BUILDERS: CANADIAN BIENNIAL
National Gallery of Canada
Nov. 2, 2012 to Feb. 18, 2013
By Murray Whyte
The National Gallery of Canada, with its $8-million annual acquisition budget, buys a fair amount of stuff, a good chunk of it Canadian, and an increasing amount of that contemporary. That this comes as Canadian art of the current moment enjoys a more significant international profile than ever before is no coincidence, maybe, but great big federal institutions don’t tend to be first in on such things, so good on them.
Better still that they’ve committed to actually showing us where the money goes. Starting in 2011, the gallery decided to mount a “Canadian Biennial.” The label is a little ambitious for the two exhibitions it’s thus far produced, but what’s wrong with a little chutzpah, anyway? And besides, it sounds a lot better than “stuff we bought the past couple years,” doesn’t it?
In any case, Canadian Biennial 2.0 is called Builders, and opaque though the title may seem, it’s relevant to the assemblage of works. This will be a relief to those who chafed at the shoulder shrugging of the first biennial, It Is What It Is. It shouldn’t. That first instalment was more dynamic, eclectic and generally energizing than the latest, and although it eschewed the notion of an over-arching thematic framework – quite consciously, I’m sure; one of the exciting things about the current moment in Canadian art is its dizzying breadth of trend-bucking – It Is What It Is felt bracingly up-to-the-moment. It nailed it.
Builders almost feels like an apology for that looseness. This is not to say it’s less than chock-full of good work – just that its priorities are clear almost to the point of rigidity. In room one, Evan Penny’s monumental, stark-naked male figure, Jim Revisited, gruesomely life-like yet just enough askew to forbid your mind from resolving what is right in front of your eyes, overpowers. Just as monumentally scaled is Vancouver-based Myfanwy MacLeod’s nearby Everything Seems Empty Without You. Like Jim, it takes “builders” literally, as hands-on material exploration, but with its mysterious assemblage of oil drums, piping and modular crates – à la Donald Judd – it trades Penny’s visceral-perceptual hoodwink for playful conceptualism.
About that Builders thing: It’s both explicit and implicit. Pains have been taken to shore up the foundations of the last decade or so, and Builders makes the case that nothing comes from nowhere. To that point, a generous display by Vancouver’s Jim Breukelman, who founded the photography program at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in 1967.
To suggest Breukelman may have had some influence on the generation of photoconceptual artists that gave the city international brand-name recognition in the ’80s and ’90s seems an understatement. So it is a surprise that his 1987 series, Hot Properties, photographs of unremarkable postwar Vancouver bungalows, is the first work of his the gallery has acquired. But then, where It Is What It Is was about splashy currency, Builders seems more about deepening that au courant surface.
To that point, is the small suite by Calgary painter Chris Cran, who has toyed with notions of realism, representation and mechanical reproduction since the ’80s. These black-and-white works, made in 2011, are dark ink and acrylic on foam core, but resemble nothing so much as mysterious images printed from damaged film negatives – a builder, building on his past to somewhere new.
Several juxtapositions foreground ideas of influence, synergy and the continuum of contemporary artistic production – Breukelman’s work installed near one of Ed Burtynsky’s alarming American cityscapes and Mark Ruwedel’s lonely images of California desert with youngsters Daniel Young and Christian Giroux’s film, Every Building in Toronto, form a contemplative cluster of the subtle subliminality of the banal. Builders may lack flash, but it makes the point that contemporary art in this country, finally, demands not only looking forward, but also back.