Gates yea, Martin nay

I wanted to like it.

As a child and teen, Lawren Harris was one of my favourite artists.  Steve Martin was and is one of my favourite comedians, actors, and writers.

But when I got to “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris” something was lost in the translation.  I wonder, thinking about such things as the French embrace of Jerry Lewis, as to whether Steve Martin’s version of Harris –passionate though it may be—misses something.

I quite liked the earnest little film of Martin talking about his discovery of Harris, mistaking him at first for Rockwell Kent.  That was my only brief encounter with Kent, but what struck me immediately was an aspect of Harris’s work that I’d never thought about before, something that hadn’t troubled me.

Kent’s paintings in juxtaposition to Harris’s work reminded me of the dual exhibit of Henry Moore and Francis Bacon, a recent AGO show I liked very much.  At the time I’d been struck by how abstract Moore seemed, compared to Bacon, and here I was again, possibly making a simplistic comparison.

Let me cut to the chase, telling you what I love about Harris, especially in this show, and what I felt was being disrupted by this presentation of his work.  For me Harris is extremely stylized, showing us a vision of rocks and trees, sky and water, that rarely resembles the subject.  Because we know what’s being signified it doesn’t trouble us to see trees that don’t look like real trees or mountains that don’t look like real mountains.  We may as well be looking at a visual allegory, a symbolic picture.

Symbol is really the key word.  I was reminded of Paul Gaugin and Maurice Denis in the handling of the colours, a pair of painters I associate with the symbolists, even though their works date from the 1890s, not the 1920s and ‘30s.  And as a painter whose images of Canadian landscape is so completely reified –without any signs of genuine life but instead from a symbolic (or symbolist) tableau—perhaps the paintings should be accompanied by the music of Debussy or Satie.

And so I believe the problem with this show is that we’re not embracing symbol but fighting against it.  We see photos and attempts to illuminate Harris’s vision.  Pardon me, but when I am in a theatre seeing an opera or a movie, please don’t interrupt my reverie with images of the actors out of costume, of biographical details.  Yes, later on I’m happy to view such things on the DVD. But as I walk through the gallery, as I seek to sink into a reverie with these paintings, to be yanked out again and again?  Not helpful, not respectful, not what I liked at all.



Theaster Gates, powerfully exploring meanings of “house” and “museum” at the AGO.

Upstairs there’s a show that blew me away from an American artist, Theaster Gates.  It’s political edginess strikes a chord in this season of rallies by Black Lives Matter, BLM being only one small footnote to this show.  First and foremost, I found Gates stimulating. Sometimes touching, sometimes achingly vulnerable, there’s a lot to think about, lots to feel.

burn_babyBut perhaps it’s more important to say that I was able to access Gates in a way that I couldn’t really access Lawren Harris.  I kept bumping into the curating vision of all the other minds, all that big money seeking to tell me how great Lawren Harris is, and who Lawren Harris is. And in the process, they interrupted my delight in his paintings, because –excuse me– Lawren Harris is new to me the way Richard Wagner or Hector Berlioz is new to me: one of my favourite artists since childhood.  Only one room really allowed me –near the end of the second part of the show—to fully sink into the experience of Harris’s paintings.  Am i sounding petulant? perhaps. To repeat: i wanted to like it. I really did.

And make no mistake, there are a great many wonderful paintings there. Perhaps the key is to look at the art and ignore the many messages from curators and historians.  Don’t listen to people tell you who Harrris is.  Maybe they’re more accurate than I in understanding him?  Could be! But if you go to this show and find it’s not working for you, there are at least two possible strategies I would suggest for you to take, that I took:

  • Go upstairs to the fifth floor, where you can see an artist’s vision unencumbered by curatorial intervention. The energy and joy coming at you are unmistakeable.
  • Buy the book. I think I came to know Harris from books, where his reified understanding of our landscape –an idea of north if ever there was one –comes through most clearly.

Where better than the book of “The Idea of North” to get the idea of the Idea of North..?

And when I go back to the show I will concentrate on the paintings.  Just as we didn’t really need the French to tell us who Jerry Lewis really was, perhaps we can find Lawren Harris for ourselves.

This entry was posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Books & Literature, Opera, Popular music & culture. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Gates yea, Martin nay

  1. Richard Rix says:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. It was as if there was a conscious attempt to prevent one from becoming immersed in the works on show, a sort of “Now, don’t get too attached to them – they’re not here for keeps.” It’s as if AGO has withdrawn from active involvement in the exhibition and is merely a host offering a nice and suitable place to see things. Not to mention the whiff of condescension implicit in it being Canadian art curated by an American celebrity.
    What does “Idea of North” mean anyway? The exhibition is one painter’s idea of how elements of the northern landscape may be symbolically, as you suggest, represented on canvas, with no thought as to what might be going on beyond the horizon and in an often hostile climate.
    Then there are all the pictures of the Ward in Toronto. Idea of North? Maybe, if you live in Los Angeles and get excited at the sight of snow. (Thank goodness the show didn’t take place in winter — that would really have diluted its impact!)
    Ironically, just after you leave the exhibit you can, if you wish, enter a gallery of AGO’s permanent collection of Harris’ works, an embarrassment of riches to which “Idea of North,” makes no reference — at least, none that I saw.
    One good thing: the pictures were at least hung at an acceptable height. I swear the recent Turner exhibition was curated with dwarfs in mind: on occasion I found myself literally dropping to my knees to get a suitable viewpoint from which to view the art, and I’m just medium height.

    • barczablog says:

      Thanks Richard. I was a little nervous posting this, as I prefer not to be negative. But I was shocked at how much I loved the relatively empty upstairs show (Gates) compared to the one that’s packing in the crowds. I want to cut Steve Martin slack, but maybe he simply has a different way of seeing Harris. The thing is, there are these two threads — the urban houses and the bleak rocky landscapes– and I don’t think they reconcile into an easy simple vision. When I look at those mountains alongside his urban images, I feel insensitivity /abstraction rather than empathy (which is why I reference Moore).

      Ah yes the idea of north. What exactly might that be? Beyond the title I don’t think we even scrape the surface. But I will probe this further via the book (a beautiful volume I purchased!), and a second visit. Who knows, maybe the key is to ignore the texts on the wall.

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