New York, Paris, Berlin…Winnipeg?

The capital of Manitoba (not T.O. or Montreal) has Canada’s second-hottest art scene


One of Canada’s more fascinating cultural features is the spectacular international success of the Vancouver art scene. But that’s old news. More surprising is Canada’s No. 2 spot. It belongs neither to Toronto nor Montreal, but to Winnipeg. These days, when foreign art lovers talk about Canadian art, they generally mean western Canadian art.

The success of the Winnipeg scene is hard to explain because it’s exceptional in so many ways. For example, as a rule, the biggest cities harbour the liveliest vanguard art communities: New York, London, Paris, Berlin…So what’s the deal with Winnipeg?

The capital of Manitoba is known for being rough around the edges and yet, art-wise, you couldn’t call it disadvantaged. For starters, the University of Manitoba runs a decent school of art (est.1913); then there’s the Winnipeg Art Gallery, a centenary art museum now new and improved; and Plug In, a one-time artist-run centre now pushing 40, just morphed into an Institute of Contemporary Art with fancy new digs. There’s also Border Crossings, a classy art magazine that keeps a sharp eye on the home front.

If you’re into the hard-core cutting edge, though, look away. Artists here don’t go in for newfangled media much, let alone brainiac “out there” art. They like handmade representations of people, places and things. Like the Inuit art for which the WAG is famous, the local non-Inuit artists are busy describing their world simply and plainly. At least on the surface.

Winnipeg swims against the current in another respect as well. The character unique to art scenes has been evaporating for decades, scorched by the cult of originality. These days, artists are largely on their own. Not so Winnipeg; its artists demonstrate that you don’t need to sacrifice your individuality for the sake of genius loci. Aside from figuration, this “personality of place” seems to be based on humour.

Marcel Dzama is the best known of the Winnipeg-bred art stars. When I saw his recent show in New York, it was packed with people concentrating hard. There were few smiles for so darkly funny an exhibition with its depressive pull-toys and Aztec-like scrolls of modern slaughter. Recently, Dzama upped the ante with dioramas in porcelain and some scratchy satirical dance films.

Another export, Jon Pylypchuk, manages to fashion beauty out of the inane. A typical painting is an abstract mess that looks like the day after the Big Bang. Lost in the swells of genesis will be one of his goggled-eyed munchkins with collaged words coming out of its face, fortune cookies that feel clipped from the pages of Nietzsche. They make me dizzy (in a good way).

Although Karel Funk doesn’t go in for weird humour, he certainly shares the local penchant for pictures of people. Like a 15th-century Flemish hyperrealist, he makes close-up portraits of his buddies that take months to paint. The New York Times called his work “spiritual,” by which they also meant his technique: he paints hair one at a time. In the newer work, the sitter disappears completely behind obsessively rendered parkas. In this day and age, it’s comforting to see art defending privacy.

Winnipeg’s new kid on the international block, Sarah Anne Johnson, marries snapshots with modelling clay figurines. In a recent work, she accompanied a group of conservationists to the Galapagos Islands to eradicate the non-native species. Interspersed among her photos of the expedition are shots of plasticine caricatures of the same group, only this time the artist mostly makes it up. Did someone really snuggle up to a sea lion after an underwater pas-de-deux?

There are plenty more artists who live near The Forks worth knowing about, and an exciting new generation is emerging.This summer, a major French contemporary art centre, La Maison Rouge in Paris, is mounting My Winnipeg, a show that takes a broader look at this hot town. Organizers borrowed the title from a mo vie by Guy Maddin, yet another local artist with an international fan base. Move over, Vancouver!


New York, Paris, Berlin…Winnipeg?

  1. You know, out of ignorance, I used to think Toronto was the epicenter of a lot of art, but after actually exploring what the Canadiana Fund acquires and supports, Western art is quiet lively with full of depth. After all Dorothy Knowles and her daughter, Rebecca Perehudoff were originally from the Prairies as well as William Kurelek.

  2. Great article. One of the most stunning, emerging artists in Winnipeg to discover is ML Kenneth-Kwon, who will finally be publicly showcasing both avant-garde and commercially appealing mixed media work in Winnipeg in the coming seasons. There is something about the winter hibernation culture in Winnipeg that lends to the city's genius for breeding unexpected visual and communication, film, sculpture, dance and musical arts magic.

  3. I don't know what author has been smoking. I pass this Plug In exhibit everyday, nothing to look at.

    Another overinflated money grab, it is all about provincial subsidies, very little about art.

    “Rough around edges” is softly said, this city need some love and help…. Instead, the city is nose-diving.

    That is what Guy Maddin “mo vie” about, not about love; it is a scream: He-e-e-elp!

    • before spouting off, how about walking *inside* the gallery, there’s more to see than what’s visible from the street.

    • And as to what Abby said, Plug In is FREE!
      Go take a look, you'll be surprised.

  4. The online version of this article doesn't include the notice that appeared in print: The author, Marc Mayer, is the director of the National Gallery of Canada.

    • Like this makes him qualified, or he doesn't smoke? How one can put in a same line an overpopulated village and cultural capitals of the world?

  5. "If you're into the hard-core cutting edge, though, look away." That's right, there may be some good artists from Winnipeg, but they all leave, and for good reason. The only ones left in Winnipeg don't have anything to show/say. Pretty much all the artists mentioned in this article haven't been to Winnipeg in years!
    Some of the best artists in NY, Paris, and Berlin are from other cities too, and not Winnipeg.

  6. I actually run a course that teaches business skills to artists in Winnipeg and rural Manitoba… and there is honestly some really amazing and unique talent in this province. The artists (including painters, potters, jewellry and fashion designers, heavy metal thrashers, quilters, jazz singers, actors, performance and video artists) I have come to know through my work are passionate, intelligent, extremely talented, and so very bold. This is a real hot town for art and creativity, and it's good to hear that what we've known all along is finally getting out… that Winnipeg fosters a fascinating arts and culture scene!

  7. Spend 8+ months knee deep in snow and -40 C …. ya gotta pass the time somehow. Winters like that tend to force a person to consume or create.

  8. In Winnipeg, the problem is as follows: too many amazing artists (and cliques) and not enough supporters. That's why most artists have to leave Manitoba to finally get acknowledged.

  9. You guys can live in your hype, but the truth is that Winnipeg is not a place where one can get an inspiration.
    Dirty streets, crumbling infrastructure, gangs roaming the streets, desperate people to leave. Just as this article was published, we had two punks tossing and eavesdrop on wires in West End, the whole area was without electricity for hours; another punk armed with an axe and a bat was walking and crushing windows in houses and cars just for his amusement. He managed two blocks. Add few stabbings and a person hit by a car that he had to fly in the air- actually that wasn't a bad weekend- no one got killed.

    You call it a muse, I call it a gutter. Good luck with drawing an existential quintessence out of raw sewage.
    Plug In is a hype, it is free because it trying to sell something, no sober person ever will pay anything for this "art".
    Like a bronze replica of American (???) Stealth Bomber decorated with aboriginal swirl patterns- you call it art-fine- I call it rubbish.

    I guess, we have a difference of opinions.

    • Please check you grammar and spelling, karu.  

    • I think its precisely because it’s not overly beautiful that the city fosters great artists. If the environment is too beautiful, the motivation won’t be as great to create I think. You’d be too engrossed and content in the environment to want to claw the ladders of creativity.

  10. "the University of Manitoba runs a decent school of art" haha very careful with their wording there…

Sign in to comment.