Canadian art now, at the National Gallery

Paul Wells on a new show that deserves discussion and debate

On the weekend Marc Mayer, the director of the National Gallery of Canada, was gracious enough to show me and several friends through the gallery’s second Canadian Biennial, which goes by the name of Builders. It was the second time he’s shown us around. If we’re lucky it will become a tradition.

It was already the second time I was seeing this exhibition, which began Nov. 2 and will run through Jan. 20. I’m fascinated by the whole premise of these biennials. As Colleague Geddes has written, Mayer is properly preoccupied with drawing big crowds to the gallery and drawing new sources of philanthropic funding to go with his taxpayer-funded acquisition budget. But in late autumn, with the summer blockbuster shows behind him, he has begun doing these biennials.

They feature the best art by living Canadian artists that the gallery has acquired in the last two years. So the gallery actually puts its (that is, yours, audiences’ and donors’) money into what it displays. To me this means it’s the art the gallery’s curators are really serious about, although Mayer told us that he is sometimes told by art-world colleagues that hauling out your recent acquisitions isn’t “a real biennial.”

Whatever. Geddes has already written about visiting the show’s press preview with the eminent Michael Snow, so I won’t go into great detail about what’s in it. I’ll note only that I was particularly struck by a madly audacious new sculpture from David Altmejd; that I enjoyed contemplating the debate over whether this towering Evan Penny nude is a big deal or just a big naked statue; that this Marcel Dzama video was hilarious, weirdly touching and captured about a century’s worth of cultural allusions; and that this painting by 30-year-old Ottawan Melanie Authier suggests there’s still something fresh to be done with pure abstraction.

What’s most striking is that the 2012 biennial is so different in intent and structure from its 2010 predecessor. Happily, the earlier show’s website is still online. It Is What It Is was that show’s title, and it reflected Senior Curator of Contemporary Art Josée Drouin-Brisebois’s decision to focus on diversity of style: today’s art is beyond “isms,” as Mayer liked to say, and each artist’s work defined his or her philosophy. That show was an appealing jumble, but its strength was inevitably its weakness: it didn’t tell you much about today’s art except, “Here’s a bunch of today’s art.”

This year’s exhibition, whose website is here, is more highly structured. The show is run by Associate Curator Jonathan Shaughnessy, who’s a hockey fan: at the Hockey Hall of Fame (he tells me; I wouldn’t necessarily know this), “Builders” are people who moved the game forward. That notion is most directly represented by the presence in this show of some living icons of Canadian art, Michael Snow perhaps first among them. They are represented, not with a nostalgic retrospective, but by their best new work, which in many cases is as fresh as any by any younger artist.

But a word as basic as Builders obviously has multiple meanings. The exhibition’s curators — from the departments of Contemporary Art, Indigenous Art and Photography — built this selection through their acquisitions and then by the second-order decision to feature certain works in the biennial. The exhibition’s catalogue goes into great detail about the curator’s work, making it comprehensible to audiences who might not have thought much about it. And of course each artist is a builder. They make every piece they create, and they build a bigger statement over several works and then over a lifetime. I learned a lot from the works of several artists who contributed to both the 2010 and 2012 biennials. Two iterations into this exercise, Mayer and his colleagues are beginning to represent today’s Canadian art as the product of a community over time, and not (or not only) as random excrescences from mad loners.

I have this crazy idea that if I survive writing my latest book about 21st-century politics I’d like to write a book about 18th-century music, because much of what we assume about that time — that it was a genteel period of salons, powdered wigs and stultifying convention — was precisely wrong, and that Vienna and London in 1792 were actually wild hothouses of technical innovation, commercial competition and fevered creation. But it works the other way around, too: if you spend enough time at Builders, especially if you also saw It Is What It Is, you begin to grasp that Canadian contemporary art is a society, with codes and mores as elaborate as any Edith Wharton novel.

It’s only natural that these biennials don’t draw the crowds the Van Gogh and Caravaggio shows did. But making sense of the art Canadians are doing right now is at the heart of a national gallery’s mandate. To me these shows have become the most exciting thing the gallery does. As he showed us the work and talked with casual good humour about its creators, Mayer let slip a little frustration that the National Gallery biennials haven’t been the subject of more widespread discussion, debate, even denunciation. It is indeed surprising that other national and local news organizations haven’t taken careful note of what Mayer and his colleagues have done with these shows, which are beginning to define, if only for those of us who aren’t students of contemporary art, a 21st-century Canadian canon. It was obvious Mayer would be delighted if somebody got publicly angry with him, tried to argue he’s steering a national institution in precisely the wrong direction. At least it would be a conversation then.

Perhaps it’s simply too early. Mayer is a builder, and with each installation of this project, it will become clearer what he is building a few blocks northeast of Parliament Hill.


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