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Andrew Wright
Expeditions at the Ottawa Art Gallery
October 23, 2012

There are few words in Canada that, when paired, are heavier than "Canadian" and "landscape". Perhaps "national" and "pastime" is another pair that is equally fraught...

Instead of taking up the idea of landscape itself, Expeditions, a group exhibition at the Ottawa Art Gallery, attempts to establish as its subject the awkward relationships artists can have when foraying into spaces that are, for lack of a better term, "landscape-like". While denying any overt references to nationalism, common artistic concerns, or zeitgeist, curator Ola Wlusek has nonetheless assembled a group of artists who have had "encounters with places they experienced between the Canadian coasts", and offers a democratic smattering representative of emerging and established categories.



Katie Bethune-Leaman, Iceberg for Fogo Island When There are None

As usual, the ghost of Tom Thomson is ever-present. Peter Michael Wilson isolated himself in a cabin in Algonquin Park in a deliberate attempt to conjure Thompson's spirit. The folly is the idea is superseded by the success of his glass plate positives that reflect the arduousness of his self-imposed wilderness experience. Their hand-made and belaboured quality and the directness of their placement on the wall heighten their reading as artifacts of both his experience and analog photography itself.

Thomson is summoned again in a cryptic yet eerily evocative video by Stockholm-based artist Celicia Nygren that moves back and forth between scenes of an androgynous figure paddling a canoe in Banff and shots of white and red horizontal bands—which turn out to be a squash court. The artist is shown occasionally peering through that little window into the court, possibly as a nod to the tight framing of the limited views of vast space we are offered. Ironically, its position in a hallway display case makes it easy to overlook.

Katie Bethune-Leaman's makeshift foam iceberg sculpture works far better as a photograph, where we see her wearing it as both a costume and protection against the cold in situ on Fogo Island, off the coast of Newfoundland. The title Iceberg for Fogo Island When There Are None masks a heartfelt yet futile gesture that is nonetheless powerful in its simplicity. It's no wonder, then, that this image gets taken up as the frontispiece of the exhibition. It also establishes expectations for the show that are difficultly met.

Penny McCann's Crashing Skies is a remarkably straightforward and engaging rumination on the use of inverted (negative) video. Southwestern Ontario's farmland bucolics are thoroughly turned upside-down. Daniel Young and Christian Giroux's monumental sculpture Mr. Smith is undeniably both impressive and satisfying, but it dominates the exhibition to the point where it appears as its own show. Except for the fact that it is vaguely reminiscent of a pair of icebergs, it too fits awkwardly into another stated premise of the show: "a musing on potential gaps in the current representations of the Canadian wilderness."


Ottawa Art Gallery: http://www.ottawaartgallery.ca/
Expeditions continues until January 13.


Andrew Wright is an artist based in Ottawa and the Interim Chair of the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Ottawa. He has exhibited widely and is the recipient of numerous awards. He was recently elected a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. He is Akimblog's Ottawa correspondent.

 

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