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Artist Spotlight: Brian Jungen

June 20th, 2017

Photo courtesy of the AGO/Dean Tomlinson.

Brian Jungen’s artwork is recognizable for several reasons – the forms, the materials, and now the sculptures themselves are all cultural touchstones in Canada. From his Northwest Coast Aboriginal masks made from Nike Air Jordans to his massive whale skeletons made from plastic patio chairs, the materials he uses and the sculptures themselves are visible and in conversation with each other. His work is renowned in the international art world: Brian has held solo exhibitions in New York, London and beyond, and he was the first living artist to be shown at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), part of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. in 2009.

Brian recently visited the AGO and we caught up with him to hear more about his unusual life as a visual artist (hint – it includes cattle).

AGO: What were the last five places you’ve visited, and why?
Brian: Vancouver, Fogo Island [Newfoundland], Montreal, Edmonton, and Los Angeles. I went to L.A. just to enjoy the weather in January and to visit friends and see some exhibitions and whatnot. I was in Fogo to speak with Fogo Island Arts with Kitty [Scott, AGO Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art]. Unfortunately there was a blizzard and we got stuck there for an extra day and a half. It reminded me of the Far North. It was really pretty, we saw a caribou, and the people were really nice. In Vancouver, spring had already started so it was like going back into winter, which was a bit rough. But I’ve never met a Newfoundlander I didn’t like.

AGO: In 2010 you won the Gershon Iskowitz Prize at the AGO, and you’ve received several accolades throughout your career. How special is that to you?
Brian: It was certainly a great honour, but I don’t look at my ratings or anything. I often don’t even look at my own artwork. I have varied interests. I have a cattle ranch now in the Okanagan; that’s where I live. So that’s keeping me quite busy. It’s something I grew up with in my family. It’s funny, when I was a teenager I was so desperate to get away from it but then now as a middle-aged man, I miss those things.

AGO: When did you move to the ranch?
Brian: I bought it three years ago. Honestly I just never felt comfortable living in the city. I do enjoy city life, but I prefer being out in the country. And I just decided to move – it’s only a four-hour drive from Vancouver so I still have a relationship to Vancouver. I actually need to spend a lot of time alone. You can be alone in the city and surrounded by a lot of people—the alienation that classically happens in the city. But I need real, true alone time. And I have a really big studio and can do stuff outside, and I have the space to do things I really couldn’t in Vancouver.

AGO: What’s life like on the ranch?
Brian: In the winter I enjoy the sights, sounds and the smell of livestock. I enjoy taking care of them. They’re calving now, which is exciting. I have employees who live there as well, and they’re kind of new to agriculture so it’s great to see them taking it on as well. We’ve spent a lot of time and resources fixing it up – it’s a really interesting place with a lot of history.

AGO: Has it influenced your work or your materials?
Brian: I’ve had a couple small projects spring up because of things I’ve discovered there. That’s always happened in my artwork. For instance, the plastic chairs, I just kept seeing them in my environment so I wanted to start using them. Now my environment has changed because it’s rural, so I’m seeing other stuff I might want to use. I think most art is unnecessarily complicated. Take what you can from it, or what’s meaningful for you. There should be no right or wrong, I think.

AGO: What do you like returning to when you come to the AGO?
Brian: I always discover something when I come here, so that’s great. I would have really liked to have seen Francis [Alÿs’s] show because I’ve always been such an admirer and he’s such a nice guy. But yeah, there’s always something I stumble upon.

Stay tuned to the AGOinsider for more updates on how you can check out Brian’s latest works!

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