My latest Akimblog post from Ottawa

ANDREW WRIGHT in Ottawa 06/21/11

Layoffs & Caravaggio at the National Gallery | Body Tracks at Gallery 101

posted by Andrew Wright - June 21st, 2011.

There’s been a lot happening at the National Gallery of late. Some good and some not-so-good. Let’s start with the not-so-good. Earlier this month it was announced that the NGC will lay off five of its curators. Despite some claiming that this was a result of the Harper majority and its austerity budget, these cuts had been in the works for a while and there had been much anxiety at the Gallery about them. One CBC report states that the gallery has eliminated twenty-seven positions since 2009. Until now, these cuts seemed to be only in the various visitors’ services including seven highly experienced guides and four positions in programming and education, not to mention the parking lot attendants who were recently replaced by machines. Apparently the cuts are to address a shortfall due to declining attendance. Layoffs, attrition, along with what is now the apparent subsuming of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography seem to be part of some larger master plan that is yet to be revealed.

On June 15, gallery workers and members of PSAC (Public Service Alliance of Canada) staged their own performance art in the form of an “information picket line” to draw attention to the fact that they have been without a contract for almost a year and that they are concerned about job security (no kidding) and the gallery’s “refusal to negotiate”. Add to this the ongoing dispute with CARFAC over copyright and licensing fees (which makes the gallery’s online collection Cybermuse utterly useless since the vast majority of works are unseen) and the NGC has a lot of things to sort out.

Caravaggio, David and Goliath, 1600

The tried and true way to generate revenue has always been the blockbuster summer exhibition and they opened their latest, Caravaggio and his followers in Rome, last Thursday. The show has all the right ingredients: a delicious back story (of a tortured artist who killed a man, had a tumultuous and violent life on the run, rich patrons who protected him, a price on his head, an attempt at redemption, a tragic death…) seasoned with lots of blood and gore courtesy of old testament narratives, a dash of homoerotic subtext, a healthy helping of the distance of time that allows even the most staid of gallery-goers to digest the shocking, and (to strain this analogy even further) it is all topped of with near impossible, yet luscious representational paintings. Much is made of Caravaggio’s “game-changing” approach to painting: his use of light, his dispensing with the preparatory sketch, and his eschewing of idealizing visions, preferring instead to paint from life. The paintings do seem incredibly contemporary. At times I felt like I was looking at photographic portraits by Sam Taylor-Wood: one fallen angel looks remarkably like a young Roger Daltry, in another Vincent Gallo seems to have modeled as David with the head of Goliath. The realism is surprising.

There are, of course, many other works and exhibitions also on at the NGC. Notable are the recent acquisitions of Terrance Houle and Sarah Sze, along with the small tribute exhibition to Louise Bourgeois. The National has one of the best collections of Bourgeois’ oeuvre, which one would expect given the presence of her colossal sculpture Maman at the front door.

Upon leaving the Caravaggio exhibition, I ran into Josée Drouin-Brisebois, curator of the Canadian Pavillion, just back from Venice.  She was pleased with the more quiet presentation of Steven Shearer’s works and the counterpoint it offers to the spectacle that is the Biennial. She reminded me that it was way back in 1982 that Canada last presented a painter at the Giardini: Paterson Ewen.

Ana Mendiata, Untitled aka Body Tracks (Blood Sign #2), 1974

In Ottawa, if the National Gallery is Goliath, then artist-run centres such as Gallery 101 are David. The difficulty of competing for attention and funds in the shadow of a national institution is obvious, but this doesn’t stop them from presenting thoughtful exhibitions deserving of attention. Two Ottawa artist-run centres (Gallery 101 and SAW Video) have teamed up to present Body Tracks, a group exhibition examining the art and life of Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta. Curated by Christine Redfern and Mireille Bourgeois, the exhibition includes video works by Canadians Jude Norris, Anna Peak, and Philomène Longpré alongside a film by Mendiata herself and original ink drawings from the newly published graphic novella on Mendiata’s life by Caro Caron: Who is Ana Mendieta? Mendiata’s life was as tumultuous and as tragic as Caravaggio’s.

Philomène Longpré, Xia, 2011

The novella and the video installation by Longpré are stand-outs in the show. Her subtly interactive video has us confront a charcoaled raw canvas with the superimposed image of a draped woman writhing, sleeping, stretching. Not unlike a Caravaggio painting, the three-dimensional effect is astonishing. Where Caravaggio would have young half-clad boys cast as biblical figures, Longpré’s single female figure is a moving allegory of both victimhood and feminist emancipation. It reminds me of a painting in the Caravaggio show by Artemisia Gentileschi - Judith Beheading Holofernes. The blood-soaked sheets beneath the near-beheaded head of her quarry are richly and gently rendered, and are so palpably real I felt as though my retinas themselves were stained. A painted testament to female power if ever there was one.

Andrew Wright is an artist and assistant professor of visual art at the University of Ottawa. Recently he won the inaugural BMW Exhibition Prize during the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival for his series titled 'Coronae'.

The National Gallery of Canada:
Caravaggio and his followers in Rome continues until September 11.
Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) continues until March 18.

Gallery 101:
Body Tracks continues until July 9.

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