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Maxine Noel, "Winter's Gift," 2005, gouache on paper, 21" x 17.75".
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"Mother and Child"
Maxine Noel, "Mother and Child," 2005, acrylic on canvas, 20" x 24".
Wah-sa Gallery, Winnipeg
October 29 — November 12, 2005
By Amy Karlinsky
Maxine Noel's recent work at the Wah-sa Gallery comprises seventeen paintings in acrylic and gouache. These pleasing, soft arrangements of curvilinear and lyrical forms in analogous colour schemes highlight a female figure or face in relation to a construct or concept of nature. The seasons, the spirits, and familial relationships are the well-known subject matter or iconography of Noel's art. She has a penchant for the decorative, the harmonious, and the balanced pattern — an approach to art making, one senses, that recognizes the importance of the image to instill an attitude of beauty, hope, and optimism. It's not surprising after looking at the paintings to learn that Ioyan Mani (Noel's Aboriginal name) also designs fabric, is involved with dance and set design, and that her art cards are popular gift items. Walking in from downtown Winnipeg's dismal concrete streetscape, the show's effect is like an unexpected sun shower. The small number of works, their commitment to unity, and their consistent treatment and subject matter make this a refreshing and replenishing view. I particularly like the miniscule nature of some of the paintings, perfect for hanging in those small crevices of domestic space.
Noel's exhibition, which includes new works and a few older examples from her previous Wah-sa exhibition, has been hung at the front of the rectangular gallery. The paintings are supported by an installation of works by female Woodlands artists in the centre of the gallery, the ever popular Collector's Corner on the back wall, and the presence of an intriguing collection of oil paintings by Plains artist Linus Woods. Just a stone's throw away from Portage and Main, Wah-sa Gallery is committed to showcasing works by both emerging and mature Aboriginal artists — underscoring the fact that Winnipeg has the fastest growing Aboriginal population in Western Canada.
While Noel's paintings bring with them the reassurance and confidence of an artist who is certain about her place in creation and clear about past and future directions, the Stratford-based artist who was born on the Bird Tail First Nation in Manitoba may be better known to some for her political activism and her important public commitment to positive role modeling. She recently chaired the Winnipeg venue for the Aboriginal Achievement Awards and she is active in raising awareness of issues related to education. A superficial read might suggest a decorative, passive, or sexualized generalization of the female form — one decried by feminist artists of the 1970s and 1980s. But Noel is not engaged in contemporary critical debates in the visual arts. Her practice, from my totally "othered" perspective as an outsider, seems more attuned to the seven sacred teachings — what respect, humility, and honour might look like in paint. While "woman" is the ostensible emphasis of each work, sustained viewing reveals that these dematerialized bodies are inextricably linked to the forces or spirits of nature. It is here that the intersection of art, spirituality, and politics are made manifest.
As a postscript to the Noel show, the handful of Linus Wood's bold, saturated-colour paintings engages art, politics, and spirituality with a savvy street smart sensibility. He treats the Reservation landscape as the site for projections of oral history, fantasy, and science fiction — a darker counterpoint to Noel's lighter motifs.