Contemporary Canadian artists get some southern exposure

A big show in a tiny U.S. city is about to give some lesser-known contemporary artists a huge boost

Southern exposure
Roger Lemoyne

Brendan Fernandes has his outfit picked out. The 32-year-old artist, who splits his time between Toronto and Brooklyn, will wear a golden leather bomber jacket, which he says is “a bit Michael Jackson.” It’s on loan from designer Marc Jacobs, who regularly dresses Fernandes for openings. Yukon-based artist Eryn Foster will forage for wild yeast, which she will use to make sourdough bread in the brick oven she is building on site, while Montreal’s Dean Baldwin, who once concocted a Bloody Caesar fountain for an installation at the Art Gallery of Ontario called The Dork Porch, will make a special cocktail.

It’s going to be an epic party. In less than two weeks, a mob of Canadians will converge on North Adams, Mass., for the opening of Oh, Canada, one of the biggest exhibitions of contemporary Canadian art ever held. The tiny city of 13,700 may be the least populated in the state, but it’s home to the largest museum of contemporary visual and performing arts in the United States: the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) has 150,000 square feet of exhibition space sprawled across 13 acres at the historic 19th-century industrial site. The show at this contemporary art destination can only bolster the careers of the artists that curator Denise Markonish chose from an initial list of 800. The American, who grew up close to Maine, visited more than 400 artists’ studios in nearly every province and territory—save for Labrador, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories—and then whittled it down to 62 artists and collectives.

One of them is David Hoffos, 46, who decided to go to art school in the ’90s after he was rejected by five film programs. When he graduated from the University of Lethbridge in 1994, he stayed in the Alberta city. Hoffos has chosen three components from his Scenes From the House Dream, an installation of 21 miniature tableaus where anxious figures pace around in a world that bewilders them. His work has been featured in more than 30 solo shows, and he was shortlisted for the $50,000 Sobey Art Award in 2002. Still, “I’m definitely a nobody south of the border.”

Hoffos’s luck is about to change. One of the benefits of knowing our contemporary art scene so intimately is that Markonish will show more of our artists at Mass MoCA in the future, and when outside curators ask for suggestions, her proposals will be loaded with Canadian names. “Put it this way,” says the 36-year-old curator, “I liked way more than 62 artists.” There’s even been some interest from other U.S. and Canadian institutions, but no commitments yet. Not to mention the deep-pocketed art lovers who will see the show over its 10-month run and may want to commission Canadian works to fill out their collections. “I think it has the potential to have an impact for all Canadian contemporary art,” says David Liss, the artistic director and curator of Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. “It’s undeniably a landmark.” Charles Stankievech, a Yukon-based artist, thinks plenty of Canadians will make the trek because Montreal and Toronto are relatively close. “Let me put it very simply: more Canadians can see this show in North Adams than, let’s say, in my hometown of Dawson.”

And Garry Neill Kennedy, who was president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design for 23 years, believes it means more if it’s done outside the country. “Particularly at this place,” says the member of the Order of Canada, 77, who will show a single piece called Spotted comprised of 72 photographs of CIA rendition airplanes taken by plane spotters around the world. “The space is gigantic. It’s like America. It’s big.”

The only show that has come close to Oh, Canada’s scale was the National Gallery’s It Is What It Is: Recent Acquisitions of New Canadian Art in 2010. Josée Drouin-Brisebois, curator of contemporary art, chose more than 70 works of art from the gallery’s collection to exhibit in a 20,000-sq.-foot space, about the same area Mass MoCA will devote to its Canadian show. But Oh, Canada will feature 10 specially commissioned new works, like Micah Lexier’s A Coin in Every Corner (the artist installed minted coins in corners throughout the museum complex), to accompany the 95 existing pieces in the show, which Markonish helped select after her 3½-year, cross-country odyssey of studio visits.

In Calgary she listened to records with Chris Millar, who will be showing a sculpture called 370H55V and three paintings. She watched American Idol at Douglas Coupland’s place in North Vancouver. And after the studio visit with Stankievech in Dawson, they spent 15 hours on the Dempster Highway—the 671-km stretch of road that connects the Yukon to the Northwest Territories—until they had a spin out. “It’s one of the most dangerous roads in the world; it’s where the Germans come every year to test their tires,” says the 33-year-old artist, who called Markonish a “good sport.” For her part, she says, “it was just one jaw-dropping moment after another.” Stankievech will contribute Loveland, a haunting installation that features a video shot on a frozen stretch of the Arctic Ocean where, with the help of a military smoke grenade, an ephemeral purple cloud slowly hazes up into the frame.

Although Markonish’s dizzying curatorial feat includes pieces by established septuagenarians Garry Neill Kennedy, Eric Cameron and John Will, three Sobey prize winners, Daniel Barrow (2010), Michel de Broin (2007), and Annie Pootoogook (2006), and two Venice Biennale representatives, Michael Snow (1970) and Rebecca Belmore (2005), some of our heavyweights—like Janet Cardiff, Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham—are noticeably absent.

There is debate surrounding the exclusion of the “A-plus-list artists,” as Liss calls them, “because I think there are A-listers, like Michael Snow, on there. Some people in the community argue if one is giving a characterization of the Canadian scene, perhaps it would have been important to include those people,” says Liss, “but on the other hand, I think Markonish is bringing forward a lot of unknown names that deserve to be seen.” Drouin-Brisebois agrees. “She’s focusing on artists who haven’t had much exposure outside of Canada, and I have to commend her for that.”

The opening weekend in May will be jam-packed with art revelers at this not-so-ordinary art institution. (When you call the museum, a friendly female voice says, “Hey, we’re really glad you called Mass MoCA,” as though you were about to have a cup of coffee with her.) And nearly all the Canadian artists, save for seven, will cross the border to take part. For many, it’ll be a reunion of sorts, catching up with colleagues and rubbing elbows with art heroes Snow and Neill Kennedy. Fernandes, who will install three neon African masks that pulse with Morse code, can’t wait to see Kent Monkman, a Toronto-based artist whose Oh, Canada installation will feature fictional characters Tonto and the Lone Ranger. “I haven’t met him, but we’re friends on Facebook,” says Fernandes. Markonish is looking forward to seeing the artists again, including the five she hasn’t met, like Hoffos and his wife, Mary-Anne McTrowe, who is one half of the Cedar Tavern Singers, a quirky art duo who play ukulele-based songs about art and culture. Hoffos, meanwhile, can’t wait to talk to 61-year-old artist Kim Adams, who he considers a mentor. “You can look around the room and think, we’re buddies, but we’re in this show together representing our country, really,” he says. “It’s kind of a coup. And that’s kind of neat.”

See Oh, Canada: MASS MOCA’s one-of-a-kind exhibition catalogue  for details on the 400-page exhibition catalogue and some behind-the-scenes photos of the show