Identities: Canadian Portraits at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (10365 Islington North, Kleinburg) to June 13. $15, stu/srs $12, family $30, under 5 free (parking $5). 905-893-1121. March break art camp on the theme I.D.: All About Images And Identities through March 19, 8:30 am-4:30 pm, for ages 6-8 and 9-12. Rating: NNNN
It's curious that the McMichael, itself in a bit of crisis of personality, has chosen to put up a show called Identities. It's also curious that a gallery situated in a beautiful landscape and known for landscape painting should choose to hang a show of portraiture. You expect horizontal and get vertical. It's even more curious that a gallery that's generally stuck in the early part of the last century has yanked this show into the present with a well-borrowed selection of contemporary art. Curious but very exciting.
It seems the McMichael has figured out that it has an opportunity to position itself as a uniquely Canadian gallery while its peers strive for international glory. Identities examines the history of portraiture in Canada, and smart curating keeps it from being textbook drudgery.
It's definitely a show with a split personality. Squashed between two lively rooms is a more staid McMichael-collection-driven middle room that, in spite of flashes of life, remains political and bureaucratic in feel. Still, it's interesting and relevant, as there can be no doubt that staid bureaucracy is part of the Canadian identity.
Upper Canada lawyer types peer down from one wall while a series of photos on another confronts us with portraits of younger versions of federal NDP leader Jack Layton, beefy Alberta premier Ralph Klein and former PM Jean Chretien.
In the centre of the room, a painted bronze by Joe Fafard depicts John Diefenbaker, Canada's 13th PM, standing with chin held high and belly bounding forward. One of several contrasting touches to the gents in suits is offered via Christopher Pratt 's tender image of a woman at her dressing table.
In another room is an area dedicated to self-portraiture. It's one of the most revealing art forms, letting us see how artists see themselves and situate themselves within the world.
Suzy Lake , a contemporary artist who has long used her own image for the exploration of identity, provides two excellent pieces. In one video work, she paints a self-portrait using her own face as a canvas. In a series of photos, she takes on the facial features of a male artist, frame by frame.
Louise Noguchi weaves strips from a photo of her own face with strips of police photos to create a new identity for herself. It's fascinating to contrast these contemporary approaches with the straightforward painterly depictions from the McMichael collection.
The final room has the strongest work, with the most engaging ideas about identity. A great example is Micah Lexier 's work containing 75 nearly identically formatted portraits of 75 people named David, aged one to 75, emphasizing the fact that Davids come in all shapes and sizes.
Another example is Ken Lum 's mirror lined with a handful of random photographs. Typically, we put pictures of loved ones around mirror frames to create a feeling of closeness. Here, because there's no relationship between you and the people, the result is a sense of alienation.
It's an excellent show for the McMichael and a step toward finding its own strong identity. Mixed with contemporary art, the collection is made fresh and relevant. And visitors learn that there's more to Canadian art than seven artists.