Inside the museums infinity goes up on trial/ Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while. – Bob Dylan
Visions of Johanna (1966)
You don’t see the word “beauty” or “beautiful” very much in current writing about art. Writers, reviewers and critics seem to find the notion of “the beautiful” as vague, soppy, old-fashioned, even faintly reactionary. Better, to their minds, to talk about “practice,” “gesture,” “discourse,” “conceptual strategies,” “the urban semiotic,” “relational aesthetics” and other theory-laden, sentiment-averse concepts.
Still, there’s a lot of beauty out there. If, that is, you don’t get too highfalutin’ about rigorously defining the beautiful and see it instead as being about the way a thing should appear, sound, read – be it a painting, an art installation, a performance by Marina Abramovic, a recording by Swans or the Beatles, or a James Salter sentence with just the right simile. Of course, one person’s thing possessing this poise of intellect and feeling, body and mind, agitation and consolation may, could, to another pair of eyes or ears, be kitsch, an utter muddle.
The beauty of beauty is that, yes, it is in the eye of the beholder. But that shouldn’t be so much the end of the matter as the beginning: While opinions and judgments can be held in a democratic society, they should also be defended and maybe, in that process, even changed. Who knew? Celebrating beauty – articulating it, debating it, engaging with it – is duty of citizenship.
Anyhow, one of the best places to experience beauty or to hone your notions of the beautiful is the art gallery, in either of its public or commercial incarnations. If a house is a machine for living in, a gallery’s a machine for the manufacture of beauty and meaning. Here are four exhibitions, continuing or upcoming, in locations across Canada with that “sacred touch of beauty."
Vivian Maier: Photographs of Children
Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto, through Sept. 13
Undiscovered until after her death at 83 in 2009, Vivian Maier is now recognized as one of the greats of modern street photography, someone to be spoken of in the same breath as Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Helen Levitt. Reclusive, secretive, mysterious, Maier spent most of her adult years as a nanny, working mostly in Chicago and New York. Unsurprisingly, children frequently found their way into the viewfinder of her Rolleiflex. A selection of 53 of Maier’s photographs of kids, drawn from Chicagoan Jeffrey Goldstein’s extensive collection, is currently on exhibition and for sale in Toronto.
W.C. Fields once recommended that adult actors “never work with children or animals.” Here, Maier embraces and realizes Fields’ worst nightmare: working with a charming preschooler and not one but two mutts to prove cute can be beautiful in New York (Girl with Puppies) (1950).
Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Banff, through Oct. 19
Art-making by contemporary First Nations creators has achieved a cultural centrality that it didn’t have even a decade ago, when it was ghettoized in public institutions and aboriginal-themed commercial galleries.
This ambitious exhibition, drawn from the Whyte’s own resources and those of several private and public collections, features more than 100 works in seemingly every idiom, including painting, installation, audio-visual and sculpture, from artists living and dead, famous and otherwise.
One of the show’s highlights is Running Eagle Blackfeet Warrior Woman, a 2011 coloured pencil drawing by the Montana-raised Terrance Guardipee, 46. It’s both a revival and update of the Plains Indian ledger art tradition that experienced its greatest flowering in the last half of the 19th century in the United States. Ledger art was largely a male preserve, as was engaging in combat, be it against other tribes or the U.S. cavalry – but here, drawing on a Blackfoot tribal cash disbursement ledger from the late 1950s, Guardipee portrays a proud-postured woman deftly firing an arrow while riding side-saddle! (The historic Running Eagle was born Brown Weasel Woman in the early 19th century in what is now southern Alberta, and died in combat around 1850.)
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Aug. 24 through Jan. 4, 2015
Jean-Paul Sartre once said that, come a cultural revolution, he’d let The Mona Lisa burn “without giving it a second thought.” You could sorta see his point. Sorta. Da Vinci’s beauty, after all, has been so overexposed and overconsidered through the centuries that, for many, it’s more fact-of-life than artistic thrill.
Still, for all its extremity, Sartre’s view points to how beauty occasionally requires refreshing for its charms to delight anew. Which is what the AGO is doing, in part, with its upcoming retrospective on Alex Colville, who, after Tom Thomson, is perhaps Canada’s best-known painter. The show, opening about 13 months after Colville’s death, features 100 or so works, including such familiarities as Horse and Train, Woman in Bathtub and To Prince Edward Island.
But, in the interests of recontextualization, some of these paintings are being hung alongside works (paintings, photographs, stills, texts) by other artists, such as Itee Pootoogook, Wes Anderson, Sarah Polley, Christopher Pratt and Stanley Kubrick. In addition, the AGO has commissioned three original
Colville-inspired projects, including a sound installation by
Montreal’s Tim Hecker and a video installation from Toronto-based Simone Jones.
Also of major interest will be the presentation of five never-before-seen Colvilles. A finicky worker, Colville often produced no more than two or three acrylics on canvas in a year. Occasionally – and unsurprisingly for an artist as process-oriented as Colville – a painting wasn’t completed. This work, titled Woman in Shower (1956), is one of two “studies” in gouache, graphite and ink, done in 1956 for just such an unfinished canvas.
Oh, Canada: Contemporary Art from North North America
Charlottetown, Sackville, Moncton, through Sept. 21
Beauty is a many-splendoured thing. And sometimes the quest for those splendours involves a journey. A literal journey in the case of Oh, Canada. The acclaimed survey of contemporary Canadian art was originally installed by curator Denise Markonish in spring, 2012, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the largest not-for-profit visual arts and performing arts space in the United States. Featuring more than 100 works by about 60 Canadian artists, the exhibition was a big success over a 10-month run. But when the inevitable calls arose to show its riches somewhere in Canada, organizers were faced with a big question: Where to put all that great stuff?
In the case of Atlantic Canada, the answer was: Spread the work among four galleries in three towns, and make an event of the experience. According to Fraser McCallum, communications manager of the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown, the 180-kilometre trek from his institution (where about 45 works are installed) to Owens Art Gallery in Sackville and then to the Louise & Reuben Cohen Art Gallery and Galerie Sans Nom, both in Moncton, can easily be done in a single day’s drive through beautiful countryside, “while still having time for lunch, refreshments and dessert.”
One of the more immediately arresting objets can be found at the Owens, on the Mount Allison University campus in Sackville. It’s Widow, a 240-cm-tall, life-size sculpture of a grizzly bear by New Brunswick-based Janice Wright Cheney. The standing bear, made of wool mounted on a taxidermy form, is covered with hundreds of hand-made velvet roses dyed various hues of pink. Nicely balancing art and craft, Widow’s at once delightful and menacing (look at those claws!), the bear’s wildness domesticated by its coat of roses.
Follow James Adams on Twitter: