The protean vision of Joyce Wieland

GEOFFREY JAMES April 27 1987

The protean vision of Joyce Wieland

GEOFFREY JAMES April 27 1987

The protean vision of Joyce Wieland


There is something inherently hazardous about the idea of the retrospective.

The artist places before the public a lifetime of work in a form that can be consumed by the casual viewer in perhaps half an hour. At best, such an exercise can give shape and illumination to a career. At worst, it can place a premature grave marker on what would otherwise have been a continuing body of work.

Joyce Wieland’s retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) arrived last week with an aura of redress. “A tribute whose time has come,” proclaims the gallery’s newsletter of an artist who feels that she has suffered both underexposure and critical neglect. Yet the 55-yearold artist has achieved something of a mythic stature in Canada. In the 1960s she was, more often than not, the only woman to penetrate the official showcases of Canadian art that were sent abroad. In 1971 she became the first living female artist to have a solo exhibition at the National Gallery. Five years later Wieland pulled off the more difficult feat of becoming perhaps the first underground film-maker to make a feature film. If her more recent painting and drawing has not attracted the same public attention, it may be because, as this retrospective shows, it has become increasingly private and confessional.

Spanning the years 1955 to the present, and embracing the wide variety of media that Wieland has used—from film to quilting, from painting to assemblage—the Toronto retrospective (it will also travel to Charlottetown, Fredericton and Regina) shows an artist who has never been afraid to change lanes. Hers is not a body of work that offers a clear progression, a single, recognizable autographic style. Instead, the viewer is confronted with what appears to be a series of sudden, impulsive leaps.

In Wieland’s art, nothing is quite what it seems at first glance. The opening section of the exhibition shows Wieland as an abstract expressionist—one of the boys, so to speak. She makes large paintings with central shapes full of swirling, circular energy, like the eloquent stain painting Time Machine Series, 1961. They may appear to be very

much part of the early 1960s, with their usual ambiguous biomorphic shapes. But the pictures also carry graffiti-like scrawlings of phalluses. In retrospect, Wieland now sees these paintings as “sex poetry,” and some of them have an open eroticism all the more remarkable for having been made at a time when Toronto police had an even keener eye

than they do now for anything not covered with a fig leaf. Even in male attire, this is very much a woman’s art.

Joyce Wieland’s imaginary world teeters between paradise and disaster. In her serial paintings of the early 1960s, sailboats sink, suddenly and inexplicably, in calm seas. Planes plummet from clear blue skies. Delicate embroidered renderings of arctic flowers, executed on little cloth cushions, propose a Northern Eden; but on closer inspection, the covers of the cushions carry an account of an American plot to steal Canada’s water. It is an art that hints at hidden dangers and its creator’s not-alwayseasy passage through the world.

In a body of work as personal as Wieland’s, the biographical element looms large. She was born in Toronto to English parents, her father a onetime music-hall and pantomime artist who dreamed of London while working as a waiter at the Royal York Hotel. By the time Joyce was nine, both her parents were dead. It is a period of her life about which, even after much therapy,

she finds it hard to talk. While her older siblings went into jobs at a local chocolate factory, she signed up for a dressmaking course at Toronto’s Central Technical school, where the artist Doris McCarthy, a protégé of the Group of Seven, encouraged her to switch to art classes.

In those days the notion of a professional career as an artist outside commercial art was difficult enough for men, unthinkable for women, and Wieland spent four years in a commercial printing house designing packaging. By the mid 1950s she was associated with Graphic Films, a company that produced commercial animated movies. It was there that she met and married the artist Michael Snow. The complex artistic relationship between those two strong creative personalities is not something that the AGO catalogue attempts to plumb —although Wieland quotes Snow as saying, on the breakup of their marriage 25 years later, that “we made each other.” Wieland accompanied her husband to New York in 1962. Intimidated by the hothouse Manhattan art scene, she felt more at home in the small but burgeoning world of experimental film.

The graphic works she made in that period—serial paintings of disasters, boxed or plastic-wrapped assemblages—seem secondary in relation to the personal films that were her preoccupation. Water Sark, 1964-5, uses the simplest of materials—

light, mirrors, prisms, running water and the artist’s own body—to create a 14minute lyric poem to movement and color. Reason over Passion (1967-9) is far more ambitious, a 90-minute travelogue that records a westward progression across Canada by car and train. A ribbon of winter landscape flickers through the window in what is really a hymn of praise to the land. Ontario is replaced by the image of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The film-maker used footage of the Prime Minister’s public appearances, re-

peating and accentuating gestures to show the enigmatic energy of the man.

