Mining the Subconscious in Contemporary Canadian Art

By Julie Sobowale on April 17, 2014

Maxwell Bates, Night of Nepenthe (1966), oil on canvas, 91.4 x 121.89 cm. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of J. Ron Longstaffe. Photo: Vancouver Art Gallery  

It’s a combination of the weird, the wonderful and the whimsical. Unreal, now on at the Kamloops Art Gallery, is a diverse mix of painting, collage and mixed media. It also features some of Canada’s most influential artists—many of whom are represented in the National Gallery of Canada collection.

Originally produced by the Vancouver Art Gallery, inspiration for Unreal came from a desire to examine the role of the subconscious in modern art.

“I wanted to relate to what’s going on in the world,” said Daina Augaitis, Chief Curator and Associate Director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, in a recent interview with NGC Magazine. “There’s an interest from contemporary artists in exploring Surrealism. I thought we should offer a historical and contemporary perspective as a way of examining its breadth.”

Augaitis also notes that Surrealism is well known for tapping into the subtleties of human behaviour. “Sigmund Freud and his theory of psychoanalysis were very influential,” she says. “Artists were constantly mining ideas and feelings from the subconscious.”

All of the works in Unreal are from the Vancouver Art Gallery’s extensive permanent collection. The exhibition features works by over 30 artists, grouped into four main sections: The History of Surrealism, The Haunted, The Body, and The Disassembling of the Body.


Jock Macdonald, The Black Quartet (1946), ink, watercolour on paper, 25.8 x 35.7 cm. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Acquisition Fund. Photo: Teresa Healy, Vancouver Art Gallery 

Many early adopters of Abstract art are showcased here. The Black Quartet (1946), by Canadian artist Jock MacDonald, playfully blends the representational with the abstract. By contrast, the Abstract work Warrior Memory (1969) by Jack Shadbolt draws upon the rich history of Aboriginal culture, in a work of melancholy power.

“The Haunted” explores the fine line between the grotesque and the alluring. “Think of your imagination,” says Augaitis. “It can be enchanted, but in that fantasy you can have nightmares, too.”

This dichotomy is evident in Lawrence Yuxweluptun’s Shaman Dancing in Sunset (1989)—a dark and engrossing painting featuring a skeletal blue shaman dancing with other figures against a backdrop of iconic Coast Salish totems. Other artists in this section include Marianna Schmidt, a Hungarian-born painter known for her human grotesques and bold brushstrokes; and Maxwell Bates, who mixes fantasy with the absurd in landscapes and scenes from daily life. 

Ceramic pieces also feature prominently in the exhibition. Picnic with Black Dog and Clock (1976) is just one of the works by Gathie Falk in Unreal, showcasing her fascination with everyday life and heightened reality as expressed in her ceramics, sculptures and performance art. 

Exploration of the human body is a key aspect of Surrealism. In the exhibition, works by various artists play with notions of the human form and its structure, including Paul Wunderlich, Cindy Sherman and Richard Hamilton. Collage, a common technique in Surrealism, is also heavily represented, particularly in works by Geoffrey Farmer and Al Neil.

Taking traditional collage one step further, Elizabeth Zvonar’s Challenging (2009) reexamines the human body through the lens of modern technology. “With digital collage, what emerges is almost anthropomorphic,” notes Augaitis. “It’s a disassembled sense of the work. It’s both understood and foreign.”

The standouts, however, may be the installations. Falk’s Low Clouds (1984) is a moving, changing piece of art in which the height of the clouds is changed periodically by gallery staff. Similarly, Luanne Martineau’s unusual felted creation Lubber (2003) might almost be seen as an encapsulation of Unreal: it cannot be easily explained, yet is interesting and fantastical.

“The pieces in this exhibition suggest that there’s more meaning in everyday life,” says Augaitis. “These aren’t big, giant ideas; but the objects in these works are often objects that are close to us. I hope the exhibition helps to encourage a different perspective about life.”

Unreal is on view at the Kamloops Art Gallery until June 14, 2014.

By Julie Sobowale| April 17, 2014
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Julie Sobowale

Julie Sobowale

Julie Sobowale is an arts journalist and editor based in Halifax.

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