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Harold Klunder, Red Self‑portrait (2004), oil on canvas, 213.5 x 213.5 cm. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, purchase, Horsley and Annie Townsend Bequest. Photo MMFA, Christine Guest
Imagine you’re going to an exotic, unfamiliar place. Would you rather book a guided tour, or just show up and figure things out on your own? At museums, we’re usually being led (even when we think we’re too cool for the AcoustiGuide). Curators pre-select the highlights for us. They organize art in a way that makes thematic sense, that lets us see patterns, that educates us.
But there’s a certain pleasure in wandering around lost. Our discoveries feel more like our own when they’re serendipitous, and sometimes a “minor” attraction delights us more than a big, famous one. That’s why I like the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts exhibition “Quebec and Canadian Art, 1980 to 2010—New Acquisitions”.
It’s not a static exhibition. The works of art come and go, which keeps things fresh (and protects delicate pieces from too much wear and tear.) No labels explain what a painting “means“, or why a particular sculpture is important. Each work stands on its own, for us to evaluate. As a result, the show is as exciting and confusing as contemporary art itself.
Every single piece is interesting, yet entirely idiosyncratic. As you look around the room, a Kent Monkman painting that riffs on nineteenth-century landscapes is juxtaposed with a bold Harold Klunder self-portrait; on the floor, An Adult’s Toy sculpture seems to have nothing in common with either of them. Indeed, nothing in the exhibition “goes with” anything else. Welcome to contemporary art.
In school, we learn to pick out the trends and styles of art history, so we can tell Baroque from Impressionist, Renaissance from Pop Art. Perhaps it’s easier to judge whether a painting is good or bad when we have a mental checklist of what it’s supposed to look like, or what its competition looks like.
But new art doesn’t give us easy answers. We can try to put it in a theoretical box, but sometimes that feels like trying to put a wild animal in a paper bag. Sometimes the art is just too vibrant and wild to be tamed.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is smart to create a free-range environment for new art. Visitors get to experience for themselves the frisson of discovering the unexpected and unfamiliar. It’s fun to take a walk on the wild side.
Lisa Hunter is a screenwriter and arts journalist in Montreal. Her book, The Intrepid Art Collector, was published by Three Rivers/Random House Canada.
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