National Gallery shows off pieces by Ai Weiwei, Alex Janvier and more

Alex Janvier. High Hopes of a Liberal, 35 x 48, Acrylic, 1974. Courtesy of MacKenzie Art Gallery. Photo: Don Hall)

The painting High Hopes of a Liberal was created by Alex Janvier in 1974 as a comment on the failure of federal policies on indigenous issues, but given the state of scandal in 2019’s Parliament, it’s seems dryly appropriate that the painting is on display again at the National Gallery.

The Janvier canvas is in one of two rooms that mark several notable acquisitions, and one notable departure. The thread that binds the rooms is Jonathan Shaughnessy, who curated both to different ends.

Ai Weiwei. Stacked Porcelain Vases. National Gallery of Canada.

Each room is its own small exhibition. Neither has a title, but one is all recent international acquisitions (plus two indigenous Canadian artists), centred, literally, around an installation by global art/activist superstar Ai Weiwei. The other room is a small sampling of pieces that were acquired by the recently departed Marc Mayer during his decade as gallery director.

Though there’s no thematic or other formal link between the two rooms, that both were curated by Shaughnessy, the gallery’s associate curator of contemporary art, leads one to look for commonalities — for insights into the acquisitive interests of the gallery and of Mayer, and into the curatorial tastes of Shaughnessy.

For the curator’s part, the room of recent international acquisitions was about looking for connections, however subtle.

“I’m thinking about content and about formal aesthetic references between the works that hopefully brought the room together in a certain way,” Shaughnessy says. He points to the Weiwei work, a stack of six squat Ming dynasty-style vases, and to a coloured-pencil drawing by Cape Dorset’s Shuvinai Ashoona that features a shaman with globes for eyes.

“I loved how the globes of the shaman’s eyes pick up with the vessels in Ai Weiwei,” Shaughnessy says, then adds that both works — indeed perhaps all the works in the room — speak to issues of migrants or indigenous people in different parts of the world.

Nearby is Edward Poitras’ 2000 Pounds of Rope, a stack of 25 coils of rope, about as much as was preposterously marketed and sold as pieces of the rope that was used to hang Louis Riel in 1885. Across the room, Mark Bradford’s large painting Africa is criss-crossed with many pieces of smaller rope, like lines on a globe.

Julie Mehretu. Conjured Parts (heart), Aleppo, 2016. Ink and acrylic on canvas. 72 x 84 in. (182.9 x 213.4 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery.

There’s a propulsive force in Lorna Simpson’s collage Ice 4, dominated by huge clouds of volcanic smoke billowing upward, and in Julie Mehretu’s ink-and-acrylic work Conjured Parts (heart) Aleppo. Mehretu, who has a solo show next year at the Whitney Museum in New York City, began with a news photo of a bombing in Syria and marked it to ambiguity with brush and paint and her bare hands. Stand back from the canvas and the marks seem to hurtle outward, as if the viewer is standing in an explosion perhaps 1/100th of a second after the blast. It is, as Shaughnessy observes, “very visceral.”

All the works are at home on the walls around the Weiwei vases, which stand near the centre of the room. Get close enough to it and the scenes painted on the side of the vases, in those blue on white Ming colours, are revealed as decidedly contemporary — a landscape littered with automatic weapons and dead bodies.

A short stroll through the second-level contemporary galleries leads to the other room,  with a small sampling of pieces that were acquired by Marc Mayer while he was director, including Janvier’s High Hopes of a Liberal. It was painted in 1974 and acquired in 2018, and it’s energetic. From the centre, bands and lines of colour reach to the sides, like a giant bird born of a great burst of indigenous abstract expressionism. It’s small for a Janvier piece — think of the colossal mural inside the dome of the Great Hall at the Museum of History  — but it shows a lot “of what was to come” in terms of Janvier’s style and vocabulary, Shaughnessy says.

Contemporary art is Shaughnessy’s bailiwick, and that’s from where this sampling of  Mayer acquisitions has been pulled.

“I was bringing together artists and works that I felt would speak to one another, and also speak to Marc very much, as those are artists he’s championed,” Shaughnessy says. “He had always been interested in painting and the dynamics of abstraction, and certain artists who have devoted their lives and their whole careers to figuring out where they wanted to go in that . . . it’s very open. It’s really a selection of artwork (from artists) working in different orbits.”

It’s open, and full of reflections. There’s a large painting built of blocks of colour by Stanley Whitney, which hints of Jack Bush, another Mayer favourite (but not represented here).

There’s a very different field of colour in Jonathan Lasker’s painting The Universal Frame of Reference, which leads into Arturo Herrara’s 10 collages of paper, and more echoes of colour and shape. It’s all quite unlike the piece that dominates the centre of the room, which trades colour and shape for wit and hyper realism.

Chloe Wise. Olive Garden of Eden. National Gallery of Canada

Chloe Wise’s Olive Garden of Eden is a large slab of grey marble, with several levels cut out. Spread across the top what looks like a caesar salad that has exploded. The salad is artificial but utterly convincing.

It’s all perplexing; the marble slab seems made for something more substantial, but stand and consider the title, and the remnants of a dish that is common to the point of banality, and it becomes more substantial. It becomes a piercingly satirical comment on consumption, on the public lack of imagination, on how freedom of choice creaks between the weight of conformity.

“These are also artists who are thinking about their own visual vocabularies and language,” Shaughnessy says. “I think Marc is someone who’s interested in artists that work in that way. They build up something out of nothing, a form of vocabulary within the studio and what came before.”

Both rooms are open indefinitely, likely until at least the end of summer.

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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.