Invisible look at culture worth seeing

By Claire Cummings

Steve Nunoda has worn many hats in the Fine Arts Department. From instructor to technician to sometime artist, he has become a well-known, if often sawdusted, face among students and faculty. Nunoda graduated with an MFA from the U of C in 1989 and has been "teaching and teaching ever since." Over the whine of plane saws in the fine arts workshop, Nunoda described his new installation Invisible Waterfall, currently featured in the Nickle Art Gallery now until March 24.

Nunoda has contributed to many faculty shows over the past years, but this is his first major show on campus. The environment created for Invisible Waterfall is a synthesis of Canadian and Japanese icons, expressed in images, sculpture and projections of light, combined in the minimalist style of a Zen garden. Components of the installation include water, paper, stone and live fish, which give the space a tactile, organic feel despite its sparseness.

"I’m interested in questions of visuality and culture," says Nunoda. "This show is different from most of mine, because it’s more autobiographical. It’s about my own aesthetic influences: Western and Japanese pop culture."

Nunoda’s fascination with the aesthetic power of Japanese gardens became a major influence in the final resolution of the work.

"There’s something compelling about those forms," he says. "I wanted to create an atmosphere of a Japanese garden, and I wondered if any of that feeling would remain when I reinterpreted it."

Nunoda spent a lot of time in research, absorbing the forms and feelings of the Japanese aesthetic.

"That’s the interesting thing about the art of Japanese masters," he says. "The goal is not originality, it’s the expanding of tradition, adding to tradition. You add to it instead of inverting it or breaking it."

The artist said the process of making art is often playful and open to change.

"It doesn’t have a set program," he said. "The process is much more organic than it sounds. I often make decisions on aesthetic grounds, instead of conceptual. I think that if the work does translate a feeling, it’s because of that."

One of the focus pieces of Waterfall is a projected image of Tom Thomson’s The Jack Pine. The 20th century painting, by the artist who strongly influenced the Group of Seven, is an icon of Canadian art; evocative of the harsh landscapes and personal isolation that dominate conversations about Canadian identity. Nunoda uses this image as a springboard for reflections on the power of symbols in culture. His sculptural interpretation of The Jack Pine is an artificial Christmas tree, manipulated into bonsai-like form.

"As I went along, I was surprised by how much my taste in Western art is determined by Japanese influences," said Nunoda. "When you look at The Jack Pine you realize how much it owes to Japonisme."

The show’s title is based on a mistranslation of a Japanese term in a design book, which the artist chose because of the larger implication of cultural translations.

"I’m interested in matrixes of interpretation. I ask myself; can I make a work personal and still have that effect?"

The cool, balanced serenity of Zen gardens takes on new meaning when melded with Canadian landscape in Invisible Waterfall. Nunoda creates the sense of aesthetic completeness associated with Japanese gardens, while at the same time re-examines Canadian symbols. The space is a tranquil exploration of form, design and the visual power of cultural symbols.

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