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Carol Wainio, Plurial Possibilities, 1982.

Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal

To begin with a grand overstatement: By the 1970s, Western art was played out. Having pushed itself to the limits of abstraction, painting was declared dead while sculpture was so dematerialized it had almost ceased to exist. Then, in the 1980s, artists began to look backward – and sideways. Where modernism had been abstract, earnest and single-minded, postmodernism was figurative, playful and heterogeneous. It was a moment that produced a lot of dubious work, but perhaps we should thank it for the vivacity of the visual arts in the 21st century.

At least, that is the impression left by Painting Nature with a Mirror, a small show of Canadian painting from the 1980s assembled by curator Mark Lanctôt from the permanent collection at Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain. Here is art that is striving and uncertain as it pushes toward something new. Tellingly, half of these 21 works have never been shown since they were purchased more than 30 years ago.

Older viewers may be able to remember the confusion – or excitement – they first felt when confronted by art such as Ron Moppett’s Painting Nature with a Mirror, the work that gives this show its title. It’s a diptych of big overlapping shapes into which icons, such as a stylized sun, have been introduced and yet also, inexplicably, a naturalistic rendition of a garden gnome. The subjective, the personal and the introspective (hence Moppett’s idea that he was painting through a mirror) are disrupting what might once have been a big, gestural abstraction. Similarly, in The Song of the Shirt, Leopold Plotek provocatively incorporated silhouettes of garments, instruments or perhaps even limbs – into what would otherwise be a straightforward hard-edge canvas.

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Joanne Tod, Cultural Heroine, 1985.

Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal

So, if artists were going to abandon abstraction, what was painting going to look like? Here, the answers – interestingly, provided mainly by women as the machismo of abstraction retreated – are wildly varied and not always convincing. But they do point the way forward to a new sources of imagery and a new questioning of representation. Lynn Hughes painted a large and raw expressionist still-life in tribute to the early 20th-century German artist Max Beckmann; today, Lanctôt tells us, her work is digital. Wanda Koop offered the iconic silhouette of a giant plane about to roar over the viewer’s head – in an era where the word iconic still had some meaning. And in Cultural Heroine, Joanne Tod, that master of destabilizing perspectives on borrowed imagery, conjured up some unknown Asian politician waving at a Canadian crowd that seems to be looking elsewhere.

This was an exciting time, in Montreal in particular. Several of the works here were originally shown at various of the bold, site-specific interventions of the day, including Aurora Borealis, the decade-defining 1985 show that placed the best new Canadian art in the eerily bland environs of an unused shopping mall. Betty Goodwin, for example, is represented by a small fragment that she ripped from the walls after Aurora Borealis came down: It shows the head of a bruised naked figure who is swallowing a much smaller person as a fish consumes a minnow. (A photograph alongside offers a faint record of the much larger original work in situ.)

It’s a partial work, but it evokes the wounded humanity that was the subject of the artist’s many drawings of the drowning and the dying created before her own death in 2008. The celebration of such a highly personal and stylistically unorthodox practice was made possible by the left turn that art took in the 1980s. The decade ushered in a diversity that endures to this day.

Toronto investment banker Bruce Bailey began collecting art around that time and several mighty international and Canadian painters of the era – Eric Fischl, Attila Richard Lukacs, Paterson Ewen – are represented in a selection from his collection now showing at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Bailey likes representational art and photography, but otherwise his tastes are eclectic: Goya etchings, 19th-century Quebec church carvings, works by famous society photographers and contemporary Indigenous art are all included here. He’s a friend and patron of the MMFA and now the museum is returning the favour, bestowing on his personal preferences a certain curatorial rigour.

Ron Moppett, Painting Nature with a Mirror, 1985.

Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal

Curator Mary Dailey Desmarais creates a salon hanging in which portraits, including Christopher Wahl’s eyes-shut photo of the Queen and Robert Mapplethorpe’s image of Patti Smith gradually give way to nudes and erotic images. These include Richard Avedon’s naked portrait of the well-endowed young Rudolf Nureyev and Michael Snow’s Projection, a lithograph showing the outline of an erect penis. These face off against aggressive canvases by Fischl (Man Bathing) and Lukas’s double nude portrait Varieties of Cam, No. 2. In this context, Alan Belcher’s delicate little puppets topped with his own passport photos or Brad Phillips’s tiny figure of a naked man floating in a black cosmos bring a much needed whiff of humility and irony to the heavy perfumes of homoeroticism and machismo. (Phillips’s title is Homo Sum Humana Me Alienum [I’m Man, Feminity is Foreign to Me].)

In a side gallery, an interesting conversation about war gets started among unlikely interlocutors: Goya’s bitter etchings about the Napoleonic Wars hang beside Marlene Dumas’s Fog of War, simple digital drawings of the heads of corpses, victims of the so-called war on terror. Elsewhere, three spectacular examples of Ewen’s paintings of weather, hewn out of plywood, meet up with two equally inventive portraits of the moon by the Spanish artist Miquel Barcelo, who renders its pockmarked surface with three-dimensional impasto, and the German artist Kiki Smith, who etches it on glass.

Bailey clearly buys to please himself rather than posterity, and why shouldn’t he?

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Still, perhaps it is as a counterweight that the MMFA is offering, in the gallery next door, a tightly focused show devoted to three female photographers collected by Carol and David Appel. Here, Cindy Sherman’s photography of herself in the guise of everything from society matron to film-noir heroine or Renaissance Madonna are compared to Rachel Harrison’s catalogue of odd heads from dollar-store mannequins to plaster saints and hunting trophies. The show is overseen by a single photograph from Laurie Simmons, a huge but softly focused black-and-white image of a giant camera mounted on human legs. The work evokes early 20th-century surrealist collage, but it was actually created in 1987, another product of that decade’s multistranded rethink of art.

Painting Nature with a Mirror continues at the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal to March 15. Selections from the Bailey and Appel collections are showing at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to March 29.

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Editor’s note: (Feb. 11, 2020) An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the painter of Still Life inspired by the German artist Max Beckmann. It is the work of Lynn Hughes, not Sylvie Bouchard.

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