January 2013: Oh, Canada @ Mass MoCA
This landmark exhibit, the first major survey of contemporary Canadian art outside Canada, is an immense and ambitious undertaking. Canada is both geographically vast and culturally diverse, sharing aspects of North American culture with the U.S. while possessing its own history, heritage and unique fine arts canon.
Historically, among the most recognized artists to develop a distinct Canadian voice, were members of The Group of Seven, Emily Carr, and later, the Painters Eleven, abstract artists like Jean-Paul Riopelle and Michael Morris and more recently Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham, Attila Richard Lukacs, Alex Morrison, Geoffery Farmer, Jeff Ladouceur, Tim Gardner, Noah Becker and Brad Phillips to name just a few.
It’s not surprising that the upshot is a broad range of media reflecting an enormous array of influences—including those of the First Nations and Inuit, Canada’s indigenous populations. The exhibition includes painting, photography and video, sculpture, a variety of conceptual works, and installations—even music. The range is enormous, from the bizarre and fanciful–including 370H55V, a sculptural toy-like fantasy by Chris Millar, and Kent Monkman’s ironic life-size double diorama, Two Kindred Spirits–to flashes of lyrical beauty, as in Gisele Amantea’s 97-foot long flocked black and white abstract wall installation, Democracy, in the foyer of Mass MoCA’s Hunter Center for the Performing Arts.
Assorted themes are reflected: identity and landscape from a Canadian point of view (including that of Canada’s aboriginal peoples), the use of everyday objects interwoven in art, and a return to craft and labor-intensive techniques like felt-making, ceramics, paper-cutting and embroidery.
While these intentional themes, more like threads, run through the exhibit, the net effect of all this variety and inclusiveness is a little discordant. Dominating one corner of the first gallery is Suspension 2012, Ed Pien’s paper and mixed media installation. The two-story high structure is constructed of draped scaffolding. On three levels, shadowy figures and shapes are projected from behind the translucent material. Projected on the top level, is the apparent silhouette of an acrobat on a trapeze. Constantly in motion, subtle shapes undulate through the fabric.
Nearby hang two paintings by Los Angeles resident Etienne Zach. Spills in a Safe Environment, (acrylic and oil on canvas, 2009) is a bold composition of brushes and paint pooling and dripping in an artist’s studio—blue, yellow pink and black on a green tabletop. While clearly representational, from a distance, the work shifts subtly into the abstract.
Across the gallery is a grouping of three paintings by Janet Werner in which female figures are articulated with careful detail from nuanced interior backgrounds. Masterful, and compelling in its aura of contradiction, Untitled Stalker is paradoxical, both modern and timeless, even the title is an oxymoron. The female figure is stylishly dressed in a mauve skirt, striped blouse and high heels. Disturbingly, her hair obscures her face, her identity. She is seated erect in a modern white chair, emerging from the surrounding gray space of background. The floor is delineated to give a clue of the interior space. This is juxtaposed by a Valerie Blass sculpture, prominent in the center of the gallery floor. She Was A Big Success (Styrofoam, wood, hair extensions, pigment, 2009): a contorted mannequin severed at the waist, with an enormous knot of hair on top.
Clearly, the Canadian landscape is one of the most prominent themes. Among the more high visibility names featured in the exhibit is Vancouver novelist and visual artist, Douglas Coupland, who also contributed an essay to the exhibition catalogue. Two of his abstracted landscapes hang side-by-side (both acrylic and latex on canvas, 2011). Arctic Memories Fueled By Memory, with a herringbone pattern and stars, and its counterpoint, a crisp hard-edge painting of the same size, The Exhausted Landscape, with grey scale geometric forms.
One of the more seductive works is Andrea Mortson’s painting, You Are Loved, (oil on canvas, 2009-10), another version of landscape, with unexpected elements entwined. In it, two figures are glimpsed through the branches of a tree. They float on an undefined background of yellow. Orbs of colored light add mystery.
Seven drawings in pencil, ink and pencil crayon by Annie Pootoogook give a glimpse into another facet of Canadian life. It’s revealing to see the artist’s use of traditional characteristics of Inuit art—two-dimensional flat planes of color and simple line—to provide a revealing insight on contemporary Inuit life in an almost childlike style. In Dr. Phil (2006), a teenager dressed in jeans lies on a rug, in a room with a phone and a television. A 2002 street scene with two figures is entitled, Two Guys Outside the Pool Hall.
In the midst of the collected paintings, sculpture, dioramas, and other media, overall, the photography seems to have a special impact. A series of photographs—black and white, and one color—by Ned Pratt, capture a sense of the bleak, cold, vastness of rural Canada. In, Façade, Northern Peninsula, Pratt portrays a desolate hut on a large snowy landscape.
The unique chromogenic prints of Sarah Anne Johnson are enhanced by her use of photo-spotting ink, acrylic ink, gouache and India ink. In Fireworks, 2010, a seascape with a schooner, Johnson has painted bursts of color in the sky above, interjecting her vision onto the print. Kritsan Horton’s inventive stop motion video of everyday objects made on a flatbed scanner—Haptic Sessions, (edition 1/3, 2010)—makes inanimate objects dance.
If not intended as a representative sample of the current state of Canadian art, the exhibition might be thought of as a snapshot of Canadian art now. If the intent was to convey flavor, a survey reflecting the breadth of Canadian art, it succeeds in showing a huge variety of media and expression. Given the enormity of the curator’s task, the result is impressive. Still, if this is an accurate portrayal of Canadian art today, it somehow feels disappointing, especially to a nostalgic Canadian expatriate who once studied fine art in her native country. It’s possible the scope of this survey was too ambitious; the breadth inadvertently detracting from the depth. For American viewers unfamiliar with Canadian art, the inclusion of a few additional well-known artists might have offered a deeper insight into Canada’s art scene.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief