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‘Oh, Canada!’ shows the boundless arts of being Canadian

Detail of “Spills in Safe Environment,’’ a painting by Etienne Zack from the “Oh, Canada” exhibit at Mass MoCA.

CHRISTINE GUEST

Detail of “Spills in Safe Environment,’’ a painting by Etienne Zack from the “Oh, Canada” exhibit at Mass MoCA.

NORTH ADAMS — Denise Markonish grew up in Brockton and still lives in Massachusetts. She is a curator at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. She is, in other words, a local.

But Markonish has a treacherous heart. For she has fallen in love with — oh, surely it can’t be! — Canada. And after four years traipsing across that vast country, visiting more than 400 artist studios in search of the best in contemporary art, she finds herself in the unusual position of being an American-born ambassador for Canadian art.

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Opening on May 27, Markonish and her colleagues at Mass MoCA will present the biggest show ever staged there: over 100 works by 62 artists, all of them Canadian. Eh.

In a charming introduction to the catalog accompanying the show, Markonish begins: “I knew my obsession with Canada had gone too far when I watched the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011 and didn’t know which team to root for — was it the Bruins or the Canucks? And did I mention I am not a sports fan?”

Her non-Canadian friends, she writes, worried that she had snapped. She started saying “sorry” more often and even sprinkled the occasional “eh” into conversation.

“What started out as a quest to find art,” she continues, “has turned into an exploration of a whole country: I have tried poutine, Nanaimo bars, caribou, Saskatoon berries, and Timbits; I watched the aforementioned hockey, rode a skidoo, came to understand what a ‘dry cold’ is; I drove through Vulcan, Alberta, and Dildo, Newfoundland; I know who Grey Owl, Emily Carr, and the Group of Seven are; I know that Captain Canuck’s (Canada’s superhero) motto is ‘peace, order and good government.’ ”

Wait. Dildo, Newfoundland?!

Anyway, she goes on in this vein. Most importantly, she concludes, she knew that to install “Oh, Canada” she would need a Robertson screwdriver.

Smart. And yet, even with the right kind of screwdriver, the logistics of mounting a show such as “Oh, Canada” remain fiendishly difficult. Adding to the degree of difficulty, the show will contain more than a dozen new commissions, including a merry-go-round by the Quebec-based artist collective BGL, a functioning bar within an A-frame house by Toronto artist Dean Baldwin, and a life-size latex cast of a lighthouse by Halifax artist Kim Morgan.

And then there are the politics of it all. Swan into any foreign country and tell them you are going to introduce their best art to the world and you will make those with vested interests in that art — not least the artists themselves — very skittish. Markonish has trod as delicately and sincerely as she can. But inevitably, she has left out many artists others would have included, and included some that others might consider unworthy.

So she is careful to stress that the undertaking, despite its scope and ambition, remains merely a personal take on contemporary art in Canada. (A personal take that happens to have the full-throated support of, among other sponsors, the Canada Council for the Arts and the TD Bank Group.)

What’s so special about Canadian art? To start with, there’s a lot of it, and it’s not well known outside Canada. Unlike the literary, musical, and even comedic output of our great northern neighbor, the art side of things has not really registered.

There are some big names: Rodney Graham, Janet Cardiff, Jeff Wall, and Stan Douglas, among others. But Canadians, as Markonish points out, are good at assimilating. The more prominent they are, the less likely they often are to register internationally as Canadian. “I call them the secret Canadians,” she said in a phone interview.

Markonish made the controversial decision to omit many of these big names. “There came a moment for me,” she said, “as I dug deeper and deeper, when I thought, This show doesn’t need to be that” — a roundup of Canada’s biggest art stars just wasn’t the point. There was too much else going on that was exciting to her but virtually unknown outside Canada.

COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

“The Mountain,’’ a mixed media work by Graeme Patterson, will also be on view in the exhibit.

Instead of struggling to locate thematic or stylistic strains that are unique to Canadian art, Markonish focused on the simple goal of “bringing to our attention great artists who happen to be Canadian.”

Nevertheless, a curator’s job is to organize and make sense of what seems unwieldy and chaotic. And so certain themes, mostly unsurprising, emerged in the process. An interest, for instance, in the country’s native peoples and colonial origins. Also in the landscape — although for artists today, says Markonish, the landscape theme is less about nation-building, as it was in days gone by, and more about something that, if you live there, “filters in.”

Other themes include an emphasis on conceptualism in some quarters, and in others, on craft, or what Markonish calls “re-skilling.” Often, however, these two modes — skilled craftsmanship and conceptualism — overlap.

Government funding for the arts, despite a decade of cutbacks, remains generous in Canada compared with the United States. In the visual arts, says Markonish, this has resulted in work that tends to be more experimental and project-based and less commercial. Artists are linked by a vast network of artist-run centers and alternative spaces spanning the country, many of them funded by the Canada Council.

If there is a downside, it may be that comfort breeds complacency. “Part of why we know relatively little [about contemporary Canadian art] is that it’s very comfortable to make art there.” What’s more, the cuts that have been made to arts funding have mostly affected efforts to push Canadian art into the international arena.

As a result, says Markonish, the Canadian art world, for all its dynamism and vitality, is in a bit of a bubble.

She, and Mass MoCA, are doing their best to burst it.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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