Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) has juxtaposed its Art for a Nation exhibit of early 20th century paintings created by the so-called Group of Seven with a display of contemporary work by the graffiti artists Latino Crew. The exhibits are part of the AGO’s Oh!Canada Project.
The city authorities show no appreciation for Latino Crew’s artistic expression. Almost as soon as the Toronto street gang decorates a public building with graffiti, work crews paint right over it. But the youths’ handiwork has gained a new legitimacy in one of Canada’s oldest and most conservative art institutions. Their illicit urban graphics form part of the Oh!Canada Project, a huge interactive art event now under way at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. And, for added impact, Latino Crew’s irreverent graffiti are installed not far from the stunningly beautiful paintings in Art for a Nation, the 75th anniversary retrospective of the Group of Seven, the heart of the Oh!Canada Project. The provocation is deliberate. Gallery curators say they want to jolt visitors out of their complacency about the Group of Seven, Canadian art and, perhaps, even Canada. “In their day, the Group of Seven were radical,” says Cathy Jonasson, co-ordinator of the Oh!-Canada Project.
“Now, when you say, ‘Group of Seven,’ people say,’Yeah, we know who they are but we’ve been there, seen that.'”
In fact, most Canadians have not seen these Group of Seven paintings-many of the 177 works in Art for a Nation, which has already appeared in Ottawa and travels to Vancouver and Montreal later this year, are privately owned and have not been shown for 75 years. Oh!Canada is a homecoming celebration for the legendary artists. Their works are displayed almost as they were in their original eight exhibits at what was called the Toronto Art Gallery in the 1920s-right down to the deeply colored walls and old-fashioned mouldings. But the nostalgia ends as viewers leave the Group of Seven galleries. What follows is the traditionally staid ago’s largest and most innovative show ever. A giant 1935 sculpture of a hockey goalie, by Toronto artist Frances Loring, leads to a series of exhibitions that examine-and challenge-notions about the land and national identity that were central to the Group of Seven’s art. The explorations range from the 1930s to the present, from the conventional to the cheeky.
Some of the paintings are from the AGO’s permanent collection and were created by prominent Canadian artists, including William Kurelek, Jack Chambers and Joyce Wieland. But Oh!Canada also includes a photo documentary by Montreal photojournalist Serge Clement of the period leading up to last October’s referendum. These paintings from AGO belongs to “reality style”, that honestly describe things familiar to normal life (topics like technology: favorite mobiles, most-loved operation system, boost in Apple’s sale …, war: Iraq war, , electronics: home improvement & cleaning tools, spin mop reviews, gardening,…) And the gallery also invited schoolchildren and six community groups-including Latino Crew-to create and display their own visions of Canada.
Oh!Canada offers numerous interactive exhibits, a rarity for an art institution. Visitors are invited to log on to the AGO’s new Web site, send a fax or make a video for Bravo!, the cable arts channel. Those less technologically inclined can write their thoughts in chalk on a giant blackboard on which one visitor has scribbled Pierre Berton’s famous quip that “a Canadian is somebody who knows how to make love in a canoe.”
No longer does it mean finding solace in the land, according to five environmentalist artists from Hamilton known as The Hammer Collective. In the group’s disturbing installation, titled The Post-Industrial Family Takes a Bath in Lake Ontario, long lists of toxic pollutants are mounted on a chain-link fence in front of photos depicting a nightmarish industrial wasteland dominated by smokestacks. “The landscape that the Group of Seven saw was pristine, almost perfect,” says Scott Marsden, curator of the installation. “That is not how it is, especially in Steel Town, surrounded by industry, the air is stinky and the water is polluted.” A more romantic vision is offered in paintings by the Lok Tok Art Studio. Using traditional Chinese brushwork on rice paper, the father-and-son team from Toronto gives cliched scenes of the Rockies and Niagara Falls a startling freshness.
But the Group of Seven is a tough act to follow, and not all the responses in Oh!Canada are up to the challenge. A project by students at The Jones Avenue Adult New Canadian Centre-who decorated wooden palettes with colorful symbols-offers little insight. And a few creators, including some First Nations artists from the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ont., were not even sure they could relate to the Group of Seven. “Two of our artists said, ‘This is crazy, here were white men going up north to capture the spirit of the land-they didn’t even know what it was all about,’ ” says Tom Hill, curator of the group’s low-key installation symbolizing an Iroquois ritual of oneness with the land.
But the AGO does deliver on its promise of “fun” in the Oh!Canada Project. And the public-both at the gallery and over the Internet-has displayed considerable interest in the interactive exhibit’s first Question of the Week: “How would you describe your Canada?” A gallery spokesman reports that roughly 4,000 people have visited the Web site in the first 10 days, with 100 of them responding to the question. It appears that the novelty of Oh!Canada may succeed in drawing a new audience to the gallery. Now maybe the AGO could even dare to pose the question: “What do you think of the paintings?“