A Trip into Canadian Contemporary Art Scene

Canadian contemporary artists found a wider audience in Massachusetts last spring. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) presents more than 60 Canadian artists, including three artists from the Yukon, until April 2013.

Oh, Canada, billed as “the largest survey of contemporary Canadian Art ever produced outside Canada,” offers the viewer an adventure. If you would like to hear about the show, the Yukon Arts Centre will be offering a talk about it Nov. 19 at the Old Fire Hall in Whitehorse.

I made the trip from Whitehorse to Albany, New York, then drove an hour to the museum. Elaborately constructed models and miniatures, critiques of social and environmental issues and the first Michael Snow piece that I’ve ever seen that I really liked, made it worth the trip to get there.

It’s interesting to observe the show from a Northern viewpoint.

The sprawling halls of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) were renovated from an old mill with character. I often envy the post-industrial architecture southern communities can re-purpose for spacious galleries and this one’s vast and lovely.

We often think of Whitehorse as being in a place that’s remote. When you look up “public transportation” on the MASS MoCA website, it suggests flying to Albany, New York and renting a car to drive to the gallery, so it’s not easy to get to either.

I got my first glimpse of the Oh, Canada show when I stepped off the plane in Albany. Interpretive panels and plexiglass boxes showed me how Fredericton artist Janice Wright Cheney used cochineal to dye the felted petals covering “Widow,” her enormous rose-covered bear sculpture.

It was great to see Whitehorse artist Joseph Tisiga’s work exhibited near Toronto artist Shary Boyle’s. Both convey the dreams and anxieties of our time in a vulnerable and subliminal way, with Tisiga focusing on aboriginal issues and the well-known Boyle, feminist issues.

The Yukon contingent did well in the press. A review in the Toronto Star mentioned all three Yukon artists by name, describing their work and curator Denise Markonish’s adventures visiting them in February 2011. The Yukon makes a good story.

Of the four Yukoners involved, only Tisiga is still in the Yukon. Charles Stankievech and Eryn Foster, both former employees of the Yukon School of Visual Art in Dawson City, have left the territory, as has Lance Blomgren who wrote an essay for the catalogue, but tags beside their work still list them as living and working in the Yukon. Nunavut artist Annie Pootogook, is also still identified with Cape Dorset, although Up Here magazine reports she is currently homeless and struggling in Ottawa. Perhaps northern place names offer a sort of Canadian tour for the American viewers travelling to the gallery from New York or Boston.

This show intends to exhibit not just Canadian art, but contemporary art made in Canada. Here, the word contemporary is used to convey the subset of art that fits into a group of ideologies currently generated in urban university and art college settings. It’s a highly mobile, globalized movement. Whitehorse’s art scene includes contemporary art, but also embraces a wider range of ways of thinking and working.

Still, with more than 100 works in the show, at least a few will enchant you. Also, Oh, Canada is only one of five major shows in the gallery. There will be a lot to see. If you’re near that neck of the woods before April 1 it’s worth getting there. You can get a rental car cheaply on Hotwire.

For more information, you could catch the talk at the The Old Fire Hall at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 19.

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