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Exhibition Explores the Fascinating World of Contemporary Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada
James Carl, jalousie (baluster), 2008, coloured aluminium strips on wood base, 167.6 × 243.8 × 152.4 cm. Purchased 2009. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photography: Toni Hafkenscheid. Image courtesy of Diaz Contemporary.
OTTAWA.- More than 80 of the most innovative and ambitious works created by artists across Canada are highlighted in the National Gallery of Canada's (NGC) inaugural Canadian Biennial exhibition It Is What It Is: Recent Acquisitions of New Canadian Art. Reflecting the depth and diversity of contemporary Canadian art, these works are drawn from acquisitions made over the past two years for the NGC's collections of Indigenous and Contemporary art as well as for the Canadian Museum of Canadian Contemporary Photography (CMCP). Together they reveal the unique ways contemporary Canadian artists are tackling the state of the world through their art, and how they are selecting interdisciplinary modes of expression that explode traditional categories, materials and genres. Supported by the RBC Foundation, this exhibition is on view until April 24, 2011.

“It Is What It Is is an invitation to us all to embark on an adventure into the world of contemporary Canadian art,” said NGC Director, Marc Mayer. “It provides an excellent reference point for understanding the creative spirit that flourishes in our country today.”

From video to drawing and painting, photography to sculpture and installation, works by 55 artists have been assembled for this exhibition that showcases recent acquisitions for the most significant public collection of contemporary Canadian art in the world. Some of the artists selected have well-established reputations at home and abroad while others are now emerging onto the national scene. They include David Altmejd, Shuvinai Ashoona, Rebecca Belmore, Valérie Blass, Rodney Graham, Sarah Anne Johnson, Luanne Martineau, Gareth Moore, Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay and Jeff Wall.

The exhibition’s title, “It Is What It Is, is derived from a current popular catchphrase inspired by the Vancouver artist Ron Terada’s neon light sculpture It Is What It Is: It Was What It Was. It represents a comment on our current use of language, while offering a gentle critique of a perceived general state of complacency in modern society.

“RBC is proud to partner with the National Gallery of Canada to present - It Is What It Is: Recent Acquisitions of New Canadian Art,” said Shari Austin, Vice President, Corporate Citizenship, RBC. “We believe in the power of the arts to enrich our lives and enhance our communities, and are thrilled to help showcase some of Canada's most innovative and creative photographers and contemporary artists."

It Is What It Is
Over the past two years, the NGC and the CMCP have acquired approximately 400 works of Canadian contemporary art. Curators of the Indigenous, Contemporary art and CMCP collections were asked to take on the challenging task of assembling an exhibition that celebrated these acquisitions.

"After many discussions, we decided to approach the show as an opportunity to reflect on the strength of art created in Canada today," explained NGC Curator of Contemporary Art, Josée Drouin-Brisebois. "Rather than attempting a thematic or survey show, we sought ways to highlight the diversity of our collections, to conduct an experiment to see what meanings might become apparent when we juxtapose pieces that have never been shown together, all the while working within a limited exhibition space."

She continues "It Is What It Is evokes the specific moment in time and place in which we live and in which the artists have produced their works. By choosing not to adopt one specific narrative, this exhibition unabashedly is what it is – a show that highlights recent acquisitions. It also allows us to consider the present and recent past so that we can better understand what the future may hold."

Unity in diversity: Indigenous art in Canada
"This sampling of recent acquisitions for the National Gallery collection attests to the increasing appreciation of the magnitude, strength, and importance of art created by contemporary Aboriginal artists in Canada,” said Greg Hill, the Gallery’s Audain Curator of Indigenous Art."

In his introduction to the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Hill writes: "Contemporary Indigenous art in this country is defined as art created by Aboriginal artists, that is, artists of First Nations, Metis, or Inuit descent. The works selected here epitomize the ongoing emergence of indigenous art into the forums of the contemporary art milieu nationally and internationally. The works from these eight artists—Shuvinai Ashoona, Mary Anne Barkhouse, Rebecca Belmore, Thirza Cuthand, Nadia Myre, Shelley Niro, Tim Pitsiulak, and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun—represent a broad range of visual expression across diverse media. That diversity is also a unifying force. It is an insistent multiplicity of cultural, social, and even sexual identities that is the result of the many different situations Aboriginal artists in Canada experience and their desire to represent its specificity."

He adds that "the multifaceted nature of these works stands in opposition to the homogenizing tendencies of dominating cultural views and systemic art constructs that seek to limit, contain, and categorize in an effort to 'understand' from within self-defined terms of reference. These eight artists resist homogeneity. They are not defined by their cultures; rather, they are deeply engaged in defining culture. And they do so from individual perspectives that may incorporate Indigenous knowledge as well as what can be learned from anywhere in the world. Their engagement with the world in which they live – including a myriad of social, political, cultural, and environmental conditions – is what makes their work so vital to understanding who we are in a world that is rapidly compressing time and space through electronic communication and increasing technological development."

Photography now: Constructing vision, engaging the real
“Photography also has a strong presence in the exhibition, and viewers will see the medium employed to both document and fabricate a vision of the real,” said CMCP Curator of Photographs Andrea Kunard.

In her introduction to the catalogue, she explains: "As we step more fully into the twentieth-first century, photography continues to prove itself a flexible medium, capable of communicating a range of expressions from the poetic to conceptual. Positioned on the cusp of the analogue and the digital, photographers exploit the advantages of both technologies, creating works that exist simultaneously as fact and fiction. Photography also inquires into the fundamental concerns of art: it is a means of commenting on the very structures of art making, and of expanding our understanding of other media such as film and painting. In addition, photography is recognized as a medium of memory and desire, a stand-in for what we knew, or thought we knew, what we wished to know, and what we hope to have knowledge of in the future.

Although artists have for some time questioned the belief that the photograph is a factual representation of the real, many still embrace its capacity to communicate issues of social concern. Documentary projects remain in force, but now, in a heightened global context, topics are presented in complex and ambiguous ways."

Sarah Anne Johnson’s photographic installation comprises photographs of environmentalists in the Galapagos archipelago as well as sculptures and images of dioramas she has constructed of their experiences. Isabelle Hayeur creates digital composite images to comment on suburban housing developments, while Scott McFarland digitally manipulates the urban landscape to render it more “perfectly” as art. Photographers such as Greg Girard and Chih-Chien Wang use un-manipulated photographs to address issues of social concern. Girard presents the dynamic modernization of Shanghai, while Wang depicts the visual poetry of his immediate environment, as well as his sometimes difficult experiences as a recent immigrant to Canada.

National Gallery of Canada | Contemporary Canadian Art | Marc Mayer |


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