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A New Paradigm of Canadian Contemporary Art

· 藝術 Art,加拿大Canada

By Laura Shen

The article was first published on Art Plus, Hong Kong, June-July 2019.

Located in the west coast of the North Atlantic, Nova Scotia is known for its natural attractions and seaside beauty. Art originated from here is as peaceful as its landscape, and is always inspired by nature. Canada, the country with the highest number of Hong Kong immigrants, is the second home to many Hong Kong people. High-quality air, water and natural resources have attracted many generations of Chinese to settle down. Compared to her neighbor, the United States, Canada is relaxed and stress-free, and her art is derived from a great affinity with the nature.

For a long time, Canadian art has rarely been discussed in its own right, and more often than not, it has been placed in a Western or even pan-American context. What is the identity of Canadian art? This is the question I have when I encounter artists from Nova Scotia in eastern Canada. “This is a good question,” they say, “In fact, we have been thinking about it ourselves. Who is our audience? Who is watching our art, and who is the buyer?”

Maud Lewis, Oxen in Spring, c. 1960s. Oil on pulpboard. Private Collection. © Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

An exhibition of the Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis together with six females artists is held at the Guangdong Art Museum. In Guangdong, the hometown to most Canadian Chinese, the exhibition becomes a great sensation, and photos of it are posted all over social media. Maud Lewis is the most representative of Canadian folk artists, her works exude a certain childlike naïveté, with houses, hillsides, snow fields, flowers and cats being the main subjects. Coming from an impoverished German immigrant family, Lewis and her husband lived mostly on fish-peddling. In the face of poverty and illness, she used her brushes to record the essence of life and the tranquil daily scenes by the Atlantic Ocean.

After seeing too much contemporary art with the theme of struggle, satire, and conflict, the pure colours and childlike innocence in Maud Lewisworks seems to confirm that art with such absolute simplicity does exist. Looking at contemporary art in Asia, social themes and reflections have long become mainstream, each work is a dramatic enterprise demanding boundless imagination from the audience; or, there is academic art, which is heavily technique-oriented, with colours, contrasts and expressions all too strong and exaggerated. Works that inspire tranquility and peace are rare. It suddenly dawns on me that the reason why Canadian art is so straightforward and simple is because the Canadian society, too, is quiet and harmonious.

"No, our history has been full of struggles and sufferings," says artist Melanie Colosimo. The arrival of the French and the British, the impact of the American War of Independence, and the struggle of the rights of the aboriginals have once disrupted the harmony of this land. However, Canadian artists did not choose to respond to these historical events in a fierce and vehement manner. What's important is that the artists are not involved in the hectic competition of global art market, because almost all the art education and institutions in Canada are public. The art ecology is supported by government-run public museums and galleries. The artists express that they can focus on their art without having to worry about financial or survival issues. The six artists participating in the exhibition are all women from different age groups. Under the patronage of Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, one of the best public galleries in the east, artist Melanie Colosimo, Frances Dorsey, Ursula Johnson, Anne Macmillan, Sarah Maloney and Charley Young start to draw inspiration from nature and the local landscape to create Canadian art. "It’s time that we make a change and let Canadian contemporary art enter the global market and be tested by the market," the artists say. The artists express their enthusiasm in view of Asia being the fastest growing art scene in the world. We hope to have more communications and exchanges in Greater China, and we believe that we have our market here."

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