Robert Houle: Red Is Beautiful at the AGO
One of the many large, elegant paintings by Robert Houle, in his retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario, is particularly arresting. An Indigenous man sits alone on an outcropping of rock, contemplating the shoreline and beyond. He is beautiful and calm; tatooed and tranquil in a bucolic, parklike setting, with broad, green lawns. He is looking east, to Europe, and evidently, he knows what’s coming.
The image has a sorrowful quality, like an invented perfect childhood, or the idea of heaven, where a dead loved one might now reside.
It made me think of the video piece by New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana — which I was able to watch numerous times at the AGO. One could think of Lisa Reihana’s piece as a moment later in this perfect, imaginary time. The tranquil Indigenous are no longer alone. The British have landed, and they have disembarked.
And I was also reminded of Robert Hughes and his book “The Fatal Shore” in which he reflects upon the shattering of perfection, as the British first sailed into Botany Bay.
“One may liken this moment to the breaking open of a capsule. Upon the harbor the ships were now entering, European history had left no mark at all. Until the swollen sails and curvetting bows of the British fleet round South Head, there were no dates. The Aborigines and fauna around them had possessed the landscape since time immemorial, and no other human eye had seen them. Now the protective glass of distance, broke, in an instant, never to be restored.”The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes
But this is just one painting in an immense exhibition, covering many decades and using many different media, in a career spanning more than fifty years.
This is the kind of show you might want return to again and again. But that is not possible because the Gallery is now closed due to the Omicron variant.
Robert Houle takes the viewer on a journey; often it’s personal. The painting shown below is entitled Sandy Bay and refers to a residential school in Manitoba attended by the artist. Photographs of the school building, an image of Robert Houle’s sister, and other photographs are included in the painting.
For me, the gorgeous formal aspects of this work exalts its intense emotional weight. It’s a very powerful piece.
Many of Robert Houle’s paintings explore the history of Indigenous struggles in Canada as they explore, with equal intensity, the sensuality of paint.
The painting above is part of a series which extracts texts from Canadian historical documents (The Royal Proclamation, 1763; the British North American Act, 1867; Treaty 1, 1871; and the Indian Act, 1876 and the Constitution Act of 1982) and combines it with a contemporary painting and historical photographs.
Robert Houle never loses sight of his subject matter — which in a way is the entire history of this country– but he does not take a didactic tone. It’s more like he is sharing information. We learn a lot.
The Ipperwash Crisis is commemorated, below, in a painting of jolting colour, embedded with meaning.
Painting appears to be a constant for Robert Houle but the show includes works in other media: prints, drawings, sculpture, video and large scale installations including one which features a big, beautiful, buttery yellow, antique Pontiac.
The AGO provided a quote from Robert Houle in connection with the Pontiac piece.
Growing up in the ‘rez in Southern Manitoba in the 1960s, Pontiac was the family car we drove down to the lake. It was not until High School that I read about Pontiac, the Odawa chief who led a confederacy of eighteen nations against the British Army in the summer of 1763 (the year of the Royal Proclamation.)Robert Houle
In the painting below, Robert Houle memorializes a troupe of dancers who visited Europe in the 1840s.
I really like looking at the portraits of these confident, graceful, imperious performers. The artist has endowed these pictures with haughty vitality and vivid emotional content.
And occaisionally the artist strikes a light-hearted note and it’s just fun to see, like the video below.
It was really great to wander through this expansive exhibition and feel colour and light washing over me. And it’s true that timing is everything! I was able to slip into the “Red Is Beautiful” exhibition the afternoon of January 4, just a few hours before the AGO and every other cultural institution in the city pulled the plug and shut their doors to the public. We are back in lockdown.