Frederick Varley, Mountaineers at Rest, Garibaldi (c.1930), ink on paper, 26 cm x 36.2 cm. Collection of the University of Victoria Legacy Art Galleries; Purchase, University of Victoria Acquisition Fund, 1976
“You have to give it time for your eye to absorb what you’re seeing,” says Mary Jo Hughes, Director of the University of Victoria Legacy Art Galleries. “Then you’ll have this little epiphany about what you’re looking at.”
Hughes is talking about Frederick Varley's Mountaineers at Rest, Garibaldi, one of the works in Epiphany: Highlights from the Legacy Permanent Collection, an exhibition currently on display at the University of Victoria Legacy Art Gallery Downtown. Varley’s ink-on-paper drawing could easily be dismissed as “scribbling”—if you only give it a few seconds. But look again, and a story unfolds.
“One of those sleeping men, that’s Lawren Harris,” says Hughes, referring to the Canadian painter who, along with Varley, was one of the founding members of the Group of Seven. “It is pretty clear because [Harris’] face is quite distinguishable from other people. So you imagine this sketching trip, up in the mountains in the summer, and it’s hot. They throw up this tarp in some branches and they are having a rest—in what seems like the heat of the day, the way they left their boots on.”
Robert Davidson, The Happy Blowhole (1992), cast bronze, 10/12, 17.7 cm x 36.2 cm x 36.2 cm. Collection of the University of Victoria Legacy Art Galleries; Gift of the Estate of Michael C. Williams
Many of the works in Epiphany have what Hughes, also the exhibition’s curator, describes as surprises that can spark a “sudden jolt of understanding or insight.” Take Robert Davidson’s bronze sculpture The Happy Blowhole, for instance. Viewers may not initially realize that they are looking at a bird’s-eye view of a whale’s blowhole—one that reveals a smiling, human face. It’s a piece that explores notions of transformation in the afterlife, explains Hughes: “of a human becoming one with the whale.”
But the idea of “epiphany” in this exhibition also functions on multiple levels. Epiphany features works by some artists—such as perennial West Coast favourite Emily Carr—who had revelations that changed their perceptions of the surrounding world and their approach to art. Other pieces in the exhibition are likely to give visitors new insight into the rich and varied holdings of the Legacy Permanent Collection, which consists of more than 20,000 art objects.
“I was trying to give people the opportunity to see some old favourites,” explains Hughes, “but I wanted to show them more than that—pieces that they wouldn’t have known were in the collection.” As part of the University of Victoria’s Art on Campus program, some of the works in the exhibition had previously been on display in university offices and other properties, making this the first time they are being shared with a wider audience.
Myfanwy Spencer Pavelic, Self-Portrait (1952), oil on canvas, 85.9 cm x 64.7 cm. Collection of the University of Victoria Legacy Art Galleries; Gift of Myfanwy Spencer Pavelic
In addition to the works by Varley, Davidson and Carr, Epiphany also includes pieces by well-known Canadian artists Norval Morrisseau and Jean-Paul Riopelle, prints by Pop art stalwarts Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, portraits by Maxwell Bates and Myfanwy Spencer Pavelic, and Conceptual art by Sean Nattrass and Michael Morris.
The latter’s serigraph on acetate called Boxed Venus depicts a kind of abstract TV screen with a highly reflective surface. “When you look at it, it immediately becomes a portrait of you,” says Hughes. That makes it a very fitting work for an exhibition meant to provoke your own epiphany.
Epiphany: Highlights from the Legacy Permanent Collection is on display at the University of Victoria Legacy Art Gallery Downtown in Victoria, BC until August 9, 2014.
Robyn Jeffrey is a writer and editor based in Wakefield, Quebec.
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