RIELISMS AT THE WINNIPEG ART GALLERY
[First published as "Officialdumbing" in Winnipeg's Border Crossings magazine, issue 78, 2001, 122-123.]
The Winnipeg Art Gallery is as "official" a venue as a legislature grounds, except that unlike government precincts, the WAG is allowed to display controversial things because civic art galleries in our culture are "officially" allowed, like universities, to engage in debate. In a legislature, however, debate can only happen within the legally protected venue of the legislature floor, but not on the grounds or walls. Again, the WAG may have "official" status (there I go with those scare quotes), but the art it displays is not necessarily "official culture." Our official culture can only be uncontroversial.
"Rielisms," an exhibition curated by Catherine Mattes, addresses through art and an art controversy what official culture can and cannot be in a pluralistic democracy. She convinces a viewer - in an elliptical way, not directly - that official art is not worth making because it has to be bland. "Unofficial" art, especially art that is officially deemed unacceptable, is where the real action is.
This show revisits a controversy ignited a few years back when an expressionistic sculpture of Louis Riel by the artist/architect team of Marcien Lemay and Etienne Gaboury was deemed unacceptable and summarily removed from the grounds of Manitoba's Legislature Building. the work was replaced by a more traditional work by Miguel Joyal. (Lemay's was a twisted existentialist figure; Joyel's is often mistaken by tourists for Mark Twain.)
This local flare-up reminded bystanders of the removal of Richard Serra's Tilted Arc from New York's Federal Plaza and the addition of a realistic sculpture of soldiers as a sop to traditionalists near Maya Lin's wall-of-names Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
The "Rielisms" exhibition attempted - and succeeded, I think - in carefully parsing the political issues related to the depiction of Louise Riel in contemporary art, and by extension, how we think historical figures should be portrayed now.
Louis Riel was a Métis man, that means of mixed First Nations and European heritage, who founded the Canadian province of Manitoba over 100 years ago. In Manitoba he is seen by many as a political and religious visionary - a kind of prairie Joan of Arc. He was executed as a traitor - many would say a patriot - by the Canadian government. Without equivocation, Catherine Mattes calls Riel "...one of the most controversial historical figures of all time." Maybe not, but he is certainly a key figure in the history of the Plains.
Contests about who should be revered and how are part of wider struggles for human rights and cultural recognition in Canada. Mattes addresses the Riel controversies in a serious, thoughtful and politically engaged way. The work in this show makes and breaks rules about depicting heroes and historical figures by satisfying or defying the depictional interests of a polite multicultural society.
The maquette for the Lemay/Gaboury sculpture that was removed from the Legislature grounds is a key work in this show. Some of the other art, for example John Nugent's Saskatchewan memorials, has also daringly aspired to official sanction and display on the grounds of legislature buildings; some is stuff that everyone can at least tolerate(i.e. David Hannon and - despite a good catalogue essay: Sherry Farrell Racette); and some is made by artists whose interest in Riel is, however political, personal and visionary ( Boyle, Favell, McMaster, Funnell, Newdigate, Poitras).
Rosalee Favell's self-portrait waking up dreaming, called "I awoke to find my spirit had returned --from Plains(s) Warrior Artist (1999) is humorous and satirical, and for me as important as the Lemay maquette for this exhibition. Two ideas about public viewing are articulated by Lemay and Favell: the former imposes a vision from the vantage of an official commission with the expectation of wide approval (however provocative the work) while the latter invites a viewer into a personal world in which no approval is sought.
There is a difference between public and private dreaming. In Favell's photomontage the artist, wrapped in a Hudson's Bay blanket , wakes up as the cast form The Wizard of Oz gathers round. Favell has Louis Riel staring awkwardly past her through a window while off to one side a picture of Xena, television's warrior princess, hangs on a wall.
Jeff Funnell's storyboard is an illustrated history of Riel, but again, made from an artist's take-it-or-leave-it personal position. Like Favell's work, Funnell makes a kind of historical fiction out of visual art, not by ignoring the facts, but by bringing them to life. (Funnell tells me that he would like to "publicly apologize" for having made ANY art, and not just is 1985 Riel work. He now thinks of himself as a "recovering artist.")
A source for most of what I am calling "historical fiction" in this exhibition (visions of the truth that don't just enumerate the facts) is a book by Joseph Kinsey Howard called "Strange Empire," [St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press] self-described as "The story of Louis Riel, the Métis people, and their struggle for a homeland on the plains of the United States-Canada border." "Strange Empire" was first published in 1952 and, according to Mattes, eagerly read by many of the artists in this exhibition.
Howard's account, like the art it has inspired, is both a rich read and, by the way, an "unofficial" text. Like "Strange Empire" "Rielisms" is an argument for personal vision, and it raises an important question: if no official art or text is allowed to convey what a Funnell or a Favell or a Newdigate or a Howard have to say, and no official vision can include the perspective of a Lemay and Gaboury, why do artists keep hoping to make official art?