Canadian frame of mind: Revisiting Joyce Wieland

Installation view at the opening of True Patriot Love exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada. With permission of Robert C. Ragsdale. Photo: Robert C. Ragsdale

With the opening of her exhibition True Patriot Love in 1971 at the National Gallery of Canada on Canada Day (then Dominion Day), the visual artist, filmmaker and provocateur Joyce Wieland challenged a staid, buttoned-down country to re-examine its values and reconsider its sense of national identity. The first living woman artist to be granted a solo exhibition at the Gallery, Wieland blended pop-art methods and a sly sense of humour with a deep commitment to her own, inclusive brand of Canadian nationalism.  

Influenced by feminism, environmentalism and the emerging struggles for Indigenous rights, Wieland expressed her social concerns audaciously and exuberantly. She pointed towards the possibility of a Canada where women are on an equal footing with men, for example, by reimagining national symbols in ways that speak unmistakably of a female perspective. O Canada (1970) depicts a pair of female lips as they sound out the syllables of the national anthem. A knitted Canadian flag and numerous Canadian-themed quilts proudly bring tools traditionally used by women (to create work that was invariably dismissed as “craft”) into the rarified arena of fine art. Her invitation to contemporary Canadians to reflect on their relationship to the natural environment took a similarly whimsical form: patrons of True Patriot Love were greeted by the sight of real ducks frolicking in a plastic wading pool.  

Joyce Wieland, Man Has Reached Out and Touched the Tranquil Moon, 1970. Plastic, cotton, wool, and talcum powder, 298.5 x 163.2 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © NGC Photo: NGC

As the 1971 exhibition illustrates, Wieland (who died in 1998) tackled weighty issues that continue to be flashpoints in Canada a half-century later. Her work, however, was never hectoring or dogmatic, says Susan Crean, an author and critic who became friends with Wieland. “What makes an artist live in people’s minds is that they speak to them about something, and Joyce spoke to people in a way that was direct but that didn’t tell people what to think,” she reflects. “She was funny.  She had a smile on her face. But just because she wasn’t an iron-fisted ideologue, didn’t mean that she didn’t have purpose.” The range of Wieland’s work displayed throughout the National Gallery of Canada reflects the evolution of her ideas and her mastery of multiple media.

Born in Toronto in 1930 to a working-class family with roots in British Music Hall theatre, Wieland became part of Toronto’s avant-garde visual art movement (whose members included Graham Coughtry, Gordon Rayner and Jack Chambers) in the 1950s, landing her first solo show at the Isaacs Gallery in 1960.

Joyce Wieland, Spring Blues, 1960. Oil, paper collage and mirror on canvas, 116.3 x 81.3 cm.  Gift of Doug MacPherson, Prince Edward County, Ontario 2011.  National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © NGC Photo: NGC

One canvas from this period now hanging at the National Gallery is Spring Blues (1960), a work of collage and oil painting that stands apart from those of her almost exclusively male contemporaries through its use of feminine sexual imagery. Similarly, the provocatively titled Balling (1960) is a Rorschach-like depiction of a penis surrounded by a uterus, which Wieland later described as “sex poetry” and “an imprint of my state – my infertility.”

Living in New York between 1962 and 1971 with her husband, the artist Michael Snow, Wieland was largely shut out of the city’s visual art scene but became celebrated as an experimental filmmaker, with showings at prestigious venues such as the Museum of Modern Art. One of her best-known films, Rat Life and Diet in North America (1968) – also currently on display – is an allegory about American draft dodgers crossing into Canada. In fact, Wieland’s growing fixation with the idea of Canada as a potential beacon in a strife-torn world (a theme that eventually coalesced in the True Patriot Love exhibition) emerged from her experience living in the maelstrom that was the United States in the 1960s. Although life in New York “was stimulating for Wieland at many levels,” as biographer Johanne Sloan wrote in Joyce Wieland: Life & Work, “…the ideological orientation of the United States seemed to weigh on her… Like many others, she joined collective actions to oppose the Vietnam war [and] was attuned to the racial injustices in the United States.”

Joyce Wieland, Facing North – Self Impression, 1973. Lithograph in red with lipstick on wove paper, 33 x 43.5 cm National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © NGC Photo: NGC

And so, she began to look northward, following events back in Canada and incorporating Canadian themes into her art. One example is Confedspread (1967), created as a tribute to Canada’s centennial and Wieland’s first use of quilting to convey the patchwork complexity of Canada.

Joyce Wieland, Confedspread, 1967. Plastic and cloth, 146.2 x 200.4 cm National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © NGC. Photo: NGC

Now, almost fifty years after True Patriot Love opened, some eerie echoes of the past suggest we might be experiencing, in the words of a venerated American sage, “déjà vu all over again”. In 2019 – just as in 1971 – there is a Trudeau occupying the post of Prime Minister. The issues that Wieland viewed as crucial to defining what Canada represented in the world (how Canadians treat the natural environment, what roles women can play in society, whether mainstream culture will embrace long-repressed Aboriginal perspectives) continue to be played out daily in the country’s newspapers and on its television screens. And strikingly, the word “nationalism” (now more likely used to describe insular and xenophobic movements, rather than idealistic, expansive visions like Wieland’s) has retaken its place in the global political lexicon.  

Pierre Théberge, then Curator of Contemporary Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada, and Joyce Wieland at the opening of the 1971 True Patriot Love exhibition.

Her uncanny resonance with the current moment made it “a no-brainer to take on Wieland and her subject matter and ask ‘well, what would she be doing now?,’” says Amy Fung, one of four curators of ReJoyce: Wieland for a New Millennium, a recent exhibition/symposium that assessed her place within an evolving lineage of Canadian artists concerned with social issues. The event in April, presented at the Toronto Media Arts Centre by the Canadian Filmmakers’ Distribution Centre (the distributor of Wieland’s films), was not intended as “an homage” to Wieland, says Fung, but rather an opportunity for artists working today to “bring Joyce Wieland to a new generation” by exploring the themes that captivated her “through their own lenses.” Though some participants challenged aspects of Wieland’s approach (such as her acceptance of the ‘two founding nations’ view of Canada, which implicitly negates the idea of Indigenous nationhood), Fung says the event was grounded in an appreciation of Wieland’s pioneering role in bringing key social issues of her day – and ours – into public view.

This may not have been universally appreciated in 1971, when the musty Ottawa media harrumphed its disgust at True Patriot Love. An Ottawa Journal editorial accused the National Gallery of Canada of “lending its prestige to anti-art,” while an Ottawa Citizen writer condescendingly described Wieland as “Joyce, the housewife” whose quilts and gigantic Arctic Passion Cake are more appropriately discussed in the newspapers’ “women’s pages” than in the arts pages.

Wieland, however, has weathered the storm and become a powerful example to her successors. “She was a very sensitive artist, a great artist, who paid attention,” says Fung. “Her work was infused with the politics of where she lived in a way that’s perhaps missing from the visual arts these days.”

 

Works by Joyce Wieland are on view in A112 and A113 at the National Gallery of Canada; for details of other works, see the Gallery's online collection. For information on ReJoyce: Wieland for a New Millennium, see www.joycewieland.ca. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

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