January 16th - February 28th, 2014
Liz Pead, Ontario Fields, Gwillimbury, recycled hockey gear on board under plexiglass vitrine, 2013.
BREAKING THE ICE
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE WORK OF LIZ PEAD
by Alex King
Liz Pead’s work deals with the imagery and legacy of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, joining a number of artists who have, since the 1960’s, critically examined that period in the history of Canadian art, and turned it on its head. The debates that were initiated during that time concern ideas interweaving reality and representation, nationalism, myth, value and privilege, and they continue to be examined today.
Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and Frederick Varley set out to produce a national art for Canada. Their subject matter was primarily the wilderness landscapes of Northern Ontario, driven by their philosophy that Canadian identity was embedded in its land. Their first exhibition opened in 1920, and the rest is Canadian history.
The Group’s1 paintings’ appeal is a curious one, perhaps particularly to me, as a recent immigrant. How did they become so firmly affixed within the Canadian psyche? And how, despite the argument that the places they depict are not in fact, at least experientially identifiable to numerous Canadians, they are still prevalent in their collective imagination? With such white, male, Ontario-centric concerns, the Group must surely always have produced only a narrow vision of their country, although undoubtedly it was, and still is, a dominant one.
The Group’s intent to produce a truly ‘Canadian’ art was championed from the get-go by the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). When the NGC organized a silkscreen reproduction initiative to showcase Canadian art in 1927, the Group’s work appeared in prints on the walls of libraries, classrooms, homes, and the military2. For those viewers, their appeal may have been a response to the rapid growth of cities and industry, indicative of the desire for a more rural life or leisure environment3. If it is the case that their remote romanticism provided a visual alternative to urban life, then the Group’s work has always been a dream.
Liz Pead, Barilko: Lost and Found, Recycled hockey equipment on board80” x 200”, 2010.
The institutional promotion received from the NGC sanctioned their art as being of and belonging to the nation; an important source of pride. Today, as Anne Whitelaw argues, the museum continues this “…discourse of nation-ness that frames individual objects in terms of a collective memory through appeals to a common heritage and shared national values.”4 Here, the term ‘framing’ is key; gallery visitors become part of an institutional diorama, gathered around objects designated as ‘national’.
It seems fitting that this kind of cultural nationalism is questioned on gallery walls throughout Canada. Why the Group’s brand of nationalism persists deserves much more investigation than could be attempted here, but it is a question worth asking when viewing the work of Liz Pead.
Where the interpretation of the Canadian landscape drove the Group, their forebears, and many contemporary Canadian artists, Pead’s work appears to take a slightly different direction. Looking beyond viewing her tableaux as landscapes (and Group landscapes at that), it becomes apparent that what is foregrounded aesthetically takes a backseat to other concerns. Indeed, Pead's work seems to be less about landscape. Rather she uses Group’s landscapes as an entry point to provoke discussion about nationalism, art and contemporary cultural, political and social issues in Canada.
The re-use of old hockey equipment in Pead’s tableaux is a result of her desire to use “a truly Canadian material”5. Any comparisons to the Group’s essentialism, albeit in a more contemporary and democratic guise, fall away by the works inherent playfulness. Its folk art aesthetic eschews elegant lines in favour of boldness, with staples proudly visible. The assembled rubble, with all its junky, pop culture connotations, undermines our reverence of the Group’s work and de-glorifies it. The collage constructions also provide a neat metaphor for the construction of landscape and its multifaceted messiness. It acts as a reminder that landscape painting is never a document, but a patchwork of personal, cultural, political and aesthetic ideas. Viewed too close, the works appear to be abstract collages; one must take a step away to let the eyes adjust.
Liz Pead, Ontario Fields, recycled hockey gear on board, 2013.
