Sunday, August 27, 2017

Visiting Toronto--McMichael Center for Canadian Art

In Toronto on a Sunday morning in June, we caught the Art Bus to the McMichael Center

McMichael Center for Canadian Art

Just north of Toronto in Kleinberg, the Center was created in 1952 to display Canadian art, from both indigenous people and European Canadians. Although there were pieces by Canadians on not particularly Canadian subjects, the focus was art depicting Canada. Since Canada is a country of glorious natural beauty, it was a treat for a botanist and ecologist.

McMichael Center for Canadian Art
Landscapes by Tom Thompson
The McMichael collection features the Group of Seven, seven very different Canadian artists, whose art portrayed Canada in styles ranging from Tom Thompson's landscapes (displayed above) to Lawren Harris' cold artic abstracts (examples: link). They also featured Inuit and First Nations art, both historic and contemporary, for example to Norval Morrisseau's striking art  (in the photo below). More at the McMichael Collection pages: link.

McMichael Center for Canadian Art
The view outside and a painting by Norval Morrisseau
The Center architecture was designed to  incorporate nature, and it does that with conventional access to nature as gardens, parks, and outdoor sculpture, but also with the less conventional approach of having big windows looking out into the woodland throughout the galleries. Usually there were seats for sitting and looking out so the forest around the building was part of the experience. Often, and not accidentally, the big windows seemed like the paintings. Art imitated nature and nature imitated art.

McMichael Center for Canadian Art

McMichael Center for Canadian Art

Many of the art works made environmental statements, as you might expect from artists painting the Canadian landscape. Some of the issues have been solved or become mainstream over time, but  generally the calls to preserve and share our natural heritage are as valid today as when they were painted.

Naturally, the art also raised questions I had never thought about. I was particularly struck by the Size Matters project by Steve Driscoll and Finn O'Hara. O'Hara photographed large abstract paintings by Driscoll in a variety of outdoor settings, putting the paintings into various landscapes to indicate their size (Discussion of exhibition: link). For me it raised questions of the relation of art and the outdoors/nature. Below, left, the painting was set into a busy downtown street and, right, into a winter forest. Engaging commuters seemed good, but the bright turquoise on the snow felt out of place.  Which led to the question: what is a painting's proper place?

Size Matters, McMichael Center for Canadian Art
Size Matters Exhibition: Steve Driscoll and Finn O'Hara
When I look at art outdoors, I always ask: does insertion of art improve the scene? It certainly adds interest: I've seen lots of snowy woods, none with a great turquoise and blue canvas in the middle of it. And then, would the snow scene be "better" without the painting? Would the painting be "better" without the snow scene, for example, on a gallery wall?

Here is another: I thought the painting in the center a big improvement over the junk and graffiti of the background. But is there any logical basis to that view? Might you not prefer the reality over the art or graffiti on walls to paint on canvas? Or is the whole greater than the sum of the parts?
Steve Driscoll and Finn O[Hara Size Matters Exhibition
Steve Driscoll and Finn O[Hara Photograph in the Size Matters Exhibition
Outside, natural Canada was featured in enticing paths through the forest

trails at McMichael Center for Canadian Art

The trail meandered near a gentle stream. Here is chicory (Cichorium intybus), a very pretty weed from Europe, flowering between the path and the stream.

trails at McMichael Center for Canadian Art

Uncer the trees was this striking shrub, probably red elderberry, Sambucus racemosa.

trails at McMichael Center for Canadian Art

And, also in the McMichael Center's forest, great dark sculptures by Ivan Eyre, this one titled Yell.

Ivan Eyre Yell, McMichael Center for Canadian Art

I liked all of it very much.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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You might also like these blog posts:

Chihuly Art in the Denver Botanic Garden link

Chihuly sculpture, Denver

Visiting China--Chinese Landscape Painting and Chinese Landscapes  link
Huang Shan, China

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