EMILY CARR: NEW PERSPECTIVES ON A CANADIAN ICON at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West), to May 20. $15, stu/srs $12. 416-979-6648. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
I have an innate distrust of socalled icons of national art. Believing in nationhood as more than a political construct is dubious matter. Likewise, cementing artists into the national art canon through decades of criticism and scholarship creates a feeble foundation for their fame.
Emily Carr was a genius with a paint brush who, 62 years dead, is as embedded in the Canadian imagination as an artist can possibly be. Now she's kicked in the doors of the AGO with a new exhibition organized by the National Gallery and Vancouver Art Gallery.
The well-organized, solid show is determined to whip up a debate about Carr's depictions of First Nations. Her canvases have proven far from accurate in their portrayal of the mythologies and craftsmanship of the West Coast's indigenous peoples. Critics are laying cultural tourism charges against her and raising questions about her motives for depicting them.
Where the "iconic" superglue seems to crack is Carr's status as an authority on indigenous peoples, though I wonder why anyone would expect ethnographic truths to manifest themselves in an artist's work.
Carr dramatized First Nations meanings in paintings like Zunoqua Of The Cat Village and The Crying Totem, in which she altered the original meanings of the totem poles. Although her fascination with indigenous cultures glows through the paint in Carr's work, her understanding of those cultures was tainted by her naíveté and limited formal education.
The fresh debate and 360-degree perspective on Carr as a maverick are this show's main achievements. For seasoned or new friends or foes of the Canadian icon, the AGO is the place to set Carr and the Canadian imagination on fire.