Contemporary Art: A Selection of Acquisitions by Marc Mayer

The current display in Gallery B204 of the National Gallery of Canada brings together a selection of contemporary work that Director Marc Mayer has been instrumental in acquiring over the past decade. The works on view include one of the earliest acquisitions made by him as well as the most recent examples, such as Chloe Wise's Olive Garden of Eden. Director of the Gallery since 2008, Marc Mayer initiated a succession of ventures promoting contemporary art in Canada, including the creation of the Canadian Biennale, to create opportunities for the public to see and engage with the latest developments in contemporary art both in Canada and beyond. As he points out, art museums "should be places where the present can find itself in time and where the future can gain good counsel". A few of the works on view are illustrated here.


Wolfgang Tillmans, William of Orange, 2007/2009

Wolfgang Tillmans, William of Orange, 2007, printed 2009. Dye coupler print, 200.9 x 134.8 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Wolfgang Tillmans. Photo: NGC

The German-born artist Wolfgang Tillmans is internationally acclaimed for his photographic and installation work, which has evolved from multi-part collections of images of 1990s youth and club culture to abstractions, photographic reflections and multi-media installations. One of the first works acquired under Marc Mayer, Tillmans' photographic print deconstructs the portrait of the Dutch 16th-century regent William I of Orange-Nassau by Anthonis Mor in the collection of the Staatliche Museen in Kassel. The artist has cropped the original and selected to show only part of the painting and its frame, thus shifting the focus of the historic work and challenging both its format and formalism. Tillmans wants the viewer to move beyond the subject and see the photographic work as an object. He challenges the viewer's inherent need to connect the image with a specific reality, in this case a historic half-length portrait with official regalia.  In a recent article in The New Yorker the artist explained: "Whatever I do is about picking examples, because you can’t show the whole world. You always have to find the whole in extreme detail.”


Alex Janvier, High Hopes for a Liberal, 1974

Alex Janvier, High Hopes of a Liberal, 1974. Acrylic on canvas, 88.9 x 121.9 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.  © Alex Janvier. Photo: NGC

Alex Janvier is a pioneer and major force in contemporary art. Of Dene Suline and Saulteaux descent, the artist combines Dene iconography with modernist abstraction to express a deeply personal aesthetic. "I live on the natural land that is still pristine," he comments "As I walk in it, it is my universe and I pick up my information from the land." This painting was shown in Janvier's retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in 2016–17 and has now been acquired for the national collection. It refers to the failure of the Liberal Government's White Paper policy of 1969, which proposed the loss of land and legal rights for Canada's Indigenous peoples. The artist signed the work with his name and his treaty number as a critique of the repression by the Department of Northern Affairs. An important work in the history of Canada, the painting was later used as part of a governmental marketing campaign as an image of national identity.


Stanley Whitney, Among the Trees, 2017

Stanley Whitney, Among the Trees, 2017. Oil on linen, 244 x 244 x 3.9 cm National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Stanley Whitney. Photo: NGC

Born in 1946, Stanley Whitney has preferred to work in isolation and only in recent years has gained recognition as one of the premier colourists of this generation. His abstract canvases are explorations of colour combinations set into grids and lines. These multi-coloured constructions created by the African-American artist show influences of the structuralism of Piet Mondrian and the colour fields of Barnett Newman. The works capture flowing rhythms that convey different moods and extract emotional responses from the viewer. The artist does not attach meaning to colour, instead he refers to the process as call and response: "I put a colour down and it calls another colour." The title refers to The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from A Secret World by the German author Peter Wohlleben, a book Whitney was reading while making this work. "As a painter, we need to grow deep roots. I identify with the trees," the artist has said.


Chloe Wise, Olive Garden of Eden, 2016

Chloe Wise, Olive Garden of Eden, 2016. Marble, polyurethane plastic, oil paint, pepper, 67 x 178 x 91.5 cm National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Chloe Wise / SOCAN (2019). Photo: NGC

This Canadian multi-disciplinary artist from Montreal became known for her food sculptures and their symbolism within today's consumerist society. A millennial, she explores Pop Art and culture in the age of social media and the frictions within society. For Olive Garden of Eden, she has constructed all the elements of the food sculpture in hyperrealism and contrasts them with the artificial appearance of the marble, which is actually real. She plays with notions of artifice and authenticity. The marble podium becomes the support for a toppled Caesar salad – an "Italian" dish invented in fact by Caesar Cardini, an émigré in Mexico in the 1920s. Her works are commentaries on consumer choices, habits of consumption, branding  and moral values attached to inanimate consumer goods.


The works are currently on view in Gallery B204 of the National Gallery of Canada. 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.​

About the Author