Ottawa Art Gallery: Taking in a trio of talented locals

Michèle Provost. Couch, Throw Pillows, Plush Toys, 2018, mixed media and found objects, courtesy of the artist. Photo: Justin Wonnacott

There are three new exhibitions at the Ottawa Art Gallery, featuringMichèle Provost, Patrice Stanley and Michael Belmore. Here is a brief look at each:

MICHÈLE PROVOST is a soft provocateur, in that her provocations are often woven into gentle fabrics, in methodical stitchings of satire, sarcasm or blunter sentiments. 

For example, hanging in our living room is a single board of wood about four inches high and six feet long, its front covered by a gauzy mesh. Stitched into the gauze in needlepoint are the words, “This ain’t a scene, it’s a goddamned arms race.” The title is News From the Arts Front.

Much of Provost’s work could be categorized as “news from the arts front,” and invariably the news is — what’s the best word? — acerbic. In her latest exhibition at the Ottawa Art Gallery, titled Everything Must Go/Liquidation Totale, the acerbity is spread across an entire shop full of inventory — created and written in two languages with a common theme: it’s hard out there for an artist.

The Gatineau artist has created a gift shop as a “poignant examination of the place of art and artists with a market-driven society,” writes curator Catherine Sinclair. Provost’s domestic commodities — T-shirts, paperback books, cheap framed prints, bed sheets, lamps, furniture and even shoes — all ostensibly track the career of a Canadian artist through a consumer world where “concept is embraced in favour of meaning and truth.” Everything is marked down, everything must go, and aesthetic ideals be damned.

Like previous Provost installations, this one demonstrates her peripatetic wandering through many media, with much dry and pointed commentary along the way. “If I paint,” she writes on one liquidation print, “it’s because I don’t know how to do anything else.” The sharpest jab is in the “Crying Artist Sew-On Patch.” I laughed out loud, then wondered if I should be crying along. 

Everything Must Go continues to March 10.

PATRICE STANLEY’s collection of paintings is called Empyrean, a word that describes the highest, purest reach of Heaven, but when I looked at it a very different thought came to mind — Maman, the giant spider made by Louis Bourgeois that sits outside the National Gallery. 

Let me explain: Bourgeois’ genius was recognizing that the place of greatest warmth and all-encompassing love, inside a mother’s arms, would trump all fears, even arachnophobia. Even with Maman’s tree-like, coldly metallic legs, people are irresistibly drawn to her maternal embrace. In Stanley’s paintings too there’s an embrace of some kind, and it is welcoming. 

Patrice Stanley. Empyrean

Empyrean is a series of landscapes that share a low horizon and a vast, infinite sky, to which the very Earth and the elements of its nature seem to reach. From the centre of each horizon, a great expanse of light and cloud stretches heavenward, as if thrust upward by an inexorable, transcendent desire for . . . something. 

It’s an impressive meteorological event, and in the age of climate change and super storms it could be frightening. Yet, like Maman, Stanley’s unknown, unstoppable swirl of cloud seems to offer a warm embrace, as if to enter it is to settle into the massive arms of Mother Earth herself. 

Empyrean continues at Galerie Annexe to Nov. 18. 

MICHAEL BELMORE is paired with the legendary painter A.J. Casson in Confluences and Tributaries — or, as the title is given in Belmore’s Anishinaabe language, “Nkweshkdaadiimgak Miinwaa Bakeziibiisan.” The pairing launches the Firestone Reverb series, in which contemporary artists respond to works from the gallery’s permanent collection of Canadian art.

A single room (the Glenn and Barb McInness Family Gallery) houses the exhibition, and when I visited it had just been overtaken by a large tour group. People stood as thick as trees in the forest as curator Michelle Gewurtz talked about the work of Casson, immortalized in Canadian art history as a member of the Group of Seven, and the contrasts with the recent work of Belmore. The famous paintings lined the walls, while Belmore’s works in metal rested among the feet of the tourists, like natural features on the forest floor. 

I couldn’t see much more, but it was uplifting indeed to see so many people out to look at art in the city’s new gallery. 

Confluences and Tributaries continues to March 10. 

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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.