Mary Ann Barkhouse’s Persevere makes you wonder if it’s kitsch or if it’s art. Photo By Government of Ontario Art Collection
BEAVER TALES: CANADIAN ART AND DESIGN at University of Toronto Art Centre (15 King’s College Circle), to December 6. 416-978-1838. Rating: NNN
What makes art Canadian? Beaver Tales takes a simple thematic approach, gathering craftspeople's interpretations of iconic national flora and fauna: the Canada goose, the trillium, evergreen trees, antlered animals, the beaver and the maple leaf.
Exemplary artworks by Emily Carr, the Group of Seven, David Milne, Charles Pachter, Joyce Wieland, Mary Anne Barkhouse and others complement the artisanal pieces.
Official symbolism - in items like designs for coins, the Centennial maple leaf logo, Harold Town's op-art trillium painting for Ontario Place and maple-leaf-ornamented furniture and china commissioned by Adrienne Clarkson - gives the show a slightly governmental feel. No surprise that Heritage Canada is one of its sponsors.
The survey of design history goes from 19th-century furniture and silver, a souvenir Wedgwood-style teapot bearing a Group of Sevenish blowing tree and Arts-and-Crafts-style program-cover illustrations for what must have been a much classier CNE to Thor Hansen's 50s-modern outdoor-themed rec room drapery fabric. Pottery from Six Nations, a quill basket, Northwest Coast jewellery and a small Bill Reid totem pole give First Nations a voice.
Standout contemporary pieces, some better known than others, include Rob Southcott's four wooden chairs joined by tall, intertwining "antlers," a beaver-chewed version of Frank Gehry's cardboard armchair, Amy Bélanger's charming beaver-dam necklace, Frédéric Guibrunet and Didier Boursin's spiky white paper maple leaf light fixture and Todd Falkowsky's deadpan antlers-on-a-stick coat rack.
The curators claim the artists "transcend the pitfalls of kitsch or cliché," but pieces that don't quite make the leap, like Betty Sylvester's Teepee teapot for Clarice Cliff, its spout a naked war-bonneted brave (where's Kent Monkman when we need him?), add a bit of politically incorrect fun.
As the owner of a modest collection of "souvenirs of nowhere," I wouldn't mind seeing a few more wacky examples of the lowbrow tourist aesthetic, because, let's face it, tasteful Canadiana can be a bit boring.