Oh, Canada at MASS MoCA

by Suzanne Carte, June 2012

Don’t let the signage fool you. It is not that type of Canadian show. You know the kind—flush with romantic northern exposures and lush landscapes that have proliferated in the historical canon of Canadian art for decades. On the exterior banner of MASS MoCA, a pyramid of happy Canadians smile in a rainbow confetti snowstorm, greeting guests to their newest exhibition Oh, Canada. While it seems a marketing manager’s dream, it is Sarah Anne Johnson’s work vastly taken out of context. It now resides as a tacky welcome to a show that contains no kitschy references, but is instead a serious survey on the current climate of contemporary art north of the American border. Other than this promotional misstep—and the glaring omission of black Canadian artists—the show is a consistent wonderment of dreamlike narratives and surrealist tendencies showcasing the best that Canada has to offer.

In fact, curator Denise Markonish has gone out of her way to go against the stereotypical stacking of big names and reliable favorites. Deliberately leaving out the stalwarts of the Vancouver School, Markonish has fashioned a multi-generational, multifarious installation of a new guard. It was satisfying to see a different cohort of Canadians take the reigns in addressing what it means to be making work in Canada now.

For three years Markonish’s travels spanned the entire country, with visits to over four hundred studios in every province and territory. She ultimately narrowed the expansive list down to the 62 artists represented with over 120 works, culminating in the largest survey of Canadian art outside of Canada. The gallery reader purports that the exhibition was built to act as a travel guide, which does a massive disservice to the artists and the curator. She is no accidental tourist, but rather an astute compatriot. Markonish has specifically gone against deploying the works regionally, teasing out the similarities thematically rather than geographically, pinpointing such developments as use of traditional craft, conceptual art practices and transformation, while also highlighting our shared sense of humor.

There are a couple of unapologetically Canadian moments, but they are built with a delicate confluence of wit, satire and fiction. They can be found in the darkness of Daniel Barrow’s watery projections, in David Harper’s dome of elegantly ornate bones alongside a taxidermy boar, or in the punch in the gut provided by Terrance Houle’s oil-slicked buffalo. Poised somewhere between funhouse and architectural schema are BGL’s rusted security fencing ride welcoming visitors to the exhibition, Michel de Broin’s stacked picnic tables, Diane Landry’s circus of kinetic lights and bottles, and Luis Jacob and Noam Gonick’s dreamlike dome. The works are big and raw, taking on a sinister structural design and adding to the dark, uncanny narrative posited throughout the exhibition.

The success of Markonish’s exhibition is due in part to the necessity for Canadians to see what we look like from an outside viewpoint. The curator holds up a mirror so that we can be reflected back at ourselves in a way that affirms what we know to be true about our value as cultural producers. It is through that framework and the lens of the other that we are able to attribute significance. As artist David Harper suggests, “I think it was important that an American institution like MASS MoCA, known for its innovation and risk taking, decided to hand the stage over entirely to Canadian artists.” It is a vote of confidence, but is it validation that we seek?

For Oh, Canada Markonish encouraged a commission-based process by supporting new works from Gisele Amantea, Daniel Barrow, Dean Baldwin, BGL, Cedar Tavern Singers, Michel de Broin, Michael Fernandes, Eryn Foster, Micah Lexier, Divya Mehra, Kent Monkman, Ed Pien and John Will—names that may or may not be familiar to the reader. It is true that Canadian artists are under recognized on an international stage. The general belief is that we are too humble and not very good at promoting ourselves internationally, which is an incorrect assumption. Canadians are just as aggressive and savvy as artists elsewhere. We hail from a different system that is not forged on commercial success, but on project-based initiatives.

Oh, Canada
26 May 2012–1 April, 2013
North Adams