National Gallery opens diverse and powerful survey of modern Canadian art

Joyce Wieland O Canada, 4‑16 December 1970 lithograph in red on wove paper, 57.4 x 76.4 cm Purchased 1971. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

A new survey at the National Gallery — Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968 to Present — can take your breath away in its sheer breadth and diversity, and in its particular moments.

Consider Jackoposie Oopakak’s sculpture, Nunali, which is a spectacular show of skill — a “tour de force,” says associate curator of Indigenous art Christine Lalonde. The sculpture made of dark green stone, sinew, bone and antler is the first piece seen inside the door on the second floor  —  there are more than 150 pieces spread over two floors of the revamped contemporary galleries — and it is, to use a worn but appropriate cliche, a show-stopper.

The large caribou head is carved from the stone, cut off at the neck and with its tongue lolling — perhaps because it’s dead, or perhaps because it’s swimming, Lalonde suggests, though I’ll go with the non-dead option, as the piece is so bursting with life. For atop the head are antlers, carved into a panoply of polar bears, seals, caribou, dog teams hauling sleds, hunters and other Inuit figures, all wrought from that single, solid set of antlers, and all climbing up those curving columns of ivory that grow ever thinner as they reach for the sky. It seems the most fragile thing, yet the sculpture, completed in 1989, has travelled from the far north to Vancouver, to a private collection in England, back to Vancouver, and then, in 2003, to Ottawa. I circled the work once, twice, three times, and with each pass felt more intensely that swell of emotion that comes in the presence of art as utter beauty.

Jackoposie Oopakak Nunali, c. 1988‑1989. Dark green stone, antler, sinew, bone, steel, and black inlay, 113 x 73.6 x 95.4 cm. Purchased 2003. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

There is so much else to see in this exhibition. Look up from Nunali and on the far wall is Norval Morrisseau’s massive painting Androgyny, which, like Nunali, indisputably fits the exhibition’s theme, “Our Masterpieces, Our Stories.”

Not everything is so inarguably masterful. Steven Shearer’s Guitar No. 5 is made of  hundreds of internet selfies, interspersed with photos of himself as a teen, but even with a unifying theme of rock-star fantasies the 14-year-old work seems dated, now that art built on pilfered selfies seems as ubiquitous as the selfies. Not far away is Geoffrey Farmer’s Trailer, which essentially is a movie prop built using the “faux-finish” of movie props, and the point of which continues to elude my grasp, though here it’s given new context, when placed next to a flimsy mannequin that represents a woman that Farmer witnessed being run down by a large truck.

Overall, the exhibition is a fine and exhaustingly stimulative selection of art from across genders, regions, cultures, media and decades, all brought together by curators Josée Drouin-Brisebois, Greg Hill, Rhiannon Vogl, Adam Welch and Lalonde. The art is as diverse and expansive as is Canada itself.

Carl Beam’s Voyage, a 1:5-scale model of Columbus’s Santa Maria, lists in its own epic space on the ground floor, while from the ceiling above hang Brian Jungen’s whale skeletons Shapeshifter and Vienna, both built entirely of plastic patio chairs.

Micah Lexier’s I Am The Coin is a wall installation of 20,000 custom coins, each struck with a letter that adds to an elusive story (by Derek McCormack). I couldn’t find the story, though it teases “there are no spaces and no punctuation marks there is a hidden clue to help you find me” — which I know because I cheated and read the website,

High up on an wall, Kelly Mark’s neon sign blares the demand “Hold That Thought,” even as the light tubes flicker, as if the thought does not want to be held. Nearby, a room of works from the trio General Idea includes a self-portrait that resembles three giant, upturned tusks. Adam Welch says the pieces were filled with a foam that has expanded over several decades, slowly cracking the surface of each. It’s not clear if the expansion was intentional, but it surely gives the tusks an organic action to match their appearance.

There is much drawing in the show, including Shary Boyle’s whimsically obscene fantasies, and an untitled, triangular drawing by Shuvinai Ashoona that, aside from being narratively rich, was “the first three-dimensional drawing by an indigenous artist to enter the national collection.”

There’s video, from the contemplative nature of Pascal Grandmaison to the defining irreverence of Rodney Graham’s cinnamon on a stove coil, which managed to make me think both of internet memes and the vast, mysterious scale of the universe.

Add to it all photography, including Jeff Wall and Shelley Niro, both of them also currently seen in the gallery’s adjacent exhibition Photography in Canada: 1960-2000.

Finally, there’s Garry Neill Kennedy’s Figure Paintings, in which the official colours of the Canadian, Mexican and American navies are painted on the walls individually, and then mixed in proportion to the number of vessels in each navy. Not surprisingly, the mixed hues are overwhelmed and match the U.S. colours precisely.

It’s an effective comment on cultural hegemony and on the importance of a nation appreciating its own.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.