The Gallery itself is a beautiful structure of steel and glass, designed by Moshe Safdie and the towering Great Hall with its views of Parliament Hill and the Ottawa River is worth a visit for its own sake. The many skylights create a natural and ever-changing quality to the light and permit such unusual features as a flower garden buried in the centre of the building. The large interconnected halls permit an easy flow from one period and style to another and encourage the juxtaposition of art work that present a different view of the same idea. The galleries are generally quiet but if you need atranquil space for contemplation there is a beautiful reflecting pool in a dim lit room surrounded by sculpture.
Our brief tour took us mainly through the Canadian galleries, beginning with a small sample of prehistoric Aboriginal art and artefacts and moving quickly through colonial and post-colonial work. I’m not a big fan of 19th century art – at least until you get to impressionism – and Canadian artists were lagging some ten to twenty years behind their counterparts. I was familiar with the Group of Seven, of course, so they didn’t offer much in the way of new ideas to my Thursday night brain. The first piece that really struck my eye was Allelulah by Bertram Brooker (1929). At first glance it seemed like a collection of metal rods and balls but as I gazed at it, I began to see the organic quality of the matrix within which the metal was placed. I’ve been writing a lot about cyborgs lately but I hadn’t really thought of how it might look at the cellular level. Now, I’m thinking about it which will inevitably lead to a story somewhere down the road.
The next painting that grabbed me was from 1950. The Lovers by Fred Ross made me think of the passion of ordinary people. These were not the pretty Hollywood images of beautiful people embracing but ordinary folk, almost ugly, caught in the hunger of sex and forbidden love. The woman had an almost ferret-like expression and the man was rough and slick at the same time – maybe a salesman or shop-owner. There was a noir quality (another resonance for me) and I had the impression that they were meeting in a warehouse or a storeroom, illicit and secret. Thinking about what brought them there and what their normal lives are like is a good exercise in character development.
A painting by Gordon Raynes (I didn’t note the title or date) presented an abstract color study that could easily have been an alien landscape. A black oily sea laps against a rough shore, covered in cobalt blue vegetation. In the foreground a gelatinous mass in phosphorescent blue crouches on the rocks and reaches to the orange sky with two dead-white tentacles. A few paintings away an orange-hued gibbous moon sprouts strange structures – a moon base perhaps. Down the hall a large canvas seems completely black and it takes a minute to see that there are two distinct versions of black on the canvas, differing in finish, tone and density. A good reminder that distinctions in fiction can be subtle and are often the more powerful for their subtlety.
The last few paintings we looked at were good examples of what is so fun about modern art. One entitled “Why do you always burn my toast?” combined a painting of a toaster with two actual pieces of burnt toast. It made me laugh out loud when I realized what I was looking at.
The final ten minutes in the gallery was spent in a multimedia exhibit by the contemporary artist David Hoffos entitled Scenes from the House Dream. The exhibit closes on February 14th, 2010 and I encourage anyone reading this and in Ottawa to get out and see it. The gallery web-site describes it as:
These works were executed over the past five years by Canadian multimedia artist David Hoffos. The series consists primarily of small, realistic-looking dioramas of dwelling spaces as well as urban and suburban landscapes that are hallmarked by Hoffos’ signature low-tech but highly effective illusionism.
That’s not a bad description but it doesn’t really capture the impact of the work. The room is dark almost to the point of being difficult to navigate. There are lots of people moving around each trying to get a glimpse of the works. They can only be viewed by one or two people at a time. Each one consists of a window so it’s a bit like looking into someone’s house or, if the art depicts an outdoor scene, like having snuck into someone’s house to gaze out their window. The dioramas, especially those of interior room are remarkably life-like despite being quite small. Using TV screens placed outside the windows and mirrors inside the dioramas Hoffos creates the illusion of three dimensional figures, men or women, boats and airplanes, moving through the spaces he has created. No funny glasses are required to see the 3-D effect. The people you watch are doing ordinary things, drinking coffee, talking on the phone, looking out the window, but each of them projects powerful emotions, mostly sad and alienated but occasionally joyful as well. The inanimate objects often tell stories too. One shows a yacht wallowing in a swampy cove. There was nothing to tell me this but I knew that everyone on the boat was either dead or gone.
As a I looked at Hoffos amazing little narratives I immediately thought of Avatar, which I’d seen the week before. The technology and the sense of immersion in another world was, of course, far superior in Cameron’s movie than in Hoffos illusions but the story telling technique that Hoffos used was far superior, even though much simpler, than anything Cameron achieved. Avatar will probably win the Oscar for best picture this year and as a technological achievement maybe it should, even though in many ways there are many better movies in the running. But, to paraphrase a sixties slogan, technique will get you through times of no technology better than technology will get you through the times of no technique. Cameron has created a breakthrough in film technology – I can hardly wait to see what a real story-teller can do with it.