It Is What It Is

This is the title of a show running at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa until April 10, 2011.  It showcases a range of Canadian contemporary artists (70 works by 50 artists), all recently purchased for the Gallery’s permanent collection.  A user-friendly catalogue under the same title was produced with essays by the three curators providing a frame of reference for the pieces selected and contributions by the artists themselves setting a context for their work.  As one of the curators indicates, “Rather than attempting a thematic survey show, we sought ways to highlight the diversity of the collections, to conduct an experiment to see what meanings might become apparent when we juxtapose pieces that have never been shown together, all the while working within a limited exhibition space”.

As part of a birthday celebration for a friend in Ottawa, a buddy and I decided to take him to the National Gallery to broaden his horizons and what better than a show on Canadian contemporary art.

What makes this show and the catalogue quite special is that you are provided with a primer on some of the players in the Canadian contemporary art scene with a combination of the well established, those who are getting established, and relative newcomers.

The title for this exhibition was inspired by Ron Terada’s, “It Is What It Is, It Was What It Was”.  No reflection on the Terada piece but the title doesn’t particularly work for me as it seems to convey a shoulder-shrug to what is happening in the Canadian art scene.  This in spite of what the curators actually did accomplish by presenting, as they said they would, a range of innovative and ambitious works.

Among the well established artists I really liked a work by Rodney Graham, “The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962  2007”  (shown above).

One of the reasons that Graham is a favorite of mine is the diversity of his output.  His work is always insightful and always produced with great attention to detail in any number of media, often combining more than one in his eclectic choice of subject matter and his method of presentation.  Graham is equally comfortable in presenting his ideas through installation, photography, music, video and film.  To add to the mix, he has a great sense of humour and often uses himself as the subject in his art.

The first impression of The Gifted Amateur is that of a high resolution, large format triptych of the interior of a home.  When your mind begins to settle on the images you realize something is slightly out of whack as the pajama-clad Graham is in the process of the messy business of painting in a pristine dining room/living room.

From the notes you learn that this was a meticulously staged event in a specifically constructed set for the purpose of the photograph.  The detail is hypnotizing – the furniture, the books, the papers on the floor, the stereo system, all providing an historical time frame of the 1960’s.

For fans of the Vancouver trio of Rodney Graham, Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace (all with pieces in this show) watch for a screening date in May 2011 on Bravo’s Arts and Minds of Director Harry Killas’ documentary entitled “Picture Start”.  This excellent film features the artists discussing their work and current projects.  It was one of my favorite films in the 8th Annual REEL ARTISTS Film Festival.

Sharing the first room with Graham, as you enter the exhibition, is Luanne Martineau’s “Parasite Buttress 2005” (shown above).  Martineau, born in Saskatoon currently living and working in Victoria, is one of the rising national and international stars of the Canadian art scene.

Martineau is often quoted referring to the influence of other artists such as Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, and the cartoonist Robert Crumb. Being familiar with these artists adds another dimension to an appreciation of her work.

For me a good description of Martineau’s work is provided in the catalogue by Heather Anderson where she describes her sculptures and drawings as  “…densely layered in both their material process and citation of art history and popular culture, integrating references as diverse as comics, modernist abstraction, minimalism, and feminism.  Using soft materials such as wool, felt, and mattress foam that evoke the domestic sphere, Martineau adapts traditional craft techniques to create virtuosic works that fuse abstraction and realism.  They are replete with visceral references to the body and its messiness, sexuality, violence, death and decay, which, like taboos, both attract and repulse.”

To learn a bit more about Martineau I recommend you check out a feature article on her in the November 2010 issue (No.115) of Border Crossings and the article in the Spring 2011 issue of Canadian Art. That’s your homework assignment.

So yes, I enjoyed the exhibition and the readability of the catalogue (if you can’t see the show, buy the catalogue), and appreciated seeing work of familiar favorites (Rebecca Belmore, Wanda Koop, Liz Magor, Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, Laurence Paul Yuxweluptun and Etienne Zack).  A bonus was being introduced to the work of Shary Boyle, Simon Hughes and Tim Pitsiulake [his work “Untitled (Cockpit) 2008” is shown below].


About George

My long-time interest in Canadian and international contemporary art has led me to write and reflect on the artists I've met, the exhibitions that I've seen and the catalogues that I've read (I've been told I'm the only person that actually reads exhibition catalogues cover to cover). My interest began in the mid-1960's when I was searching for easy credits and I stumbled upon "Art Appreciation 101", and the rest, as they say, is history...
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4 Responses to It Is What It Is

  1. patrick says:

    Watching for the next post —–looks good on you Goey

  2. John Hoskins says:

    Good pic of you three. You and Paddy need a hat though! You will catch a cold.

    I don’t recall your great interest in art when we hung out – but you obviously go the bug now. You were into Canadiana furniture for certain. Quite the extremes from contemporary art. You always had eclectic tastes.

    My son is very interested in art. He recently entered a piece of photography into the Brown University art show. More than a hundred submissions were made and only 30 some were chosen. After visiting the NY M of MA on as part of a class assignment he collected discarded beer cans and did a Warhol inspired photo of 100 cans that at a distance looks like painting but as you get closer – voila…beer cans.

    If I knew how to attach a file I would.

    You can also see some of his other work at


    • George says:

      Thanks for your comments John – re the reference to the hats – remember we are Sask boys and our brain cells are already dead!!

      Will checkout you son’s site. Artistic interest must be due to Carol’s genes.

      We are overdue for a FULL board meeting.

      Later, Geo

  3. Sally Bryant says:

    On the basis of this intriguing posting, my husband, Brian Ballingall and I decided to drive to Ottawa and check out the exhibit for ourselves. We loved the exhibit. As the curator says in the introduction to the catalogue, if 20% of the work you selected still interests you 20 years later, then you have done a good job. My view is that more than 20% of the work in this exhibit will still be interesting and relevant 20 years from now. Some of it caught my attention and imagination more than other pieces. Each piece challenged me in some way and for that reason alone I thought the exhibition was successful. I also agree with George that the catalogue is very well done.
    Good work Geo, the NAG should put you on retainer.
    Sally Bryant

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