Artful Blogger

ARTFUL BLOGGER: Ottawa body parts shipped to Halifax

BY PAUL GESSELL

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Musketball!, 2012, Howie Tsui, courtesy of the artist. Photo credit: Paul Litherland

There is a distinct Ottawa sensibility to a collection of most unusual human body parts being exhibited in Halifax from Jan. 15 to March 8.

The exhibition at Dalhousie University Art Gallery is called Anatomica and is designed to highlight “the aesthetics, cultural legacies and allure of anatomical imagery.” The exhibition curator is Cindy Stelmackowich, an Ottawa artist best known for her own medically-themed art, often employing centuries-old medical textbook illustrations.

Anatomica, you might say, was the exhibition Stelmackowich was born to curate. The invitation to organize the show came after Stelmackowich did a post-doctoral fellowship at Dalhousie two years ago.

“I’m thrilled,” Stelmackowich says during an interview at her Ottawa studio in the Enriched Bread Artists complex. The studio on this day has the feel of a human abattoir, Stelmackowich being in the midst of some anatomical experiments, creating from bandages and rolled up pages of medical texts what look like neatly severed lengths of human arms and legs.

Three of the nine artists in Anatomica have definite Ottawa connections. Maura Doyle of Ottawa has created 8,000 porcelain bones, each like a femur. The pyramid-shaped mound of bones weighs 1,500 pounds. Maskull Lasserre, an Ottawa sculptor now in New York, is represented by Lexicon, a human spine carved from a stack of books. Lexicon ordinarily rests with the City of Ottawa art collection. Howie Tsui, an Ottawa artist now living in Vancouver, is lending a real, working pinball machine that tests your skill in shooting a musket ball through a man’s chest. Some works by Tsui, by the way, were recently purchased by the National Gallery of Canada. He is definitely an artist to watch.

Other works in the exhibition include a life-sized knitted brain by Sarah Maloney of Halifax, some cross-sections of bones created from paper quilling by New York artist Lisa Nilsson, drawings of unusual fetuses by British artist Lucy Lyons and, from celebrated Halifax artist Garry Neil Kennedy, chipboard slabs painted to reference different diseases.

Old drawings illustrating the effect on the body of those same diseases referenced by Kennedy will be shown alongside the artist’s work. In fact all the contemporary artists’ work will be accompanied by relevant pages from old medical texts from Dalhousie and the Medical History Society of Nova Scotia.

The exhibition is designed to create conversations between contemporary art and medical history. Public programming will generate similar conversations with university experts in medicine sharing a stage with historians and cultural academics.

Stelmackowich would love to see the exhibition tour. It could be a great show for the Ottawa Art Gallery.

TOM THOMSON’S OLDER BROTHER

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George Thomson, Cove on Lake Muskoka, C. 1950, oil on panel, Ottawa Art Gallery; Firestone Collection of Canadian Art.

Everyone knows the art of Tom Thomson. But what about his older brother George?

George Thomson died in 1965 at the age of 97 — still painting. His works remain popular among some Ontario collectors, but George’s paintings were eclipsed by those of Tom, who died at 39 in 1917.

George is the focus of two exhibitions opening Jan. 10 at Ottawa Art Gallery and running until May 24. Eight of George’s paintings will be on view at the Art Rental and Sales space, courtesy of John A. Libby Fine Art, Toronto. Libby deals in the works of both George and his sister Margaret. Their landscapes tend to be more decorative and cheerful than Tom’s more moody, cerebral works. Simultaneously, the Ottawa Art Gallery will have the exhibition Jon Sasaki: Two Paths Diverged in a Wood. In that exhibition, Toronto artist Sasaki literally shines a light on the Thomson brothers and their different paths to fame.

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George Thomson, A rocky Shore, no date, oil on beaverboard, Ottawa Art Gallery; Firestone Collection of Canadian Art.

The following is a partial transcript of an email interview with Sasaki.

