October 4, 2007

A tricky balancing act in the hinterlands

"The Urge to Abstraction,"curated by Dr. Roald Nasgaard. The Varley Art Gallery, Unionville, Canada. Through Nov. 11.

"The Art of Robert Bateman," McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, Canada. Through Oct. 28.

Sarah Milroy reports in the Globe and Mail that "the vast majority of museums in Canada are set in small, rural communities, and they have a tricky balancing act to perform. They can't be so big-city edgy in their programming that they drive their public away, but they have to deliver on the promise of education and providing a link to the real discussion about art that goes on in the wider world beyond their leafy streets....I found myself thinking about that balance this week when I took a few days to cruise the northern reaches of the 905 region. The Varley Art Gallery in Unionville (just northeast of Toronto) and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg (just to the northwest) both sit on the fringes of the metropolis, and their curators have ties to the debates around Canadian culture and art history. How they choose to engage their communities provides a kind of object lesson in the pros and cons of populism....Now, the premise of this exercise may seem overly cautious; to find abstraction a challenge is, after all, kind of like balking at the horseless carriage. Abstraction has been with us in the West for nearly a century. But Nasgaard does a solid job of setting out the major painting movements in Eastern Canada – the Automatistes and the Plasticiens in Montreal, the Painters Eleven in Toronto – though he barely touches on developments in other parts of the country. This, however, was not the point of this exhibition, which is framed as an exercise in art appreciation. People can learn a lot from this show, and the curator assumes the gallery-goer's eager involvement.

"Bateman at the McMichael seems to have the opposite aim. Clearly a barnburner of a money-maker (the place is packed), this exhibition solemnly presents Bateman as an artist grappling with the big themes of 20th-century art, an heir to Franz Kline, Clyfford Still or even Vincent Van Gogh, a lone wolf wrongly condemned by the 'art snobs' who are out to get him. This is patent nonsense, serving simply to reveal Bateman's shallow understanding of his great forebears. Just for the record: To mimic two white passages of paint in a Still painting by painting a pair of mountain goats on a rocky cliff, as Bateman describes having done in the making of Sheer Drop (1980), cannot in any meaningful way be considered an homage to the great American abstract expressionist painter, whose aim was to abolish the conventions of three-dimensional space and embrace, instead, the physical facts of paint on canvas. Such illusionism would have been an abomination to Still. It made me sad and mad to see museum-goers lapping up this pretentious silliness." Read more.