Monday, May 14, 2012

Fashionality at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection

I don't know whether I stayed an extra day in Toronto because I was clever or because the confusion of the renovations somehow infused my travel plans.  But I managed to make wonderful use of the time.  Sunday I began by wandering the Kensington Market Area, taking in more of the Toronto "street theatre" and even becoming part of it when two sisters (my age) were taking turns taking pictures of the other with their elderly mother in front of the house where she'd grown up;  I offered my services as unofficial photographer.

Then I went on to the Gardiner Museum, trying to see the exhibits as Lee, my young ceramacist, would see them.  Saskatchewan was well-represented by Vic Cicansky, Jeannie Mah, and Marilyn Levine, whose work always stuns me, no matter how much of it I see.  The piece on display was one of ther leather suitcases.  What's extraordinary is the way she imagines how these pieces were used by their owners.  There are worn patches (patches of "worn" clay that looked remarkably like worn leather) under the suitcase's clasps, and one of the straps had been broken--the leather underneath lighter than the rest.  I can't think of any artwork that  more effectively captures the presence of absence, that so powerfully evokes the lives of the people Levine imagined using them, unless it's perhaps her touching, plangent worn boots.

 Lee noticed a couple of things on this visit.  One is that ceramic work is sometimes characterized by a kind of quest for perfection:  the perfect shape, the even glaze.  Ruth Gowdy McKinley threw a teapot whose round shape seems almost rounder than round, that impression strengthened by the quiet perfection of the flat pale blue glaze.  In contrast are artists like Ewen Henderson, who handbuilds monumental shapes using different kinds of clay so that the firing has a differentt effect on different  features, or Jean-Pierre Larocque who slab-builds monumental, craggy faces.  Sometimes a ceramicist like Richard Devore throws a perfect bowl, enveloping it with a glaze worthy of Mark Rothko, but insizing the edges with little notches to remind us that the work is made by hand. 

Some china from Holland that depicted street scenes prompted Lee to notice that more often than not, the decoration of ceramics gestures toward the natural world--flowers, of course, but butterflies, bugs, rabbits, and in one instance some charming goats.  So there we are with an artifact that is profoundly cultural reminding us of the natural world.  I wonder why?  I clearly have more to learn about ceramics.

Today I worked for a while and then drove north to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.  In 1954 and 1955, Robert and Signe McMichael bought one painting by Tom Thompson and then a Lawren Harris, the beginnings of a collection of Group of Seven and aboriginal art that became the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in 1965.  More recently, Robert and Signe went to court to protect their vision from being diluted or compromised by other kinds of Canadian art.  They had hoped, even after giving the collection to the province of Ontario, to control and limit the collection and were deeply disappointed when they could not continue to impose their vision on the gallery's mission.

"Fashionality" is a perfect illustration of the reason why no one should have authoritative control over a collection.  This exhibition explores clothing as a cultural artefact, and the artists, mostly women, found quite a variety of ways of using clothing to query our culture, our world view, and our habits.  Barb Hunt's "In Thrall / Enthrall" was a claustrophobic wall full of vintage aprons that evoked, first, the labour that fifties women did in kitchens, and then the expectation that they continue to be beautiful and decorative while they did that work.  Nicole Dextras' "Weedrobes" series consisted of photographs of beautiful and baroque clothing she made entirely of natural materials:  a dress made entirely of lilacs, a suit made of leaves "sewn" together with thorns.  Each of these was modelled in an aggressively urban setting to remind us that we are always connected to the natural world,.  Natalie Purschwits' "Make Shift" was an exhibition of clothing that she had made entirely herself.  She set herself the task of making everything she wore, including shoes and bras, for a year.  The inventiveness is pure fun.   More provocative was Camille Turner's "Miss Canadiana" performance piece, captured in a number of ways.  Camille Turner is black.  So her image, captured in plates and mugs in tiara and Miss Canadiana sash quickly asks us how we imagine the image of "Miss Canadiana."  Videos of her visits to communities in this persona captured people's delight and discomfort when faced with an image they implicitly questioned.  They come face to face with their stereotypes.

Most powerful for me was Michelle Karch-Ackerman's "The Lost Boys," which is a wall of small (10 inches or so)  hand-knitted and hand-dyed  sweaters with twigs through their arms that creates a collage on two gallery walls.  Playing Wendy to the 733 (of 801) young Newfoundland men who died in the battle of Beaumont-Hamel, Karch-Ackerman and an army of knitters have made this small emblem of comfort.  Each is knitted or dyed slightly differently; some women have used cables or patterned stitches to individualize theirs, other knitters have tucked messages inside the sweaters.  With the twigs through the arms they look, just for an instant, like a sea of crosses on the gallery wall until they are once again comforting sweaters made for the Lost Boys.

1 comment:

  1. Lots of good stuff in this entry (and lately) -- would love to see some of this artwork.