There’s an unusual exhibit presently running at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Unusual, in that its focus is on who is doing the curating – it happens to be the museum’s security guards themselves. Called Guarding the Art, one’s first impression might be that this is some kind of eccentric novelty show: Just what art intrigues the very people that have to stare at it day in, day out? But then again, also a great premise, for who might not have a more thoughtful take on those works than those privileged, or captive, as it were, viewers?
20 Works, now on display at Museum London until June 5, offers an equally unusual perspective on works from their collection. It is that rare exhibit that gives us a bit of a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes of the curators and stewards of our museums’ collections – and just how works are purchased or donated. Outgoing Executive Director Brian Meehan has selected a small but diverse sampling of pieces that have come to Museum London under his twenty-three-year tenure, and he has provided plenty of insights into how and why these works came to be part of the permanent collection. In a way, it is Meehan’s way of expressing how gallery staff and curators have been “guarding the art.”
Just outside the Interior Gallery are two large recent acquisitions by First Nations artists Kent Monkman and Meryl McMaster. Monkman’s Nativity Scene mixed-media installation rightly requires its own room in the upper wing of the gallery. It is a tour-de-force documenting, commenting, and playfully engaging the discourse in, of Truth and Reconciliation.
At first, the work seems to illustrate what we are all aware of by now. Here a re-imagination of the Christmas biblical story, played out on a reservation. Shabby, inadequate housing standing in for the humble stable. Poverty on display: mass-market junk food and bottled water are the “gifts” of their Magi? Jesus’s face is that of the artist. Meehan says it is important to note several references in the installation, including Monkman’s critique of narrative history paintings of the romantic era and the colonialist period work from our national art history:
Each figure – even the Christ Child – bears the same face: that of Monkman himself. This calls out a museum tradition he discovered in which the same face is used for all diorama models of Indigenous people, irrespective of gender or specific culture. All these elements come together to challenge viewers to consider the ongoing legacy of colonialism.
This is a work where the viewer is rewarded with multiple viewings. Each time that I returned to the gallery I found yet more revelations missed on previous encounters… and further questions were evoked. What is the meaning behind the decorative beavers? The beaded hockey sweater? The puzzling Latin inscription above the “stable” that reads Amor Vincit Omnia. Just whose “conquering love?” That of the state and the church? Is the artist casting himself as the contemporary “Saviour” towards finding restitution, reconciliation, through this very work?
My mind slips back to some 35 years ago, as I recall the Bruce Cockburn song, Stolen Land:
Kidnap all the children, put ’em in a foreign system
Bring them up in no-man’s land where no one really wants them,
it’s a stolen land Stolen land
Indigenous issues have been highlighted in music, film and books over the years. Now, in vivid realism, I see a sort of visual equivalent of Cockburn’s words in a museum. Powerful, sardonic, and heartbreaking, Nativity Scene clearly deserves to be showcased, and is part of Meehan’s and the museum’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call-to action. But there’s an added layer to the story here in the acquisition of this work. Meehan explains:
There is another type of reconciliation attached to this work. For decades the Volunteer Committee to Museum London raised money for the Museum for its collection budget and funded many of the Museum’s art purchases. However, in the early 2010s, the Volunteer Committee and the Museum had a parting of ways due to irreconcilable differences regarding the future role of the volunteers. When the Volunteer Committee wrapped up, there was still a significant amount of money available through their fundraising to make purchases for the collection. The Museum’s Chief Curator Emeritus, Judith Rodger, a former member of the Volunteer Committee, proposed a major purchase of Kent Monkman’s work as a way to recognize the significant contributions the Volunteer Committee had made since the 1950s, add a major piece to the collection, and with the intent to mend some of the feelings that existed at the time.
Meryl McMaster’s large scale print, Edge of a Moment, sits nicely in parallel to the Monkman installation. Here, the artist is dressed in a dramatic costume referencing her Plains Cree heritage before a buffalo jump – the Prairies panorama blown up to such a large scale has a mesmerizing effect. In an artist’s statement, McMaster explains the impetus behind the work:
In school, I was taught very little about the inception of this country from an Indigenous perspective. I learned the stories of my ancestry through family, but the absence of that in my formal education made me view my history largely from the colonial perspective. Edge Of A Moment recognizes the erasure of key species in my ancestral ecosystem; animals that have been of cultural and economic importance to my Plains Cree ancestors: the bison, which were used for food and in the construction of many useful items; and the Prairie chicken, which still has significance to contemporary pow wow dancers. Their absence today, after they were hunted to near extinction after settlement of the Prairies, represents the dangers of the unsustainable use of the land.
