The Canadian Art Database

Liz Wylie

Joyce Wieland (retrospective)
Art Gallery of Ontario, April 16 - June 28 1987;
(catalogue: Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario and Key Porter Books,1987) Essays by Lucy Lippard, Marie Fleming, and Lauren Rabinovitz

Northward Journal #44 (1988)
[ 1,498 words ]

It would be difficult to think of another contemporary Canadian artist who has worked as intensely and extensively with the idea of Canada — and in particular of the Canadian North — as Joyce Wieland. As well as the abstract notion of Canada as her country, Wieland's conception of Canada has embraced sexuality, spirituality and nationalism. As she said in 1971, 'I think of Canada as female. All the art I've been doing or will be doing is about Canada. I may tend to overly identify with Canada.' This would explain some of the artist's iconography: for instance, Canada as a nude woman suckling two beavers or having intercourse with a bear, in two sculptures dating from 1970-71. Moreover, this iconography reveals the artist's underlying emotional sense of Canada as her self.

This can be noted and traced through several of Wieland's pieces, perhaps most successfully in an aesthetic sense in the original lithograph which inspired the embroidery O Canada Animation (1970), included in the current retrospective exhibition organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario. Wieland's resourcefulness in kissing down her lipsticked mouth directly onto the litho stone at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design's lithography studio reflects not only inventiveness, but also a kind of chutzpah. Her ingenuity in this instance is like that of a female secret agent freeing herself from a trap with a bobby pin found in her purse. But the print works; maybe because the lip imprints are from her body, the print is female, viscerally emotional, and has an emphatic and lingering effect. By contrast, the embroidery, executed by others, has less of this impact. It's more purely decorative and is weakened by being tacked up and limply hung behind Plexiglas, within a frame. This kind of unevenness has occurred throughout Wieland's career, and would seem to be one reason for her lack of strong critical and curatorial support.

Her last major retrospective exhibition was held in 1971 at the National Gallery of Canada. She titled the show True Patriot Love and centred it around the theme of Canada, particularly her feelings of love for it. Among such bizarre items as a huge cake and the release of Sweet Beaver Perfume were installed such breathtaking and exquisite pieces as The Water Quilt, which is also on view in the current retrospective exhibition.

The Water Quilt was designed by Wieland but executed by other embroiderers. It consists of sixty-four small pillows, each emblazoned with the image of an arctic flower or grass. If the muslin flap over each pillow is lifted, underneath one finds a photo-mechanically reproduced portion of text from James Laxer's The Energy Poker Game, a book about the sale of Canadian resources, particularly water, to the United States. In terms both of the ideas presented and aesthetics, this piece works well. Its only flaw is that the grommets and rope connecting all the pillows are overscaled for the size of these components and for the quilt overall. This kind of attention to detail is not one of Wieland's strong points: exactly how pieces are to be mounted or displayed does not seem to be of great concern to her. Capitulating to her creative urges, she moves quickly from one idea to the next, not necessarily seeing any given piece through to a resolved end. Indeed, one of the most striking feelings to be experienced in confronting a large body of her work is a strong sense of unresolved struggling and searching.

Wieland is no longer as concerned with the concept of Canada as she once was. She says that she is not interested now in 'borders', but rather in personal relationships, and feels herself to be on a spiritual journey. It would appear that, as a self-styled shaman, interested in healing her country (certainly an aim in True Patriot Love), she must first heal herself. In its feeling of struggle, her art seems to attest to the existence of such a process in her life.

No one could deny that it is a struggle working as a woman artist in our culture. The current exhibition of over thirty years of Wieland's work is the first retrospective show given to a living woman artist by the Art Gallery of Ontario. This fact alone indicates the kind of problems which exist for all female artists. Since it has taken this institution so long to grant any woman this kind of coverage, one wouldn't immediately suspect any other reason than simple gender prejudice for Wieland's neglect. But, on reflecting upon the body of work presented, one begins to wonder if it is only because Wieland is a female that her work has not received as much official acknowledgement — 'legitimization', as she puts it — as many of her male peers. The unresolved issues raised by her art, the irony and humour in it, and its nationalistic sentiments, especially as found in the work from the late 1960s and early 1970s, have made it difficult and bewildering for critics intent on making sense of her production. At the same time, however, Wieland's many innovations over the years should have received more attention. She has consistently prefigured methods and concerns which would eventually become the latest word in avant-garde practice: the incorporation of personal / political concerns in her work; the emphasis on sexuality and gender difference as subjects; the use of traditional female means and media in her quilts; the use of domestic subject matters in her films; the reliance upon text without any image component to form a piece; and the appropriation of existing books and texts — these were all ground-breaking in their day.

Since the late 1970s, however, Wieland has taken a few steps backward in this regard, and has returned to traditional drawing and painting, sometimes even pastiching the work of old masters. In these recent works, the idea of Canada has receded as her subject, and she has turned to expressionistic nudes, nature, and once again, a kind of abstraction. Nonetheless, landscape that serves as a setting for the frolicking lovers in her drawings and paintings in the 1980s, for example, Crepuscule for Two (1985) resembles northern Ontario. As it was for the protagonists Tom and Eulalie in Wieland's 1976 feature film The Far Shore, Arcadia is the Canadian Shield. Canada, particularly the North, or the myth of the North (particularly as it was mythologized by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven), still figures as an essential component in her imagination and identity.

The critical consensus on Wieland so far seems to be that her films are better than her static pieces — that is, her quilts, paintings and sculptures. Certainly, if one were to compare the quilt Reason over Passion (1968) with the 90-minute film of the same name — both titles were inspired by a throwaway line of Pierre Trudeau's in 1968 — the film comes out the stronger of the two. The irony implied in a warm, female quilt appliquéd with a cold, male message is too obscure to be picked up by most viewers, whereas the film has a visual and emotional richness which many writers on experimental cinema have praised.

But there are exceptions to this general tendency of her films' superiority. Her 1961 painting Time Machine stands out as one of the best paintings done by a Canadian artist in the modern period. This is a purely aesthetic judgment, having nothing to do either with the canvas's ovulation-cycle iconography with the female point of view of the sexual content — which are of great interest in and of themselves.

As with any journey, a sense of pain and struggle are inevitable. In the art of Joyce Wieland these are ever-present, although she has constantly tried to lighten the work with her whimsical humour. For some people this works. Lucy Lippard comments in the exhibition catalogue on Wieland's 'longing for the impossible,' and on her work's 'endearing poignancy,' with no complaint. Perhaps it is facile to wish for an art that speaks of finding, of having arrived. But her very best works have this sense of decisiveness and resolve.

In each medium she has used, and from the great flow of her creative production, Wieland has produced a few excellent pieces. In the old days these would have been called masterpieces, but this is an outmoded way of looking at an artist's work. If we take the tremendously varied, but also uneven, output of Joyce Wieland as a whole, it seems we end up either dismissing or revering her. Taken against her few really important accomplishments, the reservations critics have had about her — of switching media too often, of not being serious or intellectual enough — all end up seeming beside the point.

Northward Journal #44 (1988)

Text: © Liz Wylie. All rights reserved.

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