Eric Nay, Associate Professor and Associate Dean, Faculty of Liberal Studies, OCAD University, Toronto
Hockey sticks, birch branches, ice on frozen lake surfaces, diffused autumn sunlight, bright yellow school buses and lots of frigid lapping whitecaps on frozen seas all built up the rich imagery on display at the 55th Annual Art Exhibition, “My Canada” at the O. Timmas Gallery at the Estonian House in Toronto recently. The exhibition and the accompanying catalog presented a diverse snapshot of the rich tradition of Estonia’s skilled and passionate artists and the unique variations of contemporary art practice by Estonian-Canadian artists from Canada, Estonia, the US and elsewhere.
I have taught art and design history and theory in several countries within many contexts throughout my career, and have always sought out and enjoyed witnessing the triumphant ways cultural values, visual imagery and archetypal metaphors can be retained and maintained within artistic expression as artists move outside of one culture and into another. The adaptation and re-evaluation of assumptions that occurs in this work becomes one of natural selection and unconscious choice. In the “My Canada” exhibition deliberate choices about references and traditions were evident in much of the work, as were more subtle nuances and nods to Canadian contexts.
I could make wildly romanticized generalizations about Estonia’s geographical and local identity, as well as its spiritual connections to Scandinavia and Russia in terms of artistic expression and historical modes of expression, but it will suffice to say that the themes and imagery in the exhibition showed deep connections with Estonia and Canada through history, references and visual motifs like densely wooded and seemingly empty landscapes void of people, but rich in interpretive atmospheric description.
For my own grandmother all rural wooded landscapes symbolically belonged to the same metaphorical forests that she had left behind in her native Austria as a child, and provided her with both comfort and continuity despite her absence from an idealized version of nature and time in history that could never be recreated again due to politics, progress and the horrors of war. The conditions for her particular visionary synthetic fusion of time and space required a specific density of trees, isolation from the clutter and noise of urban activity and a sense of spiritual silence to achieve metaphorical transcendence. As Buddha would agree, a tree is sometimes more than a tree as we all know.
I entered this exhibition with the same sort of intrigue and sense of nostalgia about how groups of artists that characterized themselves as Estonian, might also “see” the same things with shared metaphorical values and points of reference without external orchestration. I was pleased to see the passionate and strong references to the classical and heroic art educational traditions of Estonia’s past throughout the exhibition in shared styles, methods and techniques of representation. The blending of traditional methods and contemporary issues made the exhibition more germane and poignant, and did indeed address the theme of “My Canada” in a multitude of ways. I always am struck by bodies of artwork that touch on cultural or regional identity as a conscious subtext to the work itself, and it is always fascinating to see how nationalism, identity and visual imagery resonate between cultures across generations. The work was Canadian, without a doubt. The thick Canadian references from hockey paraphernalia to emulating the Group of Seven were often explicit, as seen in Jaak Järve’s direct reference to Lawren Harris in his work, or the number of other paintings that utilized hockey as a trope for Canadian identity.
What is cultural identity? What is Canadian identity? What is Estonian-Canadian identity? In the catalog accompanying the exhibition a series of artists are introduced alongside their work with quotations about their interests, their backgrounds and their identities as artists. The multiple references to being raised in environments that valued artistic expression, appreciations for nature and humble and sincere responses to being an artist as a vocation were some of the collectively shared intentions across the generations exhibiting work. This is where I heard “My Canada” the clearest, in their voices.
The work that helped me understand Estonian-Canadian art best were two paintings by Saskia Järve, “On the Way to Simcoe” and “The Kitchen.” Both of these paintings were rendered in neo-realistic highly graphic styles that were at once absent of atmospheric depth, but selectively filtered and controlled like graphic design assignments or designs for commercial logos. In “On the Way to Simcoe” a woman stands in the shallow foreground as a yellow school bus with text written on it in both French and English drives off, obviously in a small town in Canada. Her patterned dress contrasts with her thick fashionable glasses and demonstrates an urban sophistication despite the obvious rural isolated context of the scene in a very conscious discussion of contemporary Canadian identity. Off to the side are two skunks, scurrying off to the roadside, and the sky holds the figures of birds in flight that have been woven with thread into the canvas in a conscious nod to indigenous craft and the desire for the lost sincerity of the handmade and simpler times. The painting is ironic, folksy and extremely sophisticated in both form and message. The painting describes a contemporary Canada that is urbane and rural simultaneously, as Canada is.
Järve’s postmodern sense of irony is further enhanced in another painting titled “the Kitchen” where the primary subject seems to be the back porch of a pastel clad cottage where raccoons are being raccoons and stealing food amidst Muskoka chairs, beach towels and the warm sunshine of a carefree summer long weekend. The subject matter is both banal and charming, and very Canadian. The conscious play of the reality of cottage life in Canada merges nicely with the romanticization of nature that is clearly one of the more tangible ways that Järve interpreted “My Canada” with a wily dose of postmodern cheekiness.
There were numerous other additional individual moments of brilliance in the show as well with demonstrations of raw talent and cheeky earnestness that was as diverse and multi-generational as the artists exhibiting the work themselves. From Eva Oja’s delicate string of small painted canvases of flowers to Arne Roosman’s heroic antler-like sculptures to Hans Moks’ reinterpreted symbolic orange maple leaf the theme of the exhibition was richly present in so many ways, shapes and forms.
The particular role and vision of the wilderness in this exhibition also emerges as something that is uniquely Canadian, or Estonian-Canadian, and it appears over and over again with subtle inflections much like it does in Margaret Atwood’s writing. Like Atwood’s story “Death by Landscape” in which a distant view from inside an apartment window of Lake Ontario creates a timeless connection to frightening memories of wooded landscapes and a summer camp from the past, the work of practicing Estonian-Canadian artists in this exhibition allowed me to see through a multitude of windows onto a uniquely Estonian-Canadian landscape, both real and imaginary. These Estonian-Canadian artists who are at the centre of contemporary practice in Estonia and Canada have “achieved that status through both the quality of their work and the crucial roles they have played in debates about Canadian culture and society at large,“ as was pointed out in the text, Visual Arts in Canada: the Twentieth Century, for all of those who consciously work within the multicultural Canadian context and share as their project imagining Canada though art.
Review of the 55th Annual Art Exhibition, “My Canada” at the O. Timmas Gallery, Toronto