For years at the Art Gallery of Ontario, a smallish space adjacent to the J.S. McLean gallery of Canadian art held a curious permanent feature: a Victorian salon, complete with an ornate oak staircase that led to a mezzanine to better view the crowded floor-to-ceiling hanging of mostly Victorian paintings to be found there.
When the McLean Centre reopens on Canada Day, that salon won’t be the only thing missing in the museum’s wholesale do-over of its Canadian spaces — fan favourites like Tom Thomson and Jean-Paul Riopelle have found walls elsewhere — but it’s surely the most loaded exclusion. A quaint relic of the city’s stiflingly prim colonial past, obliterated to make way for a polyphony of voices? That seems about right, given the current moment.
Indeed, a year after the buildup to — and fallout from — the fraught occasion of Canada’s 150th anniversary, where a rising chorus of voices successfully steered the moment from salubrious to a broader reckoning with our long-standingly narrow cultural priorities, we now have the AGO’s answer to what Canada 151 looks like.
It’s mildly unfamiliar, though far from jarring. One gallery sees Lawren Harris, he of the beatific mountainscapes, sharing space with Robert Houle, an Indigenous artist no less significant in our national narrative, in my view, and certainly no less gifted and surely more pointed (where Harris painted the land, Houle, in image, text and abstraction, considered the contested nature of the idea of land itself, as he does here).
In another space, the pairing of Jock Macdonald, an iconic abstract painter, with his student, Alexandra Luke, often overshadowed in the male-dominated Modernist tale.
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It’s an endeavour of a balance being reset, in both overt and subtle ways. It’s pointed — Rebecca Belmore’s canny Rising to the Occasion, a Victorian bustle made of twigs and tchotchke, takes care of that — but not pedantic, familiar enough while pushing at the edges of the unknown.
It’s a declaration by the museum’s recently merged departments of Indigenous and Canadian art, led by curators Wanda Nanibush and Georgiana Uhlyarik, that their take on “Canadian” will be broad and unapologetic — two features rarely associated with Canadian art in museums, at least until recently — and not beholden to old favourites, at least not seen in the same old way.
(For those perturbed by such a notion, fear not: the Thomson Collection continues undisturbed across the hall, which now seems to serve as an unbridgeable border to a strange and foreign land.)
And then there’s the simply new: an array of works by June Clark, a Toronto-based Black artist not represented in the AGO’s collection until this year, or Tim Whiten’s Metamorphosis, a bearskin laid ceremonially on a bed of eggshells (both appeared in Nanibush’s 2016 Toronto show Tributes and Tributaries; this is the natural follow-through).
Whiten’s bearskin is within easy reach of Emily Carr’s Western Forest, which hangs alongside Stephen Andrews’ cosmic Heaven, a shimmering canvas of otherworldly occlusion.
Together, they have nothing and everything in common, which is surely the point: that the land on which we live, the water we drink, the spirits to which each one of us might pray, are all subject to a point of view. Canada, as a nation, contains multitudes, a simple truth we’ve effectively denied for much of our nationhood, as a quaint Victorian salon installed in the country’s largest and most diverse city would seem to suggest.
Canada has never been just one thing and neither has its art; denial, finally, is not an acceptable default. Ready or not, here it comes.
The J.S. McLean Centre for Indigenous and Canadian Art reopens to the public Canada Day, July 1, at 2 p.m. See ago.ca for more information.