Robert Houle

Garnet Press Gallery

The title of Robert Houle’s exhibition, “Premises for Self Rule,” refers to the conditions of the treaties between the Canadian government and First Nations groups that were designed to ensure self-government for aboriginal peoples. Given Canada’s history of broken treaties, those premises might seem unachievable. While in practice these treaties have set up what amounts to managed extinction, they still provide a standard for the self-determination of First Nations peoples, as Houle’s exhibition points out.

Houle’s five tableaux are organized around a series of treaties signed between 1763 and 1982 that affect the region of his ancestral Saulteaux nation, in what is now Manitoba. He constructs a tight syntax for his tableaux by juxtaposing a text fragment from a particular treaty with an archival photograph and a large, painterly color field. The faded turn-of-the-century photos of Indians from the Prairies partially obscure the documents, but only to offer a point of comparison between European legalese and the ambiguous witness of the people affected by it. The paintings, however, struggle with the texts as though they were the voices of Houle’s ancestors transposed into vibrating color. Royal blue corresponds to 1763, the date of the first document; the red of Euro-American flags colors the next treaty; and the successive paintings are ochers––grass-green, red ocher, yellow ocher. These pigments, ranging from the colors that represent abstractions, uniforms, and the Union Jack, to colors of concreteness and the earth, seem to reflect optimistically upon the changing nature of the laws that affect First Nations peoples.

This is the mature work of an artist who for over two decades has examined the relationship between European languages and Native people, a relationship primarily of assimilation and erasure. Houle does not generalize, however. Rather, his rigorous attention to the way words have been used to carve out and hand over very particular territories and rights suggests that working within the law is possible. These documents are the precedents for any negotiation of aboriginal self-determination that may take place in Canada. The painterly canvases supply an emotional reserve, in the sense both of a resource and of holding back. The archival photographs are not so much nostalgic as anchoring. In combination with the other elements, the word maintains an uneasy precedence.

Houle’s imposing pieces seemed cramped in the space of this house-turned-gallery. It is telling, however, that they were shown here, at a space that has always provided a forum for controversial artists when other commercial spaces have hesitated.

Laura U. Marks