Temperatures are finally falling, and for me that often means down-time is spent at home with a good book and a warm drink. But no matter how stimulating the reading material, one eventually tires of being housebound. Fall may in fact be the best time of year for visiting museums and galleries; we’re not quite ready to hibernate full-time, and then there’s a somberness in the atmosphere that bends the mind towards beautiful things and elevated ideas. So this past weekend I decided to stroll over to the Agnes and see what’s showing in the weeks ahead.
Through the heavy glass doors I entered the first gallery to find myself in an oversized cabinet of Canadian curiosities. Treasures and Tales, a collaboration between the University Archives and the Art Centre, exhibits a charming miscellany of objects, documents, and artworks selected from among the university’s early collections. Here you’ll find the original manuscript of Healey Wilan’s anthem for the occasion of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, a poignant set of photographic portraits of Hudson Bay Inuit by A.A. Chesterfield, animated landscapes engraved on ivory from the Yukon Valley, and a small gathering of Group of Seven gems, including Arthur Lismer’s grand canvas “Quebec Village.” In a second gallery, an interlude at the back of the museum, the exhibition continues, extending its reach beyond Canada. The objects in both galleries are accompanied by winding stories of how these little treasures came to be at Queen’s, lending texture and a further layer of curiosity to the whole.
As an enthusiast of the National Film Board’s cinematographic work, I was excited about the next exhibition—a culling from the hundreds of thousands of photographs taken by the NFB’s Still Photography Division between 1941 and 1971. The black-and-white images cover people at leisure and at work, life in the North, and landscape as a curated expression of national identity. The pictures provide a captivating glimpse into the ways in which what is perhaps the most familiar visual artistic medium is used to subtly—and sometimes not so subtly—shape the values of a country’s citizenry. Viewing this exhibit is like walking through the pages of a mid-twentieth-century magazine photo story: some pictures you flip past with just a smile or a laugh, while others make you pause for reflection. Of special interest is a group of images of Inuit people that have been successfully used as part of two recent projects aimed at identifying formerly unnamed subjects (in what were initially meant as stock photographs) and then using the images as a basis for oral histories of a past that might otherwise have been lost.
Singular Figures is the pièce de résistance, exhibiting an arrangement of portraits and character studies by Baroque painters from the Low Countries, a foundation of the museum’s permanent collection. The paintings are impressive for the consummate skill of the artists, who were able to use the common language of a highly recognizable tradition in order to create works that do not, however, sacrifice their individuality and, in the details of their subject matter, sometimes cheekily defy expectations. In these masterworks viewers will find themselves stirred, quite likely because the visages portrayed seem to show them something of themselves. On the back wall are three Rembrandts, including the Agnes’s latest and most prized acquisition, “Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo.” Be sure to grab a copy of curator Jacquelyn Coutré’s illuminating guide to this masterpiece, available for free at reception and a wonderful way to unwind with a cup of tea once you’re cosily ensconced at home.
For another year and a half the small African Gallery will be housing the continuing exhibition Stories to Tell. It is as much an exploration of our reactions to works of art as it is a display of the works themselves, which come from all over sub-Saharan Africa. Highlights for me were a video in which Queen’s graduate student Yesutor Gbewonyo recites a poem, inspired by a set of elaborately carved wooden combs by Asante (Ashanti) artists from Ghana, reflecting on the subjective meanings of art objects and, secondly, a sculpture by Ontario-based Zimbabwean artist Chaka Chikodzi, made expressly for this exhibition. As Chikodzi explains in a video interview, he sees carved stone as a voice of the present taking part in a geological conversation with past and future.
Finally, for the post-modernly inclined, the last exhibition combines a temporary workshop and a display of work by Ciara Phillips, a Canadian artist living in Scotland who has recently concluded a stint as artist-in-residence at Queen’s. Phillips uses screen printing to make Comrade Objects that radically challenge our ideas about what art is and the relationship in which we—as viewers or consumers or owners—stand to it. Whether the exhibition perplexes, upsets, or dazzles you, the irony of such disruptive questions being posed in the context of the very thing being questioned is sure to get your mind racing, perhaps reframing everything else you’ve seen in the other galleries until now. Such provocative and idiosyncratic ways curators devise of arranging artworks from differing times and places is, in the end, one of the reasons we go to museums rather than just looking at art books at home.
All five exhibitions unfold across the Centre’s eight galleries. They run until 4 December (with Stories to Tell running until April of 2018). The Agnes Etherington Art Centre, located at 36 University Avenue, is open from Tuesday to Friday between 10 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. (Thursday hours extending until 9 p.m.). Weekend hours are 1 to 5 p.m. On Thursday, 17 November, at 12.15 p.m. there will be a free guided tour of selected exhibitions, open to the public. Admission to the galleries is free, although donations are always welcome.