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Red is Beautiful was the first work Houle ever sold to a museum – what is now the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.Robert Houle/Canadian Museum of History

At the end of a large retrospective devoted to the Saulteaux artist Robert Houle at the Art Gallery of Ontario, there hangs a small but seminal painting. Red is Beautiful was the first work Houle ever sold to a museum – what is now the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. The AGO has borrowed the piece itself for display and taken its title as the name of this exhibition.

Showing a series of concentric, flat-topped pyramid shapes in different shades of red and pink, the 1970 painting could be read as a small example of the colour-field or geometric abstraction of the day. During travels to Europe, Houle had been inspired by the grids of the Dutch abstractionist Piet Mondrian. He had also discovered the American colour-field painter Barnett Newman and must surely have seen Jack Bush’s work in Canada.

And yet, already in Houle’s art, there was a sense that his point was different – that there was an element of symbolism to his abstraction, and that it sought something more direct than Newman’s spiritualism and more spiritual than Bush’s formalism. Sure enough, there is another early work nearby that makes Houle’s interests explicit: Ojibway Motif, #2, Purple Leaves Series, of 1972, features a column created by alternating chevrons, or arrowheads, in different shades of lilac. The artist was looking for a vocabulary that would somehow unite modernist abstraction with a sacred geometry inspired by his own culture.

Standing near these paintings at a recent media event, Houle described himself as committed to biculturalism (he grew up on the Sandy Lake First Nation in Manitoba, where he was educated in Catholic residential schools, and both his parents’ ancestry is Saulteaux and French). The retrospective is a large testament to that. His has been a long career spent incorporating and critiquing Western art in a practice devoted to Indigenous themes. Through the 1980s and 1990s, he added photography, text and figurative elements to make his points, but never lost a colourist’s love of pure paint.

In 1992, in Kanata, Houle revisits Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe.National Gallery of Canada

In 1992, in Kanata, perhaps his best-known painting, on loan here from the National Gallery of Canada, he revisits Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe. Houle makes all the Europeans in the famous history painting fade away in a monotone beige grisaille, while a pensive brave with his red feather and blue loincloth indicates Indigenous centrality in Canadian history. The image is flanked, like the Canadian flag, by bands of colour: A rich saturated blue for the French, and a strong, bright red for the British. Beyond the political symbolism, there is also much power in that paint.

In a more personal mix of the abstract and the figurative in Sandy Bay, of 1998-99, Houle confronted the residential school where he spent every weekday of his elementary years, able to see his home from its windows yet forbidden from speaking his language with his peers or his own sister. (Weekend visits and a strong family kept his connection to his culture alive.) The work includes a ghostly photo-based painting of the school and two actual photographs of the local priest and children, alongside two coloured panels that counter the realism of the school panel with an evocative Indigenous abstraction. In the larger of the panels, Houle repeats the motif of the parfleche – a rawhide bag, often decorated with quills – that occurs again and again in his work.

In 1983, in Parfleches for the Last Supper, he executed 13 small paintings, one for Jesus and each of the disciples, in which he inserted quills directly into the paper. The parfleche is a fascinating motif because it plays so effectively off the tension between the flat, abstract paintings Houle echoes and the traditional container, which would hold three-dimensional content.

In a more personal mix of the abstract and the figurative in Sandy Bay, of 1998-99, Houle confronted the residential school where he spent every weekday of his elementary years,Ernest Mayer/courtesy of Ernest Mayer/ Winnipeg Art Gallery

Houle emerges in this exhibition, organized by the AGO’s curator of Indigenous art, Wanda Nanibush, as a central figure both in advancing Canadian abstraction and in pioneering a new Indigenous contemporary art. In the show’s catalogue, there is a photograph of Houle in 1978 meeting Norval Morrisseau, whose invention of a distinct Indigenous iconography inspired the younger man. Houle’s own work would then move Indigenous art forward a generation by effectively incorporating contemporary styles and approaches. Today, the careers of Kent Monkman or Brian Jungen, both artists of mixed Indigenous and settler heritage, would be unthinkable without Houle’s precedent-setting work.

In crying out for land rights or denouncing historic betrayals, the work often becomes didactic. For example, collages using Maclean’s magazine covers from the Oka crisis feel too literal to make much impact. In 2007′s multimedia piece Do Not Open Until You Get Home, Houle uses a newspaper clipping and video to compare the introduction of smallpox to North America by Europeans in the 18th century with the U.S. decision in 1999 to keep small samples of the deadly virus. Here, he literally highlights the words in a historical letter from a British officer, who suggests that First Nations resisters led by Pontiac be given poisoned blankets.

And yet this kind of overt and informational approach is often rescued by Houle’s formalism. Do Not Open … is displayed alongside Palisade, a subtler reference to the eight British forts that Pontiac successfully attacked in 1763 – a move that forced the British to acknowledge Indigenous rights. Eight large, vertical wooden panels are painted in different shades of green. It was said that Pontiac gave the signal to attack by flipping over the wampum belt to show its green underside.

That tension between symbolism and formalism runs powerfully through Houle’s work, and sometimes he just has to laugh at it himself. A series of works intended to reclaim Pontiac’s name from the General Motors car brand includes a real 1947 Pontiac convertible in daffodil yellow (leant by Winnipeg collector Norm Dumontier). It’s a gorgeous piece of industrial design, offset by a strong red wall inscribed with Pontiac’s promise: I will stand in your path till dawn.

Are we to read Pontiac’s words as a threat to enemies, or as a simple statement of endurance? Houle speaks for past and present, for Turtle Island and North America, for Indigenous and settler cultures as they stand today: Imperfectly reconciled but actively bicultural.

He’s 74 and, like Pontiac, his art is not going away. The most recent work in this exhibition dates to 2021.

The tension between symbolism and formalism runs powerfully through Houle’s workChristopher Dew/Art Gallery of Ontario

Red is Beautiful continues to April 17 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It will tour to the Winnipeg Art Gallery and Contemporary Calgary in 2022, and spend 2023 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.