Glam North (and South)

Essay by Jennifer Rudder

For much of the last century, most Canadians were largely unaware of the existence and realities of the Arctic. Huddled along the 49th Parallel in our urban and rural centres, its impact on our daily lives was minimal, if not negligible. In the 1950s, the Canadian Government created artist co-ops in Cape Dorset, and Innu artists were encouraged to learn, produce and be paid for their work in print-making and carving. Artists’ works were sold to specialist collectors in the south and in Canadian tourist shops, and yet there was little to no connection between the people who made the art and those who were buying it.

The twenty-first century Arctic has our attention, as knowledge about global warming and the melting of the polar ice cap is spread by social and mainstream media. The current Government is eager to establish the Arctic as a source of revenue based on the extraction of the region’s mineral resources and fossil fuel, and to develop a second seaway access between Canada and Asia. Circumnavigation tours of the Arctic, Iceland, Greenland and Norway are thriving. Some tours serve as incubators for research, creation and exploration, and as residencies for educators, musicians, scientists, writers, architects and artists.

Doris McCarthy made her first trip to the Arctic in 1972, visiting Resolute, Eureka, Grise Fiord and its remote islands. In Pond Inlet, she travelled by dog sled to her first iceberg, and painted alone. McCarthy was besotted. The trip would be life changing, and the Arctic became a major subject and focus of her art practice for the rest of her life. Every year for the next five years McCarthy returned to Cape Dorset, Frobisher Bay, Pangnirtung, Resolute Bay, Arctic Bay and Pond Inlet. In 1976, she visited Greenland, in 1977, Inuvik, Holman Island, Paulutuk and Sacks Harbour. The trips continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s to a variety of locations across the Yukon and the north, until her last trip in 2004 at age 94. Recognition of her Arctic paintings was not immediate, yet McCarthy continued travelling to, and painting in the north. The Art Gallery of Hamilton was the first to include two other Iceberg Fantasy paintings in an exhibition in 1973. The Gallery Stratford organized an exhibition in 1991, which toured to eleven galleries in Ontario and Québec, and was instrumental in presenting and validating this body of work.1

Three of the “new contemporary” artists included in this exhibition have gone on extended circumnavigation tours of the Arctic or participated in residencies that brought them face to face with an iceberg or glacier. The expedition experience has impacted their practice and subject matter directly. It is compelling to pair the works of the eight contemporary artists in Glam North with those of Doris McCarthy, in order to mark correspondences as well as variations and incongruity. In this context, it was exciting for Alexander Irving and me to select works from the collection of the Doris McCarthy Gallery, University of Toronto Scarborough. We chose works that are not often seen and works that reflect a sense of contemporaneity.


Winnipeg artist Sarah Anne Johnson participated in the expeditionary residency program Arctic Circle in 2009, sailing to the Svalbard Archipelago between Norway and the North Pole. Johnson’s works in Glam North belong to the photographic series Arctic Wonderland, made following the trip. They connect with Doris McCarthy’s painting Ice Research Station, Arctic (1976), the only work in the collection that depicts the monitoring, recording and collection of scientific data in the far north. This scientific observation forms an important component of the contemporary Arctic captured by McCarthy.

What wired technological gizmos are housed within the orange tents, a bright intrusion in the frozen landscape? The flimsy tents of 1976 seem innocent, almost friendly in the face of mounting evidence of climate change and the development of resource extraction. These increasingly current concerns are evoked by Johnson’s altered photo graphs. An inky black cloud blocks the sun ominously in Dark Cloud (2010). The structure within Triangle (2011) suggests future colonization or military intervention.


McCarthy’s Winter Night, Igloolik (1994) also depicts human presence in the Arctic. In the painting, snow drifts up to the windows and roofline of a cluster of prefab bungalows lit from above by street lights. Intense cold is felt via the deep blues of both the night and the snow, while light in three windows suggests cosiness within.

Samonie Toonoo lives and works in Cape Dorset, Baffin Island and is one of a number of artists whose subject matter reflects twenty-first century life and death in the Arctic. Like many of his contemporaries, Toonoo has broken away from the traditional subjects often understood to be the only content for ‘Inuit Art’ in southern Canada, in order to create highly personal works that interpret and represent the world he knows. In the sculptures included here, Toonoo uses antler to represent the white face of the priest in Priest (2007). In the elegant Transformation (2011) he tackles the traditional theme of spiritual transformation, changing it into a hoodie-wearing youth with the head of a bear, held high, struggling and twisting to sniff the air. Traditional black serpentine is used to recreate the priest’s robe as well as the black hoodie popular with young people everywhere, evidence of the influence of the south on the north. In Suicide (2005), his sculpture addresses the despair that continues to plague the youth of the Canadian north. Toonoo has described his work as a release of the “stuff in his head,”2 that ‘stuff’ that affords the work its desolate, nightmarish quality.