Meehan says that there was unanimous opinion on acquiring the work when first presented to the committee by Curator of Art, Cassandra Getty. And yes, the work speaks for itself; it’s hard to imagine a dissenting opinion on this epic biographical image.
It may be coincidental to the age of ubiquitous selfies and Instagramming of everything, everywhere; but, says Meehan, there’s been a concerted effort at Museum London towards expanding its photographic works. Several stellar photography works from Museum London’s collection are highlighted. Inside the Interior Gallery, Edward Burtynsky’s Grasses, Bruce Peninsula is just one sample of twenty photographs donated to the museum by the artist. Meehan explains how this coup happened, partly due to a connection through a former Museum London curator, Ihor Holubizky, who happened to be working on a project with Burtynsky:
One valuable lesson I learned early from my friend, artist Tim Zuck, was to not be shy about asking artists about possible donations. “Everyone likes to be asked”, he said, “even if they aren’t in a position to donate. But if they are, they are often very generous”. Case in point, this photograph by Edward Burtynsky, which is part of a large gift by the artist. I was aware that Burtynsky had gifted works to a number of galleries and museums over the years, but I was not sure how to make an ask. Coincidentally, I had been talking with former Museum London curator, Ihor Holubizky, who mentioned that he was working on a project with Burtynsky. I asked how he thought I might approach him about a donation and Ihor said he’d mention it to him and see what would happen. Three days later I received a call from Burtynsky’s studio manager saying that Ed would be happy to make a donation and so we began to discuss possibilities. In the end, the artist gifted twenty works of our choosing that covered the entirety of his career to date. A remarkable gift of work by one of Canada’s great photographers.
Another striking photograph on display is one that was a revelation. Larry Towell’s The Pear, Lambton County, Ontario, Canada is a luscious photograph that is part portrait, part landscape. Here, the artist’s wife and child are caught snacking on a pear behind the wheel of a pick-up truck, with the dirt road cutting through farmland framing that tight intimacy. It’s hard to take your eyes off this image despite its basic simplicity, farm life domesticity. It’s also a reminder of the power of black and white photography from a century of photojournalism, one which Towell seems to be trying to rekindle, and if you check out his online portfolio he is doing just that to great success. Aside from documenting the farm life in his region around Bothwell in southwestern Ontario, Towell has spent time in conflict zones, including Nicaragua, Afghanistan and the Ukraine, even at the ripe age of 70. Inspiring.
Another photograph, Lynne Cohen’s Spa, has a special connection to Meehan, as he personally chose it from the multitude in the museum’s collection to hang in his office, and not surprisingly. It’s quite soothing on the eyes, something to induce meditation, but also a tad, macabre? A spa pool, devoid of people, with a flittering play from a blue and white palette, and a tad of warmth from wood beams complementing the coolness. Meehan comments:
I had always been an admirer of Cohen’s work but was more familiar with the black-and-white photographs of interior domestic or work settings. Those photographs are notable for their flat lighting and absence of human figures, and have an unsettling, uncanny quality. “Spa” is different in its use of colour and abstract, geometric composition, but still contains some of the eeriness of the black-and- white work.
I had previously seen Spa hanging in his office years ago, and recall being smitten, seduced, by that uncanny side of the image. Today, after two years of COVID lockdowns and extended periods of isolation, the photo takes on a new resonance, almost a perfect emblem of the liminal spaces devoid of human interaction. And yet, there is a deep pull of attraction in Spa: when this photo was pulled from his office to hang in this exhibit, staff joked that Meehan had taken it home as a souvenir of his tenure. If only?
Again referencing the times, just when figurative sculpture and public monuments in bronze are undergoing a rethink, we have Evan Penny’s Male Shadow Grouping. Two life size males, one in bronze, the other life-like made from polyester resin (how did he do that?) makes you do another rethink. At just the right distance of observation, Penny turns that resin into a damn fine version of human flesh. If Michelangelo could be seen as having killed sculpture because he could cut marble like butter, then Penny could be seen to be pushing against the death of this discipline.