And while she was making the film, Wieland also created a quilt using Trudeau’s Cartesian slogan, Reason over Passion. The Prime Minister acquired the French version of this quilt, and in one of the more bizarre footnotes to Canadian art history Margaret Trudeau tore the letters of the motto from their quilted background, presumably in an effort to re-arrange her husband’s priorities.

Paradoxically, Wieland’s most intensely nationalistic work coincided with the eight years she spent in New York—a case perhaps of absence making the heart grow fonder. Her work celebrating her country culminated in True Patriot Love, an exhibiton at the National Gallery of Canada in 1971. Wieland employed friends, relatives and “champion knitters” to create patriotic symbols out of the humblest of handicraft materials—embroidery and knitting. If the literal message conveyed did not go beyond bumper-sticker nationalism, the means used—communal work with all contributors credited—created a large feminist statement long before The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago’s selfpromoting monument to sisterhood.

The catalogue of True Patriot Love is better described as an artist’s book. It consists of a government publication on arctic flora overprinted with Wieland’s musings. In it she reveals the outlines of a project that was to obsess her for five years—the making of the feature film, The Far Shore. With no experience of the world of commercial cinema, she succeeded, largely by dint of her formidable willpower, in creating what turned out to be a $500,000 flop. The Far Shore is very much an allegory, and its characters embody capital-letter virtues and vices. Eulalie, the French-Canadian heroine, is sensitive and plays the piano; she marries an English Canadian engineer, a jovial philistine who is intent upon the rape of the land. Escape comes in the form of Frank, a thinly disguised Tom Thomson figure.

Despite its surface beauty, and the occasional magical moment when Wieland the underground film-maker emerges, The Far Shore is a profoundly awkward film. It is hobbled by a lame script and a preposterous Perils-of-Pauline ending. Even more disconcerting is the confusion between parodie intent and painful sincerity. Audiences inevitably laugh in all the wrong places.

After The Far Shore, Wieland had plans for making a film version of Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners; it was not to be. The first film, she later said, “turned into a most gigantic burden, was never-ending and almost killed me. It used up a kind of basic energy.” In the past decade the artist has returned

to the more traditional medium of painting. In her 1978 Self Portrait, Wieland stares at the viewer—or the creator—with a look that seems part hurt, part defiance. There is a new vulnerability here, and the painful gap between private anxiety and the longing for a perfect world seems even more pronounced.

The more recent work no longer wears the clothes of fashion as did her earlier abstract expressionist and Popart paintings. Wieland borrows from areas usually taboo for serious art—including from Victorian illustration—and sometimes the results skirt dangerously close to cutism. Nor are her pastiches particularly successful: a small, round Flight into Egypt (After Tiepolo) painted in 1981 serves mainly to illustrate the abyss that separates modern eclecticism from the achievement of the last of the great Venetian painters.

In the new work there are pristine landscapes—including some fine small watercolors of Turkey—as well as several delicate colored-pencil drawings that represent some kind of Arcadian orgy. Where the artist seems to be attempting self-consciously to create a personal mythology, she is not totally convincing. But in such works as Paint Phantom, 1983-4, the effect is one of great power. In progress for a year and a half, the painting, as writer Marie Fleming notes in the catalogue, functions on the level both of allegory and catharsis. A mythic woman and man— he with a devil’s tail—struggle on the curved surface of the earth against a night sky. It is a painting, Wieland says, that attests to “what the struggle and the pain of it was, to be in love with things that were dead, having made them into something more magical than they ever were, and then having to destroy them so that one could get on with one’s life.”

Counting True Patriot Love, the AGO exhibition is Joyce Wieland’s fourth retrospective. The 15 pages of bibliography in the show’s workmanlike catalogue do not testify to any great critical neglect. But if the show fails to finally pin down and clarify Wieland’s intense and zigzagging career, that is more a reflection on the recalcitrant nature of much of the work and its refusal to be easily pigeon-holed. Too late to be included in the catalogue is a large green-and-pink painting, The Assassination of Marat by Charlotte Corday, that signals yet another twist in the road—a turbulent, automatist work quite unlike anything that surrounds it. Where it will lead is hard to tell. But the message it leaves is the best that one can hope for from any retrospective: To Be Continued.