Modern Visions

Modern Visions
Mendel Art Gallery
To January 4, 2015

A sentiment in Lucy Lippard’s Lure of the Local, which I read as an MFA student planning a brief tenure in Saskatchewan (nearly two decades ago), is that “I’m not from here, I just live here.” That’s an idea that’s repeatedly framed my response to regionalist debates here, and has coloured my interactions with Modern Visions. This exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of the Mendel Art Gallery here in Saskatoon, featuring works from the permanent collection, which:

… today numbers over five thousand works of art/ and provides an invaluable resource/making the Mendel a popular spot for visitors to the province/And also to the citizens of Saskatoon/And though a new space is being developed/we will never ever forget the man who started it all / Frederick Mendel…

It seemed appropriate to include those lyrics from the Cedar Tavern Singers’ Mendel Art Gallery Music Video, which is installed in a side room. It has synchronized dancing. What more could you ask for?

The milieu around the exhibition includes the following: the much-beloved institution will soon cease to exist, closing to nourish the formation of the Remai Modern. Chief Curator Lisa Baldissera recently departed, as has one time curator Jen Budney. Past retrospectives of “Saskatoon” artists have favoured Eli Bornstein, Dorothy Knowles and William Perehudoff, and the regionalist, overtly congratulatory xenophobia sometimes suffocates here. (A nameless staff member reports to me the shock some minor artists here express that students of Canadian art in larger centers are unfamiliar with them.)

Suffice it to say, I was experiencing some trepidation about this exhibit.

But in many ways, the front gallery space (the exhibition occupies all four spaces) tells you all you need to know. The prominent display of the Lawren Harris and Arthur Lismer sates stakeholders of stilted cultural awareness (like our mayor, voted Canada’s craziest mayor on the Rick Mercer Report) by providing immediate, re-affirming gratification.  But, the prominence of Rebecca Belmore’s blood on the snow, next to Edward Poitras’s Optional Modification in Six Parts, which expounds on Treaty 4 (and is a “quote”, you might say, from a past exhibition about the Qu’Appelle Valley that explored its beauty and contested history), also indicates Modern Visions  isn’t a vacuous booster. Other works, such as John Will’s Hillbilly Hell or Bear Witness’s Cultural Distinctness trade reverence for relevance in speaking of “here.”

In the lobby outside the front gallery hangs Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s massive The Urban City Sounds: the Colours I Feel At Night, and I’m remembering his solo Mendel exhibition, An Indian Shooting the Indian Act, and his talk that called out the (then) Reform Party. The Mendel has often been a strong voice. Seeing Evergon’s The Lemon Squeezer reminds me of one of the few things I knew of Saskatoon before my arrival: that when a bigoted, potential mayoral candidate attempted to censor the Evergon exhibition, the gallery stood firm. (Hell, there are artist-run centers here with significantly less courage than that and they don’t answer to City Hall.)

In fact, this show doesn’t really conform to expectations for an anniversary show: its more appropriately seen as another of Acting Chief Curator Sandra Fraser’s thought-provoking presentations on collecting and collections, including Where It’s At and Shaping Saskatchewan). This is primarily her endeavour, though Baldissera had an early hand that can be seen in some selections and installations.

A tenet of Fraser’s past forays into the collection has been rarely seen works and,  in light of that, the back gallery is hung salon style with many massive works that have not often seen the light of day. Ronald Bloore’s Painting, a subtle and delicate work that, like much significant abstraction can really only be experienced in person, faces massive works by Jack Bush and Harold Town. Elsewhere,  “names” such as Paterson Ewen share space with more local worthies like Neal McLeod (and local pedants like Bentham or Fowler).

There’s so much here: a smart selection from the recent Photographers Gallery bequest: Collette Whiten’s Structure #4, Thirza Cuthand’s touching Love and Numbers, Joyce Weiland’s Puerdo de Navidad. The five sections Fraser has framed the show around are just suggestions, as ideas blend together, and Modern Visions speaks as much about where the Mendel has ended, now, as it does about how it got there. It’s an evocative and elegant, if a bit eccentric, history of the gallery, and the larger social spheres that influenced and shaped it.