Oh, Canada, Their New and Native Art
Oh, Canada (not to be confused with the Canadian national anthem O Canada) is a survey of contemporary art from Canada at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in the far western Mass. Art mecca of North Adams (through April 1, 2013). I am indebted to my colleague Greg Cook of the Boston Phoenix and The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research for calling to my attention what surely is one of, if not the must-see exhibition of the season.
Oh, Canada was organized by MASS MoCA curator Denise Markonish who made over 400 studio visits across Canada in order to put together an exhibition of some 100 works by 62 artists. This major undertaking, accompanied by a 400-page catalogue (Oh, Canada: Contemporary Art from North North America, MASS MoCA and MIT Press, $50), should go a long way toward raising awareness of the lively art scene thriving north of the border.
I’ll admit that I have never heard of any of the artists in the show, except Douglas Coupland who I knew only as the author of Generation X not as an artist. In fact, the only two contemporary Canadian artists, both photographers, I could name – Jeff Wall and Ed Burtynsky – are not in Oh, Canada. Given that Markonish found the Canadians “funny, nice, self-deprecating, obsessed with the landscape,” Oh, Canada, had it been mounted at some other museum or gallery, might have been an exhibition dominated by Canadian landscape paintings and wildlife art, but Markonish and MASS MoCA are primarily interested in project and installation art, art as experience rather than art as commodity. Oh, Canada is not a bunch of Robert Bateman bears and birds roaming the frozen north country, it is a lively celebration of cutting edge art from a place so near to us in New England that it is strange it remains such a terra incognita.
“Marshall McLuhan famously said: ‘Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity,’” writes Denise Markonish. “Part of this unknowing comes from the British-French divide, the tightly interwoven relationship with the United States, and the relatively young age of the country. But somehow it goes deeper into ideas of the landscape, human rights, and the perception of the country as a more tolerant place in contemporary world politics.”
My own reverse prejudice is that Canada, at least the provinces just north and east of my native Maine, are beautiful, gentle places where time passes more slowly than in the United States. Isn’t it still 1952 in Nova Scotia? When I entertain such romantic nonsense, I am forced to recall that the Nova Scotia College of Art was a redoubt of conceptual art as far back as the 1960s. It’s me, not Canada that is out-of-date.
The only Oh, Canada art I have experienced directly are some of the satiric art songs by The Cedar Tavern Singers AKA Les Phonorealistes, the artist team of Daniel Wong and Mary-Anne McTrowe. Referred to in a Canadian art magazine as “Art History’s House Band,” Wong and McTrowe, both of Lethbridge, Alberta, compose and sing little ditties about art world heroes such as Damien Hirst and Robert Smithson while accompanied on a guitar.
Humor is not a big part of contemporary American art, but the Canadians don’t seem to have quite the same prejudice against comedy in art that serious Americans do. The cover of the Oh, Canada catalogue, for example, is a conceptual photograph by Sarah Anne Johnson, a Winnipeg artist with an MFA from Yale, entitled “Cheerleading Pyramid” that consists of ten winter-clad people forming a human pyramid amidst a shower of confetti. The only way I can imagine improving on this gentle send-up of Canadian culture would have been to dress the poseurs in Roots gear.
Markonish has included several First Nations artists, including Kent Monkman, a multidisciplinary artist of Cree ancestry. Monkman’s double log cabin diorama “Two Kindred Spirits” depicts Tonto and the Lone Ranger as well as Germany’s fictional buddies Winnetou and Old Shatterhan “the love that dares not speak its name,” Oscar Wilde’s definition of homosexuality.
MASS MoCA has commissioned site-specific installations for strategic locations in its vast old factory complex. Calgary artist Gisele Amantea, for example, has create a 90-foot long black and white wall piece entitled “Democracy” and based on a decorative tomb design by architect Louis Sullivan.
Given the personal investment Denise Markonish has out into Oh, Canada I feel it is safe to say that we are unlikely to see a better or more informed survey of new Canadian art anywhere, at least not in New England. Get thee to North Adams.
[MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, 413-662-2111.]
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