An Iconic Filmmaker Turns his Gaze to Art. David Cronenberg: Through the Eye at MOCCA

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Alex Colville, Living Room (1999–2000), acrylic on masonite, 41.8 x 58.5 cm. NGC

Both David Cronenberg and Alex Colville are widely recognized as exceptional Canadian creators, lauded for their respective achievements in filmmaking and art. But most people don’t usually associate the former—a director of outré films such as The Fly and A History of Violence, with the latter—a painter of popular maritime scenes such as To Prince Edward Island.

The late Colville, however, said that he saw life as inherently dangerous: “I have an essentially dark view of the world and human affairs . . . Anxiety is the normality of our age.” So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Cronenberg, a chronicler of the human psyche, was drawn to Colville’s mysterious and tense painting, Living Room. It’s one of five works the acclaimed filmmaker selected from the National Gallery of Canada’s permanent collection for David Cronenberg: Through the Eye, an exhibition he curated for Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA).

Opening on 2 November, Through the Eye is part of the [email protected] program, a special series of MOCCA exhibitions featuring works from the NGC’s contemporary art holdings. The two institutions teamed up with the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for Through the Eye, one of several activities spearheaded by TIFF in Fall 2013 to celebrate Cronenberg’s work.

Jonathan Shaughnessy, the NGC’s Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, helped orient Cronenberg within the Gallery’s extensive collection. “I was excited to think about the collection through the lens of what this iconic filmmaker might be interested in,” says Shaughnessy. “Things that would be interesting for him to look at through his eye.”

Shaughnessy created a longlist of particularly “Cronenbergian” works for the filmmaker to consider: works that relate to themes in Cronenberg’s oeuvre—such as issues of transformation, the body, and our technologically driven society—or that embody elements of the grotesque, gothic, and the filmmaker’s psychological “horror aesthetic.”

Cronenberg’s final selections for the exhibition are compelling. They include the print Ring Turner by Mark Prent, an artist known for creating “monstrous depictions of figures” and a world that is “very much in tune with the most horrific worlds of David Cronenberg,” says Shaughnessy. The choice is also interesting biographically, he adds, because Cronenberg once exhibited alongside Prent at The Power Plant in Toronto. 

Another Cronenberg selection was Arch of Hysteria, a major work by Louise Bourgeois. This sculpture consists of a headless masculine body, feminized by a pose that Bourgeois links to hysteria. “I see that pick,” says Shaughnessy, “as relating to the way in which Cronenberg has treated the body in his own work—the body being mutilated and severed,” as well as how “Cronenberg is trying to get over certain categories of gender and sexuality.”

Other Cronenberg selections from the NGC’s collection include Versailles, a print by John Massey, and Horror files, a drawing by John Scott. Pieces from Cronenberg’s personal art collection—works by Charles Burns and William S. Burroughs—will also be on display, as will a print from Andy Warhol’s “Electric Chair” series, on loan from Toronto art collectors Marla and Larry Wasser. 

With works such as these, Through the Eye will undoubtedly offer a rare and fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of Canada’s most intriguing artists.

David Cronenberg: Through the Eye is on view at MOCCA from 2 November to 29 December 2013.

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