MASS MOCA: OH, CANADA!

Janice Wright Cheney's The Widow at the entrance of Oh, Canada
(photo credit: Canada Coucil blog)

Very excited to learn about the Oh, Canada exhibition currently happening at the MASS MoCA. The vision of curator Denise Markonish, Oh, Canada is the largest survey of contemporary Canadian art to ever take place outside of Canada. Over 14,000 square feet of museum space is filled with works by well-loved artists such as BGL, Val√©rie Blass, Marcel Dzama, Ed Pien, Annie Pootoogook, Michael Snow, Charles Stankievech, √Čtienne Zack, and many, many more.

In order to assemble the elegantly curated exhibition, Markonish traveled almost obsessively across Canada for over three years, going to countless galleries, museums, and studios in the process -- hands-on research in the most literal way. Her chosen method of acquisition inspired the concept behind the exhibition's impressive 400-page catalogue, which is laid out like a travel guide for the artistically inclined.

At the opening, the ukelele-strumming Cedar Tavern Singers speculated amusingly about what lay in store for viewers in the museum beyond the lobby, proposing "an interactive Mountie installation," "relational lacrosse," "the Queen serving poutine in the gallery," and "post-ironic hockey". Markonish's execution wasn't nearly as irreverent, though just about as diverse: the majority of the works shown were not by international Canadian art superstars, but by artists that (until now) remained relatively unknown beyond Canada's borders.

Sarah Anne Johnson, Cheerleading Pyramid.

Nancy Tousley writes for Canadian Art:

Markonish outlines themes that arise from the work she selected for the show: landscape and its powerful hold on the Canadian psyche, the dread and creeping horror of the uncanny, aboriginal histories and the effects of colonialism on First Nations peoples, traditions of storytelling, the idea of North, identity issues and the hyphenated Canadian, a return to craft and making in studio practice, transformation and the grotesque, conceptualism, that much-vaunted Canadian humour and more. 

To these themes I would add an ever-present awareness of mortality, an aspect of the Canadian experience of landscape and death by climate or wilderness; the magical animal Other; a strong penchant for cultural critique; and, especially in our theory- and tech-savvy country, the mediation of nature and human experience by technology.

Installation view
(photo credit: Canada Council blog)

 Stack Markonish's themes one upon the other and a complex, multi-dimensional picture, a dense web of assocations, begins to emerge, amplified by the conversations that proximity and juxtaposition start up among the works themselves. At times, the threads are as direct as the flapping curtains seen in works by Michael Snow, David Hoffos and Daniel Barrow, which point to the instability and porosity of borders as well as the anxiety or tension regarding what is unseen or only partially revealed outside the window or the frame. Varieties of ecstatic experience are present in installations by Charles Stankievech, Noam Gonick and Luis Jacob, and Hadley + Maxwell. Death and remembrance are underlying presences in numerous works, which include those by Gisele Amantea, Eric Cameron, Janice Wright Cheney, Ruth Cuthand, Shary Boyle, Patrick Bernatchez, and Shuvinai Ashoona, whose coloured-pencil drawing Carrying Suicidal People (2008) punctuates the exhibition with a sharp, affecting moment, all the more powerful because of its lack of guile. An account of connections like these among this diverse array of works could go on and on.

Dean Baldwin, The Chalet (bar/art installation)
(image credit: MASS MoCA)

There isn't space here to get deeply into individual works, but there are many in this show that would reward the endeavour. An informal poll of several Canadian viewers' top-five picks on opening weekend produced a different list each time. The sample was small, and the poll a kind of game, but the responses appear to indicate more than the simple rubric that "there is something for everyone" in Markonish's show. Whether all of the work on view is to everyone's taste seems beside the point. Her exhibition has the right stuff to demand the full attention and absorption of a slow read. She has given the viewers of "Oh, Canada" a rich field for investigation that is full of nuances and complexities which it might take a while to see and comprehend. Our appropriate immediate response as Canadians to her thoughtful and ambitious curatorial work might just be "thank you."

The exhibition opened on May 26, 2012, and will run until April 1, 2013. The catalogue, titled "Oh, Canada: How I Learned to Love 3.8 Million Square Miles of Art North of the 49th Parallel", is being published by MIT Press, and will be released later this month.

Read more:
Oh, Canada at MASS MOCA
Canadian Art -- Oh, Canada: National Dreams
Oh, Canada sings south of the border

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