Alex Janvier : The Circle of Life and Other Brilliant Forms

Photo: Fred Cattroll

The thirty-four circular paintings and watercolours floating on a wall of deep blue at the entrance to the exhibition Alex Janvier are like celestial bodies. Luminous, rich and varied, some small and some large, some veined with sinewy lines and others faceted like gemstones, the discs float, radiate and pulsate. They take your breath away.

For Alex Janvier, one of Canada’s most respected Indigenous artists, the circle is a metaphor for the cycle of life. “It represents the continuum of night and day, of life and death, of new life,” said Greg Hill in an interview with NGC Magazine. The National Gallery’s Audain Senior Curator of Indigenous Art is also curator of the exhibition, and a contributing author to the accompanying catalogue. “This installation is really a sampling of Alex’s painting with the circle from 1979 until very recently,” he adds. “Within these circles are all of his stylistic changes and thematic concerns, so you get that sense of the circle within Alex’s life, and Alex’s life as a circle.”

Installation view: Alex Janvier exhibition, presented at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Alex Janvier. Photo: NGC

Aptly titled “Janvier in the Round,” the installation offers a moving prologue to this major retrospective. In all, 155 drawings, watercolours, and paintings are on view, some mural-sized. Janvier’s 1993 masterpiece, Morning Star – Gambeh Then’, created for the domed ceiling of the Canadian Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History), is shown in a video projection.

The exhibition explores how Janvier has brought together both Indigenous and Western influences in his prolific 65-year career, developing a unique style that is instantly recognizable for its brilliant colours, calligraphic lines and abstract forms — including patterns inspired by traditional Dene quillwork and beadwork.

Alex Janvier, Untitled, 1986, acrylic on canvas, 165.1 x 266.7 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (42867). © Alex Janvier. Photo: NGC

Gathered from collections across the country, many of the works are being exhibited in public for the first time, while others, such as the exquisite Untitled (1986), acquired by the National Gallery in 2009, may already be familiar to visitors. The large white canvas, featuring colourful tendrils that weave among tiny flowers, birds and insects, is part of a series of works that Janvier made following his 1985 trip to China as part of a cultural delegation. In an interview with NGC Magazine, the artist spoke about the formal gardens that inspired the works: “You get the sight, the smell, and it attacks all your senses.”

Alex Janvier was born in 1935 on the Le Goff Reserve, in northern Alberta. Of Dene and Anishnaabe (Saulteaux) descent, he is the son of the last customary Chief of Cold Lake First Nations. Janvier grew up with nine siblings, speaking Dene, absorbing the teachings of the Elders, while being immersed in nature. 

In 1943, at the age of eight, he was sent to Blue Quills Indian Residential School, near St. Paul’s, Alberta, where he spent the next ten years. As it was for thousands of others, the residential school experience was traumatizing. He was forbidden to speak his language, and deeply missed home. “I can tell you it was no picnic,” the artist told a crowd of over a thousand at the recent exhibition opening. Regular art classes at school were his saving grace, however. “Every Friday afternoon from two to four,” he recalls. “That was the only time I could express myself.”

Alex Janvier, Wounded Knee Boy, 1972, acrylic on wood, 121.9 cm (diameter). Courtesy of the artist and Janvier Gallery, Cold Lake First Nations. © Alex Janvier. Photo: Don Hall, courtesy of the MacKenzie Art Gallery

Recognizing Alex’s talent, the school principal arranged for him to take summer classes with artist Carl Altenberg, a German emigré who had studied in the Bauhaus tradition. Altenberg also commissioned Janvier to make three paintings for the school chapel. The first of these, Our Lady of the Teepee (1950), initially caused an uproar for its Indigenous Virgin and Child, but eventually made it to Rome, where it won honourable mention at that year’s International Vatican Exhibition.

Our Lady of the Teepee is one of the works on view in a room devoted to Janvier’s early years, first at Blue Quills, then at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (now the Alberta College of Art) in Calgary, where he enrolled in 1956. Studying under Marion Nicoll, he was exposed to Western art movements and abstraction in the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Joan Miró, and was encouraged to experiment with automatic painting. By the time he graduated, his signature calligraphic style was already emerging, as visitors can see in four lovely pastel works done in 1963, and in a series of tempera paintings featuring spidery lines and circular forms, from 1964.

A pivotal moment in Janvier’s career came in 1967 when he was appointed to the advisory committee for the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Montreal’s Expo '67. The committee was charged with selecting art, artifacts, text and images for the pavilion, and Janvier himself was chosen to create an exterior mural. The result was something that was completely novel: an Indigenous perspective on the history and experiences of Canada’s First Peoples. As Hill says, “The messaging was very strong in comparison to anything that had been done before. For many visitors, it was the first time they had been exposed to this version of history in Canada.”

