A documentary by Jamie Kastner. Rated 14A
What begins as a fairly straightforward, if unusually tawdry, tale of art-world forgery eventually morphs into a disturbing encapsulation of persistent colonial exploitation.
The new doc begins with the purchase by Barenaked Ladies’ Kevin Hearn—for much less than a million dollars—of a painting presumably by Ontario-born artist Norval Morrisseau. The latter brought a colour-rich Indigenous sensibility to canvas in the 1960s, when representation in popular culture, let alone the art world, was almost nonexistent.
An Anishinaabe residential-school survivor, Morrisseau never quite shook his Catholic upbringing, and his bisexuality perhaps added to his insider-outsider status in Canada’s creative firmament.
In 1978, he was made a member of the Order of Canada, but establishment success didn’t slow his steady decline, which included alcoholism, incarceration, Parkinson’s disease, and a near-fatal house fire.
The artist himself, who died in 2007, does not come into focus in a saga that’s mostly about what happened to his art. Namely, the market became flooded by paintings that certainly resembled his flat-graphic mix of Indigenous animism and Christian iconography.
But the copies used colour and line differently, according to numerous contemporaries and art dealers on camera here. Hearn was forced to question the provenance of his own piece when curators took down his painting after he loaned it to the Art Gallery of Ontario for a retrospective.
Also interviewed are a number of “auctioneers” who managed to dig up roughly 10 times the output Morrisseau probably created.
Learning of a possible counterfeit ring, Hearn tried to get his 20 grand back, and ended up suing the dealer, who pulled a Trump, per the title, insisting that the only thing fake was the news.
Indeed, his legal pursuit helped unveil a rogues’ gallery of roguish gallerists, as well as drug dealers, abused children, and sweatshop-condition imposters, all converging in the Thunder Bay area.
The last part of this nearly two-hour effort gets a bit shapeless and repetitive—odd, since whenever writer-director Jamie Kastner shows up off-camera, he’s heard asking sharply defined questions of his subjects.
The same inconsistencies, including a proclivity for true-crime reenactments, plagued the filmmaker’s earlier works, like The Skyjacker’s Tale and The Secret Disco Revolution.
And yet there’s no denying that Kastner has a nose for things that helped define who we were and, sadly, are.