Strange Nation

A Canadian Dream shares art from our complex, conflicted country

Art | by Gregory Beatty

A Canadian Dream: 1965–1970
Mackenzie Gallery
Until Aug. 20

When Canada celebrated its centennial in 1967, I was old enough to know something special was going on (my two clearest memories, actually, are of the stylized maple leaf logo and Bobby Gimby’s “Canada” song). I was still trying to memorize the names and capital cities of all the provinces and territories, though, so my understanding of Canada was limited. But with all the stuff that was going on around the centennial —  Baby Boomers coming of age, the blossoming of counter-culture, and some pretty impressive scientific/technological breakthroughs — I remember it being an optimistic time.

What a difference 50 years makes, eh?

Compared to the centennial’s positive vibes, our sesquicentennial celebration has a much darker feel. Oh, we’re still giving it the old college try but I don’t think our hearts are really in it. Not with all the injustices perpetrated during our settlement history, 30-plus years of neoliberal individualism and income inequality, and the pressures of navigating as a country in an increasingly complex and globalized world.

So yeah, compared to 1967, the mood is definitely more sombre. But even back then, the issues we’re struggling with today were burbling beneath the surface.

A Canadian Dream: 1965-1970, curated by Timothy Long from the MacKenzie Gallery’s permanent collection, is proof of that.

A Canadian Dream: 1965-1970 is a compact show featuring maybe 25 works by select Canadian and American artists made between 1965 and 1970. And, truth be told, it could’ve benefited from a broader treatment. Because, let’s face it, in our country’s 150-year plus existence a lot of “dirt” has been swept under the proverbial rug.

Number one is colonization. While Canada was celebrating its centennial, we know now, the ’60s scoop of Indigenous children was in full swing. That had been preceded, of course, by many decades of residential schools, the pass system, tyrannical Indian agents, and more.

Second wave feminism was gathering steam then too, as women across the Western world began organizing to gain greater equality and freedom of choice in how they lived their lives. Don’t forget, too, that while Canadians were flocking to Montreal for Expo 67, homosexuality was still on the books as a crime. And researchers were beginning to sound warnings about the deteriorating state of our environment.

Throw in some French-English tensions with the Quiet Revolution, and growing unrest tied to historical mis-treatment of African-Canadians and non-Anglo Saxon immigrants from places such as China, Japan and Eastern Europe, and probably a few more issues that don’t spring to mind right now, and it’s obvious our centennial wasn’t all sunshine and light.

Works by Norval Morrisseau, Daphne Odjig, Allen Sapp, Ruppee Natsiapik and John Nugent (the infamous Louis Riel statue and maquette) highlight the Indigenous activism that was stirring in the centennial period.

Similarly, works by Joyce Wieland and Anne James offer a taste of the feminist energy that was in the air (the latter by critiquing the sexual objectification of women, the former by using the traditional female craft of quilting to create art).

Considering that orangutans are now an endangered species, I could interpret David Gilhooly’s 1970 papier-mâché sculpture Russ Orangauke as a poignant environmental statement. But that would be a stretch, as the sculpture was originally conceived by Gilhooly as a humorous portrait of his University of Regina colleague Russell Yuristy — who, as the title implies, was Ukrainian. The sculpture does figure prominently, though, in another bit of socio-cultural history Long delves into. A story that, at least for me, qualifies as a bit of good news, as it relates to a surge of Canadian nationalism that occurred in the centennial period as we sought to create some space for ourselves in our dealings with Britain (our former colonial master) and the U.S. (a global superpower which, it was feared, was hell-bent on turning us into a “branch plant” country).

Visual art even became a battleground, with abstract expressionism — which had emerged in New York in the 1940s as the dominant art movement — coming under attack by Canadian nationalists who accused artists who practiced in the genre of selling out to an American imperialist force. Regina was one of the ground zeroes in the dust-up. Through the Emma Lake workshops, influential New York figures such as Barnett (“Voice of Fire”) Newman and critic Clement Greenberg had visited and taught in Saskatchewan from the mid-1950s on. And the Regina Five were internationally recognized for their abstract expressionist painting.

That side of the story is represented by works in the show by artists such as Frank Stella (who actually taught at Emma Lake in 1967), Michael Steiner, and Ted Godwin and Kenneth Lochhead (who, with Arthur McKay, Ron Bloore and Douglas Morton, made up the Regina Five).

In reaction to the perceived New York dominance of abstract expressionism, a backlash emerged in Saskatchewan, with artists such as Joe Fafard, Vic Cicansky and David Thauberger using the province’s unique culture and history (along with a healthy dose of California Funk, which Gilhooly introduced to Regina during a stint teaching ceramics) as inspiration for their art.

So yeah, our centennial had its share of challenges. And we’re still dealing with the fallout today.

Happy 150, everyone? ❧