"I want the effect of my art to be as if I had taken a camera and spun around 360 degrees, so that I take in everything in all directions," was the way Wanda Koop spoke 35 years ago about her ambitions as an artist in the wide-open spaces of the Prairies.
In a professional career now in its fourth decade, she has set about to realize that ambition. And, on the basis of On the Edge of Experience, her survey show that just opened at the National Gallery in Ottawa, she seems to have become that all-seeing eye.
The exhibition (co-mounted with the Winnipeg Art Gallery) culls paintings from the multiple major series the artist has produced since 1986 and creates a brand new and compelling exhibition.
Koop is astonishingly inventive, both in the number and scale of her production. Green Zone, an ongoing series that began as a reaction to the Iraq War in 2003, numbers more than 200 works in various dimensions. When she made an exhibition for the Pool of the Black Star room in the Manitoba Legislature in 1983, she constructed and arranged 144 running feet of painting on plywood.
She has never been reluctant to use unconventional materials: In addition to plywood, she has painted on upholstery and convertible-car-top fabric. For 10 years in the eighties, she painted on 8-foot-square sheets of plywood and produced a remarkable number of series, including Nine Signs, Northern Suite, Flying to the Moon and No Words. These last two bodies of work contain 60 and 55 paintings respectively, the largest of which is 16 feet by 12 feet.
Koop's wrestling with scale is not arbitrary. She said in Ottawa on the weekend that she doesn't "paint big just to paint big. My art has to be bigger than I am, otherwise it's just an idea."
What she paints is as varied as the surfaces on which she paints. In Flying to the Moon, she combined hockey masks with figures from the Beijing opera for a series of paintings that were unprecedented not only in Canada, but in the world. Her images are mobile, allowing one thing easily to become another. Distant shoreline fires grow to become a giant tear; a helicopter hovers in the air like a dollop of mercury; an attenuated yellow slit hangs in a monochromatic landscape in an exhibition of paintings and video included in her 2001 Venice Biennale installation, called In Your Eyes.
Koop is a virtuoso painter who achieves a disproportionate depth from the application of very little pigment. Her interests are tonal, not textural. For a landscape, she may use 10 to 20 layers to create a painterly atmosphere that moves imperceptibly from pale blue to peachy orange. These are extremely deceptive paintings, and evidence that one of Koop's accomplishments is to hide just how deeply accomplished she is. Tear and Flying to the Moon-gold fish are rivetingly beautiful paintings, combining simplicity of form with intricacy of gesture in ways that create a space for mutual co-existence.
On the Edge of Experience includes portraits, paintings of robots, landscapes, suites of drawings and a room called "In the Studio" filled with juvenilia, sketches, Post-it notes, photographs, studio objects, books and single-channel videos, as well as 14 maquettes, made by Steve Hunter. The maquettes recreate in miniature Koop's major exhibitions of the past three decades. It is a mesmerizing space, a combined archive and living museum that is like being inside the artist's imagination. The room offers a rich insight into the creative process without minimizing its essential mystery. What it makes clear is that from the beginning Koop's imagination has been fed by a variety of sources, especially her own work.
This omnivorous approach to art-making was nowhere more apparent than in the final room of the exhibition. Hybrid Human was made for this exhibition, and in it Koop combined large paintings, live dancers and recorded video to establish a visual connection between movement and image.
Koop has said she choreographs her work in the same way choreographers plan their movements, and in Hybrid Human she collaborated with Jolene Bailie to make evident that common inspiration. Five dancers move throughout the gallery space, both casting shadows and being reflections on the surfaces of five large works, which are at once full paintings and empty screens. It's a haunting hybridity.
Like everything else connected with this splendid exhibition, you can't take your eyes off it. Taken together, the painted, drawn and kinetic dimensions of On the Edge of Experience make it abundantly clear that in the quality and quantity of her work, Wanda Koop is the pre-eminent Canadian painter of her generation.
Wanda Koop: On the Edge of Experience continues at the National Gallery in Ottawa to May 15
Special to The Globe and Mail