Good Habits: Liz Magor at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal

Liz Magor, Provincial Sideboard, 1993, sideboard of wood, metal, and plaster with eggshell and bitumen, framed retouched gelatin silver print, beaver of synthetic fur, 169 x 182.8 x 75.5 cm. Collection of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: Isaac Appelbaum

Liz Magor's retrospective, Habitude, now on view at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, is chock-full of Canadian visual icons: Hudson’s Bay Company blankets, cabins, canoes — the works. Provincial Sideboard (1993), on loan from the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), even features a beaver looking at a print of a rustic scene. But Magor’s art never descends into cliché. It is highly personal, intellectual, and moving. As hinted in the title Habitude — which can mean anything from “custom” to “compulsive behaviour” — these objects are presented within the context of habitual obsessions.

Born in Winnipeg in 1948, Magor studied in New York City and Vancouver, where she is currently based. In her work, she addresses timeless themes such as history and survival, shelter and hiding, hoarding and consuming, using sculpture and photography to explore the natural and developed worlds. 

Liz Magor, Racoon, 2008, polymerized gypsum, candies,12.7 x 53.9 x 83.1 cm. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver Art Gallery Acquisition Fund. Photo: Scott Massey

With a career spanning more than 40 years, Magor has become an acknowledged force in contemporary art. In addition to winning major prizes that include a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts and the Audain Prize for lifetime achievement, Magor has also represented Canada at prestigious international venues such as the Venice Biennale. Habitude — a non-chronological survey featuring approximately 75 works in various media — is essentially a greatest hits tour by a rock-star artist. Seeing so many of her works all in one place only adds to their power.

As Magor has said of her art practice, “For my purposes, objects can be divided into two categories: those that are provided by the world, and those that I provide by making them in the studio.” Both are plentiful here, which is particularly apt, given that her work addresses issues related to abundance, compulsion, and consumption. 

Liz Magor, Carton II, 2006, polymerized gypsum, cigarettes, gum, matches, lighter, Edition ½, 29 x 53 x 48 cm. Collection of the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay

There are rows of camp blankets, freshly dry-cleaned and embellished by the artist. In Carton II (2006), hastily folded clothes conceal an addict’s stash of cigarettes, as if hidden in the laundry. Elsewhere, a life-sized cabin is stocked for the winter with canned goods. The sculpture Racoon (2008) includes the eponymous animal, which appears to be passed out next to a trove of candies, as if he’d eaten himself sick. And in The Most She Weighed /The Least She Weighed (1982), Magor suggests twin obsessions with both food and weight, defining a woman by what she weighs in an assemblage of literal metal weights. Again and again, viewers get a sense of hoarding and obsession.

Liz Magor, On the Shores at Nootka, from Field Work, 1989, 1 of 10 silver prints, 55.9 x 71.1 cm. Collection of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: Trevor Mills

Another major theme in Magor’s work is the uneasy relationship between people and nature. At the entrance to the show, the ironic Field Work (1989) — a series of photographs on loan from the NGC — shows her friends in the Canadian woods. Although some critics misunderstood the work at the time, it is a clever riff on Edward Curtis’ famous photos of First Peoples and their disappearing way of life, while also gently mocking the back-to-the-land movement.

One of the first installations visitors see in Habitude is Hollow (1998–1999). Originally produced for the exhibition Sleeping Rough, the work features a sleeping bag tucked into the hollow of a fabricated tree trunk. In a similar installation next to it — the claustrophobic Burrow (1999) — it almost looks as though the tree is sucking the sleeping bag into its trunk. Like nature itself, it is both beautiful and creepy: another of Magor’s recurring themes.

Liz Magor, Hollow, 1998–1999, polymerized gypsum, fabric, 182,8 x 106,7 x 121,9 cm. Collection of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

It is astonishing to see how wide Magor’s range is, taking in photography, installations, found objects, Minimalist conceptual pieces, and more. But no matter how much she experiments, the results are always true to her unique sensibility. The effect of seeing so many of her works in one place is intoxicating. In the thematic spirit of an artistic practice that often focuses on hoarding, excess, and compulsion, you can’t get enough of it.

Liz Magor: Habitude is on view at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal until September 5, 2016. The exhibition is a coproduction of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Zürich, and the Kunstverein in Hamburg, and previously appeared at both of the partner venues. Its Montreal presentation is the final stop on its international tour. 

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