New Narratives, Poetic Resonances — A Review of Art in Canada
Published to coincide with Canada’s sesquicentennial, Art in Canada by Marc Mayer, Director of the National Gallery of Canada, is unlike any previous survey of Canadian art and artists. Anchored by his thoughtful and thought-provoking introductory essay, the book is a spirited and often witty exploration of every conceivable medium and form of art created in this land.
Many people skim over the essays in art books, anxious to get to the images. Mayer’s essay, however, is well worth reading. Although relatively compact at about 9,000 words, it abounds in fascinating observations and insights. The most compelling of these relate to Mayer’s interest in seeing Indigenous, women and new Canadian artists more comprehensively included in the pantheon of art in Canada.
“Many of the exceptional figures of the present,” writes Mayer, “— such as women, Indigenous artists, Canadians of non-European descent, photographers, video artists — appear like erratic boulders on the land, unaccountable. The histories that might explain them are not part of the conventional narrative of Canadian art, [giving] the impression that much of our present culture is orphaned, while the legacies of the past are extinct. Given what we know of human nature and of how history actually works, neither can be true.”
Lavishly illustrated with generous-sized images of works by 150 artists, Art in Canada is a visual treat. For the final layout, Mayer literally spread copies of the images across his office floor to rework the order, pairing some together and placing others in sequence.
One particularly fun spread features the photograph Man with Red Sash (2007) by Stephen Waddell, in which a possibly homeless man is trimming his whiskers behind a tree. In Nick Sikkuark’s Untitled (Caribou Spirit?) (1996) on the facing page, a rather jaunty four-legged and bewhiskered animal grins insouciantly at the viewer. And in one of the more beautiful sequences, a silver censer by Paul Lambert from 1748 is followed by Charles Comfort’s smoky Smelter Works (1936), Edward Burtynsky’s misty Xiaolangdi Dam (2011) and the wisp-like forms of Alex Janvier’s Untitled (1986).
“There are reasons for the structure of the book,” says Mayer in an interview with NGC Magazine. “Rather than taking a chronological or scholarly approach, I wanted to talk about art in relation to Canada, and Canada in relation to art, and why it’s important.”
One of the more interesting aspects of the book is the interposing of work traditionally viewed as craft. Does a nineteenth-century beaded bag created by an unknown Métis or Cree artist really belong next to the well-known Sister Saint-Alphonse (1841) by Antoine Plamondon? Mayer argues that it does. “Those kinds of craft versus art categories are outdated,” he says. “After all, painting is a craft. Sculpture is a craft. You learn how to do it as a craft — just like beadwork. What elevates something to a work of art is the ability of the artist to speak powerfully and meaningfully to us through their chosen craft.”
Readers looking for works they remember from school field trips or visits to the former Canadian galleries will certainly find them in this book, including Boy with Bread (1892–99) by Ozias Leduc, The Enchanted Owl (1960) by Kenojuak Ashevak, The Visit (1967) by Jean Paul Lemieux and Reason Over Passion (1968) by Joyce Wieland.
The originality of Mayer’s overview, however, is that there is no chronological order and no attempt to fit each work into a given school or tradition. Shuvinai Ashoona’s coloured-pencil drawing Untitled (Eden) (2008) faces The Fire Ranger (1921), a painting by Group of Seven artist Franz Johnson. A beaded work by Nadia Myre from 2013 follows a William Notman photograph of a female skater from 1855. Interestingly, this unusual arrangement tends to refresh the better-known works. Instead of taking seen-it-a-million-times paintings for granted, readers will find themselves looking at such works as if for the very first time.
“What I was really trying to say in this book,” says Mayer, “is that there are poetic resonances, from the various centuries, from the various peoples who live in this place and make art that you wouldn’t expect. I deliberately gave Japanese-Canadian conceptual artist Ron Terada the last word in the book — It Is What It Is, It Was What It Was (2008) — because it brings all of those things into a single pithy work of art.”
When asked what he hoped people would remember after reading Art in Canada, Mayer says, “There are two takeaways for me. The first is that there is no reason for Canada to feel like a lesser visual arts culture. Our visual arts are actually extremely sophisticated, extremely complex and, in my opinion, poised to become highly influential on the world stage. The second takeaway is that art is not just something you put on a wall to decorate your house. Artists are public intellectuals like novelists, like political essayists, like scientists. And a vibrant visual arts culture can be a litmus test of whether or not you have a viable society.”
Art in Canada can, of course, be enjoyed simply as a very handsome coffee table book. But do yourself a favour and read Mayer’s essay, which provides both context for the works he’s chosen and a call to arms regarding the state of the Canadian art discourse at this moment in time.
“If you’re going to look at the work by people who have been making art here for hundreds of years,” says Mayer, “and work by people who have been making art for thousands of years, or even only a couple of years, then you’re going to have to constantly change your definition of Canadian art. Hopefully this book gives people the tools to start thinking about that.”
Art in Canada was published by the National Gallery of Canada. In addition to an essay by Marc Mayer, it features a brief history of the Gallery by Katherine Stauble. The book is available in at ShopNGC.ca and in bookstores. If you would like to share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right of this page.