NORTH ADAMS — It used to be that artists working at a distant remove from the metropolitan centers of art — above all, Paris and New York — had no real way of getting in on the game. Doomed to observe from afar, they were reliant on random reproductions and third-hand gossip, and had little hope of affecting the standards of originality and worth radiating out from those centers.
If the arbiters of taste and quality in the capitals deigned to notice them at all, they inevitably branded them “provincial.” Worse, these artists saw themselves that way.
Some, to be sure, responded defiantly: “Great, original art can be made right here — to hell with New York!” And yet they could never escape the sense that standards of quality and originality were determined elsewhere.
It was a double bind that created art not so much innocently naive and untainted by “imperial,” New York sensibilities as neurotically self-conscious, hung up on the question of identity.
What has changed?
Just about everything. The art world still has its commercial centers (to New York and Paris one could now add London, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, Los Angeles, and no doubt others). But these centers no longer have a monopoly on ideas or styles.
Everything has had a thorough shake up. Movements, for starters, are out the window. And when it comes to media and style, anything goes.
Yes, there are trends — too many of them academic, creating cross-continental clouds of depressing uniformity. But these trends have a short shelf life (“Relational Aesthetics,” anyone?). For the most part, the rules have been discarded.
The difficult thing now, let’s face it, is getting noticed. The number of artists competing for attention has increased exponentially in the past half century. We are all but drowning in art. And while it’s harder for some artists to get noticed than others, the factors that make it so are not always easy to make out.
Is it especially hard for Canadians?
I doubt it. Yes, Canadians live in the shadow of the United States, which no doubt drives some of them batty. But on the other hand, they have a system of generous government support for the arts, and they live in a wealthy country with great creative traditions.
And if it’s a question of money — of gaining access to the States’ wealth-driven system of dealers, curators, collectors, and museums — it surely helps that they live right next door, speak with similar accents, and watch the same sports.
Things ain’t so bad, eh.
So why is “Oh, Canada,” a survey of contemporary Canadian art that sprawls across large swaths of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, such a revelation? The show includes 100 works by 65 artists, all of them selected by a non-Canadian: Brockton-born curator Denise Markonish.
The exhibit is so surprising because Markonish made a great decision. She deliberately excluded some of Canada’s best-known contemporary artists — Rodney Graham, Janet Cardiff, Jeff Wall, and Stan Douglas, among others — and chose to bring to light less-established talent.
One symptom of the malaise we call provincialism is an exaggerated sensitivity on one side that rises in accordance with perceived obliviousness on the other. In selecting artists without huge international profiles, Markonish is trying to do something about that obliviousness. But precisely because she is an American staking a claim on who and what counts in Canadian art, her choices may incite controversy back in Canada.
As if to defuse potential blowback, she has included an amusing work, a kind of faux-naif music video, by a duo called the Cedar Tavern Singers AKA The Phonorealistes. The song they perform has a jaunty melody and folksy harmonies, but it’s the lyrics that place a nice, gently teasing frame around the whole show:
“What exactly is contemporary Canadian art?” they croon. “Is it . . . neo-lumberjack abstraction? Beaver dam earthworks? Something about universal health care (sounds so crazy it must be art)?” And so on.
The video provides comic relief in an exceptionally diverse show that otherwise avoids conceptual slapstick. Markonish has been nothing if not catholic in her selection. She has included subtle, soft-pedaled work by visionaries such as Michael Snow, at 81 one of Canadian art’s elder statesmen, as well as knock ’em down, lay ’em flat installations by the likes of Nicolas Baier and Diane Landry.
Some of the work is theatrical, and almost gaudily spectacular (among them, compelling video installations by Daniel Barrow and Hadley and Maxwell). But there are also, among all the space-sapping, multimedia works, plenty of strong paintings and sculptures by the likes of Janet Werner, Douglas Coupland, Luanne Martineau, Joseph Tisiga, Annie Pootoogook, and Etienne Zack. Look out, too, for a riveting animated video by Kristan Horton.
There’s far too much good work to list and describe in this review. So let me focus on three installations that struck me as flat-out masterpieces, and then a small fistful of less attention-grabbing works that have lingered in my mind.
The one undoubted showstopper is an installation by Graeme Patterson called “The Mountain.” Patterson, who was born in 1980 in Saskatoon, sees “The Mountain” as one part of an incomplete, four-piece installation dealing with male bonding. But this first piece is already fiendishly complex, and thrillingly ambitious.
Three structures — a snowcapped mountain and two houses — have been elaborately constructed out of improvised materials in a do-it-yourself spirit. They rest on rotating stools and a table, and are connected underneath by looping cardboard tunnels.
Inside the mountain, all in miniature, is an elaborate studio space, a kind of artist’s fantasy studio with table tennis table, piano, workshop, table football, jamming space for a band with a drum kit and amps, as well as an elaborate model of the installation itself, and three screens showing stop-motion animated films.
The films feature two characters, a buffalo and a cougar, in puppet form but also as full-size humans in costume.
Everything in this bizarre concoction relates to everything else. Even the houses to either side of the mountain have miniature screens visible through windows showing animated diagrams of the larger work.
Could Patterson’s work, when all four pieces are completed, amount to a homemade, low-tech magnum opus on the scale of Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster” series? It seems almost as elaborately weird. And yet it’s far more intimate and approachable. One thing I’m sure of: It won’t be long before the entire art world is talking about Graeme Patterson.
Not too far from “The Mountain” is a sculptural installation by Nicolas Baier, an artist in his mid-40s from Montreal. It looks like a fantastical image, laden with menacing symbolism, out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. It’s called “Vanitas,” and it’s one of many works Baier has made with the same title.
Most of the others have been in the medium of photography; this work, a re-creation of a banker’s or business executive’s desk cordoned off by a glass vitrine, is in slickly polished aluminum, nickel, and steel.
It’s a frightening thing to behold — a terrifyingly pristine but similarly lifeless version of the preserved ruins at Pompeii. It produces two simultaneous reactions: instant recognition, and horrified recoil.
Not just the ensemble as a whole but every detail produces a devastating kick, right down to the two pieces of crumpled paper by the trash can and the absurd tangle of electric cords beneath the desk.
Two galleries on from Baier’s “Vanitas” is a darkened room containing a mesmerizing installation by Diane Landry called (after Kierkegaard) “Knight of Infinite Resignation.” On mounted, slowly spinning bicycle wheels (recalling Duchamp’s famous ready-made), Landry, who was born in 1957 and is based in Quebec, has set plastic water bottles to which she has attached small, intermittently flickering lights. The bottles have small quantities of sand inside, so that when these makeshift windmills spin, the movements of the sand create a swishing, ambient murmur. The effect is haunting.
If, after all this, you have time to sit with “Solar Breath (Northern Caryatids),” an extremely minimalist film by Michael Snow (all it shows, for over an hour, is a window with a curtain that repeatedly billows out and slaps back against the glass pane), I recommend it; it’s unaccountably affecting.
And spend time, too, with the fabric sculptures of Luanne Martineau, the extraordinary film, “A Game of Chess” by Marcel Dzama, and Etienne Zack’s brilliant, large-scale painting “Silent Frames.”
Judging the show on quality, there’s no doubt that Markonish and Mass MoCA have shown Canadian contemporary art in a strong light. And for that, all of us — not just all those needy, attention-seeking neo-lumberjack abstractionists and beaver dam earthwork artists — should be grateful.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@