Two more of Penny’s works hang in the atrium of the gallery, and they will boggle your mind. Meehan says these works came to the collection after a mid-career survey of his work was put on almost 20 years ago:
I had admired Evan’s work for a long time (we had both attended the Alberta College of Art although at different times) and when I met him through a mutual friend, I asked Evan if he might be interested in discussing an exhibition. He was, and an exhibition here as well as a national tour was the result. In appreciation for the interest the Museum had shown in his work, Evan donated “Male Shadow Group”, 1986 to the Museum. His generosity has continued with a 2020 gift of three works, including “Female Stretch, Variation #2”, 2011 and “Camille”, 2014, which are currently on display in the Museum Atrium.
There are plenty of pieces here with interesting backstories. Jack Chamber, Sunday Morning No. 4 rightfully belongs in this sampling, but it is the fact that it was donated by another art curator who had purchased it as a young man on a lay-away plan that makes for a heart-warming story. He felt it belonged here in Chamber’s hometown.
A contemporary London painter moving into mid-career, Michael Pszczonak, and his oil on canvas July is the most recent acquisition here. Meehan notes that this piece illustrates how the museum has to decide to make a commitment to an artist’s work before they get priced out of the market. It’s a captivating image that doesn’t fully make sense until you read Meehan’s elaboration in his explanatory text that it is based on 12 other paintings made by the artist over the course of a year.
Greg Curnoe’s Stay Away From London (subtitle: It’s the Wrong Place To Be!) brings some humour into this show. Meehan says,
Sometimes a work just makes you laugh. Or scratch your head. The late Greg Curnoe’s, “Stay Away From London”, is one such piece. Opinion is divided on what the phrase actually means (Is it meant as good advice? Or a threat?). And the subtitle, “It’s the Wrong Place To Be!”, doesn’t really help much either. Why wrong? No doubt Greg would have had numerous reasons if I had ever had the chance to ask, but it always brings a smile to my face when I see it. The first time I saw it, Patrick Howlett had borrowed it from Sheila Curnoe, Greg’s widow, for his exhibition, “Part-Time Offerings”. After the exhibition, I approached Sheila to enquire if the work might be available for our collection, assuming that we would make a purchase if it was. Sheila, however, generously offered to donate it to the Museum and it came into the collection in 2014.
Equally humorous and entertaining are two works from Wyn Geleynse’s series of Service Trucks, hypothetical vehicles used to calm, rouse or assuage the pedestrians of the city. Based on real vehicles from the past that used to troll the downtown streets broadcasting messages, campaign electioneering or advertisements, this is a playful work not unusual for this provocative artist we know from his video installations.
And one work in particular here stands out simply on the story of how it came into Museum London’s hands, literally. It was placed there by a long time benefactor, Woody Moore, who put the work into Meehan’s hands as he left, after visiting her over cocktails at her home.
Sometimes works come into the collection unexpectedly. “Inuit on the Nascopie #1,” is a drawing by Fredrick Varley that was owned by the late Jake and Woody Moore. The Moores were the most significant donors to the Museum London permanent collection and over the years donated a remarkable 940 works. Although I arrived in London in 1999, two years after Jake had died, I did have the pleasure of visiting Woody annually at her condo in Beck Manor to discuss the Moore acquisition endowments and what we’d been collecting with the endowment funds. Woody liked to meet in late afternoon so that our meetings could include cocktails and cigarettes. Ever the gracious hostess, she also had the habit of sending me away each time with something else for our collection. On this occasion I had expressed an appreciation for this drawing, being a long-time admirer of Varley’s work, and so Woody took it off the wall as I was getting ready to leave and handed it to me.
20 Works is a worthy testament to Brian Meehan and his staff’s diligence and wisdom in being, to put it in David Hume’s aesthetic prescription, arbiters of taste. Not an easy task. But he has pulled it off with aplomb in his post. Meehan and his staff have left a great legacy of local and regional work to be enjoyed for generations to come. Job well done by these guardians of art.
20 Works at Museum London until June 5, 2022
Vincent Cherniak is a freelance writer, living in London.