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Terence Dick
Annie Pootoogook at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection
September 20, 2017

The exhibition of Annie Pootoogook’s drawings now on display at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection is both a celebration and an elegy. It’s a confirmation of her place in Canadian art history as it puts her not only amongst a group of Inuit artists who have garnered greater attention in the wake of her recognition, but singles her out to stand amongst the likes of the Group of Seven in this bastion of national narratives told on canvas and paper. With this exhibition, she has made it.

Annie Pootoogook, Family Gathering Whale Meat

Sure, some might point out that she made it with her solo exhibition at The Power Plant over a decade ago, or with her inclusion in the international art Olympiad that is Documenta, or with her winning the Sobey Art Award that same year. But that’s just the contemporary art scene and our world is tiny. The McMichael is a family-friendly, school-bus ready, tourist-trapping institution that curates populist fare like a collection of art-inspired guitars alongside more idiosyncratic attempts to deal with the art of the problematic latter half of the 20th Century. One example of this might be the current pairing of G7 hero Tom Thomson and feminist conceptualist Joyce Weiland. A less ungainly attempt is the proximate intimacy of Zachari Logan’s close-up landscapes, which are also on view. Pootoogook fits right in with her immediately legible scenes of everyday northern life rendered in pencil crayon and presented in a straightforwardly illustrative fashion like panels in a children’s book. The twist that she introduces is to depict her world in an uncensored and brutally honest light that speaks to the adults in the room. There is sex and violence, but more importantly there are no illusions or fairy tales. There are mundane activities like watching daytime television and social realities like panhandling. These last images hit hard because the artist spent her final years on the streets, fighting addiction, giving up a child, and ultimately dying there.

Annie Pootoogook, Breaking Bottles

Pootoogook’s death and the trajectory from her sudden success in the contemporary art world to that untimely end can’t be separated from the reception of her work. It’s no secret that some of the more harrowing scenes are autobiographical. It is also telling that only a few drawings after 2006 are included. Like all art that incorporates personal experience, it’s impossible to distinguish the artist from her art. This means our response has an ethical dimension as well as an aesthetic one. We aren’t just looking at pictures; we’re witnessing another person’s life. The unease that this elicits reminds me of the critical response to an artist like Richard Billingham’s early work. His photographs of his family’s abject poverty are both grotesque and beautiful. I find a similar contradiction in Edward Burtynsky’s hyper-aestheticized images of environmental devastation. The celebration and consumption of this work within the art world – the most elite, moneyed, and bourgeois of all cultural communities – further troubles the story of Pootoogook’s life and legacy. She did what all good artists do: she changed the way we see the world. She revealed truths about people in the North that many in the South would prefer to ignore. She knocked down more of the wall that keeps Indigenous artists from being curated as contemporary artists and helped enlarge our understanding of what it is to be contemporary. And she did this through art that speaks to historical crimes and social neglect that perpetuate to this day. To see this exhibition and celebrate this artist without at the same time feeling hopeless and responsible is beyond me. It is necessary viewing, but the glorification of the art goes hand-in-hand with the complicity of its reception.

Annie Pootoogook: Cutting Ice continues until February 11.
McMichael Canadian Art Collection:
The gallery is accessible.

Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow his quickie reviews and art news announcements on Twitter @TerenceDick.



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