Contemporary Canadian Art: More than Maple Syrup

Kent Monkman (B. 1965, St. Mary's, Ontario)

Two Kindred Spirits, 2012

Mixed media 



Words by hockey player Wayne Gretzky, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been,” could have inspired curator Denise Markonish in assembling the forward-looking exhibition “Oh, Canada,” on display at MassMoCA through Apr. 1, 2013. Instead of highlighting Vancouver photo-conceptualists like Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas and Rodney Graham, who have achieved international recognition in the last decades, she presents more than 100 works by 62 less-known artists (aged 28-84) and collectives who represent where Canadian art is heading next.

Previously director/curator at Artspace in New Haven, Conn., Markonish proposed the show during her job interview five years ago at the North Adams museum, reasoning that she knew of more artists from China, India and Turkey than from Canada. She explains, “We’re in this exoticized, biennial moment where there’s an emphasis on ‘where’s the next thing’?” But what if the next thing is in North America?

The territory covered by the show was mostly a blank on the international art map. There had not been a coast-to-coast survey of contemporary Canadian art since a 1989 exhibition called “The Canadian Biennial” at Ottawa’s National Gallery. Markonish undertook the epic challenge, visiting 400 studios in more than three years.

Although the country is too vast to produce a coherent, distinctly Canadian esthetic, some trends emerge. The most striking deviation from the post-studio ethic that characterizes much art practice in the U.S. is a return to craft. It’s not virtuoso craft for the sake of craft (felt-making, casting ceramics, paper-cutting, beading, embroidery and textile work) but craft in the service of conceptual art. Markonish highlights a “reskilling” trend in which artists undertake time- and labor-intensive, hands-on projects.

Shary Boyle, who will represent Canada at the 2013 Venice Biennial, is a craftsperson who eschews studio assistants. Her White Light (2010) is an installation where a life-size female, entangled in a web of white thread, stares with glowing eyes. The feminist Toronto artist twists the Ariadne myth to combine fantasy and social comment: is the figure trapped in a web of her own making? Janice Wright Cheney of Fredericton, New Brunswick, created Widow (2012), a huge, standing bear covered in velvet rosebuds. The creature’s all dressed up with no place to go.

“To find this return to the studio and return to making was a wonderful surprise,” Markonish says. “There’s a tactility in the material and understanding that it can be a really interesting vehicle for conceptual ideas.” She attributes this material-driven approach to conceptual art not only to the Canadian work ethic but also the socialist government’s support for art.

Even during a time of government cutbacks, the Canada Council for the Arts continues to subsidize individual artists, exhibitions, and acquisitions of new work. Its project-based funding allows artists to spend more time in the studio mastering skills, to take risks not possible in a commercially driven system.

Like the concept of Manifest Destiny in the U.S., the boundless landscape seems a defining element in the Canadian psyche. Some artists implicitly critique the impact of commercial enterprise on nature, no wonder since the booming extraction of oil from the Alberta oil sands is a major source of controversy. Vancouver artist Rebecca Belmore’s Eagle Drum sculpture (2012) consists of an overturned BP oil drum with a looped video projection of an eagle on its open end. Terrance Houle, a Blackfoot Indian from Alberta, pasted a black vinyl silhouette of a buffalo on a gallery wall, its hooves leaking “oil” down the wall and onto the floor as if squeezed from plastic containers. The vinyl buffalo is a petrochemical product—what remains after the slaughter of herds on which the tribes’ livelihood depended.

Looking at landscape in a 21st-century way, a preoccupation of Canadian artists, means re-contextualizing it. Winnipeg artist Sarah Anne Johnson’s hand-painted photographs from the Svalbard Archipelago near the North Pole are ominous. Cheerleading Pyramid (2011) turns a snowy scene into a boosterish tableau, with young people in parkas posing in a gymnastic pyramid adorned with hand-painted confetti flecks. But the artist’s visit to the fragile environment made her aware of the ecological crisis caused by human activity. A mining scene called Party’s Over (2011) is bleak, with piles of inked confetti on abandoned conveyer belts, the cheery colors a gloss on ugly reality.

