Between the Northern Lights and Fireworks: Contemporary Drawings from the National Gallery of Canada

Tristram Lansdowne, Axis Mundi (2012), watercolour and graphite on wove paper, 83.5 x 110.5 cm. NGC

Anyone who’s seen Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 may experience a sense of déjà vu on first encountering Tristram Lansdowne’s 2012 watercolour drawing Axis Mundi. In it, a series of interlocking modules—echoes of the iconic housing complex Safdie designed for the 1967 World Exposition in Montreal—snake their way up and around a mysterious island topped with pink clouds.

But as Rhiannon Vogl explains, Lansdowne is exploring more than the ideals of modern architecture in his work. “He is also interested in the limitations of Modernism, and is engaging with its aftermath,” says Vogl, a curatorial assistant with the National Gallery of Canada. “You don’t know if the island in Axis Mundi is a utopian community where everyone is taken care of, or if it is foreshadowing a dystopian future—because there are never any people in Lansdowne’s scenes.”

Axis Mundi is just one of the intriguing, visually arresting works featured in Contemporary Drawings from the National Gallery of Canada, currently on display at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon. Curated by Vogl, it’s a timely exhibition, bringing together a selection of more than 40 drawings recently acquired by the National Gallery. But with works by some of the most interesting Canadian and international artists working today—Shary Boyle, Peter Doig, and Brian Jungen, among others—the exhibition also takes stock of the “resurgence in drawing.”

Jason McLean, The Other Side Has Been Shown (2011), black ink, acrylic and coloured felt pen on wove paper, 56.6 x 76.4 cm. NGC

“A lot of younger artists are turning towards drawing because it is an immediate form of work,” says Vogl, suggesting that the medium offers an antidote to our technologically driven, highly networked society. “Drawing gives artists a chance to work through ideas in a slower, methodical, time-based way, and concentrate on putting marks on a page, as a way of keeping a diary or thinking about the world in which they live.”

One artist working in a more diaristic vein is Jason McLean. Vogl characterizes McLean’s drawings in the exhibition—2010’s Rubber Game for the Working Class and 2011’s The Other Side Has Been Shown—as psycho-geographic “mental maps.” Replete with personal symbols and idiosyncratic markings, they chronicle the artist’s daily experiences, observations and memories.

Alison Norlen, Edifice (2006), coloured chalk and pastel over watercolour wash on wove paper, 370 x 550 cm. NGC

Whether it’s McLean’s intricate surfaces or Lansdowne’s hybrid constructions, hours could be spent with any piece in Contemporary Drawings because of the level of detail and mastery displayed in each. Take Alison Norlen’s 2006 work Edifice, for example. Merging fantasy and reality to create a landscape that explores Kitchener-Waterloo’s historical transformation, the four-metre-high drawing fills the viewer’s field of vision. With its eruption of dramatic colour, Edifice is “enveloping,” says Vogl, akin to something “between the Northern Lights and fireworks happening in front of you.”

As visitors move through Contemporary Drawings, Vogl hopes they will start to think about drawing in new ways. “There are several different media in the show that expand the idea of what drawing actually is,” she says, citing Ed Pien’s 2008 work in 3M reflective material, Invisible—created by “drawing” with a craft knife—and Kelly Mark’s 2011 piece 33.333333—created by “doodling” with outmoded rub-on transfer technology—as just two examples of how artists are pushing the medium’s boundaries. As Vogl notes, “The idea of drawing right now is so much more than pencil to paper.”

Contemporary Drawings from the National Gallery of Canada is on view at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon until 30 March 2014.

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