Feature

Exhibit of the week: Oh, Canada

The predominance of relative unknowns in this survey of contemporary Canadian art is part of what makes it such a revelation.

Wait, you’ve never heard of the Canadian artists Daniel Barrow or Luanne Martineau? said Sebastian Smee in The Boston Globe. Not to worry. Those two aren’t household names north of the border, either. In fact, the predominance of relative unknowns in Mass MoCA’s unprecedentedly rich survey of contemporary Canadian art is a big part of what makes the show such a revelation. Curator Denise Markonish purposely left out such marquee artists as Jeff Wall and Janet Cardiff to showcase dozens of less celebrated talents, and she’s come up with “far too much good work to list.” Beginning with the taxidermied and flower-bedecked bear at the entrance—Janice Wright Cheney’s Widow—this “exceptionally diverse” show expertly alternates “almost gaudily spectacular” multimedia workswith strong paintings and subtle, minimalist films. The only art lovers likely to be less than thrilled are Canuck critics put off by the idea of an American curator getting to decide “who and what counts in Canadian art.”

If it takes an American to do the job, so be it, said Paul Gessell in The Ottawa Citizen. “Markonish made a heroic effort to ensure every province and territory was represented”—indeed, the National Gallery of Canada’s biennial planners might want to take some notes. How cool is this show? Young visitors will surely say that the merry-go-round fashioned from police barricades by the Quebec collective BGL is “very cool.” Other works are less fun than creepy—perhaps because we Canucks have become “slightly mad” after “hundreds of years of continuously fighting for survival against wild animals, blizzards, and forest fires.” Whatever the reason, numerous works, including Shary Boyle’s drawings of mutilated bodies, offer “a touch of the macabre” or conjure “a sense of dread.” Still, Canada—a nation whose varied art scene deserves more global attention—comes out looking very good overall.

The scene could have used a more audacious ringmaster, said Karen Rosenberg in The New York Times. By trying to create a “national-scale megashow” while avoiding the majority of Canada’s most influential artists, Markonish has instead mounted an exhibition that “may tell you more about Canada’s identity crisis than it does about Canadian art.” A couple steps away from Ned Pratt’s photographic paeans to the Canadian landscape, you’ll run into cartoonish drawings that riff wryly on the plight of Inuit tribes. Such a juxtaposition doesn’t give visitors a working idea of what Canadian art is, though it is, perhaps, a start. Maybe the safest conclusion is that our northern neighbors, like ourselves, “contain multitudes.”

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