Ottawa

“Pluralities”

National Gallery of Canada

“Pluralities,” an ambitious exhibition of contemporary Canadian art, raised critical eyebrows and sparked controversy in the Canadian art world. While some praised the show for its great diversity, others condemned it as an evasion of curatorial responsibility—a bag of trends with something for everyone. In Canada such exhibitions are of necessity cross-country affairs that bring disparate attitudes and approaches together. A certain eclecticism has always been apparent, and a certain eccentricity as well. The major art centers in this vast, disproportionately populated country exist in pockets of relative isolation separated by geographical, cultural and political distances. More often than not, Canadian artists look outside the country for direction and sustenance. Few have established significant international reputations. This does not mean that good art is not being produced in the country. More—and more interesting—art is being made than ever before. Instead of meeting this situation of burgeoning activity with a sharply focused, analytic critique, “Pluralities” chose to be topical. Although diversity was the only theme claimed by the exhibition, its main intent seemed to be to place Canadian eclecticism within the general context of contemporary art. In the (continued) absence of a curator of contemporary art, the exhibition was selected by four guest curators: Philip Fry (Ottawa), Willard Holmes (Victoria), Allan MacKay (Saskatoon) and Chantal Pontbriand (Montreal). Each chose four or five artists, concentrating on their new work: of the 19 artists represented, several made installations specifically for the show.

Philip Fry, the one curator who risked an attempt at isolating a prevalent sensibility, was taken to task by his critics for a misguided penchant for “regionalism.” Three of the five artists he selected—Joe Fafard, David Thauberger and Don Proch—live and work on the prairies, and their art shares a deep feeling for its landscape and vernacular forms. The strength and originality of Thauberger’s acrylic and glitter paintings and of Fafard’s ceramic portrait figures and cows suggest that the issue of regionalism (read provincialism) needs to be reconsidered seriously.

While the same might be said for Proch’s best work, his contribution, Field, 1979-80, was far too literal. Heplotted his allotted gallery space in a Manitoba field and cast furrows plowed within these dimensions in epoxy resin. Then he brought the “furrows” into the exhibition, later adding a “crop” of bright orange sisal.

The work of Alex Wyse, another Fry selection, draws from folk art and creates a zany personal mythology. It is playful and clever, but the calculated humorous effect of the elaborate painted wood and metal constructions palls once it becomes apparent that there is little else to them. Stephen Cruise’s three-part installation, One Chance to Lie Between, 1979-80, related the experience of dreams to an environment filled with evocative (made and found) objects but was so overly self-conscious in scale that its meaning was consumed by theatrical pretension. He, like the other artists Fry selected, works in a closely defined personal area whose objectification depends on the dramatic presence of objects or images removed from their ordinary contexts but, like Wyse and Proch, his work was weakened by its pretensions.

One risk of site specific work and temporary installations in major national exhibitions is that they tempt artists to force major statements. If Cruise and Proch succumbed to this, lain Baxter was the worst casualty. In Reflected Self-Portraits—Eight Circular Mirror Positions, 1979, a huge composite piece, the 44-year-old artist is photographed in eight positions standing naked in a forest, to be seen as though in the round like a classical nude.

However, perhaps the best, most complex and most rewarding work in the show, was an installation—Betty Goodwin’s Passage in a Red Field, 1980. Formerly a printmaker, Goodwin has spent the last four years doing indoor installations. For “Pluralities,” she transformed an anonymous gallery, open at one side, into a mysterious enclosure bisected by a central passageway and extended by two narrow, vastly different blind corridors. Goodwin’s sensitivity to light and to the surfaces of her materials (rubbed steel, powdered pigment, wood rubbed with graphite, red acrylic paint, poured paraffin, cotton fabric) made moving within the piece feel akin to what it must be like to be inside a painting. Passage in a Red Field offered what most of the art in “Pluralities” could not: a complex, multi-leveled experience that was physical, emotional, formal and intellectual all at once.

