The Marion McCain Exhibition of Atlantic Art was initiated in 1987 at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery as a biennial survey of New Brunswick art, but in 1994 it morphed into a review of Atlantic Canadian Art.
Beaverbrook Art Gallery director Tom Smart, also the curator of the current exhibition, explains that the donor, the late Marion McCain, wanted the show to be based on submissions by the artists, something that was not always done in past exhibitions. Smart has largely returned to the original formula for this exhibition, picking the artists from their submissions, with the exception of a few artists whom he invited to round out the show. Surveys like this one are always fraught with problems for galleries and curators, usually related to who is included and who is left out—not to mention inclusiveness issues such as race, sex, nationality, language, and age. Smart, to my mind, has avoided all these pitfalls well.
The title, Materiality and Perception, is an apt description of the exhibition’s content. McCain was an applied arts graduate of Mount Allison University (the program no longer exists) and thus understood the artistic value of the often under-appreciated “crafts.” Smart has chosen a wide variety of media from an equally wide variety of artists and presented all the work in a fine arts context—hence the use of the word “materiality.” The term “perception” can be judged in couple of ways: the way an artist uses a medium to make a point or the way a viewer perceives a work through an artist’s use of a medium.
There is a very good selection of Indigenous artists in the exhibition, including Edward “Ned” Bear and Charles Gaffney, with his carved wooden masks, and Mi’kmaq artist Teresa Marshall, who presents a beautifully crafted jacket, Bolero Regalia (2014)—a lovely example of wearable art. Placing people and their work in silos, which is easily done with Indigenous art, is a disservice to the understanding of the universality of art. Smart has also included in the exhibition a work that might normally considered craft rather than fine art, a stunning ceramic piece, Vase with Flower Medallions (2017), by Nova Scotia artist Gina Etra Stick, testifying to her advanced study of ceramics in China.
To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 book title The Medium is the Message, the message that Materiality and Perception delivered is that there are many ways to say something and that we need to broaden the definition of what we think art is.
Of course, there many examples of traditional media in the fine arts—painting, printmaking, sculpture, and photography. I was drawn to the large circular painting A Conversation with Emma Kunz (2019), by Saint John, New Brunswick, artist Deanna Musgrave, which graces the cover of the English edition of the exhibition catalogue. The painting, a fine non-objective work, is an homage to the Swiss visionary geometric abstract artist Emma Kunz. There is a long history of abstract art by Acadian artists in New Brunswick. Abstraction 4:112017 (2017) is a fine example of non-objective painting in this exhibition by Moncton-based artist Luc Charette.
Two sculptures by Prince Edward Island artist Gerald Beaulieu from his series Where the Rubber Hits the Road, Crow 1 (Cooper) (2018) and Crow 2 (Kelly) (2018), very large sculptures of dead crows made from used tires, are viewer favourites. The title refers to the idea of road kill; Cooper and Kelly are tire brands. The pieces manage to be serious and humorous at the same time. They were exhibited outdoors, by the gallery’s café entrance, but could also be seen through a window in the gallery where the exhibition was displayed. Ann Manuel’s work Weed Species (2016), is another sculpture that struck my eye. It appears to be an aluminum ladder transformed into birch tree branches, or perhaps the other way around; in any case, it is a striking work that is beautifully displayed in the exhibition. Like many artists in this McCain show, Manuel is rightfully concerned with the environment, and her concern is matched by the craftsmanship of her art.
This brings me back to the title of the exhibition, Materiality and Perception. Artworks need first to have the formal qualities of art, in any medium, before moving on to their content. This is what make such items art, rather than just social commentary. This is not to minimize the importance of content, subject matter, and any message that an artist is trying to convey to the viewer, but only to separate art from non-art. This exhibition demonstrates that good art is produced in many media—a pot or a painting still can have visual qualities that have the power to move us. Through his careful curatorial choices, Tom Smart has also shown that art can be humorous and still make a serious point, as does the work by Nova Scotia Indigenous artist, Raven Davis, Child’s Play for Them, Murder for Us (2017), that is a deadly play on a child’s game.
To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 book title The Medium is the Message, the message that Materiality and Perception delivered is that there are many ways to say something and that we need to broaden the definition of what we think art is. This exhibition does that.
Materiality and Perception in Contemporary Atlantic Art
Curator: Tom Smart
Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton
October 20, 2019—January 26, 2020