The Ministry of Artistic Affairs
Friday, June 3, 2011

The Venice Biennale is in full swing and anyone with even a passing interest in art will be making a pilgrimage to this bi-annual mecca of contemporary art. At this mega-event, each participating nation selects one representative artist and this year Canada has chosen Steven Shearer. In the following interview from Canadian Art, art critic David Balzer interviews Josée Drouin-Brisebois from the National Gallery of Canada to discuss working with Shearer, Canada's slightly bizarre Venice pavilion, and the new Conservative majority's effect on Canadian art.

The Canada Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale is coordinated by the National Gallery of Canada and led by the museum’s director, Marc Mayer, and its senior curator of contemporary art, Josée Drouin-Brisebois. The artist is Vancouverite Steven Shearer, known for his engagements with near and distant pasts—namely, with the hard-rock and heavy-metal iconography of the 1970s and 1980s, and its visual resonance with the longhaired bohemians and symbolist reveries of late 19th-century European painting.

Opening to the public June 4, Shearer’s Canada Pavilion installation—the preparations for which are detailed in Sarah Milroy’s cover story on the artist in the upcoming summer issue of Canadian Art—combines his old-master fetishism with a hard, contemporary edge. Mixed components comprise the project: a large text billboard outside, a tool shed and the focal point, Shearer’s paintings and drawings, both old and new. Central to the concept is a historically acute engagement with the space of the pavilion, which has often proved frustrating to contemporary artists and curators. Designed by Milanese architect Enrico Peressutti in 1958 under the direction of the National Gallery, the pavilion is, this year, being celebrated as an exemplary mid-century collaboration between Canada and Italy. This collaboration, underscored by the National Gallery's renewed involvement with the Biennale, shapes the presentation of Shearer's work, itself a reflection of Canada’s sensitivity to European art idioms.

The following conversation with Drouin-Brisebois took place over the phone last week, as she, Shearer and many others put finishing touches on the pavilion exhibition in Venice.

David Balzer: What has your experience been like working with Steven Shearer as part of the National Gallery team?

Josée Drouin-Brisebois: For me, it’s always about a collaboration with the artist. It’s not my show; it’s our show. When Steven and I met in Venice last summer it was quite clear that we were on the same wavelength. I had an idea to do something outside the pavilion that was, while not necessarily aggressive, sort of pushing things. A lot of his work is about the tension between aggression and intimacy or vulnerability. We talked a lot about that common denominator in his work.

DB: How did the pavilion affect your conception of the show?

JDB: The pavilion was quite difficult to see when we first visited, because the Venice Architecture Biennale was being installed and the space was quite dark—there was already work inside. We realized the scale, though. For a number of years, Steven had wanted to do a show that focused more on his painting and drawing, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity: create that intimate space and use it for something other than a large video installation or sculpture, which is how it’s been used in the past few years.

We did some research together. Steven came to the National Gallery and we looked at archives, of the inaugural exhibition at the pavilion in 1958, and into the 1960s. We realized how beautiful the building actually is with paintings on display, and how it offers these multiple perspectives. From there we went on to look at the design and what the architects wanted to do with the building. That’s what I focused on for the catalogue essay, this bridging between the architects and their vision for the building with Steven’s own vision for this exhibition.

For me, it’s been tremendously exciting and interesting, learning about Italian architecture in the 1950s. There’s also a nice connection with Steven’s work: he’s often looking to things that have been discarded by society, or put aside, such as [decades-old] youth culture and other things, and the pavilion can be seen as one of those found objects that has been discarded—or not seen in the best of lights. The building becomes his own piece of architecture, becomes something else.

DB: There’s always the issue of the national pertinence of a given country’s biennale artist: recently, Rebecca Belmore (in 2005) and Mark Lewis (in 2009) included recognizably Canadian elements and themes in their Venice work. Shearer’s work is more obscure in that respect.

JDB: You can find things like that in his work, but it’s not the primary thing. There is the idea of growing up in suburbia, and of course his own autobiography, as well as the tool shed and other kinds of materials that are not associated with Europe; there is a very North American vocabulary. In another sense, for the paintings and drawings, it’s very much about larger themes, the artist’s inspiration. There are ideas of escape. So I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily Canadian, but it is in there; the work is about him. He definitely has a strong relationship to where he’s from and how he grew up.

DB: Do you see the National Gallery having ongoing involvement with the Canada Pavilion at the biennale?

JDB: There are great things about having that kind of stability in terms of managing a big project like this. It’s hard when you have to reinvent the wheel every two years, and I know it’s been quite difficult in terms of navigating the Italian bureaucracy and whatnot. So, from a project-management side, there’s a big plus in having a national institution manage things. From a curatorial perspective, I think it’s very important that it stays open—that curators from anywhere can have input and a role. This is my personal opinion.

For me, it’s very important that [the Canada Pavilion] doesn’t become about the National Gallery, because it’s not. It’s about the Canadian artists and the community and giving opportunities for a number of different people to put together a show like this. Which, as amazing as it is, has its share of headaches. In an ideal world, we’d be able to start an endowment so that every two years we could have some funds already available for the project. This is something that the National Gallery could do.

DB: Does the new Conservative-majority government in Canada threaten this ideal at all?

JDB: I don’t know. I mean, it’s something I think about. It makes it difficult for anyone to do a project, especially internationally, but the fact that 80 percent of this project is still funded by philanthropists and corporations means it remains very important to quite a large community.

DB: Given the context of curator Bice Curiger’s international show this year and its mingling of Tintoretto with contemporary artists, does your selection of Shearer reflect on larger trends in contemporary art—on a re-engagement with the past and on a renewed attention to painting and drawing? Furthermore, do you see this apparent trend particularly visible in Canada?

JDB: The selection [of Shearer] wasn’t made by me. It was a committee made up of different curators, and we weren’t thinking of that specifically. We were thinking about which artist was really primed for this—about who has a very serious body of work already. Essentially, whose moment is it? We all agreed that Steven is a very serious, hard-working artist. And there was something about the timing; it was right. There were so many artists who could have done it as well. It was a really long and interesting discussion.

Our concept became clearer when we actually went to look at the pavilion. Steven could have done photographic work, a big sculpture, an installation. We chose him because we really believed in him and in what he had to offer. On a personal note, if you want to bring nationalism into this, I see his work shown in circumstances in which he is identified as American. No! We need to claim him. I remember David Altmejd saying that to me: Once you do Venice and the Canada Pavilion, you’re Canadian. You become part of a history.

By David Balzer for Canadian Art Magazine.