Ottawa Art Gallery: Juno winners hit a different note with exhibition

Detail from Buffy Sainte-Marie's photograph The Mohawk Warrior Contemplates His Future.

It’s tricky business when, say, an actor stands before the public as, say, a musician. Does the actor have the musical talent to make us see them as a musician, to make us temporarily forget they’re an actor?

Visitors to Art is Art, an exhibition of visual art made by Juno Award-winning musicians in the Ottawa Art Gallery annex in City Hall, will face that conundrum — or maybe they won’t.

When I wandered through it was clear that whether the paintings, etc., were created by musicians or by professional visual artists didn’t concern a nearby quartet of young men, of the sort who rambunctiously start dressing for spring when it’s still colder than Vladimir Putin’s smile. They were satisfied to see visual art made musicians such as Kevin Drew (of Broken Social Scene), Jay Malinowski (Bedouin Soundclash), Serena Ryder or Sarah McLachlan, for example, and they weren’t getting all Judgey McArtCritic about, er, the aesthetic verisimilitude of the art.

Self Portrait by Leonard Cohen. Photo: CARAS, The Juno Awards.

The lads were also of the sort, I suspect, who don’t spend a lot of time in art galleries, and an opportunity to attract relative strangers is a key reason why the OAG said yes when Juno organizers proposed the exhibition. So the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) invited musicians to exhibit visual works, and OAG provided the space in the hope of reaching new audiences during the Juno hoopla.

Arguably, Art is Art is not about art in the usual way as much as it’s about the feelings of famous people. For the most part, the art is a portal not into universal truths but into the states of mind of  — to use an increasingly volatile word in a world of political upset — celebrities.

The results are mixed. Elsewhere, Jann Arden’s acrylic painting would be at best an art-class homage to Matisse’s Dance, but it elicits sympathy when she explains in side text how she has been “affected greatly by my mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and how much it infiltrated all aspects of my life,” a struggle that many people understand, sadly. Other works, such as Chantal Kreviazuk’s self-portrait and Royal Wood’s rudimentary painting of elephants and other musical instruments, desperately need the boost of their own engagingly expositive texts.

A few musicians reach greater heights, most notably the recently departed Leonard Cohen. Come Gather is a print dated 2016, shortly before Cohen died, and it’s made of bold lines both linear and lyrical. Around his wrinkled, aged face he wrote words that are now achingly timely: “it’s torn on the right, it’s torn on the left, and it’s torn in the centre, which few can accept.” (Despite living for many years in the United States he used the Canadian “centre.” God bless you, Mr. Cohen.)

There’s also great force in Buffy Ste-Marie’s 1990 photograph The Mohawk Warrior Contemplates His Future. The image, of a man distorted and bathed in red, is a powerful reminder of the indigenous struggle in Canada, and of Ste-Marie’s enduring talent and impact. Her work has been shown in many of North America’s notable galleries, and her latest album — 2015’s Power to the People — was a searing call for justice long denied.

Mystic Highway by Tom Wilson. Oil on wood.
Photo: CARAS The JUNO Awards.

Other highlights include Hugh Dillon’s The Edge, with a solitary figure walking toward an extreme horizon, hesitating, turning back, perhaps an impression of Dillon’s past struggles with heroin. Tom Wilson’s Mystic Highway is a more cryptic and layered view into the mind of a musician, one who has previously established his reputation as a painter.

Also included are works by Devon Portielje and Dylan Phillips (Half Moon Run), Josh Winstead (Metric), Lights and Marc Jordan.

An accompanying exhibition of photographs, taken over several decades of Juno ceremonies, includes George Pimentel’s 2016 portrait of a casual and comfortable Buffy Ste-Marie, and Bruce Cole’s delightfully dated shot of Paul Anka — in lapels wider than the Rideau Canal — standing among a star-studded crowd. Play spot the celeb, and mock their hairstyles.

Art is Art continues to April 16. The official opening, during Juno week, is 5 p.m., March 31, and some of the musical artists will attend.

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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.