Work by First Nations artists is particularly strong in Canada, merging traditional concerns with contemporary skepticism. Annie Pootoogook is a proud descendant of Inuit artists and carries on the legacy of drawing in pencil, ink and crayon. She portrays Inuit life in remote Cape Dorset, Nunavut without sentimentality. Dr. Phil (2012) shows a young girl lying prone watching TV, the nearly bare room stripped of signs of heritage.

Other Inuit artists allude to alcoholism, suicide and spousal abuse—problems all too common in their harsh, northern environment. Shuvinai Ashoona’s Carrying Suicidal People (2008) is a precisely detailed drawing in which figures hold limp bodies, many of them children. Self-taught but not naive, the Inuit artists forgo carving sleek soapstone seals for drawing life and death in the present.

Mario Doucette, from Moncton, New Brunswick, exposes past injustices relating to his heritage in La Déportation des Acadiens (2012). In a faux-primitive style he paints nude French Acadians, their heads enveloped in saintly halos, being driven out of Canada by uniformed British soldiers. Showing genocide from a different point of view, he uses traditional historic tropes in order to subvert them.

Sardonic Canadian humor is also on display. In Kent Monkman’s life-size installation of a log-cabin diorama, Two Kindred Spirits (2012), a dead Lone Ranger, stripped of his mask, is lamented over by his Indian buddy Tonto, who wears a frilly apron. Macho emblems like crushed beer cans, a lacrosse stick and Hudson Bay blanket are scattered about, but so are hints of femininity like a partially knitted wool scarf. A sampler on the wall proclaims “The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name,” implying that the unmasking of the duo’s intimate relationship doomed them. Monkman, of Cree ancestry, gives a twist of parody through the lens of queer politics to the stereotypical cowboy-Indian dynamics of the West.

Another artist with a political bent is Garry Neill Kennedy, from Halifax, who was for more than 20 years president of the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design, putting it on the map in the 1970s as a center of Conceptual art. Spotted (2009) is a blue-tinted collage of 72 digital prints, photographs of planes used by the CIA to transport suspected terrorists to locations for “enhanced” interrogation in the extraordinary rendition program. Installed near the 30-foot-high gallery ceiling, the fleet of airplanes looms ominously overhead.

Charles Stankievech’s LOVELAND (2011) is a video showing purple smoke from a grenade gradually engulfing a completely snow-white scene in the Arctic north of the DEW (Defense Early Warning) line, an oblique comment on the militarization of the far North and smokescreen to hide it.

Toronto artist Bill Burns’s installation The Veblen Good (2011–12) comments wittily on the commercialization of the art world. A pile of beech logs is “branded” with carved names of powerful art-world figures like Bruce Nauman and Marina AbramoviÄ? to convert ordinary chunks of wood into marketable commodities (priced at $1000 each), a sendup of the art bubble.

Accumulation is another trait of works in the survey, which Markonish speculates may be a reaction against the flat, open landscape of the plains, a sort of horror vacui. Many works are dense with layers of figures and cultural references, and physically thick as well. The collaborative duo DaveandJenn (David John Foy and Jennifer Saleik) from Calgary, Alberta, create cluttered, double-sided sculptures composed of 12 layers of painted imagery embedded in layers of resin. Then Voyager Returned (2012) is stuffed with painted imagery in a 4-inch-thick, surreal scene, as if frozen in amber.

Eryn Foster, from Dawson City, in the Yukon, created a sourdough culture specific to North Adams, using it to bake bread for museum-goers. Her work, called The Gift of Cultured Culture, is especially appropriate at MassMoCA, housed in a former textile factory that went out of business. Installing contemporary art in rehabbed galleries was an attempt to revitalize the city through culture, to kick-start a yeasty rise in the local economy.

The Berkshires are well known as a destination for visual art tourists, thanks to the nearby Clark Art Institute and Williams College Museum of Art. Add to that a myriad of theater festivals, dance at Jacob’s Pillow, music at Tanglewood and literary sites like the homes of Herman Melville and Edith Wharton, and there’s no shortage of American culture.

Canadian artists, this survey reveals, are adding to the mix their penchant for expressing ideas through mastery of materials and methods. The works are appealing and thought-provoking. “It was important to show,” Markonish says, “art can be joyful and critical at the same time.”