Trio of exhibitions at Carleton University Art Gallery making the earth move

Detail from School House by Robert Houle. Photo courtesy Carleton University Art Gallery.

Three exhibitions at Carleton University Art Gallery, despite their disparate provenance and heritage, all speak to a sense of the ground shifting beneath one’s feet, due to injustice, alienation, or even literal tremors of the earthly kind.

Most dramatic is Saulteaux artist Robert Houle’s Pahgedenaun, which gathers recent drawings that expose Houle’s emerging memories of his experience as a child in a residential school near his rightful home on the Sandy Bay First Nation in Manitoba.

Noodin is My Friend by Robert Houle. Photo courtesy CUAG.

Like his memories of the trauma, Houle’s drawings are fragmented, as if they’re slowly drifting back into focus, into comprehension. They are often unfinished, with pencilled sketches visible where the oil stick colours have not yet appeared. This incompleteness makes the drawings more intimately personal, intensely or even voyeuristically so, as if viewing them is to stare into a mind still struggling to process a trauma that most of us are fortunate enough to not comprehend. (Of course, horrors of Canada’s residential schools are well known, the bleatings from one dusty corner of the Canadian Senate notwithstanding.)

In one drawing the residential school rises up in blue, one corner of the building left as sketch, as if the entire structure is emerging from the fog of the past. In another, a spartan bed seems to float in an unfinished room. The drawing brings to mind Van Gogh’s paintings of his own bedroom, though whether Houle recalls this bedroom as haven or chamber of horrors is left unanswered.

At the far end of the gallery space are three ghostly portraits, all drawn in black, titled Shape Shifter, Dark Moses and Sister Chothilde. The figures are amorphous and spectral, a trio of apparitions wafting into focus from the murky corners of memory.

Houle refused to participate in the federal Truth and Reconciliation Committee into residential schools because he objected to “reconciliation” as “an imposed Judeo-Christian concept of forgiveness.” He prefers the Anishnaabe term ‘pahgedenaun’, which roughly translates to “let it go from your mind.” The word serves as the title of the exhibition but the experience will not soon leave the mind of the viewer.

There’s also something spectral about Sun K. Kwak’s installation Untying Space CUAG, the latest in an ongoing series of site-specific “Space Drawings” from the New York City-based Korean artist.

Made primarily of black masking tape, it emerges from floor level and reaches along the long wall of the gallery’s upper level, like a massive creature rising from the depths, or a whirlpool knocked out of sync, or the beheaded, serpentine locks of Medusa. In other words, it’s up to your imagination.

The work has a graceful reach, and an embrace that — like Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider Maman outside the National Gallery — could be inviting or terrifying. Even the tiny bit of one arm of black that reaches around a corner of a wall is open to interpretation — a playful peek into the next space, or an inexorable expansion of something dark? Either way, Kwak’s creation has the force of a grand power rising from below, a seismic force.

Linda Sormin’s Fierce Passengers, another site-specific installation, is the most literal projection of seismic forces. “Raw Leda clay, which underlies much of the Ottawa-Gatineau region and turns to liquid when agitated or under pressure, functions as a potent metaphor for the literal instability of the ground on which we live, as well as tumultuous times in which we find ourselves,” say the exhibition notes.

Sormin, a Canadian artist born in Bangkok, has built a massive skeleton of a ship’s hull, perhaps unfinished or perhaps torn apart on a long journey. A wooden boardwalk weaves through the vessel’s interior, past countless artifacts both realist and abstract.

The boardwalk turns the viewer into tourist, walking safely through the detritus of lives, years and homelands, those left and those landed upon, and the shifting grounds, or waters, between where we’ve been and where we’re going.

The exhibitions are free of charge and open to the public to April 29.

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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.