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R.M. Vaughan: The Exhibitionist

Robert Houle’s Paris/Ojibwa explores history as a construct Add to ...

Robert Houle at the Art Gallery of Peterborough

Until Sept. 4, 250 Crescent St., Peterborough, Ont.; agp.on.ca

Now that I’m into my second year of this gig, I can tell you the best part of the job is the art, and the worst part of the job is talking to people about art – every damned day. But please, guys: not in the shower at the Y. Can we make that a rule?

The question I get asked most is: Where’s the really good stuff? (Like I’m a drug dealer). My perennial answer: Leave town.

Toronto, of course, is full of great art. But so are Hamilton, Oshawa, Oakville, Buffalo, and the very pretty town of Peterborough.

To wit, here are some shows currently on display in this fine, tree-lined example of old Ontario. Make a day of it.

At the Art Gallery of Peterborough, Robert Houle’s multimedia spectacle Paris/Ojibwa employs highly theatrical strategies to unveil (and deconstruct) a disastrous theatrical event from our not-so-distant history.

The complex back story of this exhibition is worth studying, but for our purposes the basics will do: In 1845, the Ojibwa dancer Maungwudaus brought his troupe of Mississauga (the aboriginal nation, not the city with the airport) dancers to Paris, where they performed for the troubled court of Louis Philippe I.

Like many such cultural exchanges in the 19th century, things ended badly for most of the dancers.

Houle brings this moment of ill-fortuned collision to solemn, moving life with a series of half-formed and tension-inducing sketches (based on Delacroix’s famous Cinq études d’Indiens, inspired by the dancers), a pulsing, morphing digital animation that takes the viewer from the rough terrain of woodsy Canada to an effete Parisian salon and on the swirling spirit world, plus, the show stopper, a huge re-creation of a salon, complete with ornate decor, urns, and a series of haunting painted panels. Go big or stay home is clearly Houle’s motto.

Of the many layers at play in Paris/Ojibwa, I found the painted panels the most moving. In each work, a shrouded figure, back turned to the viewer, stares into a far-off landscape, one dotted with trees and carpeted with tall grass. The cloaks/shrouds hang off the bodies like royal robes, but also like winding cloths, burial wrappings.

The invisibility of the faces is a sharp commentary on both the invisibility of this unpleasant story – one that nevertheless inspired works by George Sand and Charles Baudelaire, as well as Delacroix (funny how white history is preserved, while aboriginal history must constantly be retold, re-presented) – and, more important, the near-invisibility of the aboriginal participants’ half of the story.

Much could be made here of Houle’s exploration of history as a construct, a power game run and fabricated by the dominant party in the exchange. And Houle goes to great lengths to showcase the high artificiality of his installation (and thus, too, of historical assumptions). You can literally walk around the back of the tiny salon, touch the buttresses and nails and spilled paint; step backstage, so to speak.

But everyone knows that history is just gossip with footnotes – what struck me about this show was its quiet but palpable urgency.

The day I saw Paris/Ojibwa, a Toronto park was being occupied by an aboriginal group attempting to protect their ancient burial ground – a space now used, of all things, for stunt cycling. We never learn, do we?

Houle’s Paris/Ojibwa requires attentive unpacking, and some pamphlet reading, to fully appreciate all its layers of meaning and counter-meaning. But stick with the show, let it sink in. Art is the best teacher.

Sholem Krishtalka at the Art Gallery of Peterborough

Until June 26, 250 Crescent St., Peterborough, Ont.; agp.on.ca

While Houle busies himself with historical burrowing, painter/writer Sholem Krishtalka tackles our culture of instant history, particularly as it reveals itself via social media.

Excepts From the Lurking Drawings, a series of ink/graphite and watercolour works running up and down the AGP’s long “ramp gallery,” is a kind of best-of from Krishtalka’s ongoing series of portraits based on his friends’ self-depictions, mostly found on Facebook. My, the things people put online these days – party snaps, drunken sloppiness, sexy come-hither poses and banal time-and-place snapshots – and all of it gold in Krishtalka’s skillful hands.

Krishtalka blends the fluidity, and instability, of watercolour with hard, incisive ink marks, making for portraits (well, portraits of portraits, self or other-generated) that are simultaneously crisp and cutting and milky and loving. It’s as if he is looking at his friends’ photographs through hot, emotionally conflicted tears – and thus telling us far more about Krishtalka’s relationship to the subjects than about the subjects themselves. I don’t mean to say this work is egocentric, but, rather, confessional.

And, by employing ancient conveyance techniques (ink, pigment, water) to comment on the mania for digital self-presentation (not to mention oversharing), Krishtalka asks us to take a moment to reflect on how we choose to position ourselves; how much of our private lives we give away without consideration (such as the kind of consideration painting a portrait takes), or reflection.

Instant records may not, Krishtalka may be arguing, be worth the micro amount of code they take to create. Alternatively, his images are made with such attentive lusciousness, perhaps the artist is wholly enamoured with the new age of relentless overrecording, the non-stop flash of the Twitter-ready camera.

It’s up to you to decide whether Lurking is a celebration of digitally driven communities (all the subjects are known to Krishtalka), or a critique of their vanities. My guess is Krishtalka lurks with stink eyes wide open, but shaded by rosy glasses.

At other venues:

Group Show at The Cannery

Until June 30, 168 Hunter St. W., Peterborough, Ont.

A mixed-use space like The Cannery is perfect for this grab bag of sweetly weird art. My favourites are a set of poked and scraped Masonic/magyck diagram paintings on rough board by a mystery artist named Steppenwill. Someone’s been reading Aleister Crowley.

Steve deBruyn at Artspace

Until June 30, 378 Aylmer St. N., Peterborough, Ont.; artspace-arc.org

What’s more fun than a colossal, full-circle skateboard loop, painted with Easter-egg diagonals, metallic stripes and stencilled diamonds? One you can ride! Bring your board, proceed to grind.

Videodrome at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art

June 10 (starting at 8 p.m.), 952 Queen St. W., Toronto; mocca.ca

The legendary evening of mash-up, DJ-crash, video meltdown and montage mangling returns to MOCCA and stays up all night. Expect loud noises, epilepsy-triggering throbs of stolen footage, and no such thing as good taste. $10 admission.

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