My opinion of Lawren Harris has never been particularly mature. I see him as the most precious of the Group of Seven, the John Lennon of the group, the one you are never allowed to make fun of, the visionary. I also foolishly yet indelibly equate Harris with the overly protective and humourless docents I remember decades ago at the McMichael. They didn’t want you to talk in anything other than a whisper in front of his work. If you couldn’t stand quietly in front of Mount Lefroy and let its genius penetrate you, then you were clearly maladjusted and should move on. I therefore nurture a strange urge to see Harris’ genius disproven; I want evidence that he merely wanted to turn mountains into triangles and nothing more. I know, immature.
I expected my prejudices would prevent me from enjoying The Idea of North at the AGO, that I would stare blankly at Harris’ cold canvases and still feel nothing, that I would cringe within the same hushed tones of genius that would undoubtedly imbue the space. But I had some hope. Andrew Hunter and Steve Martin curated the exhibition. Hunter, the AGO’s Curator of Canadian Art, had done a spectacular job recently reframing Alex Colville, another artist with whom I struggle irrationally. He showed Colville in a way that eloquently argued for the cinematic qualities of his painting and thus brought them to life in a totally new way. I have also worked with Hunter before, and have come to truly appreciate the sociable way he seems to be able to ask difficult, essential questions through the vehicle of a public exhibition.
And Steve Martin sang a duet with Bernadette Peters in the 1979 film, The Jerk. It remains one of the most perfect things I have ever witnessed, and has allowed me to forgive Martin his many subsequent cinematic transgressions. In some ways I believe in him the same way I believe in Hunter, a man with a gift for friendly disruptions.
Hunter’s treatment of Colville seemed perfectly synergized, using Wes Anderson, Stanley Kubrick and a number of contemporary media works that speak in a similar aesthetic language to the artist. The Idea of North in contrast, is full of abrupt and strange juxtapositions.
My first reaction passing through the space was one of real bewilderment. The large photo installations of Anique Jordan, the kitschy sculpture of a Chinese cat, an odd animation by Tin Can Forest that looked faintly like an episode of Adventure Time, the massive vinyl transfer of illustrator Nina Bunjevac—even though their presence was ultimately justified, aesthetically it was impossible to connect it to any of Harris tightly composed, subtly crafted paintings. To turn a corner and see an enormous video projection of Steve Martin’s head was simply jarring. Steve Martin’s head immediately puts me into a specific frame of cultural reference, one wholly removed from Canadian art.
The inner core of the AGO’s exhibition (displayed recently in Boston and Los Angeles), focused on the best and most serene of northern landscapes. It was framed by a more complicated narrative set within Toronto: specifically, a story is built around Harris’ relationship to a racially mixed working class neighbourhood called the Ward. Harris painted this neighbourhood, along with other industrial settings, and there seems to be a strong case that his obsession with monoliths begins with structures like the Eaton Manufacturing building before it ever moved up to the mountains. Harris’ desire to remove or reduce humans from his vistas is evident in these earlier works as well.
Near the end of the exhibition, Hunter shows us one of Harris later abstractions, Poise Compostion #4 (1936), which bears an uncanny resemblance to Toronto City Hall, the monumental bit of architecture that just so happened to be placed plop in the middle of what used to be the Ward. It’s a disturbingly circular moment; City Hall is the architectural embodiment of a Harris iceberg: white, solitary, surrounded by flat barren space. It also represents another moment where people were removed from a scene in order to streamline how it appears.
This is when Anique Jordan’s photographic works become suddenly transcendent. In Mas’ at 94 Chestnut and 94 Chestnut at the Crossroads for example, the artist reacts to the eviscerated history of the British Methodist Episcopal Church, a Ward church that played a key role in the nurturing of Toronto’s Afro-Caribbean community. Jordan presents two images, both of which illustrate a yearning; she knows about the church and its importance, she desires a means to gain access and entry to it, but there are no paintings or photographs or historic record that speak of it. Jordan’s work is a fitting rebuke to Harris’ “idea“ of North.
This was when I realized that I don’t mind harsh juxtapositions. I liked the fact that Harris can be presented as a great painter, but that in no way qualifies him as unassailable, and the legacy of his work raises a host of difficult questions.
Summer blockbusters should all be this pushy.
The Idea of North, curated by Steve Martin and Andrew Hunter, is on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario until September 18, 2016.