It may well be a truism, but art and hockey still rule in Montreal, even if the home team, our beloved Canadiens, is up for sale and has sadly lost its edge. The team that long since overtook the Pope in terms of local reverence may be on the block, but art is enjoying a fertile ground for new growth with the bold emergence of galleries like Battat Contemporary, Division and Parisian Laundry adding to the bulwark of seasoned stalwarts Blouin, Bellemare, Art Mûr and others, and a proliferation of cutting-edge, still-evolving public spaces like Darling Foundry, Galerie de l’Université du Québec à Montréal and the McClure.
Art and hockey rivals for reverence and passionate avowal in Montreal? Art head and shoulders with a sport? Who would have thought, eh? But the similarities outweigh the differences. Yet what’s en route to being lost as far as sport goes – or sold for cold hard cash – has been gained elsewhere, for Montreal has achieved an enviable reputation as one of the most exciting launch pads for contemporary art anywhere in the world, and without peer in Canada, even if Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver are always snapping at its heels. Indeed, Montreal has always enjoyed a unique status inside the wider Canadian equation, and not just linguistically. We live on the edge here. Our art is edgier than that of other centres. We take more risks, and our artists are mostly fearless in their action.
If, in her Group of Seven Awkward Moments on view recently at Art Mûr, it takes a non-Montrealer like Winnipeg-born artist Diana Thorneycroft to dismantle with irreverence and zest a host of Canadian myths, well, it is probably because her choice of subject matter and her satirical sensibility mesh seamlessly with how our own artists think here in Montreal. Perhaps she was a Montrealer in a former life. She certainly sheds an unsparing light on some of our sacred national truths. The artist looks to the mirroring relationship between the Canadian landscape and our identity as a nation with telling insight, and it is no surprise that many of these works enjoy an unusual pungency here in Montreal, despite or perhaps because of its distinctive identity. In one of these works, a hockey player falls through the ice screaming while others play on as though nothing untoward has happened. In another, hungry woodland animals – elk, deer and wolves – are restlessly on the prowl outside a mechanical rink, waiting to dine on the players, one supposes. Yes, this is hockey at its darkest and most radiant.
Thorneycroft explodes the enervating stereotype of Canadians and our Great White Northern hinterlands with as much gusto and aplomb as that with which she eviscerates our fondest myths about what being Canadian means. Reproductions of paintings by the venerable Canadian art collective the Group of Seven are used as worthy backdrops to the dioramas she photographs with truly manic theatrical finesse, rife with a wealth of endlessly engaging and inventive narrative elements. The photographer lets the borrowed works dissolve into soft focus while, in the foreground, she unfolds narratives that prey upon a conception of national identity that is flaccid and amorphous, if still somehow tenacious and hand-me-down. Using children’s toys and kitsch dollhouse props and figurines, the artist recreates iconic works by Group of Seven artists. (There is a certain virtuosity at work here: for one work featuring Grey Owl, she had to have a fringe jacket made for a GI Joe.) What Thorneycroft culls from thrift stores, souvenir shops, craft stores and eBay merges and morphs into tableaux vivants that are potent subversions of our national verities.
Thorneycroft gleefully upends the applecart of our national identity and reaps guilty laughter – and a guarded sense of anxiety. Indeed, these colour photographs are captivating not only because they take on the dark side of the Canadian dream but because they do so with genuine levity and mischief, a rich dash of mordant wit.
In Algonquin Park (from a Tom Thomson painting), some children are enacting that time-honoured ritual of sticking your tongue on the Canadian flagpole – with unfortunate consequences. The pole is notched with torn-out tongues. Elsewhere, a boy lies dead, a gang taunts another whose tongue has already been ripped out, and a dog is worrying a tongue in its mouth. An RCMP officer takes a hike, unable to cope with it all. You get the picture. Now, I have my own childhood tongue story from here in Montreal but, luckily for me, the flesh grew back.
There is this restless darkness in Thorneycroft’s work but by no means a mean spirit. As I went from work to work in the Art Mûr show, I often broke into guffaws, which I stifled only reluctantly in the face of disapproval from other viewers. What Thorneycroft does, and with surgical precision, is identify deep-seated presuppositions and governing tropes in the Canadian psyche, and then remove them and hold them aloft like a diseased organ that has been removed from a reluctant patient, all the better to unhinge our archetypes from the violence and dynamism of contemporary life. More power to this gifted photographic artist in crafting teaching stories that demonstrate demented intensity, waywardness – and a surprisingly tumultuous edge. Consumer culture has transformed the Group of Seven’s iconic works into so much visual pablum regurgitating forever an idea of Canadian identity that no longer exists, or maybe never existed at all except in old, dog-eared picture books and vitrified ideals.
As far as Quebecers who love their hockey and woodland rituals go, who would not be amused and maybe a little horrified by the precision of her aim? But straight shooter Thorneycroft, with her deft touch, as well as a canny subversiveness matched only by that of comedian Lenny Bruce, performs a scalding water enema on our holy cows as necessary as it is overdue. She reminds us how subversive humour can be, and how cathartic, too. If she wants us to see Canadian identity as though through a glass darkly, well, those of us who live in Montreal see them more darkly still.
If only these works could be paired with some of the Group of Seven works that served as the inspiration for their backdrops and in a museum setting. Diana Thorneycroft in a face-off in the late third period with Emily Carr, score tied 3–3. Or going toe-to-toe with Lawren Harris, or tiptoeing through the tulips with Tom Thomson! We might be driven to intone our own national anthem O Canada with more raucous enthusiasm than usual, and maybe a dose of nervous laughter on the side. Oh, what a white wedding that would be!