Art school graduate Wanda Koop was within a hair's breath of signing a lease on a New York City studio when she changed her mind. Even though New York was the place for every young artist to be in the 1970s, she decided it was not for her.
"I realized I needed space and I needed my family," she said recently of her decision to return home to Winnipeg, Canada, where she still lives and works today at age 61.
Koop went on to achieve international fame anyway, with, ironically, one exception, the United States.
"Here, nobody knows her," says Denise Markonish, curator of a big new exhibition "Oh, Canada," opening at Mass MoCA this weekend.
It was to fill in that blank Americans have about contemporary Canadian artists like Koop that Markonish conceived "Oh, Canada" five years ago when she joined the MoCA staff.
"Why do I know next to nothing about our nearest neighbor?" she asked herself at the time.
Convinced from her slim knowledge that there was good art to be found north of the border, she spent the last three years visiting 400 Canadian artists, then winnowing that number down to 67 -- with a total 120 works of art.
Even with that degree of editing, the exhibition, which runs through April 1, 2013, is the biggest Mass MoCA has produced so far. It is also. Markonish said, the first of its kind outside Canada.
She talked about her travels, the character of contemporary art in Canada, the reasons Americans are ignorant of it and how the two countries support and market art in an interview at the museum recently.
Part of the problem, she said, is that Americans assume "Canadians are just like us, except that they talk funny."
As a result, Canadian artists get "assimilated," into the broader North American culture without their distinctiveness being acknowledged.
Canada also, she went on, has its own self-image problems.
She quoted Canadian media analyst Marshall McLuhan as once saying: "It is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity,
That ambiguity, she went on, arises from Canada's small, diverse population scattered over a vast, often forbidding landscape; a colonial history that is both English and French; and an economy and culture dwarfed by that of the United States.
Unlike the United States, where artists must promote themselves within the commercial art market to succeed, Markonish said Canada has a strong tradition of government support that allows artists to work and experiment close to home. While that approach encourages personal development, she said it can keep communities of artists insulated from one another, particularly in a big, sparsely settled country like Canada, with little sense of a unifying culture.
She translated these observations into an exhibition she describes as "just a snapshot" of what she found on her travels, a personal view of the Canadian art scene,
While she said some might find that presumptuous of a foreigner, her outsider status freed her from the pressure a Canadian curator might come under to include particular artists or to recognize particular trends..
She took the opportunity to acknowledge overlooked achievements in Canadian art, but did not want to mak the exhibition into an historical examination.
"That's not what we do here," she said.
She confined that aspect of her research to the 400-page catalog and built the show around work done within the last 10 years by living artists.
That meant artwork:
n Responding to a landscape both beautiful and terrifying in its vastness and extremes, like Wanda Koop's "Look Up," an arrangement of 42 abstract paintings in a vertical grid that draws the eye upward, as Koop put it "to where sky meets memory."
n Or struggling with national and group identity in a conflicted history, such as Mario Docette's scenes of British soldiers playing games on ice as the French-speaking Arcadian people they forcibly displaced from the Maritimes in the 18th century fled their burning homes in the background.
n Or using traditional craft methods to address contemporary issues, as Ruth Cuthand does with her beaded images of the smallpox virus introduced by Europeans to wipe out the Native American population; or Clint Neufield achieved in translating masculine objects of interest like automobile and outboard motor engines, into fragile, gender bending ceramic.
n Or taking on "relational aesthetics" as performance artist Eryn Foster was doing last week by capturing yeast spores around North Adams to make a sourdough culture to share with residents and bake "a portrait of a town in bread" in a wood-fired oven she had constructed outside the museum.
The art of other Canadians, Markonish says in her catalog essay, is "dense with layering and accumulating of ideas and materials;" and it focuses "on everyday objects;" or "delves into ideas of culture from the uncanny to the absurd."
Aware now from her research of all this complexity and vibrancy, she returns to her original question: "Why don't those outside of Canada know more?"
"Is this lack of knowledge a result of the fact Canadian identity assimilates into the international or American, that once out of Canada they are no longer ‘Canadian' artists, but just artists. Or is it the Canadian sense of not really promoting itself outside the country?"
In the end, she concludes, "It is most likely a mixture."