A Painted History at Rodman Hall

One of the ways in which art galleries, especially public ones like Rodman Hall, matter is that they are repositories of history. Many people don’t equate galleries, or visual art, with the same local and larger relevance that we attribute to museums, or libraries, but perhaps that’s just because its rarely given the respect it merits in “educational” or “public” spaces.

This applies to other cultural media: music and theatre, for example, are spaces that have been repeatedly cut and dismissed in our educational spaces, and this concordantly has led to a lack of appreciation – and lack of ability to engage with – these spheres. To dismiss The Voice of Fire is to dismiss John Cage – or Rebecca Belmore or Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptin, if we want to speak of challenging historical artworks that break our preconceptions- and then I must dismiss you: ignorant opinions are solely that, and I don’t suffer them anymore, gladly or otherwise.

When I first encountered a gallery collection intimately, like I did at the Art Gallery of Windsor, and later on curating several shows of photographic work from The Photographers Gallery on the prairies, and seeing the richness of both historical “records”, I was seduced by its diversity, and how they functioned as fully as an archive of a site as any text or manuscript. (This isn’t a new thing: Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus or Goya’s Portrait of the Royal Family would have gotten both of them executed if their overlords had understood the symbols / signifiers both included, for the like minded, in their paintings….)

We’re also seeing more attention paid to historical Canadian painting: there’s been renewed interest (besides the Group of Seven), whether the more traditional genre painters of post WW II (Paraskeva Clark’s Church at Perkins Mills, Quebec or Doris McCarthy’s Mal Bay with Fish Racks – both in Rodman’s collection) or the focus on Canadian abstraction from the 60s (Jack Bush just got a great deal of love in a massive show at the AGO). There’s a wonderful exhibition on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton right now, of Montreal painters of the mid twentieth century, well worth checking out. But like all nationalist privileging, not all is good: I’ll be glad when we stop canonizing Agnes Martin.

This brings us to A Painter’s Country: Canadian Landscape Paintings selected from the Permanent Collection, curated by outgoing Director Stuart Reid. The statement: “This exhibition traces an almost 100-year history of Canadian artists painting the landscape as their primary subject matter. The luminaries of Canadian art history including members of the Group of Seven and their contemporaries are represented…The title of the show is borrowed from A. Y. Jackson’s autobiography of the same name, in which he describes the early years being a member of the Group of Seven during an awakening of nationalism. Those painters were determined to forge a distinctive style of painting particular to Canada, its rugged terrain, and wilderness. The exhibition looks at the predominant mode of depicting the land from an omniscient vantage point, of asserting governance over the vast domain, unifying a national perspective, and vision.”

McCarthy Mal Bay Fish Sheds, 1954, watercolour, 24 x 27in_HRlt

The artists on display are something of a “greatest hits” from the collection, with names you’ll recognize: the aforementioned Clark and McCarthy are alongside A.Y. Jackson’s Laurentian Landscape, Rawdon, Quebec, September 1953, Lawren Harris’ Sand Lake, Algoma and Varley’s Arctic Seascape. All three are Group of Seven: their contemporary Emily Carr is also here, with Forest Vistas. McCarthy’s work, mentioned earlier, is a delicate watercolour where the forms of the boats and the buildings become geometrics leading towards an abstracted flow of form and angles. Its a  bit askew in its viewpoint, of the Gaspé. Harris’ works are more organic, almost soft in the rendering of shapes, and Jackson has a fluidity to his forms that is similar: both seem to paint the landscape as a living, breathing entity.

McCarthy’s Haliburton VIllage is all snowy quiet and smoking chimneys, and the almost mechanically ordered marks of McCarthy’s brush define the white blue slaloms in the foreground. Clark’s Perkin Mills is a bit askew in its format, almost like its tipped towards us, but it works as the gravestones tilt and the sky is overpresent, back to fore. Charles Comfort’s Georgian Bay is almost the stereotype of the iconic Canadian landscape: lonely, isolated trees in the harsh yet beautiful scene, empty of any peoples, there for the “taking.” David Milne’s works, minimal and stark, are always jolting when presented with the rich and heavy colours of Carr or Casson or Jackson. Arbuckle’s Trinity Newfoundland No. 2 has the charm of a postcard: the sky over the Atlantic is as lovely as the ocean behind the tiny structure, evoking memory and mythology of place.

