Artful Blogger

Artful Blogger: Skinned animals, stuffed birds, and Alex Colville

The skinned camel with its head neatly sliced in three is awesome. Ditto the skinless, almost featherless ostrich and the tall giraffe, its birthday suit removed to reveal all its inner workings.

But the star attraction of these anatomy lessons might prove to be human — just an arm, actually, with the skin peeled back to reveal muscles and tendons and slender bones. The fingernails remain intact. Somehow the nails, more than anything, tell us this preserved arm once was attached to a living, breathing body.

Visitors to the exhibition, Body Worlds: Animals Inside Out, at the Canadian Museum of Nature tend to gravitate to that human arm. You are allowed to touch it and shake its bony hand. Nearby, a real human heart rests, its pumping days long gone. You can hold it and speculate on whose life it once powered.

Some museum staff have started giving that arm a name. One young guide called it Frank. Another employee, unsure of the arm’s gender, decided on a neutral Jordan.

Obviously, we can relate to human parts more than to a suspended skinned octopus or a totally scarlet horse’s head that reveals an amazingly dense network of blood vessels and capillaries.

The animals – and Frank – are all preserved through a process called plastination, which was developed in Germany in 1995. First the flesh is removed and then the remaining parts are saturated in a polymer, such as silicone or rubber.

Ottawa is the first Canadian city to exhibit this animal anatomy lesson created by the same folks who have been touring internationally an exhibition of skinned humans. The humans are far more startling and ghoulish than sliced and diced animals.

Anyone who has ever cooked a turkey, cleaned a fish, or butchered farm animals knows what these creatures are like inside. Few of us have the same familiarity with human insides.

A few pre-school children wandered into the exhibition before it was open to the public. “Gross,” they shouted. But it was a delighted “gross” not a stomach-turning “gross.” While most children will probably enjoy the show, it might be best to have a talk with the kids before they spot a skinned dog that looks just like Fido at home.

The exhibition runs from May 1 to Sept. 20.

Rowan Corkill at La Petite Mort

And now for some animals of a different type. Check out work by British artist Rowan Corkill at La Petite Mort Gallery. Birds, animals, and even human bones are used to create some of the weirdest art to hit town in a long time.

Corkill loves taxidermy. So, stuffed birds that look amazingly alive are used as building blocks for art. There are curtains of birds with bright feathers draped over the head of a man. There are sculptures made from birds and decorated with bells, feathers, teeth, and bones from other creatures.

What does it all mean? Here are parts of Corkill’s artist statement as found on the website of La Petite Mort Gallery.

“Rowan Corkill’s work is created from a deep ethnological fascination with various cultural religious and occult beliefs, many of which are founded on a cross pollination of reality and fantasy.

“The artist uses his practice as a means to explore and examine the endless distortions of reality which the human mind has transformed into fantastical mythologies and ideologies. The similar role of the artist as creator is also questioned with particular interest in how the use of fiction can be used as a tool to acknowledge and question our presence on the planet.”

Got it? Unfortunately, Google does not offer a translation for Artspeak. So, come see the art for yourself and figure out on your own what it is all about.

The exhibition continues until May 31.

Ottawa Takes Montreal

Patrick Mikhail, he of the suburban Ottawa South gallery, has opened a large, sunny, new gallery in Montreal. Think of it as Ottawa’s art embassy in Montreal.

On a recent visit, the Montreal gallery had two solo shows running: One of moody landscape photos by Ottawa’s Andrew Wright and another by Gatineau abstract painter and sculptor Jennifer Lefort. A group show of Ottawa artists had just come down.

For years, some Ottawa galleries have fed us a steady diet of Montreal artists. So, it was fantastic to see the reverse of that long-standing trend: Ottawa artists in Montreal.

The address for the Montreal gallery is 4445 St. Antoine West, a monstrous old RCA factory that has become a labyrinth of shops, offices, and galleries. The building is in the St. Henri neighbourhood, an increasingly gentrified area on the edge of lower Westmount.

There are two main doors to the building, neither on St. Antoine. Both doors are on side streets. Do not take the door on Lacasse or you will spend possibly the rest of your life vainly hunting in the rabbit warren of rooms for Mikhail’s gallery. Do take the door on Lenoir. The gallery is on the ground floor near the Lenoir door.

When I mistakenly entered by the Lacasse door and started hunting, everybody in the building gave me different directions and sent me to different floors. There were no signs to help. Finally, a kindly woman in the building’s administration walked me, like a lost child, to Mikhail’s door.

Alex Colville Church and Horse, 1964 acrylic on Masonite, 55.5 x 68.7 cm Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, purchase, Horsley and Annie Townsend Bequest and anonymous donor © A.C. Fine Art Inc. Photo © AGO
Alex Colville
Church and Horse, 1964
acrylic on Masonite, 55.5 x 68.7 cm
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, purchase, Horsley and Annie Townsend Bequest and anonymous donor
© A.C. Fine Art Inc.
Photo © AGO

Alex Colville at the National Gallery of Canada

Even people who think they know the paintings of Alex Colville are in for some surprises at the impressive Colville retrospective currently running at the National Gallery of Canada.

Yes, you will see some very familiar paintings: To Prince Edward Island, Horse and Train, Church and Horse and such well-known Second World War paintings as The Nijegen Bridge, Holland.

But you will also have the opportunity to discover Colville paintings you may never have known existed.

Consider the rather odd 1973 painting, Professor of Romance Languages. On the extreme lower right side of the painting we see just the head and shoulders of a man staring blankly ahead. On the extreme left of the painting we see a giant smokestack attached to some industrial building.

In real life, the man pictured in the painting was uncomfortable to be seen standing so close to a belching smokestack because his entire family had been killed in the Holocaust. He asked Colville to paint another man’s face on top of his. Colville refused.

This little known painting is owned by Toronto billionaire Eric Sprott, who recently predicted the entire global financial market appears heading for collapse.

Another revelation is what is being billed as Colville’s last painting, Woman with Clock, completed in 2010. It is, of course, a picture of his late wife Rhoda, his muse and frequent model. A nude, aged Mrs. Colville is seen from the rear adjusting a tall grandfather clock. The painting is a fitting end to Colville’s glorious career because of the importance his wife and domestic life played in it. The painting is owned by the Colville family.

Expect to see many more surprises, especially from Colville’s younger days, before he became one of the country’s best known artists.

The exhibition continues at the National Gallery until Sept. 7.