Mon. Jan 17th, 2022

Red is Beautiful was the first work Houle has ever sold to a museum – what is now the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.Robert Houle / Canadian Museum of History

At the end of a large retrospective devoted to Saulteaux artist Robert Houle at the Art Gallery of Ontario, hangs a small but landmark painting. Red is beautiful was the first work Houle ever sold to a museum – the one now the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. AGO has borrowed the work itself for exhibition and taken its title as the name of this exhibition.

With a series of concentric pyramid shapes with flat tops in different shades of red and pink, the painting from 1970 could be read as a small example of the color field or geometric abstraction of the time. During travels to Europe, Houle had been inspired by the lattice of the Dutch abstractionist Piet Mondrian. He had also discovered the American color field painter Barnett Newman and must have probably seen Jack Bush’s work in Canada.

And yet, already in Houle’s art, there was a sense that his point was different – that there was an element of symbolism in his abstraction, and that it sought something more direct than Newman’s spiritualism and more spiritual than Bush’s formalism. Surely there is another early work nearby that makes Houle’s interests explicit: Ojibway Motif, # 2, Purple Leaves Series, from 1972, has a column created by changing angles or arrowheads in different shades of purple. The artist was looking for a vocabulary that would somehow unite modernist abstraction with a sacred geometry inspired by his own culture.

Standing near these paintings at a recent media event, Houle described himself as engaged in biculture (he grew up on Sandy Lake First Nation in Manitoba, where he was educated in Catholic residential schools, and both of his parents’ ancestry is Saulteaux). and French). The retrospective is a great testimony to that. He has been a long career spent incorporating and criticizing Western art in a practice dedicated to native themes. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he added photography, text, and figurative elements to highlight his points, but never lost a colorist’s love of pure paint.

In 1992, in Kanata, Houle revisits Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe.National Gallery of Canada

In 1992, i Kanata, perhaps his most famous painting, lent here from the National Gallery of Canada, he revisits Benjamin Wests Death of General Wolfe. Houle makes all the Europeans in the famous history painting disappear in a monotonous beige grisaille, while a pensive brave with his red feathers and blue loincloth indicates native centrality in Canadian history. The image is flanked, like the Canadian flag, by ribbons: a rich, saturated blue for the French and a strong, bright red for the British. In addition to the political symbolism, there is also a lot of power in that paint.

In a more personal way mixture of the abstract and the figurative in Sandy Bay, from 1998-99, Houle confronted the daily school where he spent every weekday in his elementary school years, where he could see his home from the windows, yet forbidden to speak his language with his peers or his own sister. (Weekend visits and a strong family kept his connection to his culture alive.) The work includes a ghostly photo-based painting of the school and two actual photographs of the local pastor and children, along with two colored panels that counteract the school’s realism panel with an evocative native abstraction. In the largest of the panels, Houle repeats the motif of the parflech – a bag of rawhide, often decorated with feather sticks – that occurs again and again in his work.

In 1983, i Parfleches for the Last Supper, he made 13 small paintings, one for Jesus and each of the disciples, in which he inserted quill pens directly into the paper. The parflech is a fascinating motif because it so effectively plays the tension between the flat, abstract paintings Houle echoes and the traditional container that would hold three-dimensional content.

In a more personal mix of the abstract and the figurative in Sandy Bay, from 1998-99, Houle confronted the school where he spent every day of his elementary school years,Ernest Mayer / Lent by Ernest Mayer / Winnipeg Art Gallery

Houle appears in this exhibition, organized by AGO’s curator of native art, Wanda Nanibush, as a central figure both in promoting Canadian abstraction and in pioneering a new native contemporary art. In the show’s catalog there is a photograph of Houle in 1978, where he met Norval Morrisseau, whose invention of a distinct native iconography inspired the younger man. Houles own work would then move native art forward a generation by effectively incorporating modern styles and approaches. Today, the careers of Kent Monkman or Brian Jungen, both artists of mixed native and settler heritage, would be unthinkable without Houle’s precedent-setting work.

When one cries out for land rights or condemns historical betrayals, the work often becomes didactic. For example, collages with Maclean’s magazine covers from the Oka crisis feel too literal to have much of an impact. In 2007’s multimedia work Do not open until you get home, Houle uses a newspaper clipping and video to compare the introduction of smallpox to North America by 18th-century Europeans with the 1999 U.S. decision to keep small samples of the deadly virus. Here, he literally highlights the words of a historic letter from a British officer suggesting that First Nations opponents led by Pontiac be given poisoned blankets.

And yet, this kind of overt and informative approach is often saved by Houle’s formalism. Do not open… appears next to Palisade, a more subtle reference to the eight British forts that Pontiac successfully attacked in 1763 – a move that forced the British to recognize the rights of natives. Eight large, vertical wood panels are painted in different shades of green. It was said that Pontiac gave the signal to attack by turning over the wampum belt to show its green underside.

That tension between symbolism and formalism runs strong through Houle’s work, and sometimes he just has to laugh at it himself. A number of works intended to regain Pontiac’s name from General Motor’s car brand include a genuine 1947 Pontiac convertible in daffodil yellow (supported by Winnipeg collector Norm Dumontier). It’s a beautiful piece of industrial design, offset by a strong red wall inscribed with Pontiac’s promise: I’ll be on your way to dawn.

Should we read Pontiac’s words as a threat to enemies, or as a simple statement of perseverance? Houle speaks for past and present, for Turtle Island and North America, for indigenous and settler cultures as they stand today: Imperfectly reconciled, but actively bicultural.

He’s 74, and like Pontiac, his art does not disappear. The latest work on this exhibition dates from 2021.

The tension between symbolism and formalism runs strong through Houle’s workChristopher Dew / Art Gallery of Ontario

Red is Beautiful continues through April 17 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It will tour the Winnipeg Art Gallery and Contemporary Calgary in 2022 and spend 2023 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC


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