The experiences there steeled the self-confidence of seven talented Indigenous artists Daphne Odjig, Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Norval Morrisseau, Carl Ray, Joseph Sanchez and Alex Janvier who joined together six years later to form the country’s first Indigenous art collective, Professional Native Indian Artists Incorporated (PNIAI), which came to be known as the Indian Group of Seven. Janvier considers Bill Reid an unofficial eighth member.

Alex Janvier, Cold Lake Air, 1994, acrylic on linen, 91.5 x 76 cm. Collection of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Edmonton. © Alex Janvier

The collective is the subject of two rooms in the exhibition. One displays a series of eight large paintings created by Janvier in 2011 to pay homage to each member of the group  celebrating, for instance, Bill Reid’s intricate jewellery-making, Eddy Cobiness’s spirituality and Daphne Odjig’s leadership. “She was very instrumental in pulling that group tighter at a time when everything else was downhill for most tribes in Canada,” says Janvier. In a side room there are paintings by members of the group, as well as a humorous, nine-minute video made by Winnipeg filmmaker Darryl Nepinak, which demonstrates why the group resonates with younger generations. 

The following galleries, covering the periods from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, highlight the flourishing of the artist’s career, with works that combine representation and abstraction to dazzling effect. From a distance, Big Fish Waters (L’ohwa’chok Touwah’) (1982) is an elegant, abstract swirl of saturated colours, but close up, reveals an eagle, bison, beaver, butterfly and even a cityscape. Grand Entry (1980), one of a number of acrylic paintings on linen, showcases the artist’s mastery of fine brushwork on a coarse surface. Here, the colourful, curving lines suggest the opening procession of a powwow, seen from above.

Alex Janvier, Lubicon, 1988, acrylic on canvas, 165.2 x 267 cm. Collection of the Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton. Purchased with funds from the Estate of Jean Victoria Sinclair (98.13). © Alex Janvier

Among the most powerful works on display is Lubicon (1988), made at the time when the Lubicon Lake Nation in northwestern Alberta was in conflict with the federal government and the oil sector over the issue of resource extraction on their traditional territory. The work started out as one of Janvier’s serene, white-ground paintings, but as his rage mounted over the Lubicon dispute, he painted the background over in angry red.

Lubicon marks the beginning of a period of heightened politicization in Janvier’s work, when he began to employ a more figurative approach in a series of mural-sized paintings. According to Hill, the artist deliberately sought to express himself in a more representational way. “Alex has been very adamant about what he was trying to do with these,” he says. “He wanted to have direct communication. He had important things to say, and wanted to be clearly understood.” 

Take O’Kanada (1991), created in the wake of the Oka Crisis, during which a land dispute between the Mohawk people of Kanesatake and the town of Oka, Quebec, led to a deadly stand-off with police. Janvier has painted a central circle that is reminiscent of Morning Star, except for the Mohawk figures behind the crosshairs of a gun sight. Or Apple Factory (1989), with its central apple motif and faceless girl. The title refers to the derogatory term “Apple,” as applied to students of the residential school system and the process of assimilation that attempted to make Native people “Red” on the outside and White on the inside.

Alex Janvier, Yellow Liner, 2001, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 91 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Janvier Gallery, Cold Lake First Nations. © Alex Janvier. Photo: NGC

The final rooms of the exhibition are devoted to more recent works, including a series of experimental paintings done in the early 2000s, when the artist experienced a bout of Bell’s Palsy and could not paint with his typical dexterity. One example, Yellow Liner (2001), is a drip painting that evokes the beaded fringe of a powwow dress. A later series of watercolours, including Across Hill Colours, done in October 2014 during an artist residency in Kelowna, BC, captures the warm reds and ochres of the fall foliage.

Now 81 years of age and still painting, Alex Janvier is at once triumphant and humble. “My whole life is really the art world,” he told a room full of media before opening night. “With art, I’ve been able to carry through with my family.” He speaks about his time in residential school, his appreciation of Canada, and his recent return to spirituality, finishing with characteristic understatement. “I’ve done the best I could.” 

Alex Janvier is the sixth presentation by the National Gallery of solo exhibitions devoted to First Nations artists, following shows on Norval Morrisseau, Robert Davidson, Daphne Odjig, Carl Beam and Charles Edenshaw. The exhibition is on view until April 17, 2017 in the NGC’s Special Exhibitions Galleries. A catalogue in English and French editions accompanies the exhibition.

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