Distinguishing the Visual Arts in Canada

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Max Dean, Here We Go (2010, printed 2011), from the series Objects Waiting, chromogenic print. NGC



In 2012, when the National Gallery promoted the exhibition Builders with a huge outdoor banner showing Max Dean suspended by his feet, it must surely have made heads turn. Dean’s photograph was fascinating, funny and dangerous.

That image, titled Here We Go (2010), is also part of a new Gallery exhibition devoted to the 2014 Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts (GGAVMA). The Awards, created in 1999 by then-Governor General Roméo LeBlanc and the Canada Council for the Arts, recognize seven Canadian artists for distinguished careers in fine or applied arts, film, video, audio, new media and fine craft. An eighth prize honours an outstanding contributor to the visual and media arts through voluntary or professional activities.

And the winners are . . . sculptor Kim Adams, painter Carol Wainio, multidisciplinary artist Max Dean, performance and installation artist Raymond Gervais, photographer Angela Grauerholz, media artist Jayce Salloum, weaver Sandra Brownlee, and curator Brydon E. Smith. Over 25 of their works are on display in the exhibition, along with short videos on each award winner and publications and archival material associated with Smith’s career.

It is a disparate group. Salloum’s politically charged work is often about war and violence. Brownlee’s weavings are subtle and intimate. Wainio’s paintings can be dark and apocalyptic. Exhibition curator Rhiannon Vogl has managed, however, to find common ground. Organizing the GGAVMA exhibition for the fourth year, Vogl—the Gallery’s Curatorial Assistant of Contemporary Art—embraced the challenge of creating a cohesive display. “It’s always interesting working on this show,” she says, “because it’s about finding connections between the artists. You start to see things that you wouldn’t have seen before, because maybe you wouldn’t have put these artists together.”

What she started to see this time is “the idea of archiving or accumulating, whether it’s a personal archive, a travelogue, or even the relationships we build with objects over time.” Many of these artists also explore the theme of history, and the tension between past and present.

Collecting, archiving, and notions of memory, time and place are in fact central to Angela Grauerholz’s practice. A Montreal-based photographer and graphic artist, professor and co-founder of the visual arts documentation centre Artexte, Grauerholz is represented in the exhibition with three mysterious and evocative photographs. Two from her 2001 Privations series show the charred remains of books: symbols of the loss of history, knowledge and identity. Rose et bleu (2010) is a haunting portrait of a woman looking pensively in a mirror, in a strange Rococo-style room.

In the accompanying video, Grauerholz explains, “I’ve always wanted to slow down that moment at which the shot is captured. Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment never really interested me. I wanted instead to prolong the moment and create a temporal space that could fill itself.”

Carol Wainio, Puss ‘n Boots (2003), oil on canvas. NGC


Like Grauerholz, Ottawa painter Carol Wainio is interested in books. For her, they represent history, experience and a particular way of thinking. Many of Wainio’s large-scale paintings contain book-like forms and imagery from children’s stories, fairytales, illuminated manuscripts, and archival photographs. In Puss ’n Boots (2003), the eponymous cat stands in front of a large book made of woven forms. On the open page are his boots, drawn in connect-the-dots style, and an image of a man’s fine stockings. Wainio keeps a vast personal archive of old illustrations and photographs, gathered from various international sources.  Even her muted palette is inspired by this archive. “The colours of the more recent works reflect the sources I’ve been working with,” she says in an interview, “such as older illustrations—a lot of them were monochromatic—and early photography.”

Max Dean explores the objects and scenes of his past in his 2010–2011 photographic series Objects Waiting. The self-suspension image, Here We Go, refers to a 1978 performance staged at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, in which Dean—gagged, blindfolded and bound at the feet—attempted to haul himself up with a pulley. Cypher (Suitcase Spin) is a re-enactment of a traumatic event in the artist’s childhood, when he dumped out his mother’s suitcase as she was on the verge of leaving the family.

To varying degrees, Kim Adams, Raymond Gervais, Jayce Salloum and Sandra Brownlee are also interested in collections, archives and history. Adams’ whimsical sculptures are DIY assemblages that satirize modern society and consumerism. He is interested in the old-fashioned “something’s-broken-and-you-fix-it kind of culture,” as he says in his video. Minnow Lure (2004), fittingly installed at the entrance to the contemporary galleries, is a fishing hut made from an aluminum grain bin and corrugated window wells, sitting atop a pair of wooden skis. Inside are retro lime-green seats, fishing lures, sushi-making equipment and homemade beer holders. For those who grew up in the 1960s, it looks like a cross between a toy robot and a Lost in Space episode.


Kim Adams, Minnow Lure (2004), galvanized steel and mixed media. NGC


Gervais is a collector of sound-making objects—turntables, metronomes, music stands, texts—and of sounds themselves. His installations explore notions of time, language, sound and silence, often taking music as a starting point. Finir (2012) is an ode to composer Claude Debussy and playwright (and amateur pianist) Samuel Beckett, and a meditation on the question of how to finish a work, a body of work, or a lifetime career. In the gallery space, music stands display phrases taken from the artists’ final works, such as this moving one from Beckett: “Puis partir. Commencer à partir.” (Then leave. Begin to leave.)

Bringing together photographs, video footage and other documents, Salloum explores themes of violence, resistance, survival, exile, and identity. For his work shown here, he travelled to Bamiyan, Afghanistan with fellow-artist Khadim Ali to observe the Hazara people, a persecuted Shi’a Muslim minority. The resulting multimedia installation captures both the beauty and the trauma of the area.

Five works from Brownlee’s Weavings Remembered series hang like banners in the exhibition space, their delicate black-on-white patterns like mysterious hieroglyphs. Brownlee’s fine weavings are reminiscent of books or journals. Employing a highly intuitive and improvisational artistic process—like jazz or stream-of-consciousness writing—she allows her patterns and images to emerge spontaneously, line by line. 

As a curator of contemporary and modern art, first at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and from 1967 to 1999 at the National Gallery of Canada, Brydon Smith spent his entire, brilliant career as a collector. A true visionary, Smith made daring acquisitions of works by Donald Judd, Jackson Pollock, Agnes Martin, Piet Mondrian, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and many others, sometimes in the face of public outrage. His ground-breaking acquisitions, exhibitions and catalogues have enriched Canadians’ understanding of 20th-century art. Throughout the Gallery, works acquired by Smith are indicated with special labels. 

Congratulations to these eight fine Canadians for distinguishing themselves in the arts.

The Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until August 10, 2014, in Galleries B101 and B109. Click here to view 8 new videos featuring the 2014 winners.

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