Look at This!: Three Disparate Examinations of Survival – Canadian Style

Vince Cherniak - - Art & Books
The London Yodeller

VincewebSurvival is at the heart of the Canadian psyche Margaret Atwood once postulated, and as a theme is central to much of our historical literature and art. Given the breadth and extremes of this country’s varied geography and environment – and the fact that you’ve so far survived this winter’s hard knocks – that’s not much of a deep revelation. But should you need concrete evidence, step into Museum London for three otherwise unrelated shows and the truth of that notion just might pop to mind. In a variety of style, craft and media, the effect of landscape and nature’s challenges have influenced creative work spanning the nation’s centuries. Let’s take a look at how that central obsession manifests itself here.

In the lower Forum Gallery, Jeff Willmore: Interpolating Landscape reveals an evolving style for this stalwart of the local scene. The landscapes here are spare if not almost raw in their palette and elaboration of detail. In some of these works, Willmore plays with composite images, bringing together two different sources of subject, and to good effect, as in Interpreting Landscape (2008). There’s a curious dissonance: at first glance, what could be people waiting for the bus in an everyday urban scenario doesn’t match up with the fact that they are on a beach. It’s a strong image that rewards repeat viewing, reminiscent of Jean-Paul Lemieux’s odd positioning of subjects in empty Quebec fields to convey the impact of environment on the psyche and the stoic solitude and meditation it incites.

But perhaps better to this effect here are several paintings of subjects from a slightly aerial view: think, looking down on a passerby on the sidewalk from a second floor window, or perhaps a guardian angel hovering above your head as you go about your quotidian duties.  In this series of panels, notably Walk Softly (2008) or Photographer (2010), Willmore puts an unusual but comforting frame on those in the midst of the daily grind. Though these nondescript subjects, in a void space with little information as to identity, may seem anonymous, they are in fact all of us, lost in our own preoccupations and pursuits. And this unique perspective on the individual’s travels and travails suggests that, if we’re not actually being watched over, at least we’re bonded in the similitude of our journeys.

Upstairs in the Moore Gallery, Canadian Vistas: Selections from the Collection offers up a diverse sampling of both historical and contemporary work exploring the landscape genre. Some of the familiar pieces here, as with Lawren Harris and Emily Carr’s mystic or pantheistic takes, are welcome counterpoint views to the raw energy, if not savagery, of nature’s process, exquisitely captured in Mary Wrinch’s Abitibi Canyon (1930) from the same period. And Alex Colville’s Boy, Dog and St. John River always rewards multiple viewings for its masterful brushwork and play of light. But some of the offbeat, more workaday representations of our interaction and intervention with the landscape also command attention, from 19th century picturesque views of burgeoning local train tracks, streets and bridges to Charles Macmunn’s 1880s photo documentation of the rails pushing through the B.C. mountains. These historical perspectives are good reminders of our constant alteration of landscape for social benefit – but also of how temporary one vista can be in that ever-evolving built-environment. Or, that our attempt to master nature and tame it to our purposes is perhaps fundamentally flawed: Henri Masson’s Spring Flood is an engrossing view of a swelling river as people scramble to rescue household goods. Painted in 1937, you want to say, well that was then, but nearly 80 years on the same story plays out in the news in some part of the country every spring.

Finally, if you’re sick of winter, take a look at Ben Reeve’s neo-expressionist Snowfall (2006). The gloom surrounding commuters trying to dodge the storm is tempered by gorgeous pastel-hued blobs of the falling stuff, and should remind you that there is, at times, some playful poetry, if not romance, in a heavy fresh snowfall.

Inuit Ullumi: Inuit Today in the Interior Gallery is a sampling from TD Bank’s extensive collection going back fifty years, but the focus here is on recent work intended to shift some of our established ideas of the North. “The reality of contemporary life in the North is a hybrid of tradition and modernity, beauty and hardship; families still eat fresh seal, but they do so in their homes while the television plays Dr. Phil in the background. If you think you know what today’s Inuit art ‘looks’ like, this exhibition might surprise you in its diversity and unpredictability,“ the curator notes.

Well, not so surprising as it turns out. Some of the discernable/trademark style, materials and subjects we’ve come to associate with Inuit work must surely be a bit of a burden on younger artists trying to forge new creative forms of expression of their changing world. And so on display we have some stone carvings of curlers, a hip-hop dancer, and a man listening to an mp3 player while holding what appears to be a joint.  It’s hard not to read this last one as a bit of a joke on the collectors of the kitschier side of this type of craft.

To be sure, there are intriguing recent works by the likes of Annie Pootoogook that do take a serious look at the social and economic problems of the North, though conspicuously absent unfortunately in this exhibit. But there are some very worthy traditional representations of what survival entails in the Arctic clime, as in Tim Pitsiulak’s majestic Whale Hunt (2011) that captures the action in vivid colour and luscious pencil work. Along with some moody renditions of village life, where one is often toiling in dim light, as in Itee Pootoogook’s Cape Dorset at Night (2011), and Fixing and Starting His Motor (2013), there’s more than enough evidence here of the rich talent pool reflecting on life, and survival, in these remote communities.

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