Ottawa artist Meryl McMaster can steal a show like no one else.
Take the group exhibition In The Flesh that recently opened at the Ottawa Art Gallery. Many visitors walk into the largest of the three-room exhibition, head straight for McMaster’s allegorical, surrealistic, photographic self-portraits and simply can’t be bothered to move on to check out the rest of the show. This is not a criticism of the works by Lance Belanger, Dana Claxton, and Brad Isaacs, but rather a recognition that McMaster is one of the most dazzling, innovative artists around these days.
McMaster has created a body of photographic self-portraits called In-Between Worlds that has been travelling around Ontario for the past year. Some of those images were chosen by curator Ola Wlusek, contemporary art curator at the Ottawa Art Gallery, to be part of In The Flesh, a group show of Aboriginal artists examining the relationship between humans and animals and, simultaneously, delving into gender and identity issues surrounding native peoples.
Outside the Ottawa Art Gallery is a large sign advertising the exhibition inside. The image used is one of McMaster’s called Victoria. A woman stands in the show. She has a whitened face, a flattened feathered headdress, a jacket upon which scores of pine cones have been sewn and a red sash around her waist. The woman looks like a defiant shaman from some lost Aboriginal tribe daring you to come inside the building. Who can resist?
Inside, there is another image of McMaster dressed in the pine cone jacket. It is called Brumal Tattoo. A woman stands behind a huge drum covered with the kind of braided ropes of fabric grandma employed when making rugs from sewing scraps.
Like most of her art, Brumal Tattoo explores McMaster’s roots in both Aboriginal (Cree) and European (Scottish) cultures. For Aboriginals, the drum has a powerful cultural and religious significance. For European society, a similar type of drum is used to keep time for marching armies.
Perhaps the most powerful of the images is Wingeds Calling. For that, McMaster has dressed as a raven with a large bird-like mask upon her head and a floor-length billowing black cloak. In Aboriginal cultures, the raven is heroic and, in European cultures, it is seen as a messenger.
Just a few weeks ago, McMaster stole the show at a different Ottawa Art Gallery exhibition, this one being the annual fundraiser in which artists offer examples of their work for auction. A panel of three judges were asked in advance of the auction to pick three works they felt were the best. (Disclosure: I was one of the judges). All three of us, upon entering the room with all the art spread out made a beeline for McMaster’s eerie photographic self-portait in which she looked like some ghostly apparition summoned by a clairvoyant. All three judges unanimously said McMaster’s work had to be one of the three picks.
And go back a few months when the Canada Council Art Bank held an exhibition honouring one acquisition from each of the 40 years the Art Bank has existed. The pick for 2012 was a self-portrait of McMaster as Laura Secord from the War of 1812. Once again, McMaster stole the show.
Performance is always part of McMaster’s work. She also treats her body like a piece of sculpture. The result is a many-layered treat. You could describe her as Canada’s answer to Frida Kahlo, who used her own image and life story to create surreal visions on canvas.
McMaster is just in her 20s. She is just starting out. How will she bedazzle us in years to come?
In the Flesh continues at the Ottawa Art Gallery until Sept. 8.