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A & E ART | Whoa Canada!

Whoa, Canada!

Exploring the Great White North's artistic dark side.


  • Jewish Home Life in Montreal, 1975, by William Kurelek.
  • The Nemesis 1965, by William Kurelek.
  • Emily Carr, British Columbia Indian Village, 1928-1930 Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust.

The William Kurelek exhibition at the Art Gallery of Hamilton this past spring was a revelation. If you missed it, hang your head. I can't say why precisely it made for such essential viewing or why for me it felt so bizarrely affirming. So many of the works were hard fusions of melancholic landscape, Catholic dread and apocalyptic certainty. There were umpteen mushroom clouds, crucifixions, and in one case, a tractor designed to harvest sinners. And yet, walking out from the gallery, it was like, "hey, I feel great! I feel weird and brooding and complex, but in a way only a Canadian can feel!"

I think what Kurelek: The Messenger did for me was remind me of the true function of visual metaphor in culture. Canadian art history is filled with these images that haunt us, scar our brain in some critical, ineffable way that pulls us closer to the ethos of the country. These visual metaphors are tools that somehow broker our relationship to land, culture, and spirit, yet without a single word uttered, and without us exactly knowing how it has all happened.

It is something of a comfort to know that the AGH will follow Kurelek this May with even more brooding, impossible to decipher images from the Canadian cannon. Specifically, a long-awaited remounting of Alex Colville's iconic 1954 Horse and Train from the Gallery's permanent collection, and Nature and Spirit: Emily Carr's Coastal Landscape, a touring show from the Vancouver Art Gallery that efficiently traces the evolution of Emily Carr, from her early experiments to the more confident masterworks of the '30s and '40s. Kurelek gives way to Colville and Carr. Hurray for a season of hard 'c' Canadian art.

To be honest, I can't say that I've ever been the biggest fan of either Colville or Carr, but I think that has less to do with their artwork and more to do with the edifice that has been built around them. It's the same reason I never listened to Neil Young when I was a teen, and the reason I can't listen so much to Feist now. I have been told too many times just how important they are, and somehow that interferes with my ability to 'discover' them on their own terms. Hopefully these new exhibitions do what the Kurelek exhibit did so brilliantly: allow me to look past the reputation of the work in order to find something still pertinent inside the imagery.

Emily Carr's Coastal Landscape
On view May 12 to October 28, 2012
Organized and circulated by the Vancouver Art Gallery
Curated by Ian Thom, Senior Curator, Historical, Vancouver Art Gallery

Say what you will about Emily Carr, you cannot deny her heroic resolve to be an artist. Indeed, it is tempting to use just the details of her life, not her actual work, as proof of her genius. Suffice it to say, she was born a free spirit in 1871, doggedly pursues art despite the early death of her parents and absence of support from the remainder of her family, trains herself in California, Britain and France, learns just enough post-impressionist wildness to free up her brush, then returns to British Columbia where she single-handedly tries to capture the impenetrable coastal wilderness as well as the supernatural totems and monuments of its indigenous people. She works in virtual obscurity for most of her life, becomes kind of a kooky cat lady and only then, in her mid-fifties, gets some long overdue recognition from the National Gallery and a big endorsement from Lawren Harris, enough of a boost to catapult her into a final surge of production where she creates the most enduring work of her career.

It is easy to struggle with Carr's work because she experiments restlessly and not always successfully to apply the tricks of abstraction, futurism, cubism and others as means to puncture the riddle of the land, and the iconography of another culture. It's like she knew she couldn't penetrate either of these spheres adequately and so resigned herself to paint the feeling of being close to them, but always on the outside, and a little wary of being swallowed up by the bristling energy they radiated. It'll likely be works from the '30s that prick you up the most.

Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky (1935), for example, depicts an impossibly thin, impossibly vulnerable conifer tree lurching into the sky—a tree as some sort of flimsy ladder to God. The work is simultaneously hopeful and disconcerting and humbling. What I like is if you search the title of this work in Google images, you will find, interspersed among the digital reproductions, a number of photos taken by people who have encountered similar trees set against the sky in a similar way. They post them to confirm that what Carr made appear so impossible on canvas, is actually stone cold truth.

Zunoqua of the Cat Village (1931; 80 years later, still the most fun name for a painting, ever) is, I don't know how to describe it, just a very weird painting. It depicts a tribe of sentient felines enfolded by foliage, and a totem figure that stumbles into the frame of the picture as if it were just walking through — like a Sasquatch from that famous snatch of grainy film. The work confirms an artist no longer interested in maintaining any kind of objectivity. Instead, Carr takes what she sees and makes a kind of intimate personal mythology out of them. The result is an image that sticks with you, even if you don't necessarily want it to.