“From Sea to Shining Sea”

This exhibition, curated by A. A. Bronson—a member of General Idea and founder of Art Metropole, an artist's book center—marked the 20th anniversary of artist-run spaces in Canada. The title is an ironic translation of A mari usque ad mare, the motto that stretches on a scroll between the British lion and the French unicorn on the Canadian coat of arms (ironic, because Bronson has borrowed the English phrase from the anthem “America the Beautiful”).

Bronson wants us to forget the Canada of forests, plains, mountains, and tundra. Instead he wants us to think about Canada as it’s represented in a General Idea screenprint created for the exhibition, colored in on a map of the world as a seamless blue extension of the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific oceans. This “no place”—the vacant, undescribed thing between two shining liquid surfaces, as the motto has it—is for Bronson a better record of the subjective experience of the nation and the true context in which Canadian artist-run centers have conducted business over the past 20 years. In a curatorial statement that accompanied the exhibition, he makes a case that Canadian artist-run spaces began operations in a wasteland: the Canada of twenty years ago was without art, collectors, dealers, magazines, or museums. The historical role of artist-run spaces was to initiate, in the midst of this nothingness, credible institutions of contemporary art. If Canadian art can be said to be marked by tentativeness and self-consciousness, then these are accurate reflections of its context.

The argument is a tidy one. It's also glaringly unsupported by the work Bronson has brought together—in many cases, re-creations of the most notable installation projects throughout the period. Listening to Bronson's version of recent Canadian art history, you’d think it was one long epic mope in a vacuum. You wouldn’t know Montreal, London, and Vancouver had had vital, energetic art scenes before the artist-run centers were established, or that a work as smart with its Pop references as Iain Baxter’s Bagged Place—first created in 1966 at the UBC Gallery in Vancouver—had its origins in anything beyond manifestations of naïve, home-grown dada. Baxter’s apartment of plastic-wrapped furniture and food seems positively prescient as well as fun. So does Eric Metcalfe’s 1973 untitled leopard-skin wall painting. For that matter so does an entire career’s worth of work from General Idea. These installations are more than the alienated, outsider “dream palaces” that Bronson calls them. Each and every one is the product of some sharp, insider thinking about the nature of the art world.

One wonders then about the fuzzy thinking of the curatorial thesis. What makes this talk about “nothingness” and “nowhere” so palatable? Is it maybe because having no history makes for the perfect ingenue? I wonder what General Idea’s ubiquitous symbol of invisibility—Miss General Idea—would have said? All I can say is that these are strange hands into which responsibility for a history should be put.

Reviewed by Richard Rhodes.