Alex Janvier, Untitled (detail), 1986, acrylic on canvas. NGC
For centuries, artists and galleries have promoted their shows. Whether via word of mouth, private invitation, or a discreetly placed ad in a printed broadsheet, displays of art require an audience.
In the fascinating new exhibition 25 x 25: Twenty-Five Years of Exhibition Announcements from Twenty-Five Indigenous Artists, now on view in the Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), artist mailers reflect both artistic arcs and changing graphic styles. Consisting largely of postcards, brochures and small posters, these promotional materials are often miniature works of art in and of themselves.
Carl Beam, The North American Iceberg (detail), 1985, acrylic, photo-serigraph, and graphite on plexiglas. NGC
Many of the artists represented in the exhibition have become household names. Organized chronologically by date of birth, the first wave includes Daphne Odjig, Rita Letendre, Norval Morrisseau, Alex Janvier and Carl Beam. The chronology continues with Robert Davidson and Edward Poitras, Shelley Niro and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, and Rosalie Favell and Rebecca Belmore. Rounding out the presentation are artists such as Kent Monkman, Brian Jungen and Nadia Myre. Interestingly, there is also a trio of familial entries: Annie Pootoogook and her cousins Itee Pootoogook and Shuvinai Ashoona, Terrance Houle and his father’s cousin Robert Houle, and Gerald McMaster and his daughter Meryl McMaster.
Although publicly viewed as ephemera — here today, gone tomorrow — printed promotions such as these play a surprisingly important role in museum collections. At the NGC, files on individual artists bristle with such material, including everything from biographical information to price lists, posters and invitation cards. Far from being considered throwaway documentation, the contents of such files are today seen as irreplaceable.
While many individuals collect this type of ephemera, there has also been institutionalized collecting over the years. For researchers, files such as these are particularly valuable — helping, among other things, to establish chronologies. In a recent exhibition by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, for example, curators found new and unexpected information on the composition of the Beaver Hall Group and its artists, on an exhibition card tucked away at a small regional museum.
Exhibition announcements clearly offer valuable insight into an artist’s development and career, as well changing graphic styles. Sometimes the aesthetics reflect broader design innovations, and sometimes they reflect an emerging artist’s limited budget. Very few artists or galleries, for example, could afford to produce the elegant accordion-fold Governor General’s Awards brochure featuring a number of the artists represented in the exhibition.
Occasionally, however, mailers do go beyond simple postcards. In the 25 x 25 display on Kent Monkman, for example, there is a 7 x 10 colour glossy of his alter-ego Miss Chief, mounted on cardstock, suitable for framing.
Promotional material generally exists to showcase the best of what’s on offer. As such, mailers like the ones on display in 25 x 25 present a snapshot of what an artist and/or his or her gallery felt was the most fit expression of the work at the time. What would ultimately bring in buyers, curators, critics and admirers? Colour? Beauty? Ideas? Controversy?
Daphne Odjig, Harmony and the Universe (detail), 1986, acrylic on canvas. Collection of Philip Gevik, Gallery Gevik, Toronto
Viewing the exhibition is also like a trip down memory lane for anyone who has followed the careers of these individuals. Edward Poitras’ Coyote for the 1995 Venice Biennale is here, as are Daphne Odjig’s Harmony and the Universe (1986) and Alex Janvier’s Untitled (1986).
In most cases, the mailers are for solo exhibitions. There are a few, however, that include multiple artists, as in the Land, Spirit, Power flyer for a 1992 NGC exhibition, which provided partial inspiration for 25 x 25, and features some of the same people. Also on display is the playful 2012 photographic series by Rosalie Favell, depicting Indigenous artists and curators from across the country, including Alex Janvier, Daphne Odjig and Gerald McMaster.
In an era of digital everything — from evites to e-blasts to online marketing campaigns — print promotions such as this are becoming rare. All the more reason to collect them now, as a tangible record of an endangered marketing species that may one day disappear completely, perhaps sooner than we think.
Vincent van Gogh once said, “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” In this display of the seemingly small things produced over the years to promote artists and their work, we see careers being built, names being made and, of course, outstanding art being created.
25 x 25, representing twenty-five years of promotional material by twenty-five Indigenous artists, is on view in the Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada until April 30, 2017. The exhibition complements Alex Janvier: Modern Indigenous Master, on view until April 17, 2017.
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