We ventured up to Kleinburg today for a visit to the McMichael Canadian Collection. This is their 50th year. I can remember my first time there as a child on a school trip. As a boy I learned it was OK to make expressive paintings and to value the landscape as a subject. More importantly though, McMichael gave me a taste for painting, an activity I’m still actively engaged with all these years later.
For a long time I didn’t visit McMichael but I have to say on the last two or three trips up there, we have been greeted by excellent, beautifully put together exhibitions that have made the trip well worthwhile. Today was no exception.
The McMichaels (both gone now) were obsessed with The Group. A.Y. Jackson lived on-site in his latter years. Members of the The Group are buried up there. They even reconstructed the Tom Thomson Shack, the rough and tumble building Tom Thomson lived in during his last couple years on the planet. The blurb accompanying the shack informs us it is one of Canada’s most iconic buildings. It really says that.
All my life I’ve been hearing how wonderful Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven are and part of that has been enhanced by McMichael myth-making. When I was in university, Ron Bloore, then my painting teacher, joked “Canadians paint by numbers”, referring to the Group of Seven, the Painters Eleven and the group that wasn’t really a group (of which Bloore was a part), the Regina Five. Still, looking at the small Tom Thomson sketches in the gallery today, along with a number of works by Jackson and MacDonald and Lismer in particular, I was impressed at how many of them still stand up all these years later. The small Thomsons in particular are really great little paintings. I could go back and look at them over and over again and not get bored.
Of course today the Group of Seven attention is all on Lawren Harris, because of the exhibition on at the Art Gallery of Ontario for another few days – The Idea of North – curated by banjo picker, actor, comedian Steve Martin. That’s an exhibition I’ve been meaning to get down to see, but unfortunately I’m running out of time. In any case, Harris is not my favourite of the Group.
There were a few exhibitions on at the gallery today, but I’m going to focus on two of them. One is an exhibition featuring the work of Jack Bush. Bush has historical importance as a Canadian abstract painter highly influenced by the American critic Clement Greenberg and the “post-painterly abstractionists” or “color-field” painters or whatever you want to call them.
I’ve never found the works of Jack Bush all that compelling but I was interested in seeing a group of them together with fresh eyes. I liked that they were big and bold and colourful and held the courage of their convictions. I appreciate the historical context. No doubt Bush, along with a number of his contemporaries broke down a lot of barriers in Canadian art. Still, only a couple of the paintings really sang to me.
Bush is a big name in Canada, though, and clearly a revenue-generator for the gallery. The gift shoppe had an assortment of Jack Bush paraphenalia, including – and I included a photo because I just know you’re going to think I’m funning you – Jack Bush socks. They’re for those days when you really feel like keeping old Jack with you all day long. Available mocking several different paintings.
In the gallery next to the Bush works is an exhibition by Colleen Heslin, unaccompanied by any tchotchkies, items of clothing or other support material in the gift shoppe. I think the timing was good because there is a pretty clear connection between what she is doing and the work Bush and his fellow “color-field” painters, or perhaps I should say she references that niche in painting history. Here’s what it says on the gallery website:
Colleen Heslin’s paintings resonate with the tension of material and gestural complexity. The artist hand-dyes cotton and linen in small batches, and hangs them to dry, which develops residual surface textures. The stained fabric is then cut and pieced together – similar to quilt-making construction. Colour is in constant dialogue; the pure simplicity of isolated colour is central to every painting. Considering formal abstraction and craft-based methods of mark making, Heslin’s work thoroughly explores colour, shape, and texture, while acknowledging the histories of photography and textiles, and finding connections with the Colour Field painters of the 1960s and 1970s. Aspects of her process – specifically dyeing and sewing – are also inextricably linked to domestic labour, feminism, and craft.
These paintings do not immediately reveal how they are made or what they are about, yet each advocates for close and sustained reading. The work seeks the space of open interpretation, positioned between the unfamiliar and the familiar. Chromatic expanses and complex shapes play off each other to create paintings that are narratively ambiguous, yet intensely evocative and poignant.
The exhibition was riveting – and generous. Ms. Heslin has been busy in the studio making many new works. She has created an unusual and personal surface quality with her work – I want to say paintings, but they challenge that category. They refer to painting but are they paintings, exactly? Her compositions are spot-on. Her colours are at the same time subtle and powerful. When you look at them, you see evidence of the process. There are apparently accidental or residual marks on the fabric in some of the works, and and at times also complex forms derived from the dying process.
Curiously, I don’t think Heslin’s work could exist without the work of the painters her work refers to, and yet it is absolutely contemporary. This is the first time we’ve seen her work. It was a big show and there was a lot to take in, but at first visit we were quite impressed with what this artist is up to. I look forward to seeing more in the future. It’s well worth a trip up to Kleinberg for this exhibition alone.
On the strength of the yet another positive experience at McMichael we became gallery members today. We also stayed for an excellent lunch at the Gallery restaurant.