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"Queen City Makes Bones of Old Memories"
Neal McLeod, "Queen City Makes Bones of Old Memories," oil, acrylic and collaged canvas on plywood, 2008. Collection of the Saskatchewan Arts Board.
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Neal McLeod, "Pîkahin Okosisa," oil, acrylic latex and collaged canvas on masonite, 2008. Collection of the Mendel Art Gallery.
NEAL MCLEOD, Sons of a Lost River
Art Gallery of Peterborough, Peterborough, ON
May 7 to June 27, 2010
By Gil McElroy
First Nations artist Neal McLeod is a multi-disciplinarian. Saskatchewan-born, he not only paints but writes, having published two books of poetry and a work of non-fiction addressing the history of the Cree people in western Canada from the nineteenth century to the present. Not surprisingly, McLeod is an also an academic, currently teaching at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario where the Art Gallery of Peterborough mounted Sons of a Lost River, an exhibition of McLeod’s paintings organized and toured by Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery.
The exhibition comprises works on wood and canvas created between 2002 and 2008. A couple of new works on paper were added into the mix for this incarnation of the show. But they’re not really necessary for they do nothing to contribute to the thematic power and dynamism of the original, Mendel-curated body of work.
For starters, there’s a gut-level approachability to McLeod’s paintings (many of which incorporate collage) based in large part on the decision to install a number of multi-panel pieces on the gallery floor leaning against a wall. And with McLeod’s central concern being visual storytelling, we engage with his work in a visceral and readerly manner, moving back and forth across the floor in front of the artworks as we view the fragments of shattered narrative contained within them.
The Cree spiritual figure wîhtikow. a dark, lost being of blind greed and rampant consumption figures throughout these paintings. For McLeod, wîhtikow stands in for the destructions that the colonial experience wrought upon the Cree people. Pîkahin Okosisa (2008), a large work on five joined panels, perhaps best exemplifies what McLeod can do with such metaphor. The background to the work involves the story of a flood that people believe killed a man who, upon his unexpected recovery, tells them of his visions of a troubled future. In McLeod’s painting, the wîhtikow is a devourer of people on the left-most panel, while the remainder of the work is swirling vortexes of agonized figures –some no more than faces – caught up in a painterly maelstrom. Loops of white paint striate the painterly plane, all of it teetering perilously close to a chaotic abstraction. McLeod punctuates the swirling madness with spaces through which black background voids become apparent. In Pîkahin Okosisa, nothingness is the likely fate of the world.
Queen City Makes Bones of Old Memories (2008) references both the city of Regina and the 19th century export of buffalo bones from the region to make bone china. An aura of haunted faces surrounds images of the Cree leader, Big Bear and the provincial capital building. Into the painterly mix, he’s collaged a series of photographs of street and business signs which depict the name “Dewdney,” making textual reference to the 19th century commissioner of the Canadian Pacific Railway who made the final decisions as to where tracks would be laid in the province.
Chances are most of us will know little of the stories behind McLeod’s paintings. But knowledge of historical background isn’t critical to understanding powerful art. I’m specifically thinking of Picasso’s Guernica, inspired by the Spanish Civil War, which speaks to the universality of human suffering. We know powerful renderings of anguish and trauma when we see them without necessarily knowing the contextual particulars. So it is with these paintings of Neal McLeod.