Revelations: Gathie Falk

If there is a word in English that will do to describe existence at all it is perhaps miracle and it is perhaps the job of the artist to situate the miracle for us, as Falk does—to remind us of the miracle when the grooved fat of habit suppresses our appetite for it.

“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.” — John Berryman

Curated by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection’s Chief Curator Sarah Milroy, former Chief Art Critic at The Globe and Mail made Member of the Order of Canada in 2020 than whom Canadian art “has no greater champion, and no more respected advocate;” and accompanied by the kind of lush, glossy, 191-page full-colour hardcover you’d expect to condense the half-century-and-more career of a “highly acclaimed Canadian cultural icon” whose own admission to the Order preceded Milroy’s by twenty-three years, Revelations as installed at Museum London is segmented into sextants: from the northeast wall clockwise and with pastel canvases and ceramic fruit piled pyramidically throughout, we have a chamber of ceramic footwear, then one of two dresses (one of bronze and the other of painted and varnished papier mâché), then a row of five parrots perched on apples perched on red turntables before the projected recording of a performance, then a kind of diagonally upright papier mâché wedding veil whose train is weighted with two boot-sized stones—referred to by Milroy as Falk’s “consummate feminist statement” and informed by a brief prisoner penpal-turned-marriage—all six chambers centrosected by twenty-two gleaming heads of ceramic lettuce elevated from Falk’s materially impoverished Mennonite youth to suspend above their own ruffled shadows.

Cabbages, 1978-1986. Ceramic, paint. Photo Credit: Kevin Andrew Heslop

Originally titled Themes and Variations in homage to Falk’s beginnings as a musician, to the serial reproduction involved in her work at a dry-goods packing plant in Winnipeg in and around 1945, and to the work in iterative ceramic fruit for which she is best known, which title was discarded for its academic tone; and then briefly titled All Together Now to conjure the boisterous, quirky Beatles; and then Offerings, which spoke to Falk’s prolific generosity and the everyday sacramental at the core of her work, Revelations was chosen for its allure to those who might believe themselves to be familiar with Falk’s work already, for the new insights promised to those who don’t, and for its association with the Book of Revelation, a nod to Falk’s devout faith. 

196 Apples, 1969-70. Ceramic. Photo Credit: Kevin Andrew Heslop

Writes Milroy, “Despite the diversity of her approaches, several themes stand out: order and disorder, the exaltation of the ordinary, and time’s swift and relentless passage.” Indeed it’s simple enough to place Falk’s work in the long line of artists elevating the everyday, a broad subversion of the history of Western art whose coequals are everywhere in the theatre and on the page elevating everyday talk; but her famous ceramic fruit is arranged pyramidically, a structure whose undemocratic nature was inspired by fruit piled in the windows of grocery-shops and so arranged as to accrue surplus capital. Furthermore on seemingly every plinth not sequestered behind prohibitive perimeter wire appears the rectangular transparency of a diagonally bisected hand and the words Please do / not touch / the art. / Thank you. Although flanked with italicized Canadian courtesy, the prohibition, like the arrangement of the fruit—within a building, lest we forget, named for an English-elevating city imposed uninvited—indicates the presence of alienating power structures contrary to the ethos of the everyday the work itself might opine. To what extent, in other words, might the medium inhibit the message?

Dog with Picnic, 1976. Ceramic, paint media. Photo Credit: Kevin Andrew Heslop 

Nevertheless moving through the exaltation of colour that is Revelations—Milroy refers to Falk as a “colourist of the highest possible magnitude“—one thinks of the vibrancy imbued to consciousness by travel, how the unfamiliar startles and animates experience, how an hour after sunrise somewhere unknown light falls everywhere like skinned copper (if copper could be skinned) and pebbles every roadway’s promise with little detumescent shadows.  

If you’ll forgive the detour: Once in Paris, I sat rolling cigarettes on the cobbled patio of a pregnant restaurant overlooking a grand roundabout. People would ask pour une cigarette and I would oblige them on the condition they sat and unspooled themselves a little as I rolled. Bright sky, clouds, une pharmacie nestled into ancient stone, traffic—circulation—like a dotted pinwheel. Paris. And among my guests were a teenage couple explaining their longing for San Francisco, San Francisco or anywhere not so humdrum as Paris where everything happens the same way every day. Of course it wasn’t San Francisco that they were hungry for; they wanted the unfamiliar, the neuronally texturizing quality of the unexpected, a vivifying reminder of the awesomeness of their daily environs.

If there is a word in English that will do to describe existence at all it is perhaps miracle and it is perhaps the job of the artist to situate the miracle for us, as Falk does—to remind us of the miracle when the grooved fat of habit suppresses our appetite for it.

Cement with Poppies II, 1982. Oil on canvas. Photo Credit: Kevin Andrew Heslop

A correlate to a Falk in the arts in verse might be a Gertrude Stein. The two might even survive comparison: Possessed of a similarly matronly bearing; one partnered with an Alice and the other with an Elizabeth; and both—as Mary Pratt is to St. John’s, Françoise Sullivan is to Montréal, so was Stein to Paris— “the grandmother of the generation to follow them,” to quote Milroy again. Stein startled the language with a residually uncanny English verse written as though it had been thought first in French and translated directly. One recalls, for instance, the lines, “It looked like a garden but he had hurt himself by accident” or “tea towels aren’t necessarily” or yesterday’s Anne Carson writing their beguiling equivalent: “Here lies the refugee breather / who drank a bowl of elsewhere.”

Like perhaps no more celebrated a Canadian artist alive, Falk generatively unsettles our relationship with the common object—so in Stein or Carson, a word, in Falk a colour, a dress, a piece of footwear—by undoing the utility we might unmindfully extract from it, and recontextualizes that object to permit our recognition of its overlooked romance and its dignity in celebration. Although that appearance in the necessarily alienating (and, I might add, largely unfrequented) environment of the modern gallery space may detract somewhat from an otherwise altogether democratizing ethos, the array, conviction, and elevating curatorial grace with which this retrospective is presented surely earns its title, revelling in, revealing, and unveiling the polydisciplinary breadth of an icon.

18 Pairs of Red Shoes with Roses, 1973. Red-glazed ceramic with decals. Photo Credit: Kevin Andrew Heslop

After its stay at Museum London from February 4th to May 7th, Revelations will appear in Calgary’s Glenbow Museum before its return out west to the Audain Art Museum in Whistler.

Kevin Andrew Heslop writes, acts, and directs. Debut: the correct fury of your why is a mountain (2021, Gordon Hill Press). New work forthcoming in 2023 from Rose Garden Press, Green Field Paper, Astoria Pictures, Gordon Hill Press, and Westland Gallery.

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