Techno-Natural Spirits

Stan Denniston

Stan Denniston, Flensing Scene, 2012, mised media, 4 x 7.5 x 4 inches. All images courtesy the artist and Olga Korper Gallery, Toronto.

Stan Denniston, Herd, 2014, mixed media, 6 x 13 x 8 inches.

One day Toronto-based artist Stan Denniston, sitting in his “absolutely and embarrassingly junk-filled studio,” was looking for something to do that didn’t involve hiring technical skills. He wanted an activity that could be done in the quiet of his studio. Over 35 years as a restorer of Inuit art, he had accumulated a significant number of damaged and abandoned carvings and with them in mind he came up with the idea of making sculptures that combined these cast-offs with objects of technology from his own practice. After consulting with people in the Inuit art community, he began assembling a collection of sculptures exhibited in February of this year at Toronto’s Olga Korper Gallery under the title “Curation Myth.”

He has generated a fantastic and hybridized mythology. It’s as if Denniston is involved in a new aesthetic Darwinism. In Seal Dreams of Hunter, he effects a clever transformation; the hunter rides an undulating seal that assumes the character of a float plane with cell phone pontoons; in the beguiling Herd, the collective noun is comprised of one carved walrus with bone tusks and four cordless phone adapters with metal tusks. The base on which the herd sits is a perfect icy flotilla; a silver aluminum stereo speaker junked by the pawn shop down the street from his studio. His intervention was minimal. “I just put some rubber feet on the bottom.”

Stan Denniston, Seal Dreams of Hunter, 2013, 8.25 x 9.5 x 9.5 inches.

Denniston’s grafting of nature and technology has special advantages; in The Sting of Narwhals one of the bears has a phone for a hind paw and in Bear Achieves the Moon, a circuit board is exposed through the animal’s broken wing. His employment of objects is ingenious; in Library he takes a tackle box that his mother-in-law had been using as a sewing box and makes it a perfect display mechanism for a collection of carved seals. Like so many of Denniston’s works, what you get is considerably more complex than what you initially see. Library is a subtly grim joke; in place of the lures in the tackle box are animals already caught by other methods of luring.

Denniston is especially sensitive to the cultural issues that his project inescapably engages. In describing his method as “montaging anxious objects,” he draws attention to “the cross-cultural appropriation at the centre of it.” No less vexing is what he recognizes as “the opposition between handcrafted sculpture and consumer disposables.” Significantly, his sculptures consistently negotiate that potential fault line with a sense of play and wry humour.

The work also has a personal dimension, a kind of object autobiography. In Flensing Scene, he used his “long unused but still favourite Minox EL 35” as the carcass from which the Inuit hunters pull their skin, and the Video Hunter, with his glowing battery eyes, has successfully landed a video camera which he has hoisted on his back. “This work makes a serious commitment to using my own treasured equipment in a process of collaboration” says Denniston. “I think of it as a kind of recuperative project all round. It is the magic of art play and transforming junk in all sorts of iterations into something that people want to have again.” ❚

Volume 33, Number 2: Remaking the Real

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #130, published June 2014.

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