Review: Exhibition of art collected by the city in 2018 commands your attention

KatherineTakpannie,  Pushing Through, 2016, digital print on paper, 68 x 97 cm. Photo courtesy of the City of Ottawa.

In an age when attention spans are being digitized to death, Phil Rose uses the same digital technology to make you stop, focus and think.

Rose’s video, titled Un(Stills), is part of Kaleidoscope, the exhibition in the City Hall Art Gallery of recent additions to the City of Ottawa’s art collection. Sixty-seven works were purchased by or donated to the city during 2018, and two outdoor works were commissioned by the city. Even though not all of the pieces are included in the exhibition, it remains a lot of competition in one room for your attention, especially when attention seems an increasingly scarce resource.

Un(Stills) is actually 52 one-minute videos, each shot with a single, fixed camera. It’s a series of scenes, urban and rural, each of them ordinary. To get a sense of the overall video requires stopping and watching for at least a few minutes, and that requires a conscious decision to do so. 

Philip Rose, (Un)Stills, 2018, digital video, 52 mins. Courtesy City of Ottawa.

Rose is using the technology of today to increase attention to how the technology of today decreases attention. It’s an inherent tension, and it may prompt feelings of guilt, or joy, or inadequacy, or whichever response the viewer decides to have. Regardless, it’s a useful entry to the exhibition, as it conditions you to slow down and focus on the art, to give each piece a piece of your precious time. 

Some of the three dozen or so artists represented are names that are well known, and none more than Annie Pootoogook, the late, tragic Inuk artist. There are two Pootoogook drawings in the exhibition, including the 2001 ink drawing Family Home, and the 2005 pencil-and-ink drawing Listening To The Radio With Coffee.

A brief gripe: Where there are two works by one artist, the wall information cards are identical but for titles, dates and media used. Further insights into the individual works would have been more rewarding for the viewer.

This missed opportunity for exposition is also felt in another stand-out (and Inuk) artist in the show, Katherine Takpannie. She “grew up in foster care and spent the majority of her adolescence as a transient youth on the streets of Ottawa,” her wall cards say.

Vera Saltzman, Lansdowne Park, 2012, photograph on paper, 18 x 18 cm. Courtesy City of Ottawa.

Presuming that her two photographs are self portraits — the wall cards don’t make that clear —  she is in both poses effectively masked, once by red smoke, and once by an actual mask. They’re eloquent statements on transience and identity from a young, self-taught artist.

Photography is a strong vein running through the exhibition. Tony Foushe has a portrait of an elderly Alzheimer’s patient, the mother of Ottawa curator and former gallery owner Guy Berube, whose thick, tattooed hands hold his mother’s face toward the camera.

Andrew Wright (recently added to the permanent collection of the National Gallery) continues his fascination with the act of photography, with his technically ambiguous Untitled Photographic Picture #5. Vera Saltzman’s platinum palladium image is something that a person could reasonably think to be practically impossible — a compelling and even beautiful photograph of Lansdowne Park stadium.

Tony Fouhse, Guy’s Mom, 2005, digital print on paper, 38 x 38 cm. Courtesy City of Ottawa.

There’s no theme to the exhibition, beyond art acquired during 2018, so there’s a healthy variety of media and subject. Sculptures include Meredith Snider’s “reused” water vessel, and Anna Williams’ lead birds nests, each work made with materials found on construction sites — in Snider’s case at Arts Court, and for Williams “salvaged from renovations of Parliament Hill.”

There are paintings abstract (John Tenasco), semi-abstract (Theo Pelmus), figurative (Jim Logan) and austere (Leslie Reid). 

There’s also animation, which includes at least one moment of incontrovertible truth. Craig Commanda’s digital video The Weight speaks to depression, including the observation that, “You then become both the prisoner and the prison guard.”

Oh, what insights you discover, if only you decide to stop and pay attention. 

Kaleidoscope continues to Jan. 30, and is open Jan. 1. 

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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.