A show with the self-titled pedigree of Alex Janvier – which had its debut at the National Gallery in Ottawa and is now set up at the McMichael Collection, north of Toronto, the maple syrup and moose of the Canadian art establishment – would seem to resolve the legacy of any artist. Add in Janvier's Order of Canada and his host of other honours and conspicuous commissions – most notably Morning Star at the Canadian Museum of History – and it would seem safe to say that Alex Janvier has reached the ranks of Representative Canadian Artist, which, if nothing else, is a fitting coda to the "Indian Group of Seven," the group of Indigenous artists with which Janvier was associated in the 1970s.
And yet, a phrase such as "Alex Janvier, Canadian icon," does have the twinge of dissonance. Although his talent has attracted as much institutional and private support as a residential-school-educated Denesuline man born in 1935 could hope for, it has also frequently been infected with the mix of patronization and outright ignorance that has characterized even our country's best-intended attitudes toward the aboriginal experience. And Janvier has never been shy about pointing this – or, for that matter, the worst-intended attitudes – out.
There was, for instance, his consulting with the Department of Indian Affairs in the 1960s, which ended with him quitting in disgust and protesting his treatment by signing his treaty number to the 80 paintings they demanded for breach of contract – a practice he continued for more than a decade. His complicated relationship with official embrace extended much longer. In between travelling to China as an official part of a Canadian artistic mission in 1985 and Morning Star's unveiling in 1993, Janvier produced some of his most openly and broadly critical works: He abandoned abstraction in favour of figures that tore apart his own past in a residential school, most notably Apple Factory, which starkly divides the canvas in a metaphorical exploration of the schools' goal to turn Indigenous children into "apples" – red on the outside but white on the inside. One of Janvier's most recent installations, the mosaic Tsa tsa ke k'e (Iron Foot Place), might serve as the most uncomfortably apt metaphor for attempts at reconciliation yet: Although it has pride of place in the main entrance hall to Edmonton's Rogers Place, home of the Oilers and depository for more public money than the Art Gallery of Alberta, on opening night it was partly obscured by a handful of garbage bins.
Perhaps this is just the Indigenous experience condensed into one man, although so simple a metaphor does disservice to both. The kaleidoscopic nature of Janvier's legacy does at least seem fitting, if only because his own paintings are so often difficult to reconcile, albeit in the vivid and arresting way of the best abstractionists. They grow from rich soil, evoke grand ideas and yet, the only truly adequate way of unifying them is Janvier himself, with his nearly hypnotic gift for composition.
Possibly because I spent my youth in the same northern Alberta landscape that Janvier still lives in, the metaphors that tend to linger over his paintings, for me, are largely drawn from nature. His favoured technique – sweeps, curls and branching lines, imbued with symbols that are often not quite perceptible at first glance, and set against plain, although often lively, backgrounds – has a certain symmetry with so many natural fractal patterns: the unfurling of a flower's roots, petals and leaves, or the flowing unity of a watershed when viewed from above.
This comes out explicitly in a few paintings in the show – Donislaz, named after a trapper and painted after Janvier took a flight over the lands he works, is most directly a landscape – but tends to work best at the level of suggestion. Blue Mobile, which leads viewers up the ramp at the McMichael, draws on both those natural themes: It could be mistaken for a pressed prairie wildflower if Janvier's deliberateness didn't impinge on it, letting it vacillate between a beauty both organic and uncanny. Big Fish Waters (L'ohwa'chok Touwah'), a four-panel commission for Cold Lake City Hall in Alberta, also swims in an intoxicating not-quite-there – somewhere between a shoreline map, complete with legend-like animal icons, and the spurted-out memory of generations puddling on the canvas.
The idea of asserting your experience into a space is another frequent suggestion in Janvier's sharp-edged swirls. Almost all his work evoke the feeling of something either emerging or disappearing, cutting through a void or in danger of being swallowed by it. A piece such as Untitled (1986), set against a stark white background, pushes forward, curls back, branches off, hardens in its core and then dissipates, a multicolour metaphor for any attempt to leave a mark, a primordial push to be remembered – that is, to have your experience validated.
It's this hint that gives Lubicon, probably Janvier's finest piece, its powerful resonance. It is arrayed across a vivid and vicious red – Janvier's reds are rarely anything but arresting – added to the piece in solidarity with the Lubicon Lake Nation's boycott of the 1988 Calgary Olympics show The Spirit Sings. (The Lubicon were in a fight with the government over resource extraction; plus ça change.) It blazes like a siren announcing "We are here," its protest context giving it considerable heft, while its central mass toes the line between purely organic shape and carefully carved symbol. Just viewing it feels comparable to an awakening.
Not everything is quite so big, of course. One of the distinct joys of Janvier's work is his ability to both capture and evoke the tiniest of details: Stand in front of Cold Lake Air, for instance, with its swirl of deepening blues, and see if you can't feel the sharpness at the back of your throat. But the through line of all of them is Janvier's rare gift, his ability to draw you back again and again, to make lines and markings transform as you look at them, endlessly shifting, relentlessly engrossing. It's as much legacy as any artist could ask for.
Alex Janvier runs at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., until Jan. 21 (mcmichael.com).