As a swan song “Picturing the Americas” might be Matthew Teitelbaum’s finest hour. The show is in some ways a triumph of diplomacy, an impossibly congenial meeting between museums and cultures sure to be a feather in his cap, as he says goodbye to Toronto and the Art Gallery of Ontario in the next few days, departing for his new post with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Co-curated by Peter John Brownlee, Curator of the Terra Foundation; Valéria Piccoli, Chief Curator of the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo; and Georgiana Uhlyarik, the AGO’s Associate Curator of Canadian Art, Picturing the Americas will be on view at the AGO until Sept. 20, 2015, in a summer of Pan American celebrations inspired by the athletic games that are coming a few short weeks from now.
As an insecure Canadian, this show moves me in all the right ways. In the first room you get to see Cornelius Krieghoff alongside paintings from abroad: and you see him and his work in a new light, as if you were suddenly watching Celine Dion in Vegas or Robert Lepage directing an opera in NY. Yes, Canadians are so much more than our provincial nervousness might allow, as we sometimes beat up on anything in our own backyard, that might bravely celebrate Canada to the unbiased eyes of those who see our art for the first time. And in the last room you get Lawren Harris alongside Georgia O’Keeffe, both alongside so many others from the broader world.
None of that is the point of the show, of course.
It started out as a kind of fantasy in the mind of one of the curatorial team. Brazil talked to USA, and then went looking for a third gallery, choosing the AGO. Our Pan Am games this year are the convenient pretence for Toronto getting the first version of a show that will go on to Arkansas and eventually Sao Paolo, as part of Brazil’s Olympic celebration in 2016. The fantasy? What if landscapes of all these diverse countries that make up the Americas were displayed side by side. What would it look like? What might we learn?
And in my first blushing glimpses I have to say, wow it’s profound. There is such depth to this show that it can’t really be grasped on a first view. I will be back. I stayed longer than I thought I would, one of the stragglers going through, wishing I had even more time.
A good show is like time-travel, and this one especially so because it is presented with such subtlety. We are dealing less with artistic personalities & quirks, and mostly with their subject matter. Because of the way the works are organized you can’t help the meta-think, the frames placed around the works, the sense of shifting contexts.
We begin with painters as visitors to a remote land, tourists painting picturesque landscapes. And we get the kind of anthropology you saw in the 18th and 19th century, where painters were natural historians, eye-witness explorers of a new world. Even when we get into 20th century, we are looking at the ideas and content rather than art and technique and isms. As such it’s unlike any show I have ever seen: and I mean that in a good way. The curatorial element is underplayed. The sublime is most certainly here, but instead of analysis, instead of looking at technique, I believe we’re invited to that place art took us when we were children: pure wonderment and delight. For such an intellectual exercise, I felt free to just look and feel without being buried in theory.
We are often looking at people, especially indigenous peoples. That is one of the most important parts of this show, and is properly acknowledged as we emerge with images of the contracts between the Mississauga and the English King (or his representative) enlarged on the wall. I have to think long and hard about this because it’s one element I will be staring at next time, namely the place of the people in these pictures. Is America utopia? It can be if you’re coming from Eastern Europe as my family did. But that’s only one way of seeing the land.
I will be back.