At the Vancouver Art Gallery until April 6, 2015
When Landon Mackenzie moved to Vancouver from Toronto in 1986, she had already distinguished herself as one of Canada’s most important young painters. Still, at the time she arrived to teach at what is now Emily Carr University of Art and Design, she wasn’t too sympathetically disposed toward the historic painter after whom that institution was named.
Carr was iconic, yes, but too iconic—too freighted with cultural, sexual, and psychological stereotypes, too representative of the landscape traditions that artists of Mackenzie’s generation were energetically repudiating.
Over the years, however, Mackenzie developed an appreciation for Carr’s work, so that when the Vancouver Art Gallery invited her to participate in an exhibition in which her paintings would be mounted in dialogue with Carr’s, she accepted with knowledge and enthusiasm.
Subtitled Wood Chopper and the Monkey, the exhibition juxtaposes 30 of Carr’s paintings, most of them landscapes from her mature period in the 1930s, with 20 of Mackenzie’s, past and present, abstract and representational. The result is an exciting and often moving exploration of the art of painting, articulating both likenesses and differences in the achievements of the two women.
Both pursued their callings at times of great shifts in the understanding of what art could be, and both struggled to make their voices heard among their dominant male peers. And although their painting styles are significantly different, parallel themes emerge.
For instance, Carr’s interpretations of the crest animals of Northwest Coast First Nations art, as in her 1931 painting Big Raven, resonate with the hybrid, four-legged creatures (part caribou, part wolf) in Mackenzie’s Lost River series of paintings of 1981-82. The exhibition suggests a sympathetic function for both, Carr identifying with the animals carved in isolation at the tops of poles and surrounded by thick foliage, and Mackenzie posing her strange quadrupeds as human surrogates, wandering blindly in twilit northern landscapes.
It’s well known that, early in her career, Carr undertook extensive sketching expeditions among First Nations villages of the central and northern coast of British Columbia. An example is her powerful and haunting Vanquished, painted in her Victoria studio in 1930 from sketches she made in the Haida village of Skedans. This dramatic depiction of a line of tilting memorial and mortuary poles backed by dense forest, dark clouds, and godly beams of light is executed in a newly realized style. Sculptural and volumetric, it reveals the formal influence of Lawren Harris and, behind Harris, modernist movements such as cubism and futurism.
Less well-known is the time Mackenzie spent in the Yukon in the early 1980s. Living in a canvas tent, Mackenzie used an ironing board as a work table, creating small landscape paintings that are less about depicting an actual place than they are about re-imagining how the natural world might be represented in art. Two of her lovely little “ironing board” paintings, filled with mysterious energy, are on view here.
The show’s subtitle, Wood Chopper and the Monkey, alludes to two specific paintings, both charged with gender issues, one filled with defiance, the other with longing and melancholy. Mackenzie’s Wood Chopper and Paradigm, from 1990, is a self-portrait in which the artist—rendered cartoonlike, stripped naked, deep in an unnamed forest—raises an axe over her head as she attempts to hack her way past a barricade of phallic logs. The work is filled with formal and symbolic references to male art and artists, and to what were then conceptual and feminist proscriptions against the making of paintings.
The monkey of the subtitle is Woo, one of Carr’s beloved pets. Carr acquired the notoriously mischievous Javanese creature in the early 1920s and portrayed her in a small painting about 1930, wearing a doll-size dress and standing on a tree branch. The original not being available for loan to the VAG, Mackenzie painted her own version of it, Woo II (After Carr), in Carr’s style but with a greater mood of loss. Woo is gazing out of the picture at something we can’t see—the lonely future, perhaps. Or perhaps, given the struggles represented in this show, some imagined land—a place where being an ambitious female artist is an advantage, not a liability.