Arthur Renwick: Art Gallery Blues
Picture this: in Toronto’s twee Leo Kamen Gallery, the artsy crowd are gathered, sipping red wine and murmuring knowledgeably about the work on the walls.
It’s significant work: bold, beautifully printed colour large-format full-face portraits of First Nations people.
(What comes to mind: Sober, stone-faced, noble, inspiring, with feather headdresses and all?)
Not quite. These pictures feature Native Canadians playing with the camera and provoking the viewer with a range of funny faces that will either make you laugh out loud, or shift uncomfortably, depending on your preconceptions.
The show, Mask: Artists and Curators – 2009 is the work of Arthur Renwick, award-winning Haisla photographer from Kitimat, B.C. Arthur’s cheeky take on historic representations of First Nations people in photographs is clever and funny and fun – and serious, too, considering the way he’s turning heads in the art world. His work has been acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, and these portraits are on the way to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics with a show at the Richmond Gallery. There is a feature about Arthur Renwick in the latest issue of Canadian Art Magazine, and this event celebrates its launch.
The magazine’s editor is speaking. Arthur’s work is everywhere but you have to know the artist to spot him through the crowd: he’s the guy in the corner wearing jeans and a sweater, slinging a resonator guitar and sporting a pork pie hat. He’s giving cues to a three-man backing band that includes the legendary Ken Whiteley on guitar and mandolin, son Ben Whiteley on bass, and veteran drummer Bob Vespaziani. And when the speeches are finished, they break into the blues.
Not just the blues, but the gallery blues. It’s not clear that everyone realizes that the artist whose work is staring down from the walls is the man now growling on the mic. But for those in the know, Arthur Renwick, roots musician, is adding a whole ‘nother layer to the uneasy discourse between roots and representation.
Take Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” (she’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look back…) reworked so the artist wears a Navajo, rather than an Egyptian ring. Or Renwick’s original, “Do the Bukowksi” where the artist as a self-destructive force gets a sympathetic nod. Or “I Tow the Line”, another original about a less fortunate friend, who after “careening down this highway to hell, wound up in this concrete cell”.
Is this art gallery stuff? It’s certainly a different take on the string quartet, just as the “Mask” portraiture is a different take on the classic “Indian” image. And Arthur with his easy manner, rootsy sensibility and subtle whimsy is a different take on the post-modern professional artist.
Not not in-your-face, but facing-you. Paying his dues by playing the blues.
He’s got everything he needs – he’s an artist. He don’t look back.
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Mask – Artists and Curators
November 21 – December 19, 2009
LEO KAMEN GALLERY
80 SPADINA AVENUE