Depth of field
Bovey connects western Canadian artists across time, mediums in passionate survey
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Surveys of Canadian art have tended to focus on central Canada, with the western provinces often getting only a cursory look. In this comprehensive new book, Patricia Bovey, an art historian, academic, gallery director and just-retired Manitoba senator, addresses this marginalization, not just by focusing on visual art in the West, but also by challenging the conventional structures and approaches that have historically divided art into the centre and the margins.
In their place, Bovey offers a complex flow of intertwining narratives that trace the development of visual art in the four western provinces. She begins with a brief chronological overview, mentioning pre-contact foundations, going on to early “itinerant” immigrant artists and exploring the gradual 20th-century expansion of professional art scenes in the main western cities.
Bovey is not hung up on timelines, however, which can be overly determined and which often slot art into narrow categories and discard what doesn’t quite fit.
She uses other approaches to organize her material, starting with a section that concentrates on medium and technique, grounding her discussion in the materiality of art and the development of visual languages. She cites such examples as Ann Kipling’s delicate drawings, Reta Cowley’s luminous watercolours, prints by artists working through Winnipeg’s Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop and the innovative sculptures of Brian Jungen, created with ordinary consumer goods.
The bulk of the book, however, is thematic, connecting western artists across provinces and over time through their approaches to ideas and issues. It is these sections that most clearly demonstrate Bovey’s voice, which is informative and analytic but can also be passionate, even personal.
Bovey looks at artists expressing landscape as place and as cultural construct. She tracks how artists have handled the human figure and portraiture, looking in particular at the delicate negotiation between subject and artist. She demonstrates how artists have responded to climate change, colonialism and war.
This structural method means that the work of Anishinaabe/Saulteaux artist Robert Houle (Sandy Bay First Nation), for example, is not summed up all at once. Instead, discussions of his work are spread through the book, as Bovey looks at his response to the land, his use of abstraction to explore Indigenous sacred teachings and the way his residential school experience has been transmuted into deeply personal and political paintings.
As a former director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, and as a senator who advocated for cultural causes, Bovey is also concerned with the larger social, political and economic networks that surround art.
She discusses issues of public policy and funding, the influence of art schools, the effect of commercial art firms, the expansion of artist-run centres such as Winnipeg’s Plug In, which started as a scrappy parallel gallery, and the importance of regionally based magazines such as Border Crossings and Galleries West.
With this kind of ambitious project, readers will almost inevitably feel that something has been left out. (How about, say, Winnipeg’s influential Royal Art Lodge? Or a section on gender and sexual identity?) But Winnipeg artists on the whole are well represented here. Bovey has strong connections to our city, and clearly has an eye for what has been called “the Winnipeg effect.”
Whatever the quibbles about who’s in and who’s out, Western Voices in Canadian Art will be a crucial resource for specialists. Its “back of book” sections offer detailed information for the more than 250 colour reproductions, an extensive bibliography and detailed notes and a chronology of national and international events and cultural milestones from the 1700s to the present day.
And the interested general reader will enjoy Bovey’s clear, jargon-free style and affectionate advocacy for the art that has formed — and has been formed by — the western Canadian experience.
When Alison Gillmor studied art history at York University, she did not hear enough about the art of the western provinces.
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Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.