Everyone sees Alexandre Simeon Janvier’s abstract paintings differently. For some, the sinuous colour-streaked lines he paints are like an aerial map of a river system or veins creeping along a body or grooves cut by skaters into a frozen pond or some other familiar pattern found in our natural world.
Whatever your interpretation, the paintings by this 81-year-old master have an undeniable Aboriginal aesthetic. The Dene artist draws on inspiration from his people’s quillwork in northeastern Alberta, as well as from other, harder to identify Indigenous-infused designs.
This mentor to several generations of Aboriginal artists never thought he would be a National Gallery of Canada headliner, but he will be finally getting a solo exhibition when Alex Janvier runs from Nov. 25 to April 17, 2017, at the National Gallery.
Janvier told an interviewer in 2001 that the art establishment was interested in presenting his paintings only “with the artifacts” at the ethno-cultural Canadian Museum of Civilization, as the Canadian Museum of History was then known. For many years, as a protest against such second-class treatment of Aboriginal people, Janvier signed his paintings with his treaty number, 287.
But times have changed.
The National Gallery is increasingly giving solo shows to Aboriginal artists and exhibiting their works alongside those of non-Indigenous artists. Indeed, the permanent galleries of Canadian art at the National Gallery are being reconfigured to integrate more Aboriginal art. In recognition of this monumental sea change, Janvier no longer signs his paintings 287.
With more than 100 paintings and drawings, the exhibition explores Janvier’s 50-year-long career and includes pieces never before exhibited. The works originate in Dene iconography but reference both an ancient past and recent Indigenous events.
Janvier is one of 10 children born to a hereditary chief at the Cold Lake Reserve. Young Alex spoke only Chipewyan until the age of eight, when he attended the Blue Quills Residential School near St. Paul, Alberta. Teachers there saw his talent and nudged him toward an art career.
Despite the National Gallery’s embrace of Janvier, he has always been a star at the Canadian Museum of History. One of his best-known works is the monumental Morning Star, which tops a seven-storey-high dome in the museum. It covers 418 square metres and illustrates the history of the land from the artist’s Dene perspective.
Future of Inuit art at NGC uncertain
Next May, the currently shuttered permanent Canadian Gallery will be transformed into the Canadian and Indigenous Gallery, incorporating all types of Canadian art, including First Nations and Inuit works.
The current standalone Inuit Gallery down a flight of stairs from the main hall will be closed; the fate of the space yet to be decided. “Plans as to how the current Inuit art galleries will be used are yet to be determined,” says gallery spokeswoman Josee-Britanie Mallet.
Inuit works will be placed in the permanent Canadian gallery alongside the Group of Seven and other iconic works. But will they essentially disappear? Small soapstone sculptures could have a difficult time competing for attention in spacious rooms filled with large canvases. These sculptures are best viewed in close quarters.
On the other hand, maybe it is time to end art apartheid and fully incorporate all Indigenous art with made-in-Canada Euro-centric art. Several Inuit art experts contacted about this change refused to comment. There seemed to be certain ambivalence as to whether this is a good or bad move.
Expect some details to surface in early December when the gallery plans to announce plans for its exhibitions next year. The new permanent Canadian and Indigenous Gallery will include art up to the 1960s. Art created after that era is traditionally seen in the contemporary galleries but Canadian works from that era will get special treatment next summer in the main floor exhibition space normally reserved for blockbusters.
At Carleton University Art Gallery until Dec. 11 is We Are Continually Exposed to the Flashbulb of Death: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg (1953–1996), a collection of photographs by American writer Allen Ginsberg of his Beat Generation buddies — Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Neil Cassady, and others.
David Lidbetter is one of this region’s best landscape artists. There tends to be a chill in the air in his paintings; few, if any, signs of human habitation; and a slightly ominous feeling. He’s a 21st-century version of the Group of Seven. Lidbetter has a solo show at Wall Space Gallery from Dec. 8 to 31.
And here’s your chance to say goodbye to the current Ottawa Art Gallery premises, which will be replaced next year with a new building. The last show at the Arts Court space features mail art (letters or objects exchanged between artists through the mail — an idea originating in New York in the ‘60s) from Patt Durr, Penny McCann, Marie-Jeanne Musiol, and Jeff Thomas. Love Letters to Arts Court runs until Jan. 2, 2017.