The dialogue surrounding Canadian history, especially concerning aboriginal peoples, is growing louder as of late. Protests by aboriginal communities against the decimation of land and resources, the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and its negation of aboriginal genocide have helped bring important issues to the forefront. Artists are there, too: witness the Polaris music prize win by throat-singer Tanya Tagaq, and Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda winning the popular Canada Reads competition.
Canadians are struggling to speak about a history fraught with injustice, one that’s more convenient to ignore than to confront. Parallel exhibitions at Division Gallery by Simon Hughes and Mario Doucette use strategies of aesthetic to toy with history and our perceptions of it. The artists seek to reframe deeply-instilled Canadian narratives, asking the viewer to consider alternate possibilities to stories often told as fact. Both artists reinvent visual representation of our past, revealing a more involved understanding of it.
Hughes, who hails from Winnipeg, examines Canada’s northern landscape, imagery in many ways monopolized by the Group of Seven.. He uses the vocabulary of mid 20th century modernists. Although the style is nostalgic, it treats tired subject matter in an insightful and conceptually elegant way.
Instead of the impressionistic and relatively romantic strategies employed by the Group of Seven, Hughes’s use of simple form and varied though restrained colouring create appealing and simultaneously foreboding landscapes. A large triptych filled with televisions floating on icebergs can be easily read as a commentary on our current connectedness/isolation. The piece makes the viewer especially uneasy as in the final one, in the bottom right corner, the sections of ice separate and float out alone onto what one can only imagine is a vast expanse of ocean.
Doucette uses a raw, almost juvenile style to recreate historical paintings, adding narratives that were either intentionally excluded by those recounting the events, or ones entirely imagined by the artist. It’s never made clear which parts are imagined and which might be closer to truth than the original painting, but highlighting that ambiguity is exactly the aim of his oeuvre. A majority of the works are extremely gruesome. I hope Doucette has taken imaginative liberties, but it’s almost certainly a combination, closer to truth than fiction.
Doucette portion of the exhibition is confined to one room where the walls have been painted to appear like an historical art museum rather than a contemporary gallery. Between presentation, subject, medium, and technical execution, the viewer is constantly questioning the authority of the artwork. Seemingly trustworthy in its naïve style, it teaches the viewer doubt any account, especially when one that wields the authority of an academic style and severe medium.
The greatest mistake we make in relation to history is to refer only to a singular source in recounting an event. Hughes and Doucette revisit subjects too often taken for granted. They destabilize our assuredness in the narrative, reminding us that theirs, as well as ours, is a subjective view.
Simon Hughes and Mario Doucette on exhibition at Division Gallery, 2020 Rue William, until November 1st.
Ariane Fairlie is a Montreal-based artist and writer.