In ‘Oh, Canada,’ artists make a new guide

Thursday October 4, 2012

Ruth Cuthand has created, in irridescent beads, the viruses that would have spread along with trade and brought ruin to her Cree people.

Both the beads and the microscopic molecules have an arresting beauty.

"She shows the tragedy in that beauty," said Terrance Houle. "These diseases are destructive and have been destructive."

Houle is a filmmaker, performance artist, fiber artist and photographer from Calgary, Alberta, a member of the Black foot and Ojibway nations, and he also has work in "Oh, Canada."

He has seen Cuthand’s work in Calgary, he explained in a phone interview. He met Cut hand at the opening of "Oh, Canada," and they found out she grew up in the town next to his reservation, and her father was pastor to his grandparents. Cuthand is from Little Pine First Nation, and her father is Plains Cree.

Houle grew up with beadwork, he said, and finds her new images immensely powerful. Through the exhibit, he talked with her about them.

For "Oh, Canada," Mass MoCA’s major retrospective of Canadian art, curator Denise Markonish has invented a new kind of guide. Instead of writing her own essays about each artist -- she asked the artists to interview each other.

After visiting some 400 studios from Nova Scotia to Vancouver, she had 62 artists in the show. Canada, she said, has a population the size of California’s spread across an area the size of America and China combined. Many of the artists she met, as she traveled coast to coast, lived in sparce places.

She wanted these artists to get to know each other.

"Many know each other, but many don’t," she said, "or know each other’s work but have only met once."

Each conversation links new artists -- Wally Dion interviewed Houle, and Houle interviewed Cuthand. Dion and Cuthand both work in Sas katoon, Saskatechewan.

Houle and Dion are friends; Dion is a member of the Yellow Quill First Nation, Ojibway.

His work at Mass MoCA builds thunderbirds, symbols of strength, out of scientific elements like circuit boards.

In Houle’s piece, a male bison stands immense and virile on the wall in solid black -- and the black drips from his beard and the ground beneath him and runs down the wall to a line of black plastic quart containers for oil.

The artists’ conversations cover a vivid range, Markonish said, some personal, some funny, some academic.

They had different conversations artist-to-artist than they would have had with her, she said, and even the ones who were reticent at first, because interviewing felt unfamiliar to them, enjoyed it when they got involved.

Andrea Mortson met Mitchell Wiebe face to face to interview him.

Her shimmering colors, mysterious objects and mythical beings seem to share a harmonic with his carnival spirits. Mortson’s paintings look out from tree shadows at a couple on a blanket or a lithe and naked boy kneeling on a skateboard ramp. In Wiebe’s, a lean boy with the hair sliding over his brow reaches downward into a swirl of mist and creatures -- as though he means to rinse his laundry with dreams.

"I’ve followed Mitchell’s work for many years," Mortson said in am email from New Bruns wick," but that was the first time I had visited one of his studios. The studio occupies many rooms in a bunker, and walking through it it feels like exploring a model illustrating creative thought. It’s amazing. His work in the ‘Oh, Canada’ show captures the magic of that space, but it’s fun to entertain the idea that I’ve been to the source."

Wiebe enjoys meeting and talking with artists and finds the conversations, and the meetings of ideas, rich ground for new work. "There are common threads to follow with new intersections all the time," he also wrote in an email from Nova Scotia; because he works in a bunker, he finds email easier than phone conversation. "Most of the work that I find interesting has an almost hybridized or mutation aspect," he said. "Everyone deals with ideas of fragmentation and morphology differently, and through language we can come to a certain understanding of the time we live in."

"A show like ‘Oh, Canada’ definitely creates new connections," Mortson agreed, "but really what I valued most was the opportunity to reconnect with artists across Canada that I already knew and to be a part of enlivening that larger national conversation, already in pro gress but often hampered by distance and resources. The opening was a perfect example of this; it had an overwhelming feeling of reunion about it."


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