3.20 / Review

From North Adams: Oh, Canada

By crystal am nelson August 2, 2012

Thanks to the generous support of its government, Canada’s contemporary arts ecology is comparatively healthy and robust, as revealed by the varied mileage of Oh, Canada, what the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) bills as the first large-scale North American survey of contemporary Canadian art in decades. Unfortunately, in her attempt to delve into “the breadth and excellence of Canadian art today,” the curator Denise Markonish offers many more reasons for contemporary Canadian art’s lasting obscurity in the United States.1

There are many issues with Oh, Canada, not the least of which is its lack of organization. Markonish admits in the gallery guide that “the exhibition is not arranged thematically or by geography,” which is a problem for such a massive survey. The presentation of more than one hundred artworks by sixty-two artists scarcely seems like a large enough sample to adeptly represent Canada’s geographic and cultural complexity, yet strangely Oh, Canada still feels overwhelming. The galleries are jam-packed with pieces spanning every possible medium, from painting to social practices. The range of conceptual sophistication, craftsmanship, and execution is wide, giving Oh, Canada the unfortunate feel of a flea market and casting doubt on Markonish’s curatorial prowess. Many pieces are recognizably derivative of better-known international artists, such as the fabric sculptor and performance artist Nick Cave, whose currently touring Polar Bear (2009) is quoted by Janice Wright Cheney’s Widow (2012), a life-size, bear-shaped taxidermy model covered in wool-knit flowers. Other pieces, such as Garry Neill Kennedy’s Spotted (2009–11)—a set of blindingly glossy photographs of airplanes, diagonally affixed to the wall—evince the common problem of an artwork being high in concept but low in execution. The images are of suspected CIA rendition flights photographed by amateurs, which could explain their poor quality; however, the concept is overshadowed by the poor choice in photo paper and display. Additionally, the angle at which the track lighting hits the glossy surface of the photos makes it difficult to see the installation well. Quite a few pieces suggest the unstudied hand of a dilettante, such as Myfanwy MacLeod’s Michael, Carrie, and Rosemary (2010), an arrangement of film posters haphazardly cut into snowflake-like shapes, which were then mounted and framed. This professional finishing touch only emphasizes the piece’s sloppiness, and the work as a whole belies MacLeod’s sophistication as an artist; her other work displays a more deliberate engagement with materials, so it is confounding as to why Markonish chose this less-than-exemplary piece.

Despite such disappointments, several artists make sorting through the exhibition’s visual cacophony worthwhile. Nicolas Baier’s Vanité/Vanitas (2012) is an aluminum-preserved, life-size monument to his digital media studio, made up of casts of its contents (including a piece of barely-bitten toast) encased in a vitrine. With its titular nod to the genre of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century northern European still-life painting fixated on transience and decay,

Nicholas Baier_Vanite-Vanitas

Nicolas Baier. Vanité/Vanitas, 2012; aluminum, nickel, steel, glass, fluorescent; 120 x 120 x 72 in. Courtesy of Galerie René Blouin, Montreal and Jessica Bradley Art + Projects, Toronto. Photo: crystal am nelson.


Graeme Patterson. The Mountain, 2012; multimedia installation; 240 x 120 x 96 in. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: crystal am nelson.

Baier’s piece raises questions about the vainglorious, sometimes futile nature of art making and the precariousness of what constitutes its payoff. Graeme Patterson’s complex multimedia installation, The Mountain (2012), is a model of a studio built inside a large mountain and accessible only by tunnels attached to two houses. The stop-motion animations projected within the mountain-studio show a cougar and a buffalo inside the same studio playing and making art, activities that appear to be one and the same for the two characters. An equally whimsical installation is Amalie Atkins’s Three Minute Miracle: Tracking the Wolf (2008), which features a gigantic cake and a pageant of animals singing about teeth in a country church. Much like Patterson’s piece, Atkins reveals the creative possibilities offered by Canada’s immense wilderness. These two works, in particular, represent achievable counterpoints in the ongoing debate about whether the viability of artists’ careers and the sustainability of their practices are dependent on urban spaces.

Equally stark and lush, Charles Stankievech’s haunting video installation, LOVELAND (2009–11), is arguably the best piece in the show. Depicting a purple cloud emitted from a never-revealed military smoke grenade, slowly rolling across the Arctic Ocean, LOVELAND is Stankevich’s painstaking homage to his experience viewing Jules Olitski’s 1968 painting, Instant Loveland. Although Markonish states that LOVELAND is a comment on the militarization of the Arctic, the installation, which incudes fluorescing emeralds and a hand-bound edition of M.P. Shield’s 1901 science-fiction novel The Purple Cloud, is also about art processes and the desire to relive profound experiences that are usually singular in nature.

Oh, Canada’s questionable quality control and lack of a guiding curatorial vision highlight the difficulties inherent to mounting large survey exhibitions. In recent years, the ubiquity of such shows, perhaps best exemplified by those that make up the international biennial exhibitions, has raised concerns about the effectiveness of large shows that attempt to represent a zeitgeist. In a recent Los Angeles Times blog post, Jori Finkel observed that institutions are having more difficulty sustaining their relevance in a saturated field, finding it necessary to attempt gimmicky themes (like the durational performances and happenings at this year’s Whitney Biennial) that have caused some to categorize such an exhibition as a variety show rather than a rigorous engagement with ideas.2 And Paco Barragán, writing for Art Pulse, points out the growing absence of critical discourse as salability replaces intellectual inquiry as the prime motivator for biennial exhibitions.3 Although Oh, Canada is neither a biennial nor a commercial art fair, in attempting to make the first grandiose statement in decades about Canada’s current cultural trends, it repeats the worst tendencies of both. The vastness and diversity of Canada’s contemporary art scene demands a much more nuanced and selective approach. Perhaps, had there been some clear concept running through each of the galleries, to say nothing of the show as a whole—aside from the fact that all the artists are Canadian—the extreme differences in quality could have been instrumental to showcasing recent developments in Canadian contemporary practice. Instead, Markonish’s hodgepodge approach to selection and display only serves as a missed opportunity for what should be a landmark exhibition.


Oh, Canada is on view at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams, Massachusetts, until April 1, 2013.



1. From the exhibition gallery guide.

2. Jori Finkel, “The biennial fights for attention—and relevance,” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-changing-art-biennials-20120722,0,5565755.story?page=1, accessed July 22, 2012.

3. Paco Barragán, “Push to Flush: The Blandness of Biennials,” Art Pulse, http://artpulsemagazine.com/push-to-flush-the-blandness-of-biennials, accessed July 22, 2012.

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