David Milne, The Shore Line, Six Mile Lake (1933–37), oil on canvas, 31 x 36.3 cm. Lois M. Scott-Thomas Bequest for the John R. and Margaret MacLaurin Memorial Collection. McMaster Museum of Art, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario
“I try to get my students to keep a journal, so when they see work that knocks them out, they can write down the name of the artist,” says Chris Cran, a renowned Canadian painter who also teaches at the Alberta College of Art and Design.
As he explained during a conversation with NGC Magazine, it’s a way for emerging artists to track their aesthetic preferences and see how those “visual pleasures” develop over time. But it’s also something that Cran himself does, and that seems to have influenced his approach to curating. The Calgary-based painter was recently invited to select works from the collection of the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton, and the resulting exhibition gives viewers a sense of what it’s like to see art through an artist’s eye.
Pierre Albert Marquet, L' Usine au Bord du Canal, Hambourg (1909), oil on canvas, 61 x 75.8 cm. Gift of Herman Levy, Esq., O.B.E. McMaster Museum of Art, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario
Chris Cran: It’s My Vault presents a variety of portraits, landscapes, and other works, which could be said to have knocked Cran out. That includes L’Usine au Bord du Canal, Hambourg (Hamburg, A Factory), a 1909 painting by Pierre-Albert Marquet, who Cran describes as “an extraordinary colourist.” And as a painter himself, “getting the colour right” is something that Cran values.
Other artists whose works are featured in It’s My Vault include those who influenced Cran at some point in his career, such as Gerhard Richter—who is represented in the exhibition with a portrait from 1990 called Isa (717-6)—and artists who remain among Cran’s favourites today, such as Raoul Dufy and the Canadian icon, David Milne.
Speaking about why he is drawn to an artist like Milne, Cran acknowledges that it often comes down to what happens when he is standing in front of a work. “When I respond to a work, it’s pure feeling,” he says. “To me, that is the most intelligent response this nervous system could have.”
Chris Cran, The Disputed Sculpture (2007), acrylic on canvas, 152.5 x 122 cm. Collection of Bennett Jones LLP, Toronto
Invited to include a work of his own in the exhibition, Cran—who is known for experimenting with traditional genres of painting—chose the dramatically titled The Disputed Sculpture (2007). On loan from a private collection, the painting depicts "a generic modernist sculpture." But look closer, and you'll see the reflection of a figure in the work, all of which adds another level of intrigue to this dramatically-titled painting. It's a smart inclusion by an artist who clearly also has an eye for curating.
Works from the McMaster Museum of Art collection also feature in another exhibition, currently on view, called This is Me, This is Also Me.
Bringing together a riveting selection of self-portraits from Canadian and international collections—from Edvard Munch’s 1895 lithograph, Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm, to Kent Monkman’s 2010 video, Dance to Miss Chief—the exhibition and its focus on self-representation seems particularly timely in this era of the “selfie.” Indeed, one of its highlights is Self-Portrait in Drag (1981), a group of Polaroids by Andy Warhol, the prolific Pop artist who was recently called the “original king of selfies.”
Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait in Drag (1981), nine Polaroid™ Polacolor 2 photographs, 10.8 x 8.6 cm each. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, inc. / SODRAC (2014)
But as Sarah Brophy and Janice Hladki—McMaster professors and the exhibition’s co-curators—write in their accompanying essay, “the artists in this show extend the autobiographical impulse inherent in self-portraiture beyond the face as well as beyond the painting or the photograph: exploring embodiment and disembodiment as a form of resistance.” Addressing self-representation in relation to multiple selves, This is Me, This is Also Me additionally explores the constitution of gender, sexuality, race, and Indigeneity.
Take White Thread, for example—a 2003 photograph by Rebecca Belmore, an artist of Anishinaabe descent. With its striking red colour and bound figure, it’s an image that Hladki described to NGC Magazine as both beautiful and disturbing: “In Belmore’s work there is this ongoing exploration of an Indigenous self, and what that means to represent an Indigenous self, given legacies of genocide and settler colonialism.”
Rebecca Belmore, White Thread (2003), photograph, ink jet on watercolour paper, 120.6 x 90.8 cm. Courtesy of Miriam Shiell Fine Art Ltd.
The exhibition also poignantly explores how crafting a self can be an ongoing endeavour. Doug Guildford’s 2003 crochet wire and nylon sculpture Doily, for example, is one of the Nova Scotia-born artist’s works-in-progress that he calls “nets.” Evoking the ocean flora and fauna of his home province, but with a cord that stretches to the gallery’s ceiling, Doily is described by the co-curators as taking “us up and up beyond the recognizable and attainable, [suggesting] that ‘me’ is an infinite project of labour.”
“We are all concerned with how we understand ourselves and how we understand ourselves in relation to others,” says Hladki, discussing the appeal of self-portraits and self-representations for viewers. “One of the things that comes through in the exhibition is that people are really interested in something that is bigger or more complex than thinking about a singular self.”
Additionally featuring work by Cathy Daley, General Idea, Grace Ndiritu, Jin-me Yoon, and others, This is Me, This is Also Me is on view at the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton until March 21, 2015. Visitors also won’t want to miss Chris Cran: It’s My Vault, which closes on May 9, 2015.
Robyn Jeffrey is a writer and editor based in Wakefield, Quebec.
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