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Sesquicentennial Divide

By Bart Gazzola

When I’d last visited the Grimsby Public Art Gallery for its Bi-Annual Juried Exhibition, it was an argumentative and entertaining balance between strong contemporary works and pieces that were more specific to a regionalist aesthetic. The current GPAG show – Across This Mighty Land: A Visual Debate Carl Beam & Frederick Hagan – functions in a similar manner. Through simplicity of installation and curatorial focus, Land offers a worthwhile addition to the Canada 150 debate that’s already contentious.

Before delving in, if “across this mighty land” is tickling you, I’ll offer a possible citation: Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railway Trilogy employs the phrase (perhaps he samples it, too). The citation of the CNR in “nation building” / colonialism, or that some pipeline advocates wistfully evoke this for the unilateral imposition of a project that neither wanted nor allowed any voice other than John A. MacDonald, is apropos enough for the GPAG’s “visual debate.”

According to the artists’ statement, Land “examines commonly held perceptions about European exploration in Canada, seeking a better understanding of the significant and lasting effect that explorers had on the land and on Indigenous peoples.” All works are part of the GPAG’s collection, which is excellent. (Art galleries, like libraries, are repositories of history and if you haven’t been here, the GPAG is located inside a library.)

Further: “Between 1986 and 1989 Canada Post issued the Exploration of Canada stamps… reproduced from paintings by Frederick Hagan. Research for the project piqued Hagan’s curiosity and he continued to work on related subjects. His lithographic portfolio, Exploration, depicts the journeys of 18 explorers, the landscapes and people they encountered; and the consequences of their actions. The works reflect a traditional, eurocentric view of the exploration and settlement of Canada.” His career and influence is impressive: this “painter, lithographer, watercolourist, and art instructor spanned more than seven decades and inspired generations of emerging young artists. He is not specifically affiliated with a particular art movement or school of thought, but rather his work has been described as autobiographical” (National Gallery of Canada).

On the opposing walls is Carl Beam, an Ojibway whose artwork employs his heritage to interact with intersecting stories and peoples and their narratives. Here, he’s “[using] small mixed media works on paper…much like a sketchbook or preliminary drawings, to develop the imagery for his major works.”

The gallery’s four large walls are evenly split between them; two “L”s facing each other. Beam’s works are uniform in size and read like a story; some images and text repeat. The strong contrast of the images is matched by the force and roughness of the words. The latter often dominate the prints and lead your eye in interpreting the appropriated images and (sometimes) newspaper “clippings.” END GAME, GHOST, SKIN, NO EXIT: large, all capitalized, and with a sureness of hand that is echoed in other markings on other prints. These words seem to be warnings: equal parts fatalism and fury.

They’re like a diary: Beam often “[integrated] personal memory with issues related to the environment, brutality, and a rethinking of the ways histories are told]” (from the NGC site).

Beam’s palette is soft, resembling stains and washes, and different from the heavy colours and denseness of Hagan. His series (all Beam’s works are untitled) suggests a stillness, a contemplation – a concerted deconstruction of a history, rather than an eager celebration of it. Some of Hagan’s images could be from a history text (prior to 1968, or perhaps still in play, based on some current debates about indigenous and settlers here). Hagan’s “explorers” are reminiscent of the romanticizing of figures – like Brock, perhaps – whose official role is all “courage” and “faith.” Beam’s art reminds us that the Beothuk (among many) are long extinct, and in 2016 the Catholic Church pulled a lawyerly unethical scam to escape paying for its residential school sins.

Another Hagan piece depicts stiff uniformed men around a table, a select clique, looking very British and official, but with sinister hints and other less clearly idealized players in the dark corners (a buffalo headed “prisoner” seemingly threatened by the raised hand of one of the group). Another image, rough and cartoonish, suggests the horrors of Catholic missionary zeal. (I’d cite the film Black Robe, as a further footnote to differing histories.)

James Daschuk’s Clearing The Plains (Americans favour bloody slaughter, while Canadians bureaucratically starve out the “other”) would be an excellent accompanying text to Land, in this contested space: not solely GPAG, but also Niagara or across Canada, in this sesquicentennial year.

Land evokes ideas outside the gallery, fostering conversation and contention about the country, nation and history we live within and interact with every day. Praise to GPAG for this show. Land speaks to the importance of a genuine discussion around Canada 150.

Beam and Hagan’s lifespans suggest a commonality, but also further detail. Hagan lived from 1918 to 2003, born at the end of the Great War, which is relevant not solely for the current centenary marking the bloody madness that destroyed empires and gave birth to the first fascist and communist states, but also for Canada’s “coming of age” at Vimy Ridge.

Beam lived from 1943 to 2005, growing up in the post-WW II era, which saw the winding down of the British Empire and colonial overlords like France sharing in the U.K.’s difficulty in negotiating rising nationalism from Algeria to Vietnam to Kenya to Khartoum. The American Indian Movement began in the early 1970s, when Beam was not yet 30.

The curatorial statement is eloquently hopeful: “[We] seek to show how the history that has divided us can, through thought and understanding, be used to initiate conversations with the potential to bring us together. After hundreds of years of division, conflict and occasional agreement, examining these two perspectives on Canadian history will be a provocative launch for our sesquicentennial programming.”

This show runs until the 19th of March, with a reception on the 5th.

Written by Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, New Art Gazette, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.