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Beaver fever

Painter pokes fun at local history and national identity

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/1/2015 (943 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It seems only fitting that the beaver, our famously industrious national emblem, would make a few appearances in Commerce, Prudence, Industry, local painter Evin Collis's caustic send-up of Manitoba history and mythology at the Maison des Artistes.

Beavers transformed the North American landscape: their dams changed the course of rivers, leaving behind prime farmland. Prized for their pelts, they spurred colonial expansion even as they fell victim to its progress. They are also ridiculous giant rodents that waddle around in the mud eating sticks.

Homestead Pile

Homestead Pile

Like the nation it represents, the beaver is complex.

With irreverent humour, Collis attempts to expose contradictions in the stories Canadians tell about themselves. His recent paintings and a pair of sculptural tableaus delight in the untidiness of local history, skewering historical figures alongside contemporary markers of national and regional identity. I'm not sure if they're funny, exactly (though they certainly look funny), but I'm also not from here.

In one sculpture, two bug-eyed beavers huddle in the shelter of an upturned canoe by the bones of some unlucky voyageur. In a painting, bereaved beavers on the Red River look up, paws clasped, at a bizarre restaging of Michelangelo's Piet with Louis Riel in the role of Christ. Piles of timber and debris -- derelict beaver lodges -- appear in canvas after canvas. Often these morph into garbage heaps, collections of castoff artifacts slapped together in gloppy matrixes of paint. An old woman sits in her sod-roofed "Homestead pile," propped up, among other trash, by a broken-down Red River cart and a corpse wrapped in a Bay blanket. In a cutaway view of Garbage Hill, ground squirrels tunnel their way around an old Labatt Blue can.

In their scale, scope and narrative complexity, the largest works recall European history paintings or Diego Rivera's social-realist murals. Their handling, however, owes more to the surrealist stoner esthetics of alternative comics. Collis's caricatures would be at home in a political cartoon (and some of the paintings seem to function that way), but his fondness for allegory and symbolism also reflects the influence of religious and folk art. A cluster of 26 smaller canvases includes many that are oddly reminiscent of Mexican devotional paintings: "oddly" if only because the subjects include less-than-scenic Canadian landscapes, more trash-pile beaver lodges, hockey player portraits and Sasquatch sightings.

As a relatively new Canadian (I believe the preferred terminology is "barely used"), I'm not always familiar with Collis's cast of characters -- the assorted Fathers of Confederation, voyageur-types, "rig pigs" and pro athletes.

Even so, certain broad strokes are clear enough. Taken in context, the ever-present garbage, filthy water and occasional oil derrick or gas pipeline all suggest parallels between colonial attitudes and modern-day environmental degradation.

By poking fun, Collis asks us to reject or at least reconsider sanitized, romanticized ideas about the past and our present-day values. The title, Commerce, Prudence, Industry, was Winnipeg's original motto in 1874. Like the prudent, industrious beaver, we're also a bit ridiculous and kind of gross when you really get up close.

 

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a barely used Canadian artist, writer and educator.

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