National Gallery puts art featuring pot and personal freedoms on view

Myfanwy MacLeod, Albert Walker, 2014, 12 3D printed replicas of marijuana buds, medium density fibreboard, hardware, 89 x 121 x 26 in. (225 x 308 x 66 cm). Photo: Peter Simpson

Two new installations at the National Gallery speak to the constant change in personal freedoms, though on markedly different scales.

Also, one is a coming out for marijuana at the gallery, and these buds are big.

The works are titled Albert Walker, by Myfanwy MacLeod, which includes “eleven 3D-printed replicas of marijuana buds,” and You Have Left the American Sector, by Ron Terada, which has a satisfyingly controversial history. 

Terada’s installation tweaks memories of Checkpoint Charlie, the former dividing line between West and East Germany that lives on as a tourist attraction. Terada’s large, rectangular aluminum sign says, in English and French, “You have left the American sector,” a slight variation of the “You are leaving the American sector” that warned those headed into the formerly communist East Berlin.

Terada is a Vancouver artist, and the gallery’s permanent collection includes some of his ‘Jeopardy paintings,’ with brightly coloured backgrounds and answers from the TV game show, such as, “In ‘Cool Hand Luke,’ Paul Newman is put on a chain gang for vandalizing these mechanical devices.”

A Terada neon sign was the titular inspiration for “It Is What It Is…,” the gallery’s first biennial of recent Canadian contemporary art in 2010.

“Language has been his medium for a long time,” says Jonathan Shaughnessy, the associate curator of contemporary art, “thinking about signs and communication, and the way signs and language form meaning within society at different levels.”

Ron Terada, You Have Left the American Sector, 2005
3m reflective highway vinyl, extruded aluminum, galvanized steel, wood, 120 x 120 x 16 in. (305 x 305 x 41 cm). Installation view, National Gallery of Canada, 2019. Photo: National Gallery of Canada. Courtesy Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver

Signs can also provoke and, as Shaughnessy notes, “This is a piece that earned him quite a bit of notoriety.”

If the purposes of art include conflicting the comfortable and speaking truth to power, Terada hit a home run with You Have Left The American Sector, though it was timorous local politicians who literally knocked it out of the park.

The gallery’s sign is part of a series that began with a commission from the Windsor Art Gallery in 2005. The original sign, created with the City of Windsor’s public works department, was erected in a city park facing the Canadian-U.S. border.

The sign was to be in the park for four months, but  it was removed by the same city workers five days after installation, as ordered by Windsor city council. Some councillors and putatively some citizens complained that it wasn’t art (ad nauseam, yawn), or that it would ruffle the feathers of the American eagle across the river.

Terada promptly built three new signs with the help of the City of Vancouver, where people were perhaps more familiar with free expression and the favoured Canadian pastime of flipping an aesthetic middle finger in a southerly direction. The original sign had a green background, the replacements were white, and one of those was acquired by the National Gallery in 2016.

It’s sad that the sign is more urgently relevant today than it was in 2005, as Trumplandia figuratively and literally builds walls to keep out immigrants. Where once Checkpoint Charlie stood at a wall between two halves of a city, now Terada’s sign speaks emphatically to the fact that liberty is not in constant forward motion, that it ebbs and flows, like a tide intolerance.

Myfanwy MacLeod’s installation Albert Walker, installed in the adjacent room, seems to speak to personal liberties moving forward, though its layers run deeper, and darker.

“There are so many ways of entering into it, of interpreting the work,” says Josée Drouin-Brisebois, the senior curator of contemporary art.

MacLeod built an entertainment unit, of the mirrored, back-lit, press-board type that was popular in suburban homes in the 1960s or 1970s. It has a large space for a television, and smaller spaces for the display of hideous knick-knacks.

The large space is empty but for your own reflection in the mirror. Most other spaces each have a bud of marijuana, each larger than Cheech and Chong ever dreamed of. The buds look as if they’re bronzed, but are covered in “kameleon” paint, so as you move your eyes the colours change, just as they would on a real bud of marijuana if, er, you held one in your hand and, uh, stared at it. Ahem.

Where were we?

“Albert Walker” is the name of the strain of marijuana MacLeod used as a model for the buds. It’s said the strain is named for “the notorious Canadian conman and convicted killer, known for changing his identity multiple times to evade prosecution,” says the adjacent info panel.

So, layers. The installation, which was a gift from the artist to the gallery in 2018, speaks to how what we see changes as we allow our perspectives to change. It speaks to the changing notions of family keepsakes and what we choose to display and what those choices say about contemporary life and mores.

Though, as Drouin-Brisebois notes “it’s not a conventional portrait” of Walker, it does speak to changing liberties, and how Walker changed to prolong his own liberty.

Most obviously — and though the piece was created in 2014 — it speaks to how marijuana, after many decades of reefer-madness-fuelled disapproval, is now legal.

The new works are about liberties large and comparatively small, whether it’s to live your life when and where you wish without oppression, or to live your life with the option of your stimulants of choice.

By the way, the question to the answer on Terada’s Jeopardy question about Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke is, “What are parking meters?”

He was sent to the chain gang, and to this day the liberty to cut the tops off parking meters is not complete.

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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.