Artful Blogger

OPENING: A portrait extravaganza at Cube Gallery compels Artful Blogger to pen an ode to the Portrait Gallery that never was

"Man" by Gerald Trottier. Photo by Rod MacIvor

By Paul Gessell

A new exhibition called Heads Up at Cube Gallery demonstrates why we need to keep pressing the federal government to create a real bricks-and-mortar Portrait Gallery of Canada.

The seven artists in Heads Up stretch the boundaries of traditional portraiture.

Reid McLachlan paints people who symbolize a particular emotion or situation.

Sharon Lafferty presents us with characters caught in ambiguous narratives we feel compelled to unravel.

The late Gerald Trottier reveals the spiritual conflicts within his subjects; his work includes a particularly searing drawing of the artist Vincent Van Gogh.

"Night Swimmer" by Katherine McNenly

My favourite of the lot is a painting called “Night Swimmer” of an unnamed, unclothed woman by Katherine McNenly. This is, at first blush, one of the more traditional-looking, realist portraits among the dozens offered in Heads Up. But, take a closer look. The woman in the painting is more surreal than real. She is an enchantress ready to take you to a magical land.

Many contemporary artists are like the ones in Heads Up. They are constantly stretching the boundaries of portraiture, making it one of the more intriguing art forms today.

Just look at two unusual portraits unveiled in the past year at Rideau Hall. The official portrait of former governor general Michaëlle Jean by Ottawa artist Karen Bailey shows a woman at work, interacting with soldiers, children and others. The official portrait of John Ralston Saul, consort of former G-G Adrienne Clarkson, by Toronto-based Kent Monkman is a painting of a man about to launch a kayak into the Arctic Ocean. This painting is destined to hang alongside the very traditional-looking, matronly wives of previous governors general. Guess which portrait will draw a crowd.

"Portrait in Pink" by Elly Smallwood forms part of the Heads Up exhibition

Plans for a portrait gallery were made during Jean Chrétien’s days as prime minister. Stephen Harper killed the idea. We’re still not sure why. The Portrait Gallery was turned into a “program” of Library and Archives Canada. That means the gallery merely exists in a desk drawer somewhere in Ottawa.

The former American embassy on Wellington Street across from Parliament Hill was to be the gallery’s location. The contents would have included some of the famous photographic portraits by Ottawa’s favourite son, Yousuf Karsh.

There were to be experiments with portraiture. One idea being batted about was to create a portrait of Pierre Trudeau through a collage of film clips.

Portraits were not to be just of politicians and celebrities but also of salt-of-the-earth Canadians. We all have such “portraits” in our family photo albums. These are photos that provide valuable information about the people and history of this country.

A Portrait Gallery would have been a mirror for all Canadians. We would have gained insight into our collective past and present. That’s what Heads Up does. In many cases, these are technically portraits of imaginary people. But actually, they are portraits of us all.

Heads Up continues at Cube Gallery, 1285 Wellington St. W., until Jan. 27.