As a very young high school student, both while it was still a work in progress and after it was finished, I had the great good fortune to regularly see Alex Janvier’s mural in the grand stairwell of the Strathcona County Municipal Building. I had been hooked on aboriginal Canadian art — and Canadian art in general — since childhood. I know that in the summer before my sixth birthday I must have seen Mr. Janvier’s work at the “Indians of Canada” Pavilion at Expo ’67 — I still have my stamped Expo passport —
and I’d been exposed to Inuit soapstone work since infancy. But there was something very memorable about seeing such a major work as it progressed to completion.
Since then I’ve followed Mr. Janvier’s work as part of my more general interest in Canadian Art and Art as a human phenomenon.
The current state-of-his-art show at the Art Gallery of Alberta raised great anticipation in me and now that I’ve visited countless times and made pages of notes I have to say, it’s not as great as I expected or hoped — it’s far, far greater!
The show occupies the entire third floor of the AGA, arranged in four “rooms” and what I think of as a “Corridor” and contains works representative of Janvier’s entire career thus far, from the Residential school to his 2011-12 tribute to the Indian Group of Eight.
The smallest room, inside the west entrance, contains Janvier’s earliest works, mostly monochromatic black-on-white abstractions in what can easily be seen as the roots of his mature style. The curvilinear abstractions seem to have sprung almost full grown in Janvier’s early years. The three figurative line drawings from 1962, “Thinker”, “Stoic Philosopher” and “Mother’s Love”, initially reminded me of some of the drawings Hans Erni made to illustrate Fitzgerald’s translation of The Odyssey, but after a moment’s examination, the ever-present Janvier lines assert themselves. I was particularly struck by “Piston”, also from 1962, an ink on paper diagram of engine parts which is so much other than just a diagram. Already much of the vocabulary which runs through Janvier’s ongoing life’s work is visible in the little picture of a recognizable bit of white man’s technology.
The next room follows Janvier’s exploration and expansion of that initial vocabulary through the 60s and 70s and also his exploration and expansion of his own politicization. Here we see Janvier exploring colour both in his curvilinear motifs and in the negative space of the ground. “Untitled”, 1964 reminds me of Paolo Soleri’s designs for Arcosanti and his other Utopian “Arcologies”. The piece is a foreshadowing of the large aerial-view abstractions soon to be seen in the Primrose Lake room. In this room we can see some early exploration of a figurative sort and of colour fields. The colour field work as well as his “unconscious” method may well have been influenced by a few of the Montreal Automatistes who were still working and exhibiting at this period while Janvier was living nearby in Ottawa. In this the overlap of the Janvier exhibit with the Automatiste Revolution downstairs is more than a little fitting. It is also in this room that we see the first circular pieces such a characteristic part of Janvier’s mature work.
As the second room transitions into the “Corridor” Janvier’s confidence becomes unmistakable. Here we stand before such iconic works as “Lubicon”, 1988 and works on raw canvas or linen ground such as “Grand Entry”, 1980, “Colony of Alberta” 1980, and “Free to Go”, 1981. On the opposite wall from “Lubicon” hang “Four Colour Face”, 1974, a type-piece of Janvier’s mature figurative style, and “Nehobetthe”, 1992, a characteristic Janvier large canvas narrative/representational series of vignette bubbles containing landscapes, floral motifs and yet more abstraction. From this point on, Janvier’s confidence of expression is remarkable. Certainly he continues to explore colour including the new pigments he found on his Chinese trip in 1985, which show up in “Liyan Gardens”, 1986 (notice the Chinese woodblock signature) and form and the tension between the ground and the ever-present curvilinear motifs. But now the works feel not so much as though they were painted so much as they grew out of an inevitability. Although Janvier’s style always has been something one might call “organic”, now each piece is stunningly unified and whole and clearly an expression of a living process.
Off the Corridor is the room containing pieces very much concerning Janvier’s homeland around Cold Lake and his family’s traditional trapping lands, now the Primrose Lake Weapons Range. In the centre stands “Blood Tears”, 2001, a memorial of his and his people’s experience of the Blue Quills Residential School and of the meeting with White Canadian society. The painting itself is typical — although perhaps more highly impastoed than some — of Janvier’s representational/figurative pieces but with a more sombre palette and the noticable addition of trails of red paint, the blood tears of the title. On the back of the painting Janvier has catalogued the assaults of the school and of white society on him and on his people. The painting stands as a monument, a painting made sculpture, in the centre of some truly beautiful portraits of the human landscape of Janvier’s people, both the one that was erased by the military and the one that vibrantly continues in, for example, “Denesuline Gathering Lac Brochet” 2002, a stunning aerial vision of one side of Janvier’s family tree gathered in the waters of Lac Brochet in Manitoba. Another riveting piece in this room is “Spring Equinox”, 2002, a wonderful circular composition of biological solar flames in rose, violet, green and blue.
The final room is dominated by Janvier’s monumental tributes to the “Indian Group of Eight”, a stunning series of abstract portraits of the dominant Aboriginal artists of the last century, beginning with Norval Morrisseau and ending with Janvier himself. Although the tags say “2011”, rumour has it that Janvier was working on the finishing touches until just before the exhibition opened earlier this year.
To me, the “Portrait” of Morrisseau is brilliant. I have the good fortune to live daily with a few of Copper Thunderbird’s works, purchased in my youth and in a period of Morrisseau’s health. Perhaps it is the colours, particularly the deep reds, more than the shapes in the Morrisseau tribute that gives me this feeling of “Yes, Morrisseau!” when I look at it.
I get a similar feeling from both the Daphne Odjig (check out the charming little bird way up at the top) and the Bill Reid tributes. I’m less familiar with the other artists’ work so I’ll confine my remarks to a single observation about the Joseph Sanchez tribute: It was only after a great many visits that I noticed the slightly abstracted — or perhaps even impressionistic desert landscape below the rainbow at the bottom of the painting, a marvelous little reference to Sanchez’ birthplace.
While the eight huge paintings might certainly occupy a visitor for hours, I would recommend turning around to see what I call the “disc series” of watercolours from 2010 on the opposite wall. These six paintings are a visual exploration of speech and language through this bare symbol of the ochre coloured pierced disc. Primary colours dominate the centre four while the two end pieces are very subdued, the rightmost, “Lost Disc” contains only the ochre disc. I did feel on one visit that these subdued pieces were sadly ill-lit, but, please take some time to notice these very recent and beautiful works.
The final piece in the exhibit, “I Remember”, 2011, is a small circular composition of curvilinear motifs on a raw canvas ground. The motifs spiral inward centripetally, drawing memories to the centre of the self. Or are they thrown outward centrifugally into the larger world? Perhaps both are true of Janvier’s work.
Alex Janvier at the Art Gallery of Alberta runs until August 19, 2012
Update, August 18, 2012: I was very honoured today to shake Mr. Janvier’s hand and chat briefly with him as we stood before his tributes to the Indian Group of Eight. “They had a lot of guts” he said, and he was including himself, of course. They did, and he does. And I feel so relieved that they had the guts it took to show non-aboriginal Canada aboriginal visions, to help force First Nations, Metis and Inuit art to be recognized as Canadian Fine Art, and at last to get Mr. Janvier to the top floor of the Art Gallery of Alberta.
And I’m so grateful that he came over to my daughter where she sat, not looking at his art but at her own, and said to her “Hi. How ya doin’?”