Canadian art has an identity crisis
Canadian art is more than the Group of Seven. It is more than our glorious indigenous art. It is more than the stereotypical landscape and wildlife painting that dominates reproductions on calendars and postcards and garner top rankings on Google searches.
The Canadian art identity is subtle. To an Asian it would likely be identified as “western” and to a European it would likely be construed as American. It would probably take a fellow Canadian to extract the Canadianness from artwork that doesn’t rely on typical geographical cues (wildlife, wilderness) and symbols (hockey, poutine etc.).
There is a state of mind represented that could loosely be identified as “not American”. It is a perspective of detachment and distance that allows Canadian art to pry up the corners of North American culture to expose the hidden elements that jiggle in the shadows of the periphery. Outside the glow of the spotlight, in the American blind spots, lurks the forgotten, the disenfranchised, the marginalized; the alienated…that when brought into sharp focus tells another story altogether – a Canadian story.
This is the playground in which many Canadian artists build their sandcastles. The underbelly of Pop culture super-saturation, the dark corners out of the line of fire of the relentless mass-marketing assault.
It just happens that my surreal sandbox is full of childhood remnants and symbols drenched in literal word and image play.
The painting above is entitled “Here we go round the prickly apple at 5 o’clock in the morning”, a skewed reference to T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men which some of the imagery also alludes to. Whereas Eliot’s allusions were more relevant to post World War I, my reading of it is more post Cold War and contemporary.
My central figure, the hollow monstrosity, blindly lurching across the landscape, is a figure of despair with his beard of honey and skullcap shredded from his “mind-blowing experience”. The honey has run past the mouth and now drips away, like the passing of time, no longer a sweet sensation but a receding memory.
Guided by the whispers of the serpent coiled on his arm, the tongue-in-cheek biblical symbolism is continued with the apple, rendered inedible by the spines it is covered with, yet the double-ended serpent is poised to bite regardless of the pain. Out of the serpent’s mouth flows the river of life in which swims a progression of evolving creatures from amoeba, to tadpole, fish to humanoid. This relates to the story of the Garden of Eden, original sin and the flow of life from that mythic origin. An eaten apple (the sin already committed) seems to want revenge on the prickly apple, perhaps in some cannibalistic tit-for-tat in order to vindicate his symbolic death.
Below the apples is a large lab rat, lured by unusual bait. The eyeball hovering over the trap is a point of perspective, which we all know can be a trap in itself. Lab animals are often used metaphorically to mock human’s primitive, behavioural nature.
To the hollow man’s left elbow is a toppling totem of emotions. At the bottom is anger or rage, then sadness, happiness, a sort of hybrid of disgust and contempt and lastly fear, which is in imminent peril of falling. Read into this the chaotic spectrum of emotions that we are dealt in life and the tenuous balance that must be kept for self-preservation.
At the far left two canisters of goo tumble sideways, spilling their toxic contents on the landscape in a gesture too familiar in our times, where pollution is reviled but ignored at the same time. Next to the cans an over-sized crow rips at the garments of a scarecrow, mocking its purpose, rendering it useless and making the scarecrow worthy of it death’s head crown.
To the far right Humpty Dumpty doesn’t fall because of his precarious perch on the wall. He falls because the integrity of the wall is degraded; crumbling beneath him which in some way represents the frail foundations on which we depend so often yet fail to support us securely just the same.
The sky is a duality of night and day with both the sun and moon as passive observers of the activity below. Their double presence represents the continuum of time, constantly flowing in perpetuity.
Between the sun and moon, Mother Goose takes flight like some benign fairy tale witch. She acts as a thematic thread, connecting the symbol-drenched stories of childhood nursery rhymes and fairy tales with the contemporary, adult-themed imagery in the painting. And yes, that’s a Canada goose…
What more can you expect from us fur-trading hockey players chugging maple syrup, scarfing poutine and watching the northern lights astride a seven foot bull moose?
Here we go round the prickly apple at 5 o’clock in the morning
A painting also known as
The Hollow Man
The painting is an allegorical blend of biblical, nursery rhyme and psychological references, taking cues from T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men.
Artist: Stephen Gibb, oil on panel, 2017