Misled by Nature Arrives in Toronto

David Altmejd, The Holes (2008), wood, mirror, glue, plaster, foam, metal wire, epoxy clay, epoxy resin, paint, horse hair, synthetic branches, synthetic flowers, pine cones, glass beads, quartz, quail eggs, glitter, and snail shells, 291.5 x 883.9 x 518.2 cm installed (approx.). NGC. © David Altmejd, Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York

After a successful run at the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA), a slightly different version of the exhibition Misled by Nature: Contemporary Art and the Baroque has opened in Toronto. The presentation at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) in Toronto, is part of the National Gallery of Canada’s NGC@ program.

The title of the exhibition is drawn from a comment by art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who once criticized seventeenth-century Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini as having been “misled by nature” in his exuberant and ornate Baroque sculptures.

“The word Baroque originally had a negative connotation,” says Josée Drouin-Brisebois, exhibition co-curator and National Gallery of Canada Curator of Contemporary Art. “Baroque was seen as having knowingly distorted the sacred norms of classical design, based on the rules of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. It was also considered an art that catered exclusively to the senses, rather than to the cerebral and to ideas.”

When the show was at the AGA, Catherine Crowston—Executive Director and Chief Curator of the AGA, and another of the exhibition’s co-curators—commissioned artist Tricia Middleton to create a work for the show, which became Embracing ruin and oblivion is the only way to live now.

Tricia Middleton, Embracing oblivion and ruin is the only way to live now (2012), mixed media installation. Collection of the artist

“We’re ruining our own habitat, and eventually Nature will take it back,” Middleton says. “I was interested in creating something that had a futuristic sensibility. But that also drew upon the past while referencing abandoned space that had been left to the elements and to time—like the build-up of wax. There is evidence of decay in the work. It talks about mortality, because there is this abandoned space. It does conjure this idea of an end, which maybe we’d like to avoid.”

She says her mixed-media sculpture is “like an ice-capped structure that in some ways resembles the spires of a church—like Sacré-Coeur in Paris, which has those very blank, empty voids at the top of it. They’re these tall narrow domes, but when you go inside, it’s totally empty space. Then, when I look at the piece, I feel a bit that it looks like an animal corpse with bones, and the body disintegrating around the bones. It’s like an ancient kind of form—something both prehistoric and futuristic.”

The work didn’t fit into the physical space at MOCCA, so Middleton has adapted it, promising that viewers will enjoy a slightly different experience of the work than they would have had at the AGA in Edmonton. Su-Ying Lee, MOCCA’s Assistant Curator, explains that it’s great to have a work specifically tailored to the Toronto space.

“Tricia Middleton is visiting here from a residency that she’s been in for a few months in New York, and says that her direction is changing,” says Lee. “It’s still the same work, but it has been adapted to our space and she is including some new elements.” 

Mark Bradford, Africa (2013),  mixed media on canvas, papier mache and collage; 2 parts, painting: 259.1 x 365.8 cm / 102 x 144 inches, sculpture: 50.8 x 50.8 x 50.8 cm / 20 x 20 x 20 inches. Copyright Mark Bradford. Photo: Genevieve Hanson

When the exhibition was in Edmonton, it included American artist Sarah Sze’s 360 (Portable Planetarium). That work also proved too large for MOCCA, so exhibition co-curator Jonathan Shaughnessy, the NGC’s Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, suggested a work titled Africa (2013): a mixed-media collage by the celebrated American artist Mark Bradford.

Africa references Joan Blaeu’s atlas from the seventeenth century—the Baroque period,” says Shaughnessy. “Bradford takes paper and layers to create a work that draws from a page in the atlas, illustrating trade routes from Africa to the Netherlands.” 

“As an African-American artist working in L.A., he was intrigued by the Blaeu book. Blaeu was a leading cartographer in his day, working for the Dutch East India Company, whose business in the colonial Baroque period included slave trading,” adds Shaughnessy. “In the exhibition, Bradford’s painting has nice aesthetic and thematic links with Yinka Shonibare MBE’s piece, also in the show, which shares a similar colour scheme and post-colonial reference point." 

Shonibare’s work, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews without their Heads, is a provocative sculptural reconstruction of British artist Thomas Gainsborough’s well-known painting Mr. and Mrs. Andrews. In Shonibare’s version, the two figures in Gainsborough’s eighteenth-century portrait of wealthy landowners are swapped out for anonymous darker-skinned mannequins, dressed in period garments stitched of African batik cloth.

Yinka Shonibare, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews without their Heads, 1998. Wax-print cotton costumes on mannequins, dog mannequin, painted metal bench, rifle, 165 x 635 x 254 cm with plinth. NGC. © Yinka Shonibare, MBE / Licensed by DACS, London

The other sculptures in this show are from the National Gallery’s permanent collection, and include works by David Altmejd, Lee Bul and Bharti Kher. The exhibition runs until 6 April 2014. Visit the MOCCA website to learn more.

With files from Becky Rynor

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