Saturday, December 12, 2015

Gardiner Museum: Kent Monkman and 12 Trees of Christmas 2015

We went to the Gardiner Museum of Ceramics to view an exhibit by First Nations artist Kent Monkman, who is known for his modern artwork and multi-media installations that usually provide commentary on the narratives and perspectives of the Indigenous People.  We had seen examples of his works at various other museums including the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and McMichael Art Gallery.  I was curious to find out how this current show would relate to ceramics, since this is not a typical medium for Monkman.  An interesting piece was on display in a glass case prior to entering the main exhibition space.  It was Monkman's homage to Pablo Picasso's 1942 Bull's Head sculpture, which was created by attaching a leather bicycle seat to a set of handlebars to produce a bull-like image.  Monkman recreated this look in porcelain-styled ceramics, but added his own Native touches by depicting a scene of an Indian on horseback lassoing a cowboy, while a buffalo seems to look on in the background.

The main installation, entitled "The Rise and Fall of Civilization", takes up the entire third floor special exhibition space.  It depicts the period of time in the late 19th Century when over-hunting of the bison by American settlers and military almost led to its extinction.  The main focus of the exhibit consists of a rock formation where a bison is in midst of jumping/falling off the cliff, while Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, a reoccurring figure in Kent Monkman's works that acts as his drag queen alter-ego, gestures toward and draws attention to the plunging beast.  The setting represents a "buffalo jump", which Native Indians would use as a mass hunting method, by driving herds of bison over a cliff, causing their legs to shatter.  At the base of the cliff, other hunters would be waiting with spears and bows and arrows in order to finish off the animals.

At the base of the rock formation in the exhibit, semi-transparent wire sculptures depict more bison, while a mound of shattered pottery (including smashed up versions of the ceramic bull's head that we saw outside) represent the build-up of bison bones that accumulate at the base of a buffalo jump.  Painted images of various types of bison on all the surrounding walls add to the overall effect of the installation.  With long black hair and dressed flamboyantly in bright red, this rendition of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle (note the cheeky spelling of the last word!) makes it easy to see that the concept was originally inspired by Cher.  In other sculptures or paintings, Miss Chief has been known be depicted wearing 7-inch platform heels or a raccoon jock strap.  Monkman uses the image of  Miss Chief Eagle Testickle to subvert the Hollywood Indian stereotype, in order to portray "a really empowered persona ... with a lot of sexual power."

While the Kent Monkman exhibit was interesting to see, it was not substantial enough on its own to warrant a trip to the Gardiner Museum.  Luckily, also on display was the annual Christmas exhibit called "The Twelve Trees of Christmas", which are scattered throughout the three floors of the museum.  In previous years, the trees were quite traditional in terms of materials and decorations.  By contrast, this year the theme "The Joy of Creativity" led to the most fascinating and creative representations of a "Christmas Tree" that are so much fun to see.  Three of my favourite trees are found right in the first floor lobby of the museum.  Made of wire, mesh and resin, the "Aquarian Water Bearer" by Sophie DeFrancesca depicts a female form pouring water out of a jug, where the flowing liquid forms the shape of a sparkling Christmas tree. Titled "Flaneur Forever", Jennifer Carter's progressively smaller stacked umbrellas, created from silk fabric by Herm├Ęs, makes for a whimsical and colourful tree.  "The Joy of Gathering" by Jane Waterous uses neon lighting to create the star and the arms of the tree, while what looks like smushed up candy wrappers formed in the shape of little people are used for decorations.  Walking around to the other side of this display, the word Joy is spelt out in globs of paint that also look like little people when you walk close enough to see them.

The tree which I found most fascinating (and slightly creepy) is actually an animated video called "Reception" by Jenn E. Norton, depicting a series of outstretched arms and hands, formed in the shape of a Christmas tree.  As the tree rotates, the palms of the hands flex and turn to produce the open palmed gesture of receiving, followed by the palm-down gesture of giving.  One tree that I almost dismissed as too traditional and boring is the "Ukrainian Christmas Spider" tree, created by the Ukranian Museum of Canada, Ontario branch.  From afar, it looks like a standard tree with typical ornaments, but up close, you can see that the ornaments are actually hand-crafted spiders and webs in hues of gold and silver.  Reading the associated plaque, I learn that this design reflects a classic Ukranian tale about spiders who decorate a poor family's tree with silky spun webs of intricate patterns that shimmer in silver and gold colours when the sun shines upon them.  Finally, on the third floor, I liked Justin Broadbent's "Lit/Til" which is made up of two painted plywood lightning bolts, joined together to form the shape of a Christmas tree in its "negative space".  Looking through the tree, the people sitting in the restaurant on the other side appear to be the "ornaments".   Broadbent described how the lightning bolts symbolized his brainstorming for ideas that resulted in his tree.

It was fun racing up and down the stairs of the three floors to view all 12 trees.  This additional exhibit on top of the Kent Monkman installation made it an excellent trip to the Gardiner Museum.  And using the Sunlife Financial Museum and Arts Pass from the Toronto Public Library provided us with free admission.  Thank you Sunlife for this excellent perk!

There is actually at 13th tree outside of the museum.  Called "The Beacon of Joy",  designed by the curator of the Joy of Creativity show, architect Dee Dee Eustace.  It consists of a 40-foot tall white spruce tree sourced from biodegradable, Ontario-grown wood and surrounded by a circular metal enclosure which is decorated with lights and ceramic ornaments that look like luggage tags with personalized Christmas wishes written on them.  The ornaments can be purchased from the museum front-desk with proceeds going towards providing free clay workshops to needy children and youth.

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