Oh Canada: Atlantic Canada's Dreamers, Watchdogs and Visionaries Take the Spotlight

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Joseph Tisiga, Preparation for Utopia (2012), watercolour on paper, 91.4 x 91.4 cm. Photo: Paul Gowdie

It seems an unlikely place to encounter an exhibition of Canadian art, but for most of the past year works by an eclectic assortment of artists filled a series of factory buildings in the sleepy town of North Adams, Massachusetts. Curator Denise Markonish spent three years on a cross-Canada studio-hopping odyssey that took her everywhere from the Debert Diefenbunker in Nova Scotia, to the quaint village of Dildo, Newfoundland. The result was Mass MoCA’s Oh Canada: an ambitious exhibition of contemporary Canadian art, highlighting the works of 62 artists.

Markonish hasn't had her fill of the Canadian art scene yet, either. She plans to feature two Atlantic Canadian artists exhibited in Oh Canada—Graeme Patterson and Mitchell Wiebe—in the upcoming exhibition, Stockpile, an installation created by nine visual artists for Toronto's June 2013 Luminato Festival. 

Markonish organized the exhibition catalogue by geographical region, prompting me to consider the ever-elusive "identity" of artists in the Atlantic region. But piecing together a solid regionalist identity is a tall order these days. Theorist and former Tate Britain curator Nicolas Bourriaud describes today's artists as "cultural nomads," creating work that responds to borderless issues of commercialism and standardization.

Yet, when I viewed creations ranging from the wildly imaginative installation of Graeme Patterson to the sombre, conceptual art of Garry Neill Kennedy, I felt that these works were opening up a dialogue about what it means to be an Atlantic Canadian today—whether or not that was the intention of the artists. Although these artists may jet around the globe, creating art that resonates beyond our borders, Markonish's decision to geographically position the participants results in an exhibition that feeds into the regionalist narratives we weave about ourselves. The most obvious of these is that Atlantic Canada produces a great deal of work worthy of critical acclaim—certainly more than what is currently recognized by the international contemporary art world. 

In the case of Nova Scotia-based artist Garry Neill Kennedy, Atlantic Canadians—all Canadians, for that matter—emerge as cultural watchdogs, crafting an identity in relation to the imposing presence of the United States. Much of the Kennedy’s inspiration actually comes from Canada’s relationship to the superpower south of the 49th parallel.

"As I get older,” he says, “I think I’m politically more blunt in the work that I do, and it often reflects this uncomfortable feeling of being next door to America.” His large-scale installation of almost 100 photographs, Spotted (2012), provides a coded critique of the CIA’s use of torture. In this work, Kennedy focuses on “Extraordinary Rendition” airplanes: non-military aircraft the United States government uses to transport suspected terrorists to locations where it can interrogate them using “harsh techniques.” Spotted features digitally printed photos of these aircraft, taken by “airplane-spotters” who snap photos of all the planes they see, logging them the way birdwatchers log birds.

By including the likes of Kennedy, Markonish's exhibition draws attention to Atlantic Canada's notable history of Conceptual art. During his presidency at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) from 1967 to 1990, Kennedy established Halifax as a stronghold of Conceptual art, attracting well-known pioneers of the movement such as Vito Acconci, John Baldessari and Sol LeWitt. It’s a tradition Kennedy continues himself, creating works ranging from An American History Painting (1989)a piece in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada that critiques the politicized nature of American names for the colours of household paints—to The Colours of Citizen Arar—a wall painting on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 2007–2008. The colours in the latter essentially function as a symbolic code: each colour represents the bruises, torture instruments and humiliations experienced by Canadian citizen Maher Arar when the U.S. government deported him to Syria based on claims of his terrorist associations.

As with much of Kennedy's past work, there are contrasting readings of his installation in Oh Canada. Those who don’t take in the accompanying text will likely view the aircraft through a purely aesthetic lens, like the spotters themselves. Those who take the time to read about the underlying messages, however, will be left to deal with the chilling facts, the ubiquitous appearance of the planes making them feel somehow implicated.

NSCAD University student Joseph Tisiga brings political issues to the forefront as well, piecing together playful, non-linear narratives, political references, imagined scenes and appropriated cultural icons to create an imagined landscape, which he dubs the "Indian Brand Corporation." In his paintings, the Yukon-based artist adopts a collagist approach, exploring what it means to be Native in Canada today—the reality becomes lost between Tisiga's juxtaposition of cartoonish colonialist depictions of "Indianness" and imagery referencing the fantastic legends Elders recite within Native communities today. Tisiga, who at 28 is the youngest artist featured in Oh Canada, describes what he does as a "collision of ideas and identity reference points." He explains that his work, "illustrates a bit of the complexity that I feel in identity and placement."

