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Bilingual Banana, n.d., by Russell Yuristy.Handout

In a city studded with national museums, you don’t necessarily get much access to local art. Since it opened in its much expanded Daly Avenue headquarters in 2018, the Ottawa Art Gallery is working its way through something of a backlog of deserving artists. Its current offerings include two real veterans: Russell Yuristy and Jennifer Dickson are both octogenarians who live in Ottawa. And that is about all they have in common as artists, which makes for an invigorating visit to the gallery’s fourth floor, where their shows, which opened in February, have been held over due to the pandemic.

Chief curator Catherine Sinclair has mounted a mini-retrospective devoted to Yuristy, an artist of whom, I confess, I had barely heard, although I did recognize some of his more public work. Yuristy is a native of Saskatchewan and, in the 1970s, his interest in nature and his Prairie populism morphed into a project building rough-hewn playground equipment in the shape of animals. His fanciful fish, moose and elephants showed up in several Canadian cities before they fell victim to increasingly stringent regulations governing playground safety. The gallery has rebuilt an elephant slide to contemporary standards – it, unfortunately, has fallen victim to the pandemic, and must now be roped off.

  • Elephant 1, 1971, by Russell Yuristy.Handout

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But what is interesting for the adult visitor is to be reminded how the powerful school of abstraction associated with the Emma Lake Artists Workshops run by the University of Saskatchewan frustrated some artists to the point of folk realism. Yuristy was a close friend of the popular sculptor and ceramicist Joe Fafard, whose two small figures of his colleague are included here. Fafard first shows Yuristy as a depressed abstractionist staring at the ground, and then depicts him as a liberated realist after both Saskatchewan artists were introduced to the pop style known as California Funk. The show also features Yuristy’s own ceramic sculptures of horses and sleighs, his fantastical drawings of animal-like machines and his narrative paintings about his rural boyhood. There is also a room full of bright paintings of fish and animals dating to the 1980s, notable for the way they combine zoological accuracy with a joyous approach to colour and scale. The playground structures may be gone, but the vibrancy of Yuristy’s idiosyncratic vision is undimmed.

Where Yuristy is playful, Dickson is soulful. The Ottawa photographer, long known for her precise yet highly romantic views of landscapes, gardens and ruins, is represented here by The Credo Project, curated by Rebecca Basciano. It examines links between the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – through their architecture.

Dickson sets up trios of her lush and delicate photographs of churches, synagogues and mosques shot in England, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, Turkey and Morocco from 1979 to 2008. Comparing and contrasting, she uncovers interiors made physically intense by the soaring of vaults, the geometry of stonework and tile, and the chiaroscuro of light filtered through metal grills or stained glass. A few of these sanctuaries are ruins; others are historical sites; some are in use to this day. Their aestheticized images are free of any overt political intent, yet the multicultural implications can’t be avoided. The overall effect is of poignant triumph as a continuous human spirituality is achieved again and again through space and place.

Russell Yuristy: The Inside of Elephants and All Kinds of Things, and Jennifer Dickson: The Credo Project, continues at the Ottawa Art Gallery to Feb. 7, 2021.

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