Friday, June 10, 2011

In Which I Learn a Little Something about Surrealism, First Nations Art and Jacques Hurtubise

One of my favourite things about the line of work I'm in is learning new things. Since doing a few little preview-y items for Canadian Art's website in the past few weeks, I've learned a little bit I didn't know before about Surrealism's First Nations connections (as is noted in the Vancouver Art Gallery's current exhibition The Colour of My Dreams) and about Jacques Hurtubise, a hard-edge abstract painter who's best known for his 1960s Montreal work but been churning eye-popping, print-influenced paintings in Cape Breton for the past 30 years. An exhibition about Hurtubise--one also shouted out by Artforum--is currently on at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax.

(Image of Jacques Hurtubise's kinda nutty LĂ©ocephale, 1991, via


Anonymous said...

I was struck by the curator's use of the word "affinity." I am sure that you have read James Clifford's quite brilliant essays in response to MoMA's 1984 exhibition "Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern." I wonder to what extent this surrealism show acknowledges this exhibition history (it seems to me to make obvious parallels and relies on the same curatorial strategy of comparison) particularly with regards to the exhibition's taking place on the Northwest coast and relative to contemporary Native culture.

What would be interesting, and needed, is an exhibition which rethinks modernism from Native perspectives, instead of always seeing these works through the lens of non-Native artists based on the loose notion of an "affinity".

Did the Surrealism exhibition attempt to get at why these artists were looking at these objects at this particular point in time?

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Anonymous,

You overestimate the level of my scholarship! I'm one of those super-generalist journalists who has a specialty (within the generalist journalistic realm) in art, rather than a specialty (within the deep and intricate art historical realm) in art. So that's a long way of saying "no I haven't read that 1984 text, though it sounds fascinating."

And another part of being a generalist journalist writing preview-y items like this one (something about the show, but nothing indicating one's actually seen it) is that I can't actually fill you in on how all this actually comes across in the exhibition proper. It's kind of like doing a Q&A with a movie director before seeing (or reviewing) his or her movie. It's an attempt to cover the show and note it in some way given the limitation that I live in Toronto on a limited budget and have no way of seeing this exhibition in Vancouver.

All that said!... What piqued my interest in the show was the way it sought to integrate not just First Nations artifacts, but First Nations artifacts from the West Coast region--so that the show has some regional specificity as one of its aspects rather than just being (in my view) yet another summer blockbuster show about some art movement that feels a bit (to me) more generic in nature. (ie. the whole, "this is a big-name art movement, so our local viewers should feel privileged/excited to see artifacts related to it from New York and Europe")

So... that's the angle I'm coming in from. I'm open to any way you could illuminate the more subtle or in-depth aspects of doing these types of exhibitions. And also, as you've probably guessed, these interviews I do are not nearly as exhaustive as one that you might do would be.

Was the word "affinity" a red flag for you in some way?

Anonymous said...

Don't get me wrong, it looks like an amazing exhibition, and really happy that you previewed it!

The use of affinity was not so much a red flag as something which piqued my interest for a few reasons. The idea of affinity--a kind of imagined kinship--was the argument used in MoMA's "Primitivism" exhibition as the basis for making the case for the relationship between the works by the modern "masters" and the largely unnamed so-called "primitive" artists--this is why it seemed to me like an obvious parallel. Clifford argued very lucidly that despite MoMA's claim that through this exhibition they were somehow elevating the non-western objects to the realm of "high art" (as though they needed this), the objects were always already seen through the lens of Western art and its ideologies. in fact, the VAG made the claim for the understanding of Northwest coast works as art much earlier, in 1956 in the exhibition "The People of the Potlatch."

The way that they exhibited the non-Western objects (which included sculptures from parts of Africa, masks from the Northwest coast, the Arctic, and elsewhere) provided little context with regards to the makers of these objects (I don't believe any names were included aside from generalized information regarding geographic origin) in addition to little to no information on the objects' originary function or use (whether ceremonial, purely aesthetic or otherwise). It looks as though the VAG show is providing more context for the Northwest coast objects--I am particularly interested in what decisions they are making with regards to contextualizing these works and why.

In the MoMA show, by attempting to show these objects as art using the same display practices for modern sculpture, they placed the primary emphasis on their visual characteristics to the detriment of other understandings of these works (there are no easy answers it seems). Certainly the aspirations of this exhibition were well-intentioned, however, they did little to further any real knowledge of the visual culture on view in their attempt to bring under the umbrella of Modernism and put forward a more universal understanding of art. This brings to mind something that a Northwest coast carver once relayed (I think Beau Dick but I can't remember for sure), that is that a mask is not a mask until it has served its intended function. That is, it is not a mask proper until it has been used in a ceremony, until it has been performed.

What interests me about the Surrealist exhibition is that it appears that the curator is rationalizing the bringing together of surrealist works and Northwest coast objects based on the same argument of affinity. My sense is that this affinity is more revealing of the Surrealist's desires than any deeper relationship between their works and those by makers in the Northwest coast objects (this affinity, I think, more than anything shows us what these artists *wanted* to see in the objects whether as signifiers of a culture more closely related to myth, ritual and belief--something lacking in the burgeoning industrial age--or perhaps the introduction of a radically different aesthetic form-line. In short, I think that the Surrealist artists' looking to Northwest Coast Native culture is less about Native culture and more about their own ideologies and imaginaries. I wonder if this is emphasized in the exhibition as it would be a very engaging way of learning more about the Surrealist movement based on what inspired these artists and why. All this makes the paintings of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun seem that much more salient.

Here's a link to the book by James Clifford--good reading with regards to the history exhibitions in general, I think, not just ethnography

Anonymous said...

Also, I agree, it would have been really easy to do a big, blockbuster Surrealism show with all the usual suspects with the best-known works as a way to bring in the crowds. This show, in contrast, seems to be putting forth a more nuanced understanding of some of the inspirations of the movement, and linking it to a strikingly local context.

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Anonymous,

Wow, thanks for articulating your concerns further! I feel more illuminated on the topic now myself.

I did feel while talking, so briefly as I did, with Ades, that she did want to be careful about her choice of words in discussing a connection between Surrealist artists and First Nations art. Could be that careful sense I got from her had to do with the very problems that you are raising... or her awareness of those problems historically... or could just be my sense of projection or somethin! In any case, please don't take my item as Ades' definitive statement on the issue!

I do think it's important, as you've pointed out, to consider how the First Nations objects are contextualized in this exhibition--especially around that clarification of "how they were seen by the Surrealists" as opposed to "how they functioned or were seen by First Nations makers and viewers of the era." Also, as you point out, it's very worthwhile considering what this says about the Surrealists rather than about First Nations art per se.

One more possible more angle to consider is the role that the VAG played in pushing some kind of focus on the First Nations artifacts. I think they asked Ades to do some kind of exhibition on Surrealism at first, then this angle on the First Nations connections came later--whether at the behest of Ades or of the VAG, I'm honestly not sure.