1. It Is What It Is: Recent Acquisitions of New Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
This was the single largest exhibition of Canadian art held in this country since longer than I can remember. Debuted in fall 2010 and held over to spring 2011, this broad overview checked the pulse of current Canadian art and featured more than 70 works in virtually all media by more than 50 artists. The offerings ranged from David Altmejd to Étienne Zack; from modestly scaled paintings by Tim Gardner to a massive Rodney Graham photo triptych and a room-sized walk-through sculptural installation by Rodney LaTourelle; from northern artists to ones from almost every province and territory; from established heavyweights like Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, Liz Magor and Spring Hurlbut to relatively emerging stars such as Gareth Moore, Pascal Grandmaison and Chris Millar. Certainly everyone’s opinion varied and inevitable questions arose, as they should in an exhibition of this nature: who is in and who is not, how relevant these works may be in 20 or 30 years, etc. Personally, I would have liked to see a higher number of less predictable names, a little more risk. On the other hand, there is no denying that all of these artists, and all of the works in the exhibition, deserve to be seen at the National Gallery—and deserve to be acquired by our nation’s leading institution. (Full disclosure: the museum where I work has an ongoing partnership with the NGC.) Whatever the threads of discourse and opinion were (and continue to be) around this show, it was an impressive—and long-overdue—undertaking. Also important to note: “It Is What It Is” was announced as an “acquisitions biennial” and only included a selection of the approximately 400 works that the NGC has acquired since 2008. As such, I applaud the gallery’s commitment to our homegrown culture and to the fact that, presumably, we can look forward to many more of these relevant blockbusters. Damn! We have some great artists in this country!
2. Jesper Just: The Unknown Spectacle at the Musée d’art contemporain du Val-de-Marne, Vitry-sur-Seine
I’ve been intrigued by this Danish film and video artist after seeing several works in various exhibitions since he emerged onto the international scene about 10 years ago. But this impeccably installed, six-work survey, which included a massive, newly commissioned projection on two 60-foot-long walls, suggests to me an artist of major significance. This guy is steeped in the cinematic form. Absorbing and building upon influences from across the history of cinema—from Chaplin, Buñuel, Godard and Hitchcock to Warhol, Lynch, Van Sant, Maddin and beyond—Just thoroughly understands the power of the medium to transport the imagination to other worlds. What is most remarkable is that he accomplishes this almost completely free of spoken dialogue. A raving romantic at heart, he creates rich, suspenseful narratives that remain open and ambiguous, an effect achieved through judicious use of musical scores and sound, a baroque sense of staging and costume, the subtle, superbly delivered bodily and facial gestures of his actors and, most effectively, gorgeous cinematography. Also charged with erotic volatility, his works burrow into the latent recesses of viewer consciousness with creepily seductive, claustrophobic vignettes that are by turns—and sometimes all at once—weird, absurd, disturbing, humorous and, in the end, inexplicably moving experiences. Playing with memory and desire, he taps into the anxiety of our age. If cinema is the pre-eminent medium of our era, then Just may well be one of the most important artists of our time.
3. Big Bang at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal
The main reason that I love this show is not necessarily because every work of art in it is fantastic. I love this show because of its premise: inviting visual artists, as well as iconic Montrealers in other disciplines (architecture, design, music, comics, choreography, writing, film and more), to produce projects inspired by a work or works from the museum’s collection. I do remember a time—before the “professionalization” of the art “industry” led to highly specialized “practices”—when it was taken for granted that artists of every discipline were interested in and connected to what was happening in all fields, hanging out with and supporting colleagues in these sectors, and exchanging ideas with them. Of course, this interconnectivity should not be confused with actually being adept and articulate in disciplines outside of one’s specialty, and clearly some of the participants should not give up their day jobs for careers in the visual arts. But more interesting than an exhibition filled with aesthetically resolved works that meet agreed-upon notions of “good art,” this exhibition radiates a spirit of wide-eyed wonder, inspiration, experimentation, discovery and fun. It’s art as vital language and visual force—not didactic theory. Highlights include Adad Hannah and Denys Arcand’s Safari, a multi-screen video installation that plays out scenes from a nightclub or party, inspired by eccentric furniture pieces from the collection; Réflexion, an austere yet mesmerizing installation by architect Gilles Saucier consisting of a classic, mid-scale black-and-white Borduas reflected onto two softly mirrored adjacent walls; and an absolutely insane black-and-white, comics-style painting done floor to ceiling in hallucinatory detail by the collective En Masse, featuring thousands of crazy human, animal, insect and hybrid figures engaged in all sorts of bizarre activities. Exploding all over the walls, including the emergency exit doors, the installation was inspired by a neo-primitive A.R. Penck painting hung at one end of the room; oversized beanbag cushions are scattered across the floor of the gallery for endless hours of viewing comfort.
David Liss is artistic director and curator of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto and is a contributing editor to Canadian Art.