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Jack Pine, from Diana Thorneycroft's Awkward Moments series.
Jack Pine, from Diana Thorneycroft's Awkward Moments series.

Bob and Doug meet Tom and Lawren Add to ...

So," said the man with a smile to the dark-haired visitor, "it's taken a Westerner to come out and blow up our precious Eastern icons."

He was addressing Diana Thorneycroft, who is well and truly western Canadian - born in Claresholm, about 130 km south of Calgary, a BFA graduate from the University of Manitoba, a Winnipeg resident for much of her 53 years.

And while "blow up" wouldn't be her terminology for what she does - try "deconstruct" or "destabilize" - she didn't disavow his implication. "I said, 'Yeah!'" she recalled the morning after the encounter (which, she stressed, was entirely good-natured), her big, infectious laugh filling a Toronto Starbucks where we'd agreed to meet.

I wouldn't teach photography if they paid me a million dollars, because then I'd have to learn how to do it. Diana Thorneycroft

Prompting the exchange was their attendance at the recent opening of Canada, Myth and History: Group of Seven Awkward Moments, an exhibition of 21 thematic colour photographs by Thorneycroft that's having its world premiere through Nov. 29 at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

Located on 10 wooded acres in Kleinburg, north of Toronto, the McMichael may not have the largest or even the finest collection of paintings by the Group of Seven, Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and others of their ilk. But perhaps more than any other Canadian institution, it has treated its paintings of babbling brooks and whispering pines with a reverence bordering on the sacred. Indeed, thanks in no small part to the ministrations of the McMichael, our image of the Group of Seven is of this fuzzy aggregate of sainted, asexual guys, forever in plaid, toques and canoes, selflessly painting leaves for the spiritual nourishment of the nation. Adding to the sepulchral atmosphere of the locale are the shack in which Tom Thomson lived and painted before his untimely death in 1917, and a grove with the graves of Group of Seven members such as Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson as well as those of the couple who gave the site its name, Robert and Signe McMichael.

It's a pantheistic Valhalla, in short - and the last place one would imagine finding a series of diorama-like photographs using Group of Seven paintings, among others, as backdrops for all sorts of satirical mischief, mayhem and general naughtiness. Yet this is precisely what Diana Thorneycroft and McMichael curator Sharona Adamowicz-Clements have done, to delightful effect. (Heightening the pleasure is Adamowicz-Clement's decision to hang five or six of the original paintings - some of them non-McMichael pieces - that Thorneycroft scanned for her tableau assemblages.)

Thorneycroft has been in this territory before. That is, Awkward Moments deploys the same sorts of figurines, dolls and props, manufactured and self-made, against idyllic backgrounds she used earlier in the decade with her blackly, sometimes bleakly humorous Canadiana Martyrdom series. Matryrdom of the Great One, for instance, featured a screaming Wayne Gretzky, chained in his Edmonton Oilers uniform to a tree overlooking Alberta's Maligne Lake, as lions and cougars circle for the kill and Hitchcockian Canada Geese perch like vultures.

But here her touch now is lighter - the result, she said, of "just being really happy these days," of "having so much fun in the studio" and of "coming to really [yes!]respect" the achievements of many of the Group of Seven and especially Tom Thomson. "He was one helluva painter."

"I'm not dissing the Group of Seven," she insisted, eyes flashing behind dark horn-rimmed frames. "I'm just having a different kind of conversation than what we're used to. And the McMichael, I think, is the perfect place for that. I like to shake things up a little, so I just thought this would be good for them, even if they don't know it."

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