Queen's University

Beyond the windswept pine

New Canadiana, a unique exhibition of Canadian artwork, at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, invites us to re-examine who we are and what makes us Canadian through works purchased over four decades thanks to the largesse of a distinguished Queen's family.

If there’s one thing that defines Canadian culture, it’s the constant need to define ourselves. From our First Nations and colonial past to our current economic, social, and environmental realities, Canadians seem to constantly examine who we are and what makes us distinct from all other countries.

This is precisely what a new exhibit at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre does.

“It is an invitation to reconsider Canada as it is today and as it was in the past,” says Chief Curator and Curator of Contemporary Art Jan Allen, Artsci’86, BFA’90, MA’92.

[RobotA "whiny robot" is one of the elements on
display in New Canadiana a unique
exhibition of Canadian art that is on display
at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.
(Photo courtesy of the AEAC)

And it features a robot. A whiny one.

Clearly, this is not the standard picture-postcard image of Canada.

New Canadiana, which runs from ­August 21 until December 5, is an extensive exhibit with 96 works filling five of the Art Centre’s eight galleries.

The art ranges from the historical to the contemporary – spanning 225 years – and all illustrate ­issues that are relevant in today’s Canada.

Co-curators Jan Allen and Alicia Boutilier, Curator of Canadian Historical Art, chose works around three themes:

  • Settlement, ­Nation and Migration;
  • Nature and the Environment; and
  • Social Life and Ritual.

In other words, where we came from; what the land means to us; and what we do that makes us – and in the past, made us – Canadian.

The exhibit has been made possible by the Chancellor Richardson Memorial Fund, which was established in 1968 to purchase materials supporting the teaching of, and ­research into, Canadian Studies.

The Agnes Etherington Art ­Centre began ­accessing the Fund in 1972, and since then has been able to ­acquire 456 works, including rare topographical watercolours, works by First Nations’ artists, and contemporary pieces, including electronic art.

The Fund has allowed the gallery to make important strategic purchases, helping it to take its place “among the largest and finest collections of Canadian art in the country,” says Boutilier. The gallery is also a leader in publishing works on Canadian art history and women artists, she says.

There’s an experimental nature to the entire exhibit. Rather than displaying a chronological progression of works, pieces are grouped by themes. This juxtaposition of historical and contemporary shows the constant transformation of the Canadian experience.

“After 40 years of benefiting from the Chancellor Richardson Memorial Fund, it was timely to mark the value it has had for us,” says Boutilier.

As well as showcasing the collection the Fund has helped the gallery to build, the exhibition also gives the opportunity to “shake up the public view of Canadian art,” says Allen, noting that there will not be a single Tom Thomson or Group of Seven piece in the exhibit. “We’re getting beyond the windswept pine tree,” she says, referring to the iconic images made ­famous by these artists.

While there are some beautiful landscapes in the exhibit, the focus is on the ­social history that these works represent. For ­example, an 1880s still life of a vase of lilacs is transformed from a pretty painting of flowers into a symbol of the colonial desire to tame the wilds of Canada into a vast English country garden.

Similarly, an 1887 William McFarlane Notman photograph shows two massive Douglas fir trees – the apparent sole survivors of a cleared virgin forest – framing an elegant railway hotel barely visible in the distance.

While the opulence of the hotel and the implicit completion of the railway speak of Canada’s success as a newly-unified country, the photograph “reveals something about the devastation accrued in the building of a ­nation,” says Boutilier, “something more truthful than the promoters of the West at the time perhaps would have wanted to reveal.”

Contemporary pieces also help shake up the view both of Canadians and Canadian art, including Norman White’s The Helpless Robot. Allen describes the robot as an interactive piece of electronic art that requests help from gallery visitors, only to become crankier and more demanding the more assistance it gets.

“I love the irreverent humour of it,” says Allen, “It flies in the face of what we consider artwork. It is beautiful even though its outward appearance is plain.”

[Notman photo]This 1887 William McFarlane Notman photograph shows two
massive Douglas fir trees – the sole survivors of a cleared virgin
forest – framing an elegant railway hotel that is barely visible in
the distance through teh loingering smoke.

“And it never once apologizes,” she adds with a laugh, though she didn’t mention whether many visitors tend to apologize to the robot in stereotypical Canadian fashion.

There’s an experimental nature to the entire exhibit. Rather than displaying a chronological progression of works, pieces are grouped by themes. This juxtaposition of historical and contemporary shows the constant transformation of the Canadian experience.

For example, historical watercolours depicting idyllic pastoral scenes are displayed alongside the intense aural and visual experience of a video work by Janet Cardiff, BFA’80, and George Bures Miller showing a farmhouse on Cardiff’s father’s land burning to the ground in a dramatic conflagration.

Allen and Boutilier explain that the pieces show a shift in our view and use of the land, from a vision of farming being an ideal and noble occupation, to the modern collapse of the family farm. The house in the film was burned because it was simply no longer needed, and it disappears from the landscape in a matter of minutes.

The exhibition also gave the Art Centre an opportunity to focus on ­research and publication. A 91-page book will be produced based on the ­exhibit, including images and analysis of all 96 works.

But Allen stresses that there is no substitute for seeing the exhibit in person to get the full experience of the scale, texture, and grouping of the works… and, of course, to meet the robot.

A reception for the exhibit will be held on October 14, 5:30 pm. For more information, please visit www.aeac.ca

Queen's Alumni Review, 2010 Issue #3Queen's Alumni Review
2010 Issue #3
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