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Wylie: Eloquence of the Everyday revealed in artwork

Now aged 83, Montreal-based Gabor Szilasi is one of Canada’s most senior as well as most admired photographers in Canada. He was recently given a 2010 Governor General’s award in visual and media arts.

A large survey-format exhibition of his work has just arrived in Kelowna as part of the National Gallery of Canada’s On Tour program. The Kelowna Art Gallery is most pleased and proud to be on the itinerary for its national tour. The show is organized by the Musée d’art de Joliette, in Quebec, and the National Gallery’s affiliate museum, the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, and is curated by independent curator and photographic historian, David Harris.

Szilasi is a master of focusing intently on something specific with his camera, such that his art transcends its initial circumstances and becomes universal. Therefore, even if residents of Kelowna have never visited nor lived in either Hungary or Quebec, they will find much to enjoy and fascinate them in this important show.

Szilasi has been working as a photographer for his entire adult life and has pursued a variety of projects and directions over the decades. One of these he terms environmental portraiture. These are works for which he visited people in their own environments, usually their homes, and took photographs of them within these contexts. In this way, a greater amount of information about the sitter is included in the work than if they were posing in a studio against a plain backdrop, for example.

In 1980 he acquired an unusual camera made by Kodak, called a Banquet camera, that has a panorama format. For his series of work with this format, Szilasi selected 15 sites in Montreal and was careful to position himself so that a building or other built structure was situated in the centre of each intriguing composition. Four of this series are in the current exhibition.

The artist’s earliest images are shot in Hungary in the 1950s before he left in 1957 and came to Canada. He proceeded to document a changing way of life in several regions of rural Quebec in the 1970s, as well as producing many street views and images of buildings in Montreal through the same period. These works are now weighted with the freight of history, but still speak to audiences of this century of unchanging human emotions and values.

The exhibition is accompanied by a major publication on the artist’s work, with texts by Harris, the guest curator of the show. In reading this we gain further insight into Szilasi’s thinking, and also get a sense of his context in terms of other important photographers, both in Montreal and Canada, as well as the US and Europe.

The work will be on view at the Kelowna Art Gallery until Aug. 14.

Liz Wylie is the curator at the Kelowna Art Gallery.

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