The Contemporary Art Gallery presents the first solo exhibition in a public institution of work by Canadian artist Itee Pootoogook.
A resident of Cape Dorset, Nunavut, he belongs to a generation of Inuit artists who are transforming and reshaping the creative traditions that were successfully pioneered by their parents and grandparents during the second half of the 20th century. In his large-scale graphite and coloured pencil drawings, Pootoogook shows us an image of modern northern life quite different from the one we are accustomed to seeing both historically and in much Inuit work. In this vast and often inhospitable region, instead of traditional subjects such as igloos and parka-clad hunters and their prey, we are shown an everyday world, one made up of recognizable contemporary accoutrements including snowmobiles, boats, soft drinks and television sets.
Pootoogook makes images of places, people and things, observed with prosaic intimacy. Here at the Contemporary Art Gallery we focus not on works involving portraits of family and friends but on those images that picture the things which structure daily routine in this part of Canada — buildings, landscape and the means to travel to other parts of the country. Working from photographs, Pootoogook’s drawings appear to be situated within a documentary tradition, yet despite their overall ‘snapshot’ composition, the transformation of media results in an ambiguity to these notionally familiar scenes. That the drawings themselves are often a composite of several source photographs further underlines the constructed nature of the images.
While the artist’s training as a carpenter may account in part for the attention to line, edges and planes, there is an economy to the work which defies such simple reasoning. Blocks of pure colour, palette shifts away from the merely naturalistic, areas of paper left raw, and expanses of flattened space, all combine to create an abstraction which recalls a range of Western art historical references. The apparent sophistication of Pootoogook’s images causes them to transcend any attempt to label or classify within generic assumption and thereby thoroughly resist our impulse to conveniently locate them within conventional aboriginal practice. While focusing on the commonplace, the artist’s work shifts our perception of the factual; understated, deliberate restraint foiling any tendency toward the grandiose or heroic.
The exhibition features a number of images representing northern architecture, a theme that is especially important to Pootoogook. In some cases, works such as Burnt Garage (2011) show a modern structure in barren northern landscapes, countering any romantic reading in its straightforward honesty, while serving as poetic testament to daily human resilience. In other works, Pootoogook focuses on the rectangular forms of doors, steps and exterior walls, revelling in their formal clarity and abstract elegance. Through the Window (a) Low Hill Could Be (2008), Apartment #342 (2010) and Reflections (2011) present images of windows, at once smart and knowing in their pictorial reference to surface, framing, viewing and the picture plane itself. Simultaneously they convince as actual representations of glass, wood and metal.
First Air, The Airline of the North (2011), Calm Weather and 3 Ribs of Whale (both 2012), all similarly depict forms in the landscape, their shapes emerging from the white or black of the paper itself as a material suggestion of snow and rock. Respectively these drawings show the fin of an airplane, the horizon of sea and land, and skeletal remains, and yet each hovers between the figuration suggested by their titles, a depiction of light and shadow, and a formal series of marks and gestures on the paper ground.
There is stillness to much of Pootoogook’s drawing that suspends any sense of time despite the clearly contemporary nature of the imagery. The notion of a captured moment can be seen in pieces such as Long After Midnight (2010) the transitional nature of the world in which we all live suggested by the cabin, perhaps abandoned, against the evening sky. The artist’s work can be seen to evoke a time passing, the day’s turning, retrieving it for generations to come but signifying a continual state of flux, a fundamental understanding of the inevitability that the structures we inhabit and the lives we lead will undoubtedly be outstripped by the landscape that surrounds us.
Off-site a specially printed version of a drawing of the landscape will be presented large-scale at Yaletown-Roundhouse Station, its physicality altering as light changes throughout the day, its imagery deliberately playing with and gaining meaning from the specificity of the site.
The project at Yaletown-Roundhouse Station, Canada Line is presented in partnership with the Canada Line Public Art Program – IntransitBC.