Do the paintings of the Group of Seven have relevance today?
That was a question hotly contested at the annual Walrus magazine debate at the National Gallery of Canada two years ago. Coincidentally, as some of the country’s top art pooh-bahs argued that weighty question, Winnipeg artist Diana Thorneycroft was opening an exhibition in Paris of her mischievous staged photos inspired by Group of Seven landscapes (which was covered here in 2011).
Case closed. The Group of Seven has relevance today. That conclusion is fortified by a new exhibition called Natural Motif at the Firestone Gallery within the Ottawa Art Gallery. The exhibition opened recently along with OAG’s 25th anniversary show of about 70 works from their permanent collection. More on that later.
For Natural Motif, Lorraine Gilbert (a photo-based artist) and Natasha Mazurka (best known for her wallpaper-like paintings) were both invited by curator Catherine Sinclair to create new works of art inspired by older works in the Firestone Collection. Both artists turned to the Group of Seven for inspiration.
Gilbert visited Algonquin Park, the geography starring in many Group paintings. The Group’s artists purposely avoided including buildings, roads, aboriginal inhabitants, and other evidence of mankind in their supposedly pristine wilderness settings. Gilbert showed that “wilderness” as it really exists. There is even a busy Tim Horton’s.
The result is a giant panoramic photograph, 1.42 metres by 4.42 metres, of parts of the town of Bancroft on the edge of Algonquin Park. Gilbert then isolated various painterly scenes from within the panoramic shot and placed them in frames originally used by Group member A.J. Casson to hang on an adjoining wall. Some of those small photographs look exactly like Casson paintings, except for the contemporary buildings poking out from the forest.
Mazurka deconstructed some paintings by the Group’s Arthur Lismer and A.Y. Jackson by isolating the sweeps of tree branches in the artists’ paintings and then turning these shapes into the decorative elements of wallpaper-like paintings. A Lismer and a Jackson painting that were Mazurka’s primary inspiration are in the next room. See if you can find them.
OAG’s three front galleries, which are normally devoted to contemporary art, are filled salon-style with works of art in all media from the permanent collection. For many regular visitors to the gallery, this show, Selections from the Permanent Collection, will be a walk down memory lane.
So, expect to see many familiar names, even if the particular work by that artist on view is something you may not have seen before. You will encounter works from Leslie Reid, Evergon, Jeff Thomas, Juan Geuer, Tony Fouhse, Lynne Cohen, Eliza Griffiths, Jennifer Dickson, Vera Greenwood, Ron Noganosh, Jeanne-Marie Musiol, and many others.
My favourite: Frank Shebageget’s installation “Beavers,” featuring hundreds of tiny models of Beaver airplanes, the kind that opened up most of Canada’s wilderness area to development. This installation is the most travelled work in the gallery’s collection and is soon off to the Smithsonian in Washington.
In the art rental gallery, a new show by collage artist Amy Thompson has also just opened and continues until Feb. 23. That show was covered earlier by Ottawa Magazine, which you can read about here.
The anniversary show runs until April 7 and Natural Motif until March 17.