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The Cedar Tavern Singers aka Les Phonoréalistes, a folk group formed by Daniel Wong and Mary-Anne McTrowe, wondered what the largest survey of contemporary Canadian art since 1989 might have in store. “Oh, Canada,” organized by Denise Markonish and three years in the making, doesn’t quite harmonize with the wry speculations in the duo’s 2012 music video Oh Canada, Oh Canada—in which they sing of an “interactive Mountie installation,” “neolumberjack abstraction,” and “postpainterly hockey”—but nevertheless, the exhibition delivers an abundance of works exploring familiar themes north of the US border: the natural environment, First Nations, colonialist legacies, national identity (or lack thereof), and humor. At the same time, the show provides considerable space for the sixty-two emerging and established, but still relatively little-known, artists to play with and contest stereotypical subjects—or to do something else entirely.
The severe geometric forms rendered in dirty shades of gray in two paintings of arctic scenes by Douglas Coupland, author and an exhibiting artist since 2000, view the traditionally romanticized landscape of Canada—considered by many to be the nation’s defining characteristic—with an uncharacteristically Canadian detachment. A more contemplative approach comes from Michael Snow’s Solar Breath (North Caryatids), 2002, an hour-long video of curtains flapping wistfully in front of the open window of a Maritime cabin.
Like many large group shows and biennials, “Oh, Canada” presents work that is cosmopolitan, serious, and sophisticated alongside the whimsical, humble, and earnest. Annie Pootoogook’s and Shuvinai Ashoona’s pencil crayon drawings of their Inuit communities have a touching immediacy, and Diane Landry’s illuminated plastic bottles spinning on bicycle wheels in a dark room elevate their demure everyday materials. Around the corner, though, Nicolas Baier’s glimmering Vanité/Vanitas, 2012, immortalizes the modern creative professional’s workspace by plating its physical signifiers—desk and chair, iMac, scanner, lamp, Moleskine notebook, half-eaten toast on a plate, and a thicket of tangled cords—with mirrored metal, entombing them in a large glass-enclosed vitrine. Though seemingly cold and sterile, Baier’s environment might point to, in an oddly deadpan way, the importance of transparency and reflection for life in a progressive sovereign state.