Building Materials

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Brian Jungen, Star / Pointro (2011), rawhide and painted steel on a freezer, 276 x 156.2 x 77 cm. NGC

New artworks by emergent, mid-career and long-established Canadian artists is the mix presented in Builders: Canadian Biennial 2012, an exhibition that showcases some of the most provocative and important art being made in this country today. 

The show also aims to elucidate how Gallery curators in the departments of Contemporary Art, Indigeneous Art, and Photography make decisions regarding acquisitions. Working at an encyclopedic institution whose collections span from present-day endeavours to historical masterpieces, curators at the NGC build on past precedent to shape present and future holdings of contemporary art. They are committed to charting living artists across generations who present determined and original artistic visions. The title for this year’s biennial, Builders, plays on a reference derived not from the art world, but rather the realm of sports and the Hockey Hall of Fame where visitors encounter tributes to “Builders”: those professionals — often former players — whose off-ice contributions have helped to grow the development of the game itself.

Benoit Aquin, The Motorcycle, Inner Mongolia, China (2006), 81.4 x 122.1 cm. CMCP Collection, NGC

Over the course of the past two years I began noticing that a number of the acquisitions being made by contemporary curators were by artists who could be considered “builders” within the Canadian art world: figures whose commitment to the realm of artistic production in this country has, in some instances, spanned decades and generations, and whose work and influence has been seminal in contributing to and developing contexts of understanding for contemporary Canadian aesthetic production nationally and internationally. 

An influential figure in this regard is Michael Snow, the storied, internationally recognized artist who turns 83 this December. For more than five decades, the Gallery has been collecting Snow’s works across media including early paintings and sculptures from the 1950s and 1960s, to his long-standing investigations into the “framing” of visual representations in his films and installations from the 1970s to the 1990s. Earlier this year the Contemporary Art department made a major acquisition of two recently produced video installations by the artist for whom technical innovation has consistently been a motivating factor for making art. The Gallery’s holdings now include In the Way (2011), which addresses his landmark film La Région Centrale (1970–71, purchased in 1974), and The Viewing of Six New Works (2012), which anticipates and engages new technologies for shaping the experience of art — in this case through “touchscreen” software translated into projected moving imagery. Both pieces exemplify the consistent ways in which this influential Canadian artist continues to challenge his own aesthetic proclivities, in turn engaging the physiological and conceptual awareness of viewers.


Max Dean, Cypher (Suitcase Spin) [2011] from Objects Waiting, chromogenic print, 41.4 x 60.9 cm. NGC

Other established artists in Builders include those whose work — like Snow’s — has been collected and followed by the Gallery over numerous years. For example, the exhibition features four extraordinary new photographs by American-born Canadian photographer Lynne Cohen, as well as ambitious new image-based works by media artist Max Dean and a commanding recent installation by Indigenous sculptor Faye Heavyshield. The biennial also recognizes a number of artists who have been active in the Canadian art world for decades and whose pieces in the exhibition mark the first time they have been represented in the NGC collection. This is the case with the Gallery’s significant 2011 purchase of an artwork by the South African-born Canadian Evan Penny. Jim Revisited (2011) stands at some three metres tall; a stark pale-skinned male nude posing in the guise of Michelangelo’s David. This unique, larger-than-life representation of the human body makes its debut in Builders, concurrent with a major retrospective of Penny’s works at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Toronto. In scale and content Jim Revisited is an appropriate initial purchase: not only does the gargantuan silicone creation represent a sculpture the size of which we are unlikely — by Penny’s own admission — to see from him again, in “revisiting” the earlier and smaller Jim (1985) the work represents decades of artistic reflection and adaptation to new scanning technologies on the part of the sculptor and his way of thinking about, seeing and shaping the human figure in contemporary art.

