Governor General's Awards: A Precise Beauty
There is a crisp clarity to the National Gallery’s exhibition featuring the winners of the 2015 Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts (GGAVMA). Thirty-one works are on display, representing this year’s laureates: Louise Déry, Robert Houle, Micah Lexier, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Paul McClure, Sandra Meigs, Rober Racine and Reva Stone. Many of the works are characterized by precision and clean lines. This show invites quiet contemplation.
Each year, the GGAVMAs 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 volunteer or professional activities.
The Gallery’s Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Rhiannon Vogl, has drawn from both the national collection, the laureates themselves, and various lenders to assemble a cohesive group of works in a variety of media, from painting, photography and drawing to video, mixed media, jewellery and exhibition catalogues. Vogl, who is in her fifth year as curator of the GGAVMA exhibition, spoke in an interview with NGC Magazine about how she discovered the common thread running through eight bodies of work, each of which spans several decades.
“When I started researching the laureates,” she says, “I started to see really interesting links in terms of mortality and biology. A number of the artists have interests in biotechnology, and how technologies can or can’t represent mortality or humanness.” Other artists in the show share a preoccupation with collecting objects or words to convey human impulses.
Also on view are eight fascinating “video portraits” of the laureates: works of art in their own right that were commissioned by the Canada Council for the Arts, and show the winners at work in the studio or gallery.
Here’s a run-down of the laureates and the works in the exhibition.
Photo: Canada Council for the Arts / Isabelle Hayeur
The winner of the award for outstanding contribution, curator Louise Déry has worked closely with many of Canada’s most important artists in a career spanning more than three decades. As Director, since 1997, of the art gallery at the Université du Québec à Montreal, and previously curator at two major Quebec museums, she has developed a reputation for intellectual rigour, refined interpretation of art works, and talent-spotting.
Déry was curator of David Altmejd’s critically acclaimed exhibition representing Canada at the 2007 Venice Biennale, and of shows devoted to Dominique Blain, Shary Boyle, Raphaëlle de Groot, Michael Snow, Françoise Sullivan, Jana Sterbak, and many others. With over 80 publications to her name, a number of which are on display in the exhibition, she has had a significant impact on Canadian art history.
“She’s very much about this idea of curating being a living, breathing act,” says Vogl, “and about the way a curator animates an artist’s work and gives life to it.”
For Déry herself, it comes down to a desire to help the artists succeed. “I’m ambitious for the artists,” she says in the video portrait. “I want it to work.”
A member of Manitoba’s Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation, and now based in Toronto, Robert Houle draws upon both Western and First Nations’ art to address issues of European colonization. Having spent 12 years in the residential school system, Houle is informed by his dual experiences with Indigenous spiritual practices and the Catholic Church, making use of Aboriginal symbols and ritual objects, combined with Western sculptural and painting techniques, texts and photographs. Early in his career, he was influenced by the work of Barnett Newman and Piet Mondrian.
Seven in Steel (1989), from the National Gallery’s collection, is the work selected to represent Houle in the exhibition. The six-metre-long painting extends across seven highly polished steel slabs, each with a small, abstract, painted vignette representing an extinct Indigenous nation, and at the same time corresponding to a work by the Group of Seven. As such, Houle re-appropriates the tradition of landscape painting, symbolically reclaiming the land that was taken by European settlers, while creating a steel monument to these ancestors. “His work is a lamentation or memorial for different Indigenous nations that have been lost,” says Vogl.
Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and now based in Toronto, Micah Lexier has a diverse practice that includes sculpture, photography, drawing, and text-based work. Employing a minimalist aesthetic, he explores themes of time, mortality, language, and the relationships between order and disarray, people and objects.
On view is Lexier’s video project This One, That One (National Gallery Edit) (2012–2014), a version of which was recently exhibited at Toronto’s Power Plant. In 33 chapter-like episodes, the artist arranges objects from his personal collections: primarily found pieces of cardboard, as well as books, instruction manuals, marbles and dice. Each chapter begins with a blank white surface. Lexier’s hands soon enter the frame, lay down an object or objects, and carefully arrange them before sliding out of the frame. The result is a quirky, hypnotic, 12-minute sequence in which Lexier makes and unmakes ephemeral works of art.
In the accompanying video portrait, Lexier sums up his artistic practice: “It’s just finding things I love and putting them together. It all comes down to love.”
“For the past 25 years,” says Mexican-born artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer in his video portrait, “I’ve been making art work that is at the intersection between architecture and performance art.”
What follows in the video is mezmerizing footage of some of Lozano-Hemmer’s large-scale electronic installations, including Pulse Room (2006), in which clear incandescent lightbulbs, hanging in the exhibition space, flash to the rhythm of visitors’ heartbeats; and Voz Alta (2008), an interactive memorial commissioned for the 40th anniversary of the student massacre in Tlatelolco, Mexico.
With a B.Sc. in Physical Chemistry, the Montreal-based artist uses robotics, computerized surveillance, and telematics networks to create interactive works highlighting the importance of human connection.
