Jude Griebel’s Barn Skull helps reopen AGA’s doors this weekend

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Fresh off a flight that almost didn’t make it here, Jude Griebel stops in his tracks to greet curator Lindsey Sharman and I as he enters the Art Gallery of Alberta. He’s typically polite — keeps eye contact with us the whole time — even though his gigantic work he’s yet to see installed beckons his presence across the AGA’s main floor.

We urge him to ditch us and go take a look already.

“Oh, I’m really pleased,” he says, hands together, with a kid-like grin, looking up at the chipped-red boards of Barn Skull, his massive, five-metre-square sculpture. “Really, really pleased.”

Hanging up since January, the last time the 42-year-old artist saw this work in person, it was laid out in the grass outside his studio in southern Alberta. But never up on a wall, and certainly not this one, where it will live until the end of the year.

Because he was trapped in New York City during the pandemic, Griebel — who also runs The Museum of Fear and Wonder in southern Alberta with his brother — had to traffic-direct its installation remotely, a situation you wouldn’t call ideal.


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“I’ve only ever seen it up over the phone,” he laughs, eyes now glued to the anthropomorphized barn face, which looks at least a century old: cavernous, broken-window eyes, and a scary tilt to the right not uncommon on the Prairies.

It’s not Griebel’s first time with art in the provincial gallery — he was part of the legendary Future Station 2015 Biennial with a few of his human-sized, environmental kaiju sculptures, which always look so dangerously edible. But this scale is a personal record.

Jude Griebel’s Barn Skull installed in the Art Gallery of Alberta, reopening this weekend.
Jude Griebel’s Barn Skull installed in the Art Gallery of Alberta, reopening this weekend. Photo by Fish Griwkowsky /Postmedia

Inspired by the faces he noticed in classic barns as a child — now fading as common architecture from an increasingly ag-industrial landscape — in the name of a certain authenticity, Griebel’s plan was to build this enormous, time-ravaged face from boards that had weathered the decades out in our actual farmlands.

“One of the original plans was to actually dismantle an original barn and use the wood,” Griebel explains. “But because of the collection and archives here, you can’t bring old wood like that into a museum.

“So we had to sort of brainstorm other ways that it could be brought into the space, and that I could emulate that feeling of the flaking, eroded structure open to the elements and extreme winter conditions.”

So instead — this is where you end up doing a double take of the big sculpture — he painted every single jagged chip by hand, fake shadow included, as if eroded by time. On top of that, he had to mill every single board to be thinner, so the AGA’s projector screen could come down in front of it.


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Artistically, there’s a bit of a bonus here in terms of scale of time and ridiculous patience, all fundamentals of Prairie farming — it’s a better piece for it.

Speaking of endurance, for many years, Griebel has been photographing barns in the wild then making smaller sculptural cousins of this Barn Skull — there’s a 2014 version the AGA just purchased and added to its permanent collection.

“A lot of them are falling apart,” he says of the source structures. “People are not carrying on with these family farms. A lot of it has to do with large agribusiness in the province, or the oil and gas industry,” which pays better.

“So these are strange relics of past ways of settler life on the Prairies. And so I’ve been documenting the fronts, and likening them to the faces of the aging farmers on those homesteads.”

Neither of which, he adds, will be around much longer.

One of the sculpture’s more disturbing elements is its long line of hair, hanging down like a frozen waterfall from an unseen Caterpillar hat up top.

Sure enough, “I bought it from human-hair wig suppliers,” says Griebel. “And then the old broken windows are remade from airbrushed Plexiglas.”

He decided to paint the openings, including the barn’s doorway ‘mouth’, matte black, explaining, “I wanted it to feel like there was some sort of space behind it that you could almost crawl into.”

Cue the fingerprints when it opens to the public this Saturday and Sunday, book at youraga.ca.


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Growing up in part on his grandfather’s farm, we talk about that sort of primal familiarity — and slight terror — an old barn can shake loose in the brain, darkness sitting in broad daylight, especially in the boundary-free imagination of children.

That musty smell; that shaded cool — anyone who’s spent time on a farm can go back there instantly — and the sculpture summons it all.

“They always have sort of a mysterious quality because, you know, it’s a space where calving would happen, but sometimes things would die in the barns, too. Kittens would be born in the hayloft, where the pigeons hang out, too,” he says. “It was always a shadowy, mysterious place that activated one’s imagination because they’re indoors, but outdoors at the same time.”

Other shows in the reopened gallery include The Scene, running through Aug. 8, Every Black Day through Sept. 12, Anna Hawkins: Blue Light Blue through Sept. 26 and Corneilia Hahn Oberlander: Genius Loci, though Oct. 17.

But, after being shuttered since last year, it’s Barn Skull that will first grab your focus when you walk into the AGA again.

“It’s supposed to feel like a space you can enter,” Griebel underlines.

But like anything of the past, of memory, it’s only some reimagined, distorted surface version we can approach. If anything, that’s probably the most clever thing of all about Barn Skull.




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