Pead’s idiosyncratic visual language and interpretation of the Group’s aesthetic creates a space in which she reimagines scenes from Canadian history. These places often bears witness to dramatic events: Louis Riel’s surrender at Batoche (in Louis Riel and the Church at Batoche (2013), and the deaths of Bill Barilko and Tom Thomson (Barilko: Lost and Found (2010) and Saving Tom Thomson (2012)). The reverence for these landscapes in the Canadian imagination speaks of an indelible mark left by these tragedies. The relationship between a powerful kind of collective memory to particular landscapes, akin perhaps to the spiritual, makes them good bedfellows for her Group-inspired tableaux.
The three historical figures Pead explicitly references in Breaking the Ice, and the Group members continually implied, offer a reminder of the male dominance in national mythmaking. The gaping female absence (not even Emily Carr gets a look in here) is blatant. This glaring deficiency speaks of a history of exclusion, of which female voices are but one part. The works seem to ask the question “who speaks for Canadian culture?” Whilst nations have progressed to a more inclusive way of presenting themselves, the iconography of a largely white, male-dominated past often persists unquestioned. In this case, that masculinity seems closely tied to both heroism and the wilderness landscape. The coupling with the iconography of hockey is, in Pead’s words, the marriage of “two longtime pantheons of male dominance”6.
Pead’s work firmly straddles the worlds of craft and painting, and the gender binary the art canon traditionally assigned. Where craft was a feminine hobby, painting was for men, and a serious undertaking. Her works toy with the canonical constraints of the Group’s era, in terms of both gender and the possibilities of painting. Even Pead’s process of making seems to riff on a wry Group pastiche; as members of the Group travelled northbound with sketchbooks in backpacks to immerse themselves en plein air, so Pead raids urban leftovers in her (and the Group’s) hometown of Toronto. What Pead needs is always right on her doorstep. Her ‘reuse’ ethic is something she identifies as being part of a “vague Canadian environmental guilt”7. The resonance of this statement, particularly in the context of this exhibition in Estevan (The Energy City!), borders on the ironic.
Where Group works were notably devoid of human presence, Pead’s material of choice infers a very human hand. Her works may be devoid of people pictorially, but their presence is certainly felt, evident as consumers, sports players and even models for the moulded bodyware. The use of mass-produced items, their plastic replication of the human form, and even the echoing of Group landscapes reinforces a recurring theme of reproducibility, of the relationship between objects and a mass public. I have to wonder if perhaps the work of the Group is now – in its endless reproduction – a trope of Canadian landscape, drained of the potency its creators had envisioned.
Liz Pead’s work undermines both the landscape genre’s Romantic idealism and the Group’s landscapes’ dominance in the aesthetics of contemporary Canadian nationalism. But it is not Pead who opposes the Group, rather she critiques our own enduring mythologizing and romaticising of their work and its relationship to the representation of Canadian identity and contemporary reality. Her critique extends beyond the canon of art to the Canadian treatment of the land it purports to hold dear. The environmental subtext in her work speaks of an irony that the paintings of the Group of Seven often seem more valuable than the spaces they depict, imagined or not.
O’Brian, John and White, Peter, eds., Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity and Contemporary Art, (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007)
Pead, Liz. Artist statement, 2013
Woods, Michael. “Hockey and art, strange bedfellows at Saskatoon exhibit.” Toronto Star, March 16th, 2012.
1 The Group of Seven will be referred to as ‘the Group’ during the remainder of this essay.
2 Joyce Zemans, “Establishing the Canon: Nationhood, Identity, and the National Gallery's First Reproductions Programme of Canadian Art," in Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity and Contemporary Art, ed. John O’Brian and Peter White (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007)
3 Douglas Cole, “Artists, Patrons and Public: An Enquiry into the Success of the Group of Seven,” in Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity and Contemporary Art, ed. John O’Brian and Peter White (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007)
4 Anne Whitelaw, “'Whiffs of Balsam, Pine, and Spruce': Art Museums and the Production of a Canadian Aesthetic,” in Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity and Contemporary Art, ed. John O’Brian and Peter White (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007), 177.
5 Liz Pead Artist Statement, 2013
6Michael Woods, “Hockey and art, strange bedfellows at Saskatoon exhibit.” Toronto Star, March 16th, 2012.
7Liz Pead artist statement, 2013