Último Suspiro [Last Breath] (2012) is Lozano-Hemmer’s multimedia sculpture on view at the National Gallery. Made using respiration tubing, a brown paper bag, bellows and electronic apparatus, it is designed to store and circulate forever a single human exhalation — in this case, the breath of the iconic Cuban singer Omara Portuondo. Último Suspiro is a living portrait that preserves an aspect of Portuondo’s essence, and thus acknowledges her contribution to Cuban culture.
“Art making,” says the artist in the video, “is really about understanding the fact that life is finite. We have this romantic attempt to understand, to capture, to classify and to control, but in the end, this is just a very temporary performance.”
Master jeweller Paul McClure is the winner of this year’s Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in the Fine Crafts. A leader in the contemporary craft and design community, he is also an avid educator who heads the renowned jewellery arts program at George Brown College in Toronto.
McClure’s jewellery is not only made to adorn the body, but is also very much about the body, inspired as it is by microbiology, pathology and genomics. Many of his brooches, rings and pendants take the form of viruses, cells and even tumours. Others make reference to medieval memento mori or mourning jewellery.
A display case in the exhibition holds an array of McClure’s rings, pendants, and small sculptures, fashioned out of silver, gold, gemstones, and pearls. Five pieces from the “Memento mori” series include Tumour Ring (1993) and Virus Ring (1993). Some of the works, such as Cells (1999–2000) even sit in Petri dishes.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Sandra Meigs came to Canada in 1973 as an art student, and has an M.A. in Philosophy. Since 1993, she has taught Fine Arts at the University of Victoria, B.C.
After beginning with film, installations and performance-based works, Meigs took up painting in the early 1980s, creating narrative series that resembled fantasy comic books or films. Her works often draw upon philosophy to explore human processes of being and becoming, or use architectural space as a metaphor for the psychological realm.
Red. 3011 Jackson. (Mortality) is an impressive mural measuring 7.6 metres in length: one of two large paintings by Meigs in the exhibition. Made in 2013, it is from the series “The Basement Panoramas,” which the artist created after the death of her husband from cancer. For Meigs, the crawlspace of her house had become symbolic of mortality — at once a repository for the objects of a lifetime, and reminiscent of a burial chamber.
In her video portrait, Meigs recounts how she overcame her grief partly through the practice of mindful walking, a slow-motion stroll done while being hyper-attuned to sensations. “That was the very first thing that helped me come out of my grief,” she says, “because it made me realize there’s a world outside of my inner aloneness.”
The idea for painting in a panoramic format, she continues, “was that the viewer would have to walk the space. There’s always something there to experience differently in a very immersive way.”
Montreal artist Rober Racine has worked for 40 years as a visual artist, writer, musician, composer, choreographer, dramatist and radio producer, often blurring the boundaries between genres.
Mirror-Pages / Exhibition (1980–1994) is part of an epic, 14-year project in which Racine deconstructed the Petit Robert dictionary, cutting out over 55,000 words from 2,130 pages, and leaving only the definitions and cross-references. He then embellished the pages with handwritten annotations, gilded highlights and underlines, mounting them on mirrored plates. The result is an examination of identity through language, through a book that is a potent symbol of cultural identity, and through the reflected image of the visitor.
On view here are 23 pages that contain cross-references to the word exposition (exhibition). Delicately inscribed at the bottom of each page are phrases such as “Être artiste, c’est apaiser l’âme” (To be an artist is to calm the soul) and “La vérité est fausse” (Truth is false).
Visually, Mirror-Pages / Exhibition has a lyrical, rhythmic quality. Indeed, as Racine himself has said, “Since the beginning, music has been my guide. I saw the dictionary as a big musical score to interpret and perform, like a pianist plays a work by Johann Sebastian Bach.”
Winnipeg artist Reva Stone explores the complex and often ambivalent relationship between humans and technology, employing a variety of digital processes, including biotechnology, robotics, 3D imaging, virtual reality and mobile phone technology.
“All my work,” she says in her video portrait, “has been about changing technologies and how they alter our mediated world.”
The exhibition includes five large colour photographs made from Stone’s 2004–2006 installation Imaginal Expression. For the original installation, she scanned images of her own skin, hair, and teeth, and wrapped them around 3D simulated models of protein molecules. She then projected images of the models onto huge screens in the exhibition space. When viewers entered the space, they activated the images so that they moved on the screen, mimicking the process of cellular generation, mutation and dissolution.
The still images on view are strangely beautiful. One evokes a giant curl of pickled ginger, another looks like outer space, and yet another looks like a fleshy double helix.
The GGAVMA exhibition is on view at the National Gallery until August 30.
The Canada Council is celebrating 15 years of the Awards with an exhibition of works by past laureates, drawn from the Canada Council Art Bank collection. On view at Âjagemô, in the Council’s Elgin Street building in Ottawa, the exhibition includes works by Iain Baxter, Carl Beam, Sandra Brownlee, Max Dean, Gathie Falk, Raymond Gervais, Betty Goodwin, Arnaud Maggs, and Michael Snow, among others. The exhibition continues to April 14.