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'Canada's gallery' embraces its creative future

Digital Journal
Cate KLustanczy
May 26, 2014

Toronto- The McMichael Gallery is home to some great artwork painted by the Canadian Group of Seven. It's broadened its scope with live music concerts, a photography exhibition, and an upcoming art installation with the former "Naomi Campbell of the art world."
On a recent rainy spring evening, Toronto-based jazz singer Alex Pangman was belting out Hogey Carmichael’s classic “Stardust” alongside her band, the Alleycats. A crowd of about 70 people, of mixed ages and races, listened carefully, surrounded by the colorful, energetic work of celebrated native artist Norval Morrisseau. As the band stormed through the tango-flavored "Hernando's Hideaway," Pangman led the audience in call-and-response amid tapping toes, nodding heads, and beaming faces.

 "It's nice and also distracting to play here," Pangman exclaimed. "I hope the jazz doesn't harm the artwork!"

The McMichael Signature Performance Series, started last fall, is the result of a media partnership with all-jazz Toronto radio station JAZZ.FM91. “A number of the Group of Seven were musicians,” Susan Benton, Director of Marketing and Visitor Experience, explains via email. “The fact that we have this extraordinary woodland gallery space overlooking the Humber Valley that can be turned into an intimate concert venue where you can literally watch the sun set behind the performers just sealed the deal.”

The music series is symbolic of the gallery's attempts at modernizing itself for a new audience, though initiatives this year are still firmly rooted in what the organization considers a larger artistic tradition of presenting the best of Canadian culture. The gallery began as a private collection when, In 1952, art lovers Robert and Signe McMichael purchased 10 acres of land in the small rural town of Kleinburg. With an ever-growing collection of art by Canadian greats (including Tom Thompson and Lawren Harris), increasing numbers of visitors, and expanding premises, the McMichaels realized they had a treasure trove worth preserving, and in 1965, offered to donate the private collection (along with their home and land) to the Province of Ontario. Eight months later, the official McMichael Conservation Collection of Art was opened to the public. The current gallery is considerably larger than the McMichaels' original home, hosting thirteen galleries and some 85,000 square feet of space, but it still retains its intimate Canadian flavor, with wood and stone making up a good portion of its unique, cabin-like design. It also boasts gorgeous vistas of the lush forests of the Humber Valley. The gallery's permanent collection is made up of close to 6,000 artworks by the Group of Seven and their contemporaries, as well as pieces by Metis, Inuit, and First Nations artists. It encapsulates a typical vision of Canadiana: rural, welcoming, vaguely folksy.

New partnerships are widening that vision, however. As well as music concerts, the gallery has forged new alliances with edgier photography and arts festivals. This past spring marked the gallery’s first partnership with the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. Founded in 1997, CONTACT celebrates the art of photography with a range of styles and a wide variety of artist exhibitions throughout Toronto, and includes both local and international talents.

With an appropriately McMichael-esque theme — Canada’s great white north — the exhibition (on through June 1st) features three artists whose work and vision vary wildly, but come together to form a cohesive, deeply compelling whole. Arctic Exposure: Photographs of Canada’s North, curated by Sharona Adamowicz-Clements, McMichael Assistant Curator, Collections, and Bonnie Rubenstein, CONTACT’s Artistic Director, juxtaposes two subthemes: the Inuit people, and the land itself.

Adamowicz-Clements says the diverse choice of artists form a cohesive whole, showing photographers “who [...] provide as comprehensive a view as possible of the Arctic's people and its landscape. We wanted to feature photographers who have made an impact through their work, and selected those from our permanent collection (Norman Hallendy), the Inuit inhabitants of the North (important Inuk artist Jimmy Manning) and well-known professionals in the field of photography with an international reputation (Donovan Wylie) who reflect through their work different attitudes towards and understandings of Canada's North.”

With a mix of old and new visions covering one hundred years, the exhibition is a mix of faces, shadows, and shapes, offering the viewer a fascinating vision that effectively integrates both old and new creative expression. Nineteenth and twentieth century works by Robert J. Flaherty and Richard Harrington are placed beside the more contemporary work of Donovan Wylie and Jimmy Manning. Wylie's eerie, immense, Sugimoto-meets-sci-fi prints compellingly capture stillness and intrusion at once; they, along with others in the exhibition, play a role in shaping the way one experiences the McMichael’s larger collection. Viewing a Lawren Harris afterwards, for instance, one recalls the Arctic Exposure work (Manning's in particular), and shivers with wonder.

Further discovery happens in June, when the McMichael will, in another first, be involved with the Luminato Festival. A large annual celebration of arts and culture, the festival, which launched in 2007, features an array of international and Canadian talent from the worlds of film, music, dance, theater, literature, and art. A variety of artists (such as Isabella Rossellini, The Roots, Daniel Lanois, artist Matthew Barney, DJ Kid Koala, and dancer Louise Lecavalier) are taking part in this year's edition. The McMichael is set to host two installations by China-born, Canada-raised multidisciplinary artist Terence Koh, “tomorrow’s snow” and “a way to the light,” as part of Luminato 2014. The installations will represent Koh’s first solo show in Canada since his student days at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver.

“We are absolutely delighted to partner with them on this new venture,” Benton says. “Luminato is an extraordinary arts festival, built out of the same spirit of determination and hard work that started the McMichael almost fifty years ago.”

Koh, who once described himself as “the Naomi Campbell of the art world,” was the enfant terrible of the New York art world of the 2000s, his unique work and antics the stuff of art world lore. Koh favored using unusual materials to create his works (including blood, vomit, chocolate, semen, and lipstick), and his work was famous for its unique integration of porn, punk, and gay culture in both sensibility and aesthetic. Koh was a part of the 2004 Whitney Biennial and the 2008 Yokohama Triennial; in 2008, he was shortlisted for the Sobey Art Award. In 2010, he worked with Vito Schnabel (son of New York artist/director Julian Schnabel) on an art installation on Long Island, New York, made up of white totem poles and a see-saw. Schnabel told Vanity Fair at the time that Koh had “settled down,” that “his work is becoming for the kids.” Later this year, he’ll be doing a solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Chinese in America, and his work will be the subject of a major monograph from prestigious arts publisher Rizzoli.

With his Luminato / McMichael installations, Koh seems to have been inspired by Canadian culture; the idea for “tomorrow’s snow” sprang from a passage in Margaret Atwood’s 1988 novel Cat’s Eye, while “a way to the light” is a tribute to painter Emily Carr. While the former is ambitious in its plans to recreate the look of freshly fallen snow and will feature white-attired children making snow angels, the latter seems more intimate, with Koh’s installation set to take place at the McMichael Artists’ Cemetery, a peaceful wooded locale (on the grounds around the gallery) that is the final resting place for celebrated Canadian artists A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Frank Johnston, A.J. Casson, Frederick Varley, and Lawren Harris, as well as the gallery's founders.

“The McMichael is Canada's gallery,” Benton explains, adding that whatever the reason new visitors come — whether it’s Luminato, CONTACT, or a music concert — they’ll find something new. “Regardless of their motivation, once they drive up the tree-lined driveway and enter the one-hundred acres of grounds, with its unique buildings, Artists’ Cemetery, and Tom Thomson Shack, they are captivated.”