Landscapes Real and Imagined: Works on Paper by Five Contemporary Artists

Gu Xiong, Barricade of Bicycles, June 4, 1989, 1990, ink and acrylic on 4 sheets of wove paper, 251 x 600 cm overall; sheet: 251 x 150 cm each. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

In a striking display on view in the National Gallery of Canada’s contemporary gallery B109, Rhiannon Vogl, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at the NGC, has brought together eleven works on paper by five artists from around the world, evoking landscapes, real and imagined. Combining graphite, holographic foil, ink, acrylic paint and inkjet printing, the works express not only the ideal and idealized, but also five very distinct notions of place.

Some of the artists presented here,” said Vogl in an interview with NGC Magazine, “mark out psychographic spaces in the city. Others describe relationships toward the natural environment, while several suggest shifting dissonances in our connection to both. For me, it was interesting to focus, too, on mostly black-and-white works from the collection. The installation thus becomes about pattern and line, and the play of scale, as the works depict the world in both its vastness and in minutiae.” 

One of the most moving works in the display is the monumental Barricade of Bicycles, June 4, 1989 (1990) by Chinese-Canadian artist, Gu Xiong. Extending across four sheets of paper, each measuring 2.5 x 1.5 metres, the title reflects the final day of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations in Beijing. 

As depicted in the work, a barricade of bicycles erected by protestors was no match for the government’s tanks. The mangled remains of wheels, handlebars, seats, gears, pedals and frames are jumbled together in Guernica-like chaos, with the crushing trails of two tank tracks trisecting the pile.

Barricade of Bicycles has even greater resonance when the artist’s story is factored in. Sent to the countryside for “re-education” during China’s 1972 Cultural Revolution, Gu Xiong returned to his home city of Sichuan some four years later. After earning a BFA and an MFA from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, where he also taught, he ultimately had to flee the country in 1989, following his participation in Beijing’s China/Avant Garde show and the Tiananmen Square protests.

Janice Kerbel, Launderette: Suspended Garden, 2005, ink jet print on wove paper, 87.8 x 122.7 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchased 2006 with the Joy Thomson Fund for the Acquisition of Art by Young Canadian Artists, National Gallery of Canada Foundation. Photo: NGC

The display also features seven drawings from Janice Kerbel’s Home Climate Gardens series (2005), which suggest elaborate gardens for built structures, including a launderette, an open-plan office, and a revolving restaurant. Expressed in a mesmerizing array of overlapping circles, the drawings are not only visually pleasing, but provide concrete information on each specially tailored garden — including the types of plants to grow, how often to water, and appropriate light. 

To produce the series, the Canadian-born artist collaborated with a climate research centre at the University of East Anglia, not far from London, England, where she now lives and works. Drawing upon research by NASA and others regarding the ability of plants to scour the air and remove pollutants, Kerbel matched gardens to nine different environments, choosing, for example, humidity-loving plants for an indoor gym, and plants requiring considerable light for a Victorian tiered garden. According to Kerbel, when speaking of the series, “There is a contradiction at the centre of our relationship to climate change. We have utopian desires but they are undermined by dystopian habits.”

Pia Linz, Mile End Park, 2006, graphite on wove paper, 150 x 300 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Pia Linz. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Taking a less utilitarian approach to the built and natural landscape, Mile End Park (2006) by German artist Pia Linz is an ethereal, almost dreamlike graphite drawing of a large public park in London, England. Although on the surface the three-metre-long drawing evokes preparatory landscape sketches from the 18th and 19th centuries, it is a far more elaborate construct.

During a 2005–2006 fellowship in London, Linz revisited a cartographic drawing system that she had used some twenty years earlier. Systematically measuring the vast terrain, she walked the park’s border along the canal and mapped out the entire area, scaled to her 2,403 strides along the canal bank. She also took numerous digital photographs, along with around forty “measuring and thinking studies.” Her studies were made from various points, and often included details such as a cigarette butt or a single leaf.

The final drawing was produced as though looking down from above. Human interaction was also an important element in the drawing’s narrative. In addition to learning that the park had possibly been destroyed by the German Air Force during the Second World War, Linz also discovered a number of established human habitats, including a section peopled by commuters, and another serving as the haunt of youth gangs. 

Los Carpinteros, Broken Bridge, 2008, watercolour over graphite on wove paper, 200 x 280 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

The two-panel Broken Bridge (2008) by Cuban artist collective Los Carpinteros, on the other hand, is overtly political. Known for installations, drawings and sculptures that are both humorous and critical of the status quo, Los Carpinteros (meaning “The Carpenters”) often borrow their visual language from architectural drafting and the building trades. 

The large-scale watercolour diptych features soft earth tones depicting a multi-lane concrete overpass in which a central section has collapsed. Its presence seems somewhat mysterious within its barren landscape. What was it meant to span? Where does the road come from? Where is it going? Most importantly: what caused it to fail?

It is then that the viewer notices that the bridge appears to be filled, not with steel and concrete, but with a strange mixture of something that looks like almond nougat, nuts and candy corn. Adding to their subtle mockery of Cuban government planning, the candy filling has been reproduced in a pattern similar to the standard international architectural symbol for concrete. 

Olia Mishchenko and Sandy Plotnikoff, 11:11 (No Can Pop Factory) [detail], 2010–12, 3 sheets; pen and ink with holographic foil and electrostatic toner on wove paper, 76.5 x 111.8 cm each. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Rounding out this display of works on paper from the national collection is 11:11 (No Can Pop Factory) (2010–12) by Canadian artists Olia Mishchenko and Sandy Plotnikoff. This intriguing three-sheet work blends pen and ink with holographic foil in “blueprints” for a factory meant to bottle soda pop without a container.

Originally conceived as part of an installation evoking said factory, the trio of meticulous ink drawings by Mishchenko are all that remain of the No Can Pop Factory. Hung as a triangle, the three works suggest a flow of activity from the top down, through a bewildering array of hoses, tanks, funnels and other apparatus. At the end of the line, however, the liquid pours out of the sides onto the floor, unbottled and dissipating into the holographic clouds, foil-stamped by Plotnikoff. It is a non-building for a non-product, reflecting Mishchenko’s concern over consumerism and industrial spills, and her interest in improbable and impossible structures as well as the utopian plans of architects.

“Using rich pattern, along with meticulous detail, humour and narrative, personal symbols and extensive research,” says Vogl, “ these artists render the mundane extraordinary, and have each created works on paper that push the boundaries of the medium. This installation is also an opportunity to take stock of, and celebrate, some of the NGC’s rich collection of contemporary drawings.”

From time immemorial, artists have reflected the landscapes and structures that surround them, heavily filtered through their own observations, ideals and dreams. In this display at the NGC, five highly individual visions explore landscapes real and imagined — from a nougat-filled bridge to an unbottling factory, by way of a wall of destroyed bicycles, utopian garden plans, and an intimate exploration of an urban park. Toying with the notion that all of their scenarios either did occur or could be possible, all five artists make it clear that environment is a construct as individual as we are. 

This display of eleven works on paper, all from the national collection, is on view in Contemporary Gallery B109 at the National Gallery of Canada until January 22, 2017.

About the Author