Monday, July 27, 2009

Enjoying the Old and the New in Ottawa

So I went to Ottawa briefly last week and enjoyed some surprises—some new, many old.

At the National Gallery, I took in the Thomas Nozkowski, Scott McFarland and Nomads exhibitions, as well as the more art historical From Raphael to Caracci show.

It was good for me to see the Nozkowskis in person, but I must note that the gallery only included a very few works from the 1980s, making it difficult to buy this as a survey of the artist's 30-year-plus career.

The best part for me was actually the fact that one exit for the exhibition led to the 20th century Canadian collection galleries, where I wandered about afterwards and took in great works by Gathie Falk, Greg Curnoe, Claude Tousignant and (going a little further back in the chronology) Prudence Heward and FH Varley. It's really the permanent collection that left an impression on me this time around—ok, perhaps thanks in part to Nozkowski quotes around the long-term purpose and magic of art and seeing. In any case the collection looked very good and the galleries seemed well cared for despite renovations of a nearby courtyard. (Also... could we get a Heward survey circulating again sometime? Her work was just rad, very strong, and there's many under-40s like me who would find it an education.)

Scott McFarland was also good in person; I just love the images of people working in gardens and with animals, however altered they might be. Lush and crowded and strange.

Nomads was smaller than I expected but I ended up loving the Gareth Moore despite my trepidation around his "next big thing" reputation. It was his video of spliced travelogue scenes, a contrast to his usual decrepit-seeming objects, that really won me over. In this video, everything is in motion: caterpillars, alligators, bears, trains, airplanes, lights, beer, socks, sinks, water. It's better than I'm making it sound, really, and I hope he shows it again elsewhere. Geoffrey Farmer also lived up to the hype with an unphotographable installation, The Surgeon and the Photographer, where paper and cloth figures really do seem infused with life.

Winning me over extra was a couple of large contemporary pieces on diplay, including the Zilvinas Kempinas "Double O" piece that stood out for me in Madrid (a loan) and a Tony Cragg sculpture, A Place in my Heart, that seemed like aortic pipes sheathed in dice (in the collection).

But the *best* in a strange, quirky way was to be found across the road at the small city-run Karsh-Masson Gallery. The space was showing some Karsh portraits as well as (here's that best part) an old 1950s NFB newsreel discussing "the increasing popularity of photography today." In addition to that campy midcentury announcer and old shots of Parliament Hill, you got to see Karsh in action photographing one of Canada's prime ministers. Hearing him describe his process as being contingent on conversation and sympathy was really illuminating.

When I got home, this show led me to take a closer look at Ottawa's Karsh Festival, an event designed to commemorate the centenary of Karsh's birth. The sad part of the fest from my perspective is that it highlights the total lack of a building (still! after multiple bids and government promises and then cancellations) for the Portrait Gallery of Canada. So rather than having a dedicated venue like that, the festival is spread throughout Ottawa. That's not such a bad thing in itself, and it makes you feel all plucky and resourceful. But the fact that the main exhibition is at the suburban Museum of Science and Technology is very inconvenient and awkward.

Still, I had fun tonight looking through one of the festival's online components—My Karsh, an enhanced Flickr group run by the festival that invites anyone to submit their own pictures taken by Karsh, as well as related stories. (Karsh started out in wedding and portrait photography, and continued to offer discounted rates to Ottawa residents even after he became famous.)

There's a lot of sentiment to be plumbed in this online assortment of 80-some pics and tales: a lot of wartime wedding stories, remembrances of times past, of parents and grandparents who sat for a Karsh picture, of factory work at the time. There's even a tale of a young couple brought together by Karsh's photo studio—all that old romantic stuff. Definitely worth a click-through—just ignore the "Karsh Nut" posting "Are you interested in selling this picture?" at the end of various posts! And remember that Flickr does not a national portrait gallery make!

Prudence Heward image from Movie Time Capsule (?); Scott McFarland image from Monte Clark Gallery; Image of Tony Cragg's A Place in My Heart from Cybermuse; One of the images from the My Karsh Flickr Group;

No comments: