Gallery and Community: Governor General Awards for Visual Arts 2022
Since 1999, the Governor General of Canada and the Canada Council for the Arts acknowledge outstanding contributions to the arts community with the annual Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts (#GGArts). For the past twenty years, the National Gallery of Canada has shown work by these recipients in a stand-alone exhibition. For the 2022 iteration, however, the Gallery decided to give it a curatorial twist. In an endeavour to “disrupt and destabilize the narratives embedded in the [national] collection,” the artists were invited to collaborate with the curators in selecting locations throughout the Gallery so their work be placed in dialogue with the collection.
Spread across the Gallery’s Indigenous and Canadian Art, Contemporary Art, European Art and public spaces, the installations and interventions of artists Carole Condé + Karl Beveridge, Pierre Bourgault, Moyra Frances Davey, David Ruben Piqtoukun, Jocelyn Robert, Monique Régimbald-Zeiber, jeweller and metalsmith Brigitte Clavette and curator Gerald McMaster take unexpected paths to create meaningful connections.
For Quebec artist Régimbald-Zeiber the route to her final choice was a circuitous one. For curator Louise Déry, she always felt there was “an urgent need to ensure the dissemination of work such as Régimbald-Zeiber’s, because it is feminist, because it addresses large areas of inclusive thought and because it addresses groups ‘invisibilized’ by history, language and the dominant power.” Initially, the artist considered Sœur St- Alphonse by Quebec portraitist Antoine Plamondon. Painted in 1841, the portrait of the young nun is constrained yet sensual, a tension that provokes a desire to understand the ambivalence Plamondon depicted in her face. In the end, museological processes and protocols sent Régimbald-Zeiber in another direction. The artist she ultimately arrived at was Agnes Martin.
Born in Saskatchewan in the early 1900s, Martin went on to study in America, becoming a citizen and an important contributor to the Abstract Expressionism movement in the United States. For Régimbald-Zeiber, her own interaction with Martin’s œuvre is not straightforward but comes with a probing that has kept her coming back to Martin’s art, as well as her writings. Not always in agreement, yet curious with regards to what Martin stirs in her, Régimbald-Zeiber has found the provocation has produced a creative dynamic that informs aspects of her own work. As she says, “Agnes Martin is one of the voices in my studio.” For this reason, it was fitting to choose three of Martin’s serigraphs from the series On a Clear Day (1973) to be shown alongside Régimbald-Zeiber’s After Europe: Torn Painting (1984–2022). Martin’s prints, the only ones she made, are of various grids of rectangles. Measuring 38 x 39 cm each, their small scale contrasts with the larger installation of Régimbald-Zeiber’s suspended canvas strips. There is also a conceptual contradistinction. For Martin, the print format “refuses the physical gesture of the artist’s hand,” whereas Régimbald-Zeiber’s work is evidence of the physical labour she undertook to tear her own paintings to shreds. According to the artist, it is a gesture she started in 2013 after making a decision to no longer purchase new materials. Yet despite the divergence, both women challenge constraints. For Martin, “When I cover the square surface with rectangles, it lightens the weight of the square, destroys its power.” For Régimbald-Zeiber, tearing to then reassemble the canvas is an act to subvert the dominance of male historians as those who determine the narrative.
For the 2022 version, the Governor General's Awards interventions have been broadened with a community outreach component, each artist having the opportunity to lead an educational session during the run of the displays. To date, five of these community-based sessions have taken place. Régimbald-Zeiber hosted a conversation with curator Josée Drouin-Brisebois for master students of L'Université du Québec en Outaouais in front of the works. For this installation of After Europe: Torn Painting, each strip is secured with a single nail that has conservation implications. The contributions by various NGC departments – from selection to the challenge of hanging the work – “became the material for the students,” says Régimbald-Zeiber. For UQO professor Mélanie Boucher, the talk “allowed the group to grasp, in all its details and evolution, the reflection underlying the installation of a work in the museum.” For those who participated it “will remain a landmark in their journey.”
Fellow award recipient David Ruben Piqtoukun partnered with an Ottawa alternative highschool for urban Indigenous youth, offering a masterclass in stone carving. The school was created to provide support for Indigenous students who find the larger municipal schools isolating and hard to navigate. With smaller class sizes and curriculum schedules adapted to their needs, the initiative offers a nurturing community while creating a space for a cultural experience where they see themselves reflected. Time spent with the students provided an opportunity for Piqtoukun to reflect back on his own career path, one that has allowed him to travel far from his birthplace of Paulatuuq, Northwest Territories. A representative for the school shared how the artist inspired the students with “anecdotes on his career becoming an accomplished artist, including his trips to China, Africa and other interesting places.” He was also “frank about the highs and lows of his career,” emphasizing that despite perceived weaknesses, one also has strengths on which to build.
Working with stone to manifest a final envisioned form is one way to approach this life lesson. “The best thing to do with students is to start with the material,” Piqtoukun related the satisfaction he gained from guiding the youth through the process of carving and encouraging them to get to know the material. “Study the stone, the texture and feel of it. Let it speak to you as it spoke to me.” Removed from his own community at the age of five to attend residential school, Piqtoukun “experienced a tumultuous upheaval of identity.” As an emerging artist in his twenties, he began to gather traditional stories from older members of his community, ones that would generate images in his mind which he then shaped in the stone. Themes of spiritual journeys and their transformational power are communicated through Shamanic and animal forms. Planetary cycles, such as the orbit of the moon and its impact on the rhythm of human cycles, are also embedded narratives. “From these oral traditions, ” the artist comments, “my Inuit roots began to re-establish themselves.”
Although predominantly working in stone, Piqtoukun also casts in metal. Early on in his career, an interest in Rodin and his casting techniques left an impression on Piqtoukun, who has visited Paris multiple times to continue to study the work of the French artist. The sculpture selected for the GGArts interventions, Dancing on the Moon II (2016), calls to mind the material for which Piqtoukun is known: bronze, appearing at first glance as rock. The three parts – a mound, crescent moon and female Shaman – visually merge with the granite plinth, floor and bricks that enclose the Water Court of the Michael and Sonja Koerner Family Atrium. Referencing an Inuvialuit oral tradition, the composition “highlights concepts of spiritual flight and creativity” as well as the “sense of euphoria one gets from achieving a rare accomplishment.” The chosen location places Piqtoukun’s Dancing on the Moon II in proximity to Lost Bridal Veil (2015), a sculpture by Anishinaabe artist Michael Belmore that cascades from the granite wall. The rivers and tributaries of Manhattan are carved into copper sheets evoking plummeting water, the title referencing Bridal Veil Falls on Manitoulin Island. Both the material and the island are of spiritual significance to the Anishinaabeg. Belmore and Piqtoukun share an affinity for stone, land and mythology, their carvings having been previously shown together in the 2005 Cornerstone exhibition at Ottawa's Gallery 101. The works rest in the only space in the galleries where water and sky are experienced. The dynamic allows for light, along with its absence, to mark the passing of time, a reminder that despite arriving at a destination already known a renewed perspective is possible.
Three of the eight Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts 2022 interventions, organized by the National Gallery of Canada in collaboration with the Canada Council for the Arts, continue to be on view at the National Gallery of Canada: Moyra Davey in B108, Gerald McMaster in A101a and David Ruben Piqtoukun in the Michael and Sonja Koerner Family Atrium. See also interviews with the individual artists. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.