"I think there are a lot of people who go to the extreme of wanting to be very Indian, and I think that’s kind of naive," he continues. "The reality is in these complex hybrid forms. . . . You’re still going to be influenced by these narratives that are coming at you from all over the place."

Markonish has pointed out that the vastness of the Canadian landscape often inspires Canadians to populate the empty spaces around them with evocative imaginary worlds. From the works of Tisiga to Halifax-based artist Mitchell Wiebe, it's clear that the creation of complex alternate realities, often including Surrealist touches and nods to a cartoon-like aesthetic, occupies an increasing niche in the Atlantic Canadian art scene.

“It’s like entering a world," says Wiebe, when asked what the repetition of oval-shaped "portals" in his work represents. "The viewer has their own way of entering that and participating in another form of language.” For Wiebe, representation of the human form is almost always fragmented—limbs leap out of a chaotic primordial soup, merging with other forms. Wiebe's work seems an appropriate answer to Tisiga's and the tenuous question of Atlantic Canadian identity; the only stable identity is a slippery one, one caught in a constant state of flux.

“I like the plasticity of paint, and how it can allude to different materials," says Wiebe, gesturing at a group of paintings. "They could be blown glass, or they could be inflated rubber, or they could be carved wood dowels, or puddles or drips or splashes. I like when something’s graphic but ambiguous as well . . . there’s room for your imagination."

Wiebe's painted characters—colourful anthropomorphic animals on spinning tops, dancing through unstable space—either smile or grimace at you, poised to leap into neighbouring fluorescent paintings. Raccoons dance with long-legged chickadees, and walls seem to be melting, as though they are dripping and frothing at the corners. No relationship or border is stable.

New Brunswick-based artist Graeme Patterson's installation, The Mountain—part of a larger body of work probing into male friendships—examines the role of relationships in creating identity, as well as the inevitable instability of those unions. Patterson digs into his past, depicting complex miniature versions of his house and that of his first friend, Yuki, with whom he often played as a child before the two had a falling-out. 

With intricate, childlike detail, Patterson has connected the houses with tunnels to a large mountain, in which the two boys could meet and magically transform into their "adult mascot forms," represented by two Native creatures with mythical qualities: the cougar and the buffalo. Oh Canada viewers often crowded around Patterson's exhibition, peering into the boys' homes and the mountain through windows and openings, getting lost in the world Patterson had painstakingly created. Each of the rooms in the houses is furnished from memory, while the interior of the mountain contains minute studio spaces, toy-like models of the anthropomorphic characters, as well as a stop-motion animation referencing the creation of The Mountain itself.

Patterson captures the fleeting nature of our relationships by emphasizing the makeshift elements of his work. “It’s this temporary situation. There’s this fort built on a table. It’s all kind of handmade, hand-built, and just kind of exists in the moment," he explains. Underlying the childlike fort is a more sombre message. The friend who inspired Patterson's work "has no clue who I am or where I really am," he explains. The underlying message seems to be that our perceptions of others are often simply projections of our own making.

“At a certain point, it really had to become a fairytale. It had to become all fictional,” says Patterson of his narrative. He adds that "part of the dark side is that I have to become my friend's character to deal with the loss, so in that way it’s kind of a self-portrait, a duality.”

Nova Scotia College of Art and Design alumna Kelly Mark—who is perhaps best known for her conceptual installations featuring neon signs illuminating blunt and witty phrases—has a 2010 video work, Public Disturbance, on display in Oh Canada. Public Disturbance explores relationships of a different sort than Patterson's, contrasting the restrained, polite interactions of strangers in public places in Canada with volatile private disputes. Mark hired actors to carry out a generic, scripted argument in public sites in Toronto. She appeals to the voyeuristic tendencies of those watching the fight, and in so doing captures something real, despite appropriating dialogue from the 1998 film Hurlyburly, in which Sean Penn's character is "flying on coke" and arguing with his girlfriend. “It’s something ordinary,” says Mark, “and it’s like a train wreck; it's so awful to watch, but it’s also entertainment."

It's the ability of these artists to transform and recontextualize the ordinary that makes their work so interesting. In Oh Canada, Atlantic Canada emerges as a region of dreamers, of political watchdogs, of playful critics of culture, and of introspective artists turning the lens inward on their relationships with themselves and the world.

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