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An artwork in colours of yellow, black, and gray depicts two bridges under construction over a river with buildings in the background.

Alison Norlen: Armatures and Imaginaries

Curated by

Shauna McCabe

Those who arrive at Thekla can see little of the city, beyond the plank fences, the sackcloth screens, the scaffoldings, the metal armatures, the wooden catwalks hanging from ropes or supported by sawhorses, the ladders, the trestles. If you ask “Why is Thekla’s construction taking such a long time?” the inhabitants continue hoisting sacks, lowering leaded strings, moving long brushes up and down, as they answer “So that it’s destruction cannot begin.” – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

The armatures and imaginaries of architectural landscapes have long been a source of inspiration for artist Alison Norlen – key to finding one’s bearings within her distinct visual world. From faded amusement park rides and roadside attractions to Vegas casinos and world’s fairs, to obsolete feats of engineering like bridges and industrial forms, Norlen explores the surfaces of both familiar and forgotten sites that once represented spectacle and unsurpassed promise. Melding historical details and autobiographical references throughout this architectural terrain, her meticulous large-scale drawings document how utopia and invention inform everyday landscapes ensuring they are both, and at once, real and imagined, mundane and spectacular, functional and fantastic.

The visual world-building that Norlen undertakes in this exhibition develops through an amalgam of eclectic sources and visual references to shift how we see those closer to home. Featured are intricate immersive vignettes of monumental Guelph – once active limestone quarries, the installation of a 19th century covered bridge, the crown made of wire with holiday lights that once hung over St. George’s Square, the construction of wooden footbridges, and vessels that once travelled the rivers that converge at the city’s centre. Always interrogating the historical and geographical dimensions of place, the accumulating traces of real sites and their temporal coordinates are compressed in her work to create a fleeting space Norlen describes as “plausible, but not necessarily tangible.” Capturing both local lore and the transformation of the local terrain, she highlights the effects of time and the inevitable play of memory and imagination that results.

The drawings speak to how the city is always transforming. Founded in 1827 by Scottish writer and colonizer John Galt, Guelph was an early planned city, complete with squares, broad main streets and narrow side streets – replicating those of European cities – laid out in a radial system that branched out from downtown. The early urban topography that developed during this period of settlement was shaped by quarries, mills, factories, the railway, and agriculture, and would subsequently experience the wider shift away from a resource-based economy in the 1900s, paralleled by the growth of manufacturing and education, as well as innovation into the 2000s. Gentrification and housing development have also reconfigured neighbourhoods and the city’s borders, and today revitalization remains a focus as the city seeks new approaches to urban space to meet the housing demands and social needs of a burgeoning community.

Every change now transforms urban and civic life with the same intensity as those elements introduced over a hundred years ago. Focusing on early moments in the process of city-building, the exhibition foregrounds the unceasing construction and reconstruction that is captured in the palimpsest landscape that surrounds us today. Equally full of futurity and facets of architectural ruins, Alison Norlen’s world represents a microcosm of illusory promise – a reminder that everything is malleable and temporal.

Image detail: Alison Norlen, Bridging, 2022, acrylic, ink, charcoal, chalk, 182.9 x 396.2 cm. Courtesy of the artist


Alison Norlen: Armatures and Imaginaries is organized and presented by the Art Gallery of Guelph with the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts.

About the artist

Alison Norlen

As well as recent commissions for the New Orleans Jazz Museum and Nuit Blanche Toronto, selected solo exhibitions of Alison Norlen’s large-scale drawings and sculptural installations include Luna and Float, presented and circulated by the Mendel Art Gallery, glimmer, presented and circulated by the Kenderdine Art Gallery, and mirage, presented by the Art Gallery of Regina. Featured in numerous group exhibitions nationally, she has also shown internationally in Brazil, Korea, the Netherlands, and the United States. With a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the School of Art at the University of Manitoba and a Master of Fine Arts from Yale University, in 2022 Norlen was named a Distinguished Professor in the faculty of Art & Art History art at the University of Saskatchewan where she teaches in the areas of painting, drawing and sculpture. Her work can be found in private collections across the United States and Canada and in the public collections of the National Gallery of Canada, the Mackenzie Art Gallery, the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Remai Modern, The Canada Council Art Bank, and the Saskatchewan Arts Board.

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