Claude Mongrain’s Caro-esque assemblages of white concrete elements, Roland Brener’s constructivist environments of modular units of angle-iron, and Roland Poulin’s elegant, dark, concrete floor pieces reflect a prevailing academic eclecticism, with Poulin’s work being by far the most interesting. Mowry Baden’s impressively scaled Ottawa Room, 1980, with three switchback ramps built to distort one’s perception of a two-story-high gallery, worked effectively. Made to Measure, 1980, by Max Dean, a young artist whose earlier performances and installations have openly flirted with danger, included three Ford Pintos that advanced ominously toward viewers when they triggered (unknowingly) the activating mechanism as they left the room. (This one was undergoing repairs when I saw the show.)

The more interesting sculptural works included those of John McEwen and Mia Westerlund. McEwen places small, thick, flame-cut steel figures and found objects in suggestive and quasi-narrative conjunctions; Westerlund makes abstract objects. Both artists reconnect sculpture to the hand.

Ruminations on nature and culture, myth and culture and visual culture as subject matter are linked to the photographic images of Pierre Boogaerts, General Idea (three Toronto artists), and Jeff Wall respectively. A mannered conceptualism pervades all three but is used to best effect, because most consciously, by General Idea. Boogaert’s series of paired color photographs, Blue Cars and Sky Above Each of Them, 1976-80, was most interesting when it showed the camera making equivalences—like blue sky and the side of a blue car. General Idea’s three information booths appropriated the gallery for the Miss General Idea Pavillion with appropriate tongue in cheek but were grander in concept than in physical fact, almost getting lost in the miscellany.

Wall’s four cibachrome portraits, Young Workers, 1978, couldn’t be missed in their overhead positions above the elevator banks on opposite sides of the gallery lobby. By forcing viewers to look up, eyes cast heavenward, Young Workers made them unconsciously ape revolutionary poses. Magnified, the ordinary-looking young people triggered a Mao-poster-style recognition, but the backlit cibachromes change the framework to commercial advertising.

Garry Neill Kennedy’s printed text, Allocations, 1980, mocked cultural bureaucracy, cultural politics and the exhibition itself. When the gallery administration declined to allow Kennedy to rehang all of the landscape paintings on the second floor on a line at his eye level (because the second-floor space was not allocated for the “Pluralities” exhibition), he decided simply to accept whatever space was left over after all the other artists had chosen or been assigned galleries. In the space, he put a factual statement of the events. Because of the attention given to matching artist and work with the most advantageous space, and the attention to attractive installation altogether, Kennedy’s aloof and offhand stance subtly undermined the premise of the exhibition. His work was political: anti object, antisystem, antibureaucracy.

Finally, Rober Racine stands apart from the other artists in “Pluralities” because of the obsessive nature of his work. To show a structural analysis of Flaubert’s Salammbô, Racine filled a gallery with collages of the novel’s printed pages from which he had counted the number of sentences, lines and words in the text. He also included the entire text, copied by hand on sheets of paper the same size as Flaubert’s original manuscript. Architectural drawings and a model of a staircase represented the novel’s three stages based on Racine’s calculations. The end of Racine’s elaborate project was most impressive, a performance in which he read the entire novel from the staircase.

The exhibition’s coordinator, Jessica Bradley, remarked in her catalogue introduction: “If anyone had assumed a certain predictability, it soon became clear that a tacit consensus regarding the primacy of a few artists, or types of art in Canada, did not exist.” This lack of consensus seems to underline the pervasive sense of a critical and curatorial void felt in the Canadian art community rather than a situation of true pluralism. “Pluralities” all but ignored two major areas of activity by including only one painter and no video (the sole subject of the Canadian Pavilion at the 1980 Venice Biennale, also organized by the National Gallery). Far too much of what was included was either dry or one-dimensional, and indicative of a contemporary academicism that recycles ideas without adding much of significance.

Nancy Tousley