Art that engages, fantasizes, and tries to go deep

Some recent Canadian acquisitions at the National Gallery of Canada defy global art brands

Art that engages, fantasizes, and tries to go deep

Mary Anne Barkhouse, Sovereign, 2007 | National Gallery of Canada

The National Gallery of Canada has just opened a show of recent Canadian acquisitions, filling exhibition space last occupied by the summer blockbuster Pop Life, the Tate Modern’s survey of how the art of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, to list the big names, plays off celebrity and consumerism—in other words, sex and money.

As I made my way through It Is What It Is, a selection of 82 works by 57 Canadian artists bought by the Ottawa gallery over the past two years, Pop Life kept popping back into my mind. It’s not that I saw much evidence of direct influence. On the contrary, what struck me was the absence in the new work of anything that looks beholden to those global art brands.

And this is surprising. Pop Life made a strong case for the centrality over the past couple of decades of artists whose output can be loosely organized under Warhol’s quip “good business is the best art.” The show was full of work that borrowed the sheen of big-budget advertising, the presumption of PR, and the weightlessness of pop entertainment.

Of course, it’s all supposed to be about subverting those moneygrubbing modes—finding ironic depth in what normally feels so intractably shallow. The problem was that Pop Life showed how this operation ends up being rather repetitive. A portrait looked like a tabloid photo. A landscape looked like a travel ad. A sculpture looked like a mass-produced toy. An art film looked like a music video—wait, maybe that actually was a music video.

But you get the point. While Pop Life had its arresting moments, its main message—see how much can be made of stuff that shouldn’t matter much?—grew monotonous. Still, I would have thought I’d see plenty of residual signs of the preoccupation with pop in the new Canadian show.

Art that engages, fantasizes, and tries to go deep

Chris Millar, Bejeweled Double Festooned Plus Skull for Girls, 2009 | National Gallery of Canada

As it turns out, no. Some of the artists represented in It Is What It Is evidently assume that anyone likely to be looking at their work is probably more interested in political questions or environmental issues, say, than in movie stars or fashion. Others are tapping into the imagery of fantasy, but deep, surreal, dreamy, quirky fantasy, not the sort of fantasy that sells products. Does this make these disparate artists sound earnest or naïve? If it does, doesn’t that beat being shrewd or glib?

Take, for example, Wanda Koop’s array of about 20 paintings, acrylic on canvas, called “Green Zone.”  We’re told Koop worked them up from sketches on Post-It notes made in front of a TV: a Baghdad skyline complete with a mosque’s dome; a crumpled power transmission tower; three tanks; a man on horseback; two figures casting long shadows as they walk up a road against a garish pink background. The cumulative effect is unsettling largely because the raw visual material from the Iraq war is so familiar from the news.

Stephen Andrews’s “Auditorium” is less newsy but just as much about the public sphere. A man in a dark suit is seen from behind. He’s looking down at his notes, about to speak to a hall full of people, all alone and vulnerable and—is it just me?—Obama-like, with his close-cropped hair and rather prominent ears. This painting is about the burden of leadership, how hard it must be to get up there. Don’t waste your time looking for that sort of empathy in Koons or Hirst.

The show repeatedly confronts us with anxiety about the environment—in Isabelle Hayeur’s urban sprawl photographs, Sarah Anne Johnson’s photo installation “The Galapagos Project,” and Susan Turcot’s drawings based largely on deforestation in Brazil.

Yet It Is What It Is doesn’t feel like current events period. Many visitors, I suspect, will come away thinking that

Art that engages, fantasizes, and tries to go deep

James Carl, Jalousie (baluster), 2008 | National Gallery of Canada

sci-fi, graphic novels, and other forms of make-believe are among the most potent influences in art these days.

David Altmejd fills a room with a giant dismembered werewolf, lying in a fairytale forest of crystals and evergreens. The only appropriate response is to gape. Mary Anne Barkhouse puts a life-sized bronze fox on a velvet chaise longue. Just try not to smile.

Chris Millar is represented by “Bejewled Double Festooned Plus Skull for Girls,” which I’m going to take a stab at describing as an intricate doll house, crossed with a Rube Goldberg machine, combined with highlights from Keith Richards’ jewelry box. We’re talking winding staircases and shiny little skulls. I have no idea. When I visited, though, several people were peering at it very intently—always a promising sign.

Also falling under the general heading of fantasy, there’s a five-panel landscape by Simon Hughes, which shows a sort of Far North mock-utopia hard by an ice floe, complete with a slapdash, wooden version of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat apartment complex. (If you happen to get to the gallery, there’s a Safdie retrospective on just upstairs, featuring one of the architect’s early models for his iconic modular housing concept—made of wood!)

As anyone who has been following Canadian art even a little would expect, the show includes a number of accomplished large-scale photographs. Jeff Wall is represented by an austere image of an empty industrial space, called “Cold Storage.” I wouldn’t have expected Wall, who is internationally famous for his formidable photos of elaborately staged narrative scenes, to introduce this nearly abstract note to the mix.

Maybe because the abstract works are so outnumbered, they stand out, especially James Carl’s anthropomorphic forms woven out of brightly tinted Venetian blind slats. Is this what Henry Moore would have done if he was interested in colour?

The few detours into the abstract, however, cut against the show’s grain, which is to directly address public issues, or private fantasies, through representation. Yet either path might offer an escape from the cul-de-sac of represented by Pop Life: some artists shake off irony by engaging with what’s going on; others trade glitzy superficiality to try for abstraction’s enigmatic depth.

In an introductory wall text in the first room of It Is What It Is, the curators tell us to expect “a gentle critique of a perceived state of complacency in modern society.” Don’t worry, that’s just boilerplate. Far from lecturing, these artists pay us, at every turn, the compliment of guessing that we’ve shown up to experience something more than the pop life.

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