Q: What got you interested in the work of George Thomson?
A: I wasn’t aware of George Thomson until Ola Wlusek, the exhibition curator brought him to my attention. There are three works by George in the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art which were the catalyst for some very interesting conversations between us. We realized pretty quickly that they could form the starting point for an exhibition not only about his art career and family connections, but one that could address larger questions around the Canadian landscape tradition and what it means to be a working artist. His birth in 1868 predated the Canadian transcontinental railway and, by the time he died, the first space walk had happened. Yet for all the mind boggling advancements that occurred between 1868 and 1965, George’s final paintings looked very much like his earliest scenes. To me, his oeuvre looks like a long term project to preserve a set of ideals around the landscape and our place in it, expressed through a conservative artistic language that valued skilful traditional technique.

Q: What is the goal of the exhibition?
A: I think George Thomson and the paintings he left behind deserve a close look. I appreciate his work for its own merits, but I’m also interested in them as a way of talking about dedication or perseverance. George had a steadfast commitment to a mode of working that by the end had fallen out of fashion in certain circles. But I don’t think he was ever deterred, and he continued to be hugely prolific right to the end. He was off painting en plein air the day before he passed away. I’m guessing he defined fame in his own terms and probably gave some thought to how it differed from the ever-rising fame of his brother Tom. I question whether George would have even wanted his art to be framed in the sort of grand nation-building context that Tom’s was. In fact, his landscapes feel very intentionally untethered from the political sphere that Tom Thomson’s were absorbed into. George’s seemed to be decidedly “art for a municipality,” not “art for a nation.” His audience was very localized too, and his exhibitions were very well attended by local friends and admirers, according to the newspapers of the time.

Q: Does George deserve to be better known or is he only interesting as an artist because he is the brother of Tom?
A: I doubt that Tom’s career would have taken the same road if it weren’t for George, who blazed the early trails for his younger brother. He served as an example and mentor to all his siblings (all of whom were artists) and set the bar very high in terms of his industriousness and professionalism. I was fascinated to learn that, before he became an artist, George had a very successful career running a business school and practicing law in Seattle. At some point in his late 30s, he happened upon a painting in some store window and decided to devote himself to making art. It seems to me like an incredibly brave choice, but I’m guessing that someone with his business acumen would have “crunched the numbers” in advance. When I look at George Thomson through the lens of social practice he seems very ahead of his time. Perhaps on some unconscious level he was doing something that there wasn’t really a name for in his day. I do believe he deserves more attention than the footnotes he’s generally referenced in.

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George Thomson, Rock, Water and Sky, c. 1960, oil on pane, Ottawa Art Gallery; Firestone Collection of Canadian Art.

THE UNLIKELY ‘60S ICON

Those of you who lived through the 1960s – and can still recall those drug-addled times – will remember the Dutch artist Maurits Cornelius Escher (1898-1972). Every self-respecting acidhead had at least one Escher reproduction pinned to the wall of his or her crash pad. Partiers would stare at the print for hours, believing all the wonders of the world had just been revealed. A flock of birds, viewed at a slightly different angle, suddenly became a school of fish. Prints of so-called “impossible architecture” offered flights of stairs climbing beyond the normal three-dimensional world into some four- or five-dimensional cubist Never-neverland.

“Oh, that M.C. Escher!” you exclaim.

An exhibition called The Mathemagician of 54 of Escher’s mind-blowing prints is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until May 3. The National Gallery owns 230 Escher prints, the third largest collection in the world. Most of the prints were donated by the artist’s son, George Escher, who lives at Stittsville.

Legend has it that at some point in the 1960s, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones wrote Escher a “Dear Maurits” letter requesting to use one of his prints for an album cover. Escher refused and, in his petulant reply, stated that Mr. Jagger had no right to call him anything other than Mr. Escher. Despite being a ‘60s icon, Escher did not really “get” the ‘60s.