Itee Pootoogook: Buildings and Land
At the Contemporary Art Gallery until August 25
There’s something at once strange and familiar about Itee Pootoogook’s drawings of northern life and landscapes. Based in Cape Dorset, a member of a famed art-making family, the 62-year-old Pootoogook originally trained as a carpenter. It is only within the past decade that he has actively pursued drawing and printmaking, evolving a graphic style that is both abstract and realistic, general and particular. The focus of his exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery is on his coloured-pencil and graphite depictions of landscapes, the built environment, and modes of transportation—on the ways that contemporary Inuit life meets vast expanses of snow, ice, water, and rock.
Very little in Pootoogook’s imagery would reinforce long-standing cultural stereotypes of the “Eskimo” or satisfy romantic western notions of “traditional” hunting and fishing life. No igloos, no sealskin kayaks, no harpoons here. No polar bears, no sled dogs, no soapstone lamps. Instead, Pootoogook presents us with power lines and prefab houses, storage rooms and checkerboard linoleum, a shipping container behind the Kingait Inn, the interior of the Iqaluit airport, and ramps, stairs, and aluminum siding on the exterior of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-op.
The stainless-steel sink, coffeemaker, fridge, and stove depicted in Kitchen Window could be anywhere in Canada. It’s only the icy landscape seen through the window, along with the dark, rocky ridges on the far horizon, that connects us to a specific place. In this work, Pootoogook nicely articulates how the here-and-now plays across the eternal, the present moment against geological time. Where traces of the old ways remain, they are frankly juxtaposed with the contemporary: fish drying on a line mounted on the exterior of a prefab house with burgundy siding; the spine of a bowhead whale lying in the snow alongside the ladderlike track of a Ski-Doo.
Still, it’s not just Pootoogook’s subject matter that engages with the contemporary: his style and compositional strategies also suggest an active dialogue between Inuit art-making and a wide range of forms and influences. As the exhibition essay points out, Pootoogook’s use of windows as framing devices reveals an active awareness of western pictorial traditions. The shallow depth of field seen in many of his drawings of the built environment owes much to the photographs he uses as source material, while the abstract passages of colour in his landscapes suggest a knowledge and appreciation of recent and contemporary western art-making. For instance, the gently geometricized bar of turquoise sky and triangles of purple-blue water and blue-white ice in Floe Edge, Winter are reminiscent of 1960s paintings by Richard Diebenkorn and Gordon Smith.
The precision and composition seen in Pootoogook’s depiction of a house front in Bright Sunny Day are immediately suggestive of the early paintings of Christopher Pratt. And the flatness and frontality of the white clapboard building with the sharply peaked roof in 1950s reverberates with David Thauberger’s treatment of vernacular architecture.
While I was walking through the show, I was also struck by Pootoogook’s affinities with Tim Zuck, although I learned afterward that I was not the first to make the connection. Research revealed that last summer, the MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie, Ontario, presented Slow Sight, an exhibition of these two remarkable artists. A curatorial statement at the time asserted that both individuals “push the commonplace and factual to the forefront, where it becomes modestly iconic”. I’d describe both artists as working in a style of reductive realism, and, yes, “modestly iconic” is as fine a term as any for Pootoogook’s quietly compelling drawings.