ia 3200jackson 

These smaller works are mounted in the side gallery, the “parlour” space. But Country also acts in conjunction with the other two shows on display this summer at Rodman. Its always enjoyable, and adds layers of potential interaction and understanding, when galleries present multiple shows as “statements” or “questions” on the same subject, like a conversation. Reading the Talk (which “brings together work by contemporary First Nations artists who critically examine relationships to land, region and territory”) will open at Rodman on May 21. Elizabeth Chitty’s The Grass is still Green (which opens July 4, focuses on the “Two Row Wampum, the 1613 agreement between the Haudenosaunee and Europeans that outlines a commitment to friendship, peace between peoples, and living in parallel forever—as long as the grass is green, as long as the rivers flow downhill and as long as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west”). Chitty’s works about this site have enriched our historical conversations about it (when not outright shifting the ground they stand on, if I may offer such an egregious pun), and Reading will place this same question of terra nuillus (“nobody’s land”, or the idea that it was land for the “taking”) in a more provincial, national and international frame.

Part of the genesis Country was in Reid seeing Picturing the Americas at the AGO recently, and a comment from participating writer / theorist Dot Tuer stating that landscape painting was  a manner of “asserting governance over the land.” Reid also expanded, in conversation, about her comments to how painting a landscape is an extension of cartography, and thus in naming, owning, a space or site (Consider how many of the venerated landscapes of Canadian Art history – like Varley, or Harris –  are emptied of people, or are rich areas just waiting to be exploited: terra nuilus is an idea that the land here was “uninhabited”, just “waiting” to be “claimed” by settlers. You may be unfamiliar with the term, but we’re still living the assumption…)

There is also an element of philanthropy to Country: this show is very “reverent”, presenting “gems of landscapes”, and since Rodman Hall’s role in the community is still a topic of debate, many of these works are gifts, or were purchased with funds bequeathed from a person’s estate to the gallery. Many see spaces like Rodman as sites for where their works will come to rest: most public galleries across this country – and others – can mark the germ of their beginning in a generous gift of artworks, or the means to acquire and care for artworks.

This brings me to a point I must raise, in light of the “re evaluation” that Brock is moving forward with, regarding Rodman Hall and their responsibilities (what they perceive as such, and what the larger community and stakeholders believes was agreed to, back in 2003). There are many works in this show that are worth significant amounts of money, not solely in the Canadian art market, but also considering that the wider world is starting to acknowledge, and pay high prices, for paintings by people like Lawren Harris. His Sand Lake, Algoma is from the prime period of his output: 1920, when the Group of Seven were producing their most lauded – and now, most valuable, in a monetary sense – works.

What will happen to this work, if Brock divests itself of Rodman? Does Brock “own” the work? Does that honour the wishes of Bruce Hill, who bequeathed it in 1964, from the Charlotte Muriel Hill Collection (his mother, perhaps)? Whom is making this decision, and what is their agenda? My conversation with the consultant, Martin Van Zon, seemed heavy on the university’s agenda of “austerity.” So, whom do we ask about this, and from whom shall we be receiving answers? The report that Interkom is producing will be presented to Brock in June: when it comes to the rest of us is unclear, in Van Zon’s own words.

To return to the gallery space: A Painter’s Country will be on display until August 28, in the now contested site of Rodman Hall. May I propose a comparison of mythologies, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, when you visit this, with the other shows that will open this summer, that also offer constructions and collusions about place and history, and the country “we” live in?

Images in this piece are McCarthy’s Mal Bay Fish Sheds and Jackson’s Laurentian Landscape, Rawdon, Quebec.

 

About Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola has published with Canadian Art, Galleries West, FUSE, Hamilton Arts & Letters, BlackFlash, ArtSeen, ti<, Long Exposure and Magenta. Past curatorial projects include REGION (Contemporary Saskatchewan Painting) and Personal Geographies (an overview of The Photographers Gallery collection). Gazzola was Editorial Chair of BlackFlash Magazine (3 years), and was the visual arts critic for Planet S Magazine. He held the latter role for more than a decade, publishing reviews about Saskatoon visual arts and the larger community twice monthly. He's a frequent contributor to The SoundSTC and is the facilitator of the 5 x 2 Image Makers Conversations, through Rodman Hall Art Centre.
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