The Canadian Art Database

Robert Houle

Alex Janvier

(from the catalogue for Land, Spirit, Power, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992)
[ 973 words ]

Alex Janvier, the 'first Canadian native modernist,' as he sometimes used to style himself, is a member of the Dene Nation, a nomadic, Athapaskan-speaking people linguistically related to the Navaho of the American Southwest. The Cold Lake Reserve in north-eastern Alberta, where Janvier lives, is a tiny part of the vast northern territory traditionally occupied by the Dene, stretching west from Hudson Bay and north to the Arctic tundra. Janvier's father, the last hereditary chief of his people, lived by hunting, trapping, and fishing, but that traditional way of life came to an end, as Janvier observes, when the Canadian military put in bombing ranges in the area. Janvier himself was removed from his community, like most native children of his generation, and sent to a residential school where, luckily, his interest in art was recognized and encouraged. Though many emerged from the schools dispirited and unsure of their identity, Janvier was able to brave indifference and hostility to begin art studies in the south.

At art school, he absorbed the lessons both of landscape painting, with its emphasis on space and light, and of modernism, with its abstract approach to the flat surface of the canvas and insistence on the primacy of a subjective, inner vision. As his mature style developed over the next ten years, his work gave evidence of a native sensibility drawn to geometric motifs and stylized abstract renderings of natural forms. Commentators have pointed out links with the traditional crafts of the Plains peoples — decorative painting and quillwork on deerskin clothing, for example, show a similar use of rhythmic linear forms against an open ground. However, unlike that of the legend painting of the Woodlands school, which makes conscious use of traditional sources, Janvier's vision is a highly subjective one, recording his personal quest for a spiritual identity. Although recognizable motifs do sometimes appear in his paintings, particularly the most recent ones, their symbolic content is carried for the most part through colour and the fluid, calligraphic line that has become his signature.

Janvier's early career was marked by anger, heavy drinking, and clashes with government bureaucracy. The titles of his paintings of the sixties and early seventies — Mass Hate, Let Red Tape Do It, The Troubled Identity — tell a story of personal and cultural conflict. He signed many works with only his treaty number, 287, a symbol of the depersonalized and bureaucratized identity assigned to him as an Indian by white institutions bent on assimilation. The change came gradually, as he mulled over his response to a question put to him on the Kahnewake Reserve near Montreal: Are you an Indian or a Catholic? His answer appears perhaps in his decision to return to live on the Cold Lake Reserve in the early 70s, where he began to 'paint himself out of his confusion.' (1)  At their best, his mature paintings, with their clear colours and increasingly organic, sinuous lines, express an inner life that finds its reflection in the infinite variety of nature. With their capacity to appeal to the individual sensitivity of the viewer, his paintings are bridges between two worlds.

Lately, Janvier's paintings have taken a new turn that has left some observers uncomfortable. His characteristic curvilinear line now provides the structural underpinning for a politicized narrative of native identity that includes frozen images of Hollywood Indians and standard clichés of buffaloes and tipis, together with autobiographical references to his early experiences of depersonalization and acculturation at the residential school. These paintings raise difficult questions. What is the relationship of native people to the Indian kitsch that they so often eagerly consume? Do the aboriginal nations have to embrace a corporate, pan-Indian identity in order to be recognized? What path links past, present, and future in the chaotic reality that surrounds all of us? Janvier's ironic queries aim to expose some of the disturbing realities of present-day Indian life.

The three works painted for this exhibition together form a cycle that addresses the themes of land, spirit, and power; their titles are in Dene, Nehobet the (Land before they arrived) represents the pre-Columbian world as a land of plenty where humans lived in harmony with nature; Yih (Breath of life) represents spirit encircling the life of the people and linking them with the animal world; Enattsere (His power within) shows a god amid the mountains in a powerfully centralized composition. These paintings are both abstract and narrative, a synthesis of Janvier's past and present concerns.

As possibly befits a modern member of a once-nomadic people, Janvier's path has zigged and zagged through several worlds, guided by something like a dream quest. 'Hunter's Dream,' he once termed his style, and then humorously amended the label to 'Hunter's Son's Dream Style.' (2)  Speaking of his search for his roots, Janvier views the confusion that at times has marked his life with equanimity, saying that he had to 'undo the whole reel before he could wind it in again.' (3)  In retrospect, the dominant, calligraphic line appearing in all his paintings might be likened to a road that maps a journey of self-discovery.

Dene. born 1935 on the Cold Lake Reserve, Le Geoff, Alberta. Lives in Cold Lake, Alberta. Studied at the Alberta College of Art, Calgary. Painter, muralist. Public commissioned murals exhibited at, among others, the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67, Montreal, Quebec; the County of Strathcona Building, Sherwood Park, Alberta; and the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull, Quebec. Represented by Gallery Moos, Toronto. Wallace Galleries, Calgary, and West End Gallery, Edmonton.


Alexander Best. Alex Janvier. Contemporary Native Art of Canada Series. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1978.

Robert Houle. 'Alex Janvier: 20th Century Native Symbols & Images.' The Native Perspective, 11:9 (1978), p. 16-19.

(from the catalogue for Land, Spirit, Power, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992)

Text: © Robert Houle. All rights reserved.

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