Thursday, September 2, 2010

Reframing a Nation, Art Gallery of Alberta, until January 30, 2011*

Image credit: Franklin Carmichael "Sombre Valley" 1936. Oil on masonite

Culling from the AGA's permanent collection, Reframing a Nation gathers together a series of recognizable landscape painters and attempts to question how they have represented the nation's identity. While this is certainly not a new idea—and it is a valid one—the concept only hits home if the show begs a greater understanding of how representation, identity and legacy are closely intertwined.

Unfortunately, after spending an afternoon with this show, I do not sense an understanding, or even a coherent statement, within this assemblage of works that provokes or furthers how we view and shape our Canadian art history and identity.

First off, it was surprising to see the show spread out in such a large space, as the bones of the show could have been summarized in 12 or less paintings. Beginning with 19th century oil paintings of Quebec and Ontario and European settlers' first contact with First Nations people, Canadian wildlife and the vastness of space, it is clear and obvious that we are seeing the new country through old world eyes in examples of Otto Reinhold Jacobi and Maurice Cullen and their treatments of composition and light. But embedded within this early work, from the bronze statues of women walking through an open clearing and the repeated mist of clear, unfiltered light, there is the underpinning of a Canadian esthetic at work, one that is evidently shaped through the presence of wind and latitude.

The show as a whole does not nurture this aspect, or show how representation of Canadian landscapes have evolved, as the exhibition simply levels out with the preapproved accreditations of David Milne and the The Group of Seven.

If the show proposes to re-engage how Canada has been represented and how Canadians continue to view ourselves, the answer, accordingly to the works on the wall, would be "very safely." Not only does this show suggest that we still see, promote and understand Canada through a 20th century romantic-yet mastery-Eurocentric lens, but we are still most engaged in representations of Upper and Lower Canada with a minor dash of the Rockies, the West Coast and the Artic for good measure. The uneveness of this show and its decision to rehash the art history textbook reading of a wild yet controlled Canadian landscape without offering much of a contrast is certainly questionable, as there is a conflicting attempt to inject contemporary perspectives with a commission by photographer Maria Hupfield and a juxtaosition with abstract painter Jack Bush.

Image credit: Cornelius Krieghoff
Indian Trappers Group, no date
Oil on Canvas
Only, the anomaly of Bush's "Sharp Flats" exists as a strange tangent to tie landscape painting into abstract painting, due to an encounter between Bush and several members of The Group of Seven. Trying to open up the topic of genre limitations, the show isn't strong enough in its grounding of the genre to go off into such an offshoot, especially one that seems to suggest landscape painting is dead. One could have easily tied in Carr as an abstraction of landscape painting, as that would have been less a jump than showing "Sharp Flats," but Carr's iconic paintings remain here in the proliferation of Canada as "wild."

Hupfield, who showed a similar work in the Face the Nation exhibition, (which was a far more successful and unmitigated reframing of the nation through the perspectives of contemporary Aboriginal artists), is awkwardly placed in a back corner behind the Lismers and Varleys, which is disappointing as her piece directly responds to the limited perspectives of those very paintings and traditions.

But these are not the only discrepancies, as the show is also divided somewhat by panels, one suggesting "Wilderness" and another in the "Industrial" landscape. But the show still somehow overlooks the fact that Tom Thomson and Emily Carr were preoccupied with the rapid industrialization of their landscapes through evident interest in the logging industry and clear cutting? Why keep them in the context of the romantic wild in a show that is supposedly attempting to reframe how we see the construction of this country?

It's sad to say, but the overall sentiment of the show is that there isn't one, which seems to be the perpetual problem of locating Canadian art history and consequently, Canadian identity.

*First published in Vue Weekly

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