In Penny’s case, Builders marks an initial commitment by the Gallery to represent the work of an important Canadian artist who has actively contributed to the breadth and scope of visual culture in this country since the late 1970s. Argentinian-born Canadian painter Will Gorlitz is also featured in the exhibition through the Gallery’s initial purchase of his diptych Late Spring (2011). Gorlitz came to prominence within the burgeoning painting scene of 1980s Toronto, however his creative commitments extend beyond production into the realm of mentoring and teaching subsequent generations of artists through his long-time position as a professor at the University of Guelph. In fact, one of Gorlitz’s former students, Montreal-born, Ottawa-based painter Melanie Authier, features prominently in Builders as one of many emerging Canadian figures whose works are included among the 150 pieces by more than 40 artists in the exhibition. Among the Gallery’s numerous acquisitions of recent Canadian art since April 2010, contemporary curators proposed Authier’s Augury (2010): an evocative canvas that hints at landscape and figurative traditions while boldly usurping both within a commanding gestural brush. “Augury,” says Authier, “alludes to the main action of the painting — the insides unfolding outwards. I wanted the work to possess a feeling of tumultuous furor.”


Melanie Authier, Augury (2010), acrylic on canvas, 152.5 x 183 x 4.2 cm. NGC

Discovering the work of new creative talent such as Authier has long been at the forefront of the Gallery’s purview with respect to its contemporary holdings and potential acquisitions. The early to mid-stages in an artist’s career are those most readily associated with the bold and unprecedented potential encapsulated by the term “contemporary,” meaning “to be of one’s time.” Builders presents numerous captivating projects by artists at more formative phases of their oeuvre, including an ephemeral audio installation by Vancouver’s Mark Soo; New York-based Brendan Fernandes’ acclaimed video Foe (2008); an enchanting meditation on nature, Modernism and urban decay in a sculptural video installation by sometime Montrealer Lynne Marsh; new works on paper by Toronto’s Sandy Plotnikoff; and two large-scale paintings by Winnipeg-born, Montreal-based Dil Hildebrand. Each of these and many other works in Builders represent first-time purchases by the Gallery of a range of artists at decisive stages in their careers, and whose work in the exhibition is being considered within the context of more established Canadian art practices.

Whether emergent or established, all visual artists are “builders.” They are those individuals who combine ideas, materials and technologies with the view to modelling an original way of seeing and interpreting the world. Writing more than 40 years ago on the “avant-garde” of his day, Edward B. Henning, former chief curator of the Cleveland Museum of Art, suggested that “truly creative artists, like creative scientists or philosophers, are engaged in nothing less than an attempt to enlarge the range of human experience.” Curators working with the art of today are tasked with discovering, following, understanding and processing a diverse range of production. At the National Gallery of Canada, contemporary curators are builders of a collection that represents the present, and which in time will inevitably stand as a reflection on the past. What we hope is recognized in the national collection and conjured in the many paintings, sculptures, videos, installations, drawings and prints featured in Builders, are those artists whose commitment to their chosen field has been, is, or promises to be, such that the culture of their time and place is informed aesthetically, and consequentially by virtue of their contributions within it.

Builders: Canadian Biennial 2012 is on view at the NGC until 18 February 2013. A catalogue in English and French editions accompanies the exhibition.

Montreal artist Dil Hildebrand lets the National Gallery of Canada inside his studio where he breaks down the two paintings, Studio D and Studio E, that will be featured in Builders: Canadian Biennial 2012, on view at the National Gallery of Canada beginning November 2nd.


Ottawa based artist Melanie Authier, whose painting Augury features in Builders: Canadian Biennial 2012 at the National Gallery of Canada, talks about her work and how people view it.


 Winnipeg born artist Jonathan Pylypchuk takes a break from installing to discuss his work Press a Weight Through Life, and I Will Watch this Crush You, which will be featured in Builders: Canadian Biennial 2012, opening 2 November at the National Gallery of Canada.

Artist Brendan Fernandes discusses his 2008 video work Foe, and what the piece says about our attachment to culture and authenticity. Foe will be featured in Builders: Canadian Biennial 2012 opening 2 November at the National Gallery of Canada. 

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