art that in no way shape or form could ever enter into your daily life, it is a bit exclusive, its very exclusionary. Sometimes art just inherently is that way but if you have the objective to be moving art, you need to broaden your scope a bit.”

Broaden your scope indeed. As a first step, I recommend inserting yourself into the exciting conversation being had at the Sussex Contemporary. Modern Hyenas is a show not to be missed.


The Sussex Contemporary is located at 531 Sussex Drive and is open Wednesday through Sunday. The show runs until March 1, 2018.