Searching for a way to celebrate visual arts traditions during Canada’s sesquicentennial year, Fredericton’s Beaverbrook Art Gallery went deep and wide. Earlier this year, the Gallery hosted Canadian Mosaic, an exhibition that encompassed every inch of gallery space. Now, it’s also going deep, showcasing two artists whose divergent approaches hint at the eclecticism of Canadian art.
The result is two major back-to-back retrospectives examining the significant — yet very different —contributions of photographer and environmental artist Marlene Creates and pioneering abstract painter Oscar Cahén. Since the late 1970s, Creates has conducted ever-deepening inquiries into the layered relationships between humans, the land, and language. Cahén, meanwhile, was a mercurial figure on the Toronto art scene of the 1950s, a prolific and influential ambassador for abstract art in a country just beginning to embrace modernity. He was only 40 when he died in a car crash outside of Oakville, Ontario in 1956.
Before touring across the country, Marlene Creates: Places, Paths, and Pauses is on view at the Beaverbrook until January 21, 2018. The exhibition highlights four decades of photos, videos, and poetry by the Montreal-born artist, who now works from her six-acre parcel of boreal forest near Portugal Cove, Newfoundland.
“From the beginning, her work has been about process: about being in a place, understanding where you fit into a much larger context, how history informs your sense of place and your own identity within it,” says the exhibition’s co-curator Andrea Kunard, a National Gallery of Canada Associate Curator with the Canadian Photography Institute Galleries.
Although Creates’ preoccupations have remained constant over four decades, “they have gone through many iterations and changes,” adds co-curator Susan Gibson Garvey, former director of the Dalhousie Art Gallery in Halifax. For example, her work often shifts from a “first-person” perspective, where the artist contemplates her own impact on nature, to a “second-person” frame of reference, where Creates collects the stories of how others relate to and are shaped by a particular piece of land. And a “third-person” set of works, such as Walking and No Walking, Alberta 2000, captures signposts that humans have left on the landscape, instructing us on how to relate to nature.
An early example of her first-person works is The High Tide as it acts upon an X, England 1980, from the series Paper, Stones and Water, 1979–1985. The photographs document the artist’s gentle attempt to change the landscape by arranging stones to form an “x” on the seashore.
“She left it for the tide to come in and then took a photograph of the scene after the tide,” continues Gibson Garvey. The exercise reveals “how nature rearranges the world: ‘man proposes and nature disposes.’”
Creates consciously chose to make “very ephemeral, very modest gestures on the landscape,” says Gibson Garvey, partly in response to the “environmental art” movement of the late seventies wherein “mostly male artists were using bulldozers and moving rocks and scarring the earth in various ways to incise a visual statement. Then there is Marlene Creates, quietly and subtly doing non-monumental things that draw attention not to her ego as an artist, but to nature itself. It’s a very different attitude; almost a form of resistance to the prevailing aesthetic.”
Another major work reflecting on humanity’s relationship to nature is Water Flowing to the Sea Captured at the Speed of Light, Blast Hole Pond River, Newfoundland 2002-2003, on loan from the National Gallery of Canada. Here, images of the artist taken with an underwater camera accompany a series of panels that depict a waterfall through four seasons. “It’s as if the water is looking at her, and she is being dissolved and dissipated in the view of the river,” says Gibson Garvey. It’s a reversal of the gaze; giving nature the opportunity to look back, to dissolve us, and make us the small objects we really are.”
Kunard, meanwhile, says the underwater images express Creates’ “core concern with our own mortality. We are in the flow of things and then, poof, we are gone. There is this idea of the flow of time, the seasons, and our temporary position within it.”
In a similar vein, Creates’ Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand, Blast Hold Pond Road, Newfoundland 2007, which depicts the artist’s hand pressed lightly on a tree trunk, suggests a relationship that involves the human and the tree as equals.
Oscar Cahén’s moment within the flow of life was short, but he made the most of it. A Danish Jew who fled to England to escape the Nazis, Cahén was interned on the Isle of Man and subsequently transferred to a camp in Sherbrooke, Quebec. After his release in 1942, he was hired as an illustrator with Montreal’s Standard. As a freelance magazine illustrator, he set a frantic pace, contributing to many publications, including Maclean’s, to which he contributed 160 illustrations and 37 covers.
“He was Canada’s Norman Rockwell. He defined what we thought we were,” says Jeffrey Spalding, curator of Oscar Cahén, which also runs until January 21, 2018.
Yet Cahén’s most profound impact was as an abstract painter. He befriended Walter Yarwood and Harold Town in Toronto in 1947. He became a founding member of Painters 11 (formed in 1953) and a mightily prolific abstract painter. His signature work, The Warrior (1956), is a “colossus” of a work, says Spalding, created at a time when Canadian painters produced easel-sized paintings. Along with other emblematic works like The Trophy (1955–56) and Painting on Olive Ground (1956), The Warrior is part of the Beaverbrook exhibition.
Despite his early death, Cahén had a lasting impact on Canadian art. “Jack Bush clearly learned so much from Oscar,” says Spalding. “Without Oscar, there would be no Jack Bush.”
Oscar Cahén, Painting on Olive Ground, 1956, oil on canvas, 152.4 x 132.1 cm. Collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. Martha Cahen-Egglesfield, 1968 (object number SN850)
Marlene Creates: Places, Paths, and Pauses is on display at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton until January 21, 2018. The exhibition then travels to Dalhousie Art Gallery in Halifax (February to May, 2018), Confederation Centre Art Gallery in PEI (summer 2018), Carleton University Art Gallery in Ottawa (summer, 2019), and The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in St. John’s, NL, (October, 2019).
Oscar Cahén is on display at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton from September 23, 2017, until January 21, 2018.
About the Author
Ottawa writer Stephen Dale's latest book is Noble Illusions: Young Canada Goes to War (Fernwood Books, 2014).