On April 27th 2011, the Doris McCarthy Gallery of UTSC hosted the opening reception of the MVS Curatorial Studies Graduating Exhibition, “Purloined Stories.” The show, curated by young, Toronto-based Sandy Saad, featured large-scale paintings, videos, and photographic montages by Canadian artists who have created contemporary adaptations of famous historical political pieces. The massive size and bold graphics alone were stunning within the petite gallery space.
Guests were offered sushi and wine, and many were magnetically drawn to the panoramic landscape and colourful characters of Kent Monkman’s Sunday in the Park (2010). This surrealist vista is based upon Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California (1868), although the breathtaking, fantastical scope of Monkman’s glimmering landscape could almost be a theatrical landscape still from Avatar (Cameron, 2009). The painting is populated by flamboyantly-clad characters positioned in a layout that mirrors Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86).
However, while the characters in Seurat’s painting are faceless and anonymous, so banal and idealized as to almost blend with their surroundings, Monkman’s characters have…well…character! Dressed in glamorized drag costumes, some also sport mutated variations on aboriginal headdresses, and together they pose for a painter – Monkman’s “alter ego” Miss Chief Eagle Testicle. Kent Monkman, a Toronto-based artist of Cree descent himself, creates work that deliberately challenges the mythologized and romanticized conceptions of aboriginal culture initially developed during the colonization of the Americas. These mythologies, which have perpetuated into the present day, involve the suppression and ultimate erasure of aspects and personalities that Monkman embodies within this painting.
The piece I found most interesting was a high-def video installation by Adad Hannah entitled Raft of the Medusa (100 Mile House) (2010). This five-minute video (which you can watch on his website) displays a cast of costumed characters posing against an artificial backdrop in a re-enactment of Theodore Gericault’s sensation-inducing painting Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819).
This painting was responsible for provoking a scandal in nineteenth-century France, for it brazenly depicted the grisly aftermath following the shipwreck of a French naval frigate called the Méduse. Due to a shortage of emergency lifeboats, about 150 people found themselves stranded upon a starvation-wracked, corpse-strewn, and cannibalistic raft, and only fifteen survived a fortnight of isolated carnage and madness. The accident itself was caused by the incompetency of the ship’s captain – a man who had been appointed for political reasons, despite being unfit for the job. At the time, many held the monarchy of Louis XVIII to be responsible, although his actual culpability is now considered highly questionable. Gericault chose this controversial, embarrassing (for the government), and horrifying event as the subject of an uncomissioned painting, deliberately depicting the raft’s prisoners in a moment of futile hope, clambering desperately upon rotting corpses to reach out at a lone ship sailing by in the distance.
Hannah’s recreation of Gericault’s painting, and his choice to make it a video, has quite a fascinating effect. His video, as well as its accompanying stills, are shiny, colourful, and fresh-looking – the people (even the corpses) appear youthful, airbrushed and beautiful, brightly lit and sharply defined. This apparent re-casting of a horrific event characterized by brutality and bloodshed in this way seems to be a self-contradiction. Gericault’s painting had served to heighten the horror, the pallid skin of the corpses and the misery of the suffering survivors, creating a gloomy and grisly atmosphere intended to elicit a visceral sense of empathy and simultaneous revulsion in the viewer. However Adad’s characters, clothed in contemporary garb, adrift on teal-turquoise seas, are unconvincing and palpably fraudulent – the story they are supposed to be telling seems removed and unrelated, and viewers find themselves instead studying the subjects of this artifice, searching for tell-tale signs of fraud and pretence (which are readily presented for the finding). The viewer sympathizes with the models in the video, as they sway, or adjust slightly to become more comfortable, considering how it would feel to have to hold a pose like that for five minutes, rather than sympathizing with the characters that the actors should be representing – those individuals stranded amid starvation, dehydration, cannibalism, and madness, on a hopeless raft in the middle of the sea. In this sense, the The Raft of the Medusa’s story is indeed “purloined” or “robbed” almost entirely of its original meaning, with its iconography appropriated and its resulting product somehow entirely isolated.
What emerges from this experience is the realization that Hannah’s piece is not in fact a depiction of the shipwrecked Méduse’s survivors, but instead is an appropriated and purposefully artificial re-creation of Gericault’s painting, designed to provoke self-consciousness during the viewing process. To raise questions about the artist’s intentions, the purpose of the subject matter, the veracity of the story being told, and the truthfulness of re-appropriation practices in general. There is a great essay about Hannah’s work and interpretation to be found here.
Liberty Lost (G20 Toronto)(2010) by Carole Conde and Karl Beveridge was another great piece included in the show, loosely based off of Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830). Conde & Beveridge have been christened the “social conscience of the Canadian art world” by Canadian Art Magazine, and their work often contains contemporary political criticisms.
David Buchan’s piece Always (1993), Jakup Dolejs’ Tribune (2006), and Ho Tzu Nyen’s 2009 video projection Earth composed the remainder of the show. These pieces are interesting in their own right, and for the new perspectives they create or illuminate in relation to the classic art historical pieces they reference. Saad’s show was a resounding success in my eyes, and if you have a chance to stop by and take a look before it ends on May 21st, I would highly recommend doing so! Check out some pictures from the event on the Varley Gallery’s page here.