Photo by Don Hall, courtesy of the MacKenzie Art Gallery.
13 Coyotes: Edward Poitras
Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, Saskatchewan
January 21 to April 22, 2012
by John G. Hampton
Dominating much of the Mackenzie Art Gallery is 13 Coyotes - a look at new works by one of Canada's most treasured artists, Edward Poitras. Curated by Michelle Lavallee, the exhibition has two distinct flavours in two different galleries. The Ipsco gallery room contains a condensed survey of pieces from recent group exhibitions alongside new works that have barely had time to dry. The Kenderdine gallery's installation offers an austere site of contemplation.
The Ipsco gallery installation has a museological tinge to it. The tightly knit works are accompanied by labels, velvet ropes, "do not touch" signs, desks and written material, the latter of which the audience is invited to read - or fill out as is the case with the “renunciation of citizenship” forms. The historical and political nature of this work, along with its condensed installation, might read as a retrospective if so much of the work wasn't dated 2012 (no small feat for an exhibition which opened twenty-one days into the year). Sadly, Poitras has never had a retrospective of his work mounted. For a Governor General’s Award holder who also was the first aboriginal artist to represent Canada at the Venice biennale, this seems a quizzical omission. There appears to be an attempt made in this half of the exhibition to rectify this representational gap in some small way, but the room - while still very accomplished - is left physically crowded and theoretically over-extended from the effort.
Contrary to the dense analytical space offered in the Ipsco gallery, the Kenderdine gallery is sparsely populated with discreet arrangements that inspire a quiet reverence. The two breathtaking installations in this room, Tree and Ground, are what sets 13 Coyotes apart as a truly powerful exhibition. In them, Poitras fully capitalizes on his ability to strike every analytic bone out of his audience - which is both impressive and distressing - when entering with the express purpose of dissecting the exhibition for review. The majority of this room is occupied by Ground, an installation that incorporates tightly bound cloth molded into the form of coyotes, and a large circle of rice populated by several stones framing a coyote sculpture assembled from the bones of a baker’s dozen of coyotes. On each wall is a painted door with a single word in Helvetica bold: BULL, LION, EAGLE, MAN. These words refer to the four constellations/cardinal directions that mark the 26,000 year calendar of the procession of the equinox.
This notion of extended time also arises in the cloth-bound coyote sculpture in Ground that appears to pass through a portal. In his artist talk, Poitras used the portal to reference quantum tunneling, a phenomenon that demonstrates that even the most unlikely events have an infinitesimally small chance of occurring. If one were to try long enough to pass through a wall, they eventually will. This devotion to faith and patience is seen throughout the room, through the use of prayer cloths, keys to unseen locks and other astrological, physical and spiritual referents.
Walking through Poitras' environment encourages a meandering and contemplative pace. The unravelled teepee of Tree inspires the desire to camp in wait for some unknown yet significant moment to arrive, while the visual momentum of the coyotes invites one to track a perpetually receding epiphany. Rather than attempting to pin down a meaning which only becomes less distinct when confronted directly, Poitras' installation beckons one to simply sit, wait and be. And it does so while meaning unravels organically - hoping for the revelation of something outside of our understanding of existence, for something seemingly impossible but statistically inevitable, for a preconscious understanding of what is to come.