Presenting a Half-Century of Canadian Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Canada

Brian Jungen, Vienna (left), 2003, white polypropylene plastic chairs, 125 x 850 x 130 cm. NGC. Purchased 2004 with the Joy Thomson Fund for the Acquisition of Art by Young Canadian Artists, National Gallery of Canada Foundation / Brian Jungen, Shapeshifter (right), 2000, white polypropylene plastic chairs, 145 x 660 x 132 cm. NGC

Just in time for all things spring, the National Gallery of Canada’s contemporary Canadian galleries have been refreshed and reconfigured, and are now open once again. 

Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968 to Present picks up where the new Canadian and Indigenous Galleries (opening on June 15, 2017) leave off. Featuring some of the most compelling homegrown contemporary art of the past fifty years, the exhibition includes many household names, as well as a few surprises.

Newly organized into thematic rooms on two floors, the art on view stretches from work by modern and early contemporary superstars such as Joyce Wieland, Carl Beam and Gathie Falk, to more recent sculpture, photography, drawing, and installation by renowned artists such as Shary Boyle, Shelley Niro, Geoffrey Farmer and Michael Massie.

Joyce Wieland, O Canada, 4–16 December 1970, lithograph in red on wove paper, 57.4 x 76.4 cm. NGC 

Thoughtfully selected by a team of NGC curators, the galleries present a carefully considered narrative overview of contemporary Canadian art. Within themes like Portraiture and Landscape in Photography and Video, and Legacies of Minimal and Conceptual Art, the arc of Canadian artistic practice over five decades is masterfully explored, offering something for everyone.

Although the storyline is roughly chronological, such is the juxtaposition of rooms that visitors will find themselves making some interesting connections. For example, in a series of adjoining spaces down the centre of the Lower Contemporary Galleries, visitors will encounter Carl Beam’s painting The North American Iceberg (1985) Rebecca Belmore’s video The Named and The Unnamed (2002), and Stan Douglas’ video Nu’tka’ (1996), bookended by Beam’s impressive deconstructed ship sculpture, Voyage (1988), at the far end. 

Garry Neill Kennedy, Figure Paintings, 1984, latex paint on wall, installation dimensions variable. NGC

One of the most significant aspects of the new exhibition is its greater incorporation of Indigenous perspectives across a wide range of disciplines and artistic movements. This includes a number of visitor favourites, formerly on view in the Inuit Art Galleries and now relocated to a room in the Upper Contemporary Galleries devoted to Recent Inuit Art. Greeting visitors as they enter the space is the stunning stone-and-antler sculpture Nunali (c. 1988–1989) by the late Jackoposie Oopakak.

As Christine Lalonde, NGC Curator of Indigenous Art, notes, “An entire worldview is contained within the graceful arcing forms of this set of antlers. […] Oopakak demonstrates extraordinary technical skill in his ability to carve figures in this friable material, and his training in jewellery-making comes into play in the precise and intricate details.” This classic piece by Oopakak is shown alongside recent drawings such as Cape Dorset Freezer (2005) by Annie Pootoogook, and new experimental work including the ceramic Coat of Dreams (2006) by John Kurok and Leo Napayok.

Annie Pootoogook, Cape Dorset Freezer, 2005, coloured pencil crayon, black metallic ballpoint pen and graphite on wove paper, 111.5 x 233.1 cm. NGC

Similarly, in a room devoted to Work by Women Artists from the 1970s to the 1990s, prints by important matriarch artists — such as Jessie Oonark’s delightful My Hands Are Like Birds (1984) and Kenojuak Ashevak’s Katajaktuit (Throat Singers Gathering) (1991) — share space with Colette Whiten’s plaster impressions of the human body, September 1975 (1975), and Geneviève Cadieux’s photography-based installation, Memory Gap (1988). Of the Oonark stonecut, Greg Hill, NGC Audain Senior Curator of Indigenous Art writes, “In this playful work, Oonark has used hand shapes to stand in for the bodies of birds, a couple of which have human heads. The print speaks to the artist’s creative energy, which she invested in her artmaking.”

In the room A Sense of Place: Painting from the 1980s to 2000s, Norval Morrisseau’s monumental painting Androgyny (1983) — on loan from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada — shares space with works by artists such as Landon Mackenzie, Shirley Wiitasalo, and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. Of the latter’s Scorched Earth, Clear-cut Logging on Native Sovereign Land. Shaman Coming to Fix (1991), Hill says, “Yuxweluptun draws upon a range of influences in his painting, including the contemporary experiences of Indigenous peoples, Coast Salish cosmology, Northwest Coast design and Western landscape traditions. Here, the red shaman witnesses the damaged earth while landscape elements behind him weep and lie flaccid, utterly spent.”

In the Upper Galleries, Drawing from Sea to Sea to Sea features compelling works on paper, including the stunning watercolour-and-gouache works Exurbia Borealis #1, Exurbia Borealis #2, and Exurbia Borealis #3 (all 2011) by Simon Hughes, the pencil Earths on Icefield (2012) by Shuvinai Ashoona, and the ink-and-acrylic Rubber Game for the Working Class (2010) by Jason McLean. The latter is an almost hectic stream-of-consciousness drawing. As Rhiannon Vogl, NGC Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, notes, it maps “both physical and mental space,” and is “replete with references to Canadian art history, sports trivia, and his daily battles with mental-health issues.”

Geoffrey Farmer, Trailer, 2002, steel, fibreboard, and mixed media, 3.4 x 2.2 x 9 m installed. NGC. © Geoffrey Farmer

The exhibition also features outstanding sculptural works and installations. Brian Jungen’s colossal plastic-chair whale skeletons Vienna (2003) and Shapeshifter (2000) are a highlight, but so too are works such as Trailer (2002) by Geoffrey Farmer, featuring a full-sized replica utility trailer; the dazzling 20,000-coin work, I Am the Coin by Micah Lexier; and Parasite Buttress (2005) by Luanne Martineau.

Of Martineau’s felt-and-foam sculpture, Josée Drouin-Brisebois, NGC Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, says, “Parasite Buttress intermixes references from across high and low culture: traditionally “domestic” craft materials combine with uncanny imagery from comic-book type drawings, as well as vertical lines reminiscent of Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire (1967). Unlike the architectural support invoked in the work’s title, this sculpture droops down the wall and onto the floor, a visceral intervention into the austere white space of the gallery.”

And, of course, no survey of Canadian contemporary art over the past fifty years would be complete without the work of General Idea. The exhibition includes such iconic works as Monday, Wednesday, Saturday (1984) The Ghent Flag (1984), and the video Shut the Fuck Up (1985). Of the avant-garde video, Adam Welch, NGC Associate Curator of Canadian Art, writes, “Exploring the relationship between art, gossip, spectacle and the media, it includes clips from 1960s television and film, including an extended parody of abstract painting from the television series Batman and film footage of French artist Yves Klein’s performance in the film Mondo Cane (1962).”

Creating an overview exhibition covering multiple Canadian contemporary artists over a fifty-year period is a challenge, to say the least. For contemporary art aficionados, however, the new Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968 to Present not only offers a compelling look at the broad outlines, but also whets your appetite for more.

Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968 to Present is now on view at the National Gallery of Canada. Canadian and Indigenous Art: From Time Immemorial to 1967 opens on June 15, 2017.  

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