Art Review: Canadian Club
David Harper’s sculpture of a wild boar, “Finding Yourse,” is constructed of fine porcelain and covered in soft cowhide at MASS MoCA’s vast exhibition, Oh, Canada.
Anyone who needs visible proof of the socio-psychological benefits of a free universal health-care system should make the trip to the sprawling Oh, Canada exhibition at MASS MoCA in North Adams. With work by 62 Canadian artists selected by curator Denise Markonish from 400 studios visits in nearly every province and territory in the land, the show is a cup runneth over in whimsy, high camp, social satire, Jeff Koonsian neo-banality, surrealist fantasia, and, overall, serious fun. Electronic whirligig installations, dioramas, geodesic domes, films, teepees, and full-scale replicas of native animals are the stand-out forms here; the aim, it seems, is to disturb a little and then provoke a profound giggle.
An imposing grizzly bear, coated head to toe in handmade felted wool roses by Janice Wright Cheney (“Widow,” right), greets visitors at the exhibition’s entrance. A massive wall hanging by Wanda Koop is made of dozens of Necco wafer-colored rectangular blocks. A wild boar is constructed of fine porcelain and coated in cowhide by David Harper (“Finding Yourse,” pictured above). Even the person drowning in a car submerged underwater in Patrick Bernatchez’s disturbing film Chrysalids Empereur is none other than a clown in full makeup. Canadian artists, still the beneficiaries of European-style government financing, are far from being in a foul mood —and, contrary to what the creators of South Park once speculated, they’re even further from being motivated to do something like bomb the imaginary Hollywood compound of the Baldwin brothers.
“There’s something about the country that seems just beyond reach…,” curator Markonish says. But while it may be true that the world doesn’t know much about Canada (or its art), Canadians seem to know an awful lot about the world. So much of the best of Oh, Canada is, in fact, ironic commentary: playful, funny, and eye-catching without being overly knowing and/ or contemptuous.
Kent Monkman’s life-size double diorama, “Two Kindred Spirits” (left), based on fictitious buddy characters Tonto and the Lone Ranger and Germany’s Winnetou and Old Shatterhan, has been updated to a kind of Brokeback Mountain log-cabin psychodrama. Hanging on each side of the diorama, a sign reads “the love that dare not speak its name”—in English on one side, German on the other—referencing Oscar Wilde’s famous phrase for homosexuality. The hermetically sealed, aluminum nickel steel, glass, and fluorescent display of Apple products in Nicolas Baier’s Vanite/Vanitas, which sits gleamingly at the beginning of the show (right), is the best-looking critique of the compulsiveness lurking behind every Steve Jobs initiate— and who amongst us isn’t one of those, in one way or another? — I’ve ever seen. (It may very well be the only one I’ve ever seen.)
At the same time, photographers such as Newfoundland’s Ned Pratt do well by staying irony-free to show the unusual grandeur of the nation in a straightforward — and breathtaking — way. They remind us that there’s enough in Canada proper to some day compel artists to leave the confines of their warm, undoubtedly social studio spaces and venture out into the vast wilderness we’re all still itching to see. This is a whole other kind of Canadian adventure we’d be eager to have. In the meantime, this look into the inner landscape is an easy excursion to the unexplored North, an illuminating glimpse into such an immense and seemingly quiet place. —Scott Baldinger