Artful Musing

Annie Pootoogook’s ‘Freezer’ opens onto smorgasbord of hits at National Gallery + creepy old men & more

The late Ottawa artist Annie Pootoogook is given pride of place in a new year-long exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada honouring the country’s pioneering artists of the last half-century.

A three-metre-long drawing by Pootoogook, Cape Dorset Freezer, from 2005, greets visitors as they arrive on the second floor of a sprawling two-storey exhibition of some of the greatest Canadian hits of the past 50 years.

Cape Dorset Freezer, Annie Pootoogook, 2005 coloured pencil crayon, black metallic ballpoint pen and graphite on wove paper, 111.5 x 233.1 cm Purchased 2007 National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC
Cape Dorset Freezer, Annie Pootoogook, 2005 coloured pencil crayon, black metallic ballpoint pen and graphite on wove paper, 111.5 x 233.1 cm. Purchased 2007 National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Pictured is the co-op store in Pootoogook’s hometown of Cape Dorset in Nunavut. Some shoppers are dressed in traditional parkas while others are wearing more contemporary clothes. The scene is a play on the old saw about “selling a refrigerator to an Eskimo.” Pootoogook, who drowned last year in the Rideau River, was a master of drawing contemporary scenes of Inuit life.

The exhibition, Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968 to Present, contains 150 artworks in all media. It is a companion show to one opening in June and containing art pre-dating 1968. Both are part of the celebrations for Canada’s 150th birthday. (The exhibit lasts until May, 2018.)

Nunali, Jackoposie Oopakak, c. 1988-1989dark green stone, antler, sinew, bone, steel, and black inlay, 113 x 73.6 x 95.4 cm Purchased 2003 National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Nunali, Jackoposie Oopakak, c. 1988-1989, dark green stone, antler, sinew, bone, steel, and black inlay, 113 x 73.6 x 95.4 cm. Purchased 2003 National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

There is no central theme to the newly opened show, which is a mixture of old favourites and some lesser known works. It is more smorgasbord than cohesive presentation, perhaps in part because a team of curators, rather than one person with a particular vision, organized the exhibition that includes such stars as Joyce Wieland, General Idea, Gathie Falk, Stan Douglas, Althea Thauberger, Jeff Wall and Geoffrey Farmer.

Indigenous works make the biggest impact, perhaps deliberately so. The first artwork one sees upon entering the show is Carl Beam’s giant mixed media masterpiece, The North American Iceberg from 1985. This was the first Indigenous artwork “consciously” acquired by the National Gallery. The work showing various Aboriginal figures is something of a brief history on Indigenous life in Canada. Iceberg opened the door for other Indigenous artists to push their way into the National Gallery collection and, indeed, the mainstream of Canadian art.

<em>Vienna</em>, Brian Jungen, 2003 white polypropylene plastic chairs, 125 x 850 x 130 cm Purchased 2004 with the Joy Thomson Fund for the Acquisition of Art by Young Canadian Artists, National Gallery of Canada Foundation National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC
Vienna, Brian Jungen, 2003 white polypropylene plastic chairs, 125 x 850 x 130 cm. Purchased 2004 with the Joy Thomson Fund for the Acquisition of Art by Young Canadian Artists, National Gallery of Canada Foundation, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Other jaw-dropping Indigenous works include Brian Jungen’s two life-sized whale skeletons made from white plastic lawn chairs, and a giant four-panel painting called Androgyny by the late Norval Morrisseau depicting the artist’s altar-ego Thunderbird. Androgyny is the only work not owned by the National Gallery in the show; it was borrowed from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

And then there is Pootoogook’s work greeting visitors to the second storey. It is one of the artist’s earlier works and a reminder of great talent felled tragically at age 47.

Trailer, Geoffrey Farmer, 2002 steel, fibreboard and mixed media, 3.4 x 2.2 x 9 m installed. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC
Trailer, Geoffrey Farmer, 2002 steel, fibreboard and mixed media, 3.4 x 2.2 x 9 m installed. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Men Who Do Not Fit In

So, what’s with all the creepy old men in white suits?

Black and White Quartet, Michael Harrington, 12 x 16 inches, oil on canvas, 2017
Black and White Quartet, Michael Harrington, 12 x 16 inches, oil on canvas, 2017

These same aging men with unfashionably long hair and gleaming white shoes were created by Ottawa artist Michael Harrington for his latest show at St. Laurent + Hill Gallery in the ByWard Market.

“I am interested in male costuming,” says Harrington. Men are usually depicted in dark suits, so the artist decided to mix things up a bit and portray his gang of aging losers in white suits.

Figures Presenting in White, Michael Harrington, 12 x 16 inches, oil on canvas, 2017
Figures Presenting in White, Michael Harrington, 12 x 16 inches, oil on canvas, 2017

The white suits make the men look even more pathetic and out of sync with society. They are reminiscent of all-male doo-wop groups still singing the same old songs 50 years past their best-before date. Or they could be Roy Orbison wannabes — except Orbison, as unfashionable as he was, likely never would have worn a white suit, not in 2017 anyways.

We see these men alone and in groups, indoors and out. They are all classic Harrington characters. They are men who simply do not fit in. Women are not a big part of their lives, except for the girlie pin-ups on the walls of their basement man caves.

Harrington is not poking fun at these misfits. Indeed, he gives these oddballs a certain amount of dignity. He leaves us curious, speculating on what these men’s lives are really all about.

The Harrington show, New Works, is at St. Laurent + Hill until May 17.

Also worth visiting

Cube Gallery is offering two concurrent exhibitions until May 28. One is a group show all about food; the other is a timely exhibition of tulip paintings by Saskatoon artist Monique Martin.

Just down the street from Cube, an exhibition of paintings May 13-28 by Kingston artist Su Sheedy will be the last show at Gallery 3. This affiliate of St. Laurent + Hill Gallery closes May 30 after 12 years.