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This article was published 14/7/2010 (2589 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Group of Seven's works were once seen as touchstones of the 20th-century Canadian experience, the rough, remote beauty of their landscape paintings canonized as oil-on-canvas equivalents of the national anthem.
Winnipeg artist Diana Thorneycroft gives the Group's historic status a tweak with this smart, subversive show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The 53-year-old artist has some cheeky fun with the Group's heroic myth of Canada as untouched northern wilderness, while stacking up serious points about culture and identity.
In this series of chromogenic print photographs, which has been exhibited across the country, Thorneycroft mixes up the G7 with much homier Canuck icons -- double-doubles and Molson two-fours, the McKenzie brothers and the Trailer Park Boys. She also sneaks in darker, deeper themes, examining apathy, social disconnection and environmental degradation. Her snowbound forests and frozen rivers are haunted by the looming threat of violence.
Thorneycroft starts with two-dimensional reproductions of familiar Group of Seven works -- jack pines and stands of birch trees, stormy lakes and ice-blue mountains -- and then creates three-dimensional tableaux using weird found objects and clever little constructions of craft-store standbys. She photographs these small dioramas, building up layered, wonderfully strange final images.
The Group's paintings tend to depict pristine, depopulated landscapes, but Thorneycroft's scenes are thronged with characters, often dolls and toys from thrift stores and garage sales.
In a trilogy of works, Thorneycroft speculates about the early death of artist Tom Thomson -- he drowned in 1917 before the Group was formally founded -- offering scenarios of murder, suicide and accident. Suddenly Thomson's nature paintings seethe with very human conflicts, as Thorneycroft sets up sly narratives of folly, ignorance and sexual intrigue.
Thorneycroft's "awkward moments" include loads of sex and violence, not to mention a grotesquely graphic representation of those old playground rumours of tongues stuck on cold metal poles. (The WAG has issued a parental discretion warning for the show.)
A hapless, helpless Winnie-the-Pooh is surrounded by gun-toting grizzlies. Famous hockey players skate on thin ice, Mounties engage in butch, homoerotic rescue fantasies. Santa Claus drives drunk. Bob and Doug are menaced by wolves. An avuncular Captain Highliner-type might be a pedophile.
Underneath these naughty, attention-getting subjects, the works hold out subtler lures. They exert the fascination of the small, the intricate, the cunningly constructed. And they're funny, of course, with a dangerous undertow of dark humour.
Thorneycroft is also asking hard questions about the risky simplifications of national identity, the tricky conflation of history and myth. She's playing around with the hearty, uncomplicated signifiers of Canadian-ness -- The Last Spike, Hudson Bay blankets, tabletop hockey, beer.
This complexity is reflected in her form. Thorneycroft has always imbued the process of photography with spooky unpredictability. She shoots her maquettes using an open shutter, a dark room and a pen light, a low-tech method that results in a moody, expressionistic mix of lurking, uncertain shadow and sudden illumination.
These works seem to be chock-full of bright, saucy, colourful pop culture references, but there's something elusive and anxious about them. Turns out this whole "I Am Canadian" thing is pretty complicated, eh?
Diana Thorneycroft: Canada, Myth and History (Group of Seven Awkward Moments Series)
Winnipeg Art Gallery
Until Aug. 22