Doris McCarthy solved the dilemma by painting them as abstractions, as fantasies. In her series of Iceberg Fantasy paintings, she applied thin washes of blues and whites, creating an ethereal translucence. In Iceberg Fantasy #19 (1974) the abstract blue and white bands wrapping the structures are offset by the smooth oval discs of islets in the water. In Iceberg with Icicles (2000), they are both translucent and massive at the same time—dreamlike structures that rise up out of the water on ballerina tippy toes. Iceberg with Hole and Northern Lights was painted following McCarthy’s last trip to the Arctic in 2004. Her palette and the pointed, coloured cones of the aurora borealis make this the most ‘contemporary’ of her works included in the exhibition.


The inspiration for Colette Laliberté’s Le Voyage (Time/Spaces) (2013) began with an Arctic circumnavigation residency on the Akademik Shokalsky in 2008. Eighteen scientists, artists, students and climate change researchers from five countries set sail from Reykjavik across the Denmark Strait, to the southern tip of Greenland. There the ship stopped at the foot of a glacier, where the dramatic coloration of the drifting mass of ice would transform Laliberté’s understanding of light, space, time and colour.

In Banff, Laliberté observed the reflection of changing light on the Rocky Mountains. In rural France, it was the potent phenomenon of sunlight streaming through stained glass windows of churches, projecting intense colour onto walls and floors, that inspired her to translate the witnessing of that ice mountain drifting down the southwest coast of Greenland into a new format. Digital animation enables her to present space as a fleeting moment. The planes of vivid colours of Le Voyage collide, overlap and change, conveying the true changeling aspect of the iceberg. As with McCarthy’s Iceberg Fantasy series, Laliberté’s animation—with its ‘fantasy palette’—creates an effect that captures the translucence of the shifting form of a wondrous, solid ice mass.


David Clarkson participated in the Shorefast Foundation Residency on Fogo Island, Newfoundlandin 2011. His two paintings Painting after Icebergs (2012) and Painting of an Iceberg after Lawren Harris (2012), deconstruct the iceberg into its constituent planes and angles, cutting and chipping away like a jeweler with a diamond. Clarkson’s icebergs share qualities of Lawren Harris’ abstract work from the 1930s. Harris used the same colour palette of his earlier landscapes, but in their pure states. In Harris’ Painting No.4. (1939, Art Gallery of Ontario), the mountain is broken down into abstract diamond shapes, revealing its essence.

Clarkson’s “simulated” landscapes combine manual painting and digital image fragments from a variety of media, presenting the “visible and invisible totality [of the iceberg] as a network of disparate, yet interconnected information.”3 Comic book Ben-Day dots brings to mind Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Clarkson’s paintings acknowledge the Kryptonite facing the iceberg— the precarity of these icy monoliths due to climate change.


Alex McLeod translates and creates new landscapes that are both of this world and not. They speak to visual information overload, through a savvy digital mixing of terrains that we have seen in advertising and online thumbnails, but may never experience. These non-existent places can only be known through immersion in McLeod’s no-holds-barred, candy-coloured, fantasy landscapes. His digital works share McCarthy’s strategies for the untranslatable beauty found in nature. As with her Iceberg Fantasy paintings and David Clarkson’s brilliant, refracted diamond icebergs, McLeod’s landscapes express a whirlwind of visual experience, providing a representation of what we feel that we see.

We’ve never been there, but we know it. In the black Op Art cloud hovering above the mountain covered in dollar store Christmas pines in Rare Lights (2012), an array of shiny white human skulls radiates outwards in halo form. The work relates to Sarah Anne Johnston’s photograph Dark Cloud, not only due to compositional similarities, but in a shared evocation of vague threat. McLeod’s free and exuberant use of colour is exemplified in his Japanese maple dream Rare Woods (2012), paired in the exhibition with McCarthy’s Rhythms of Georgian Bay (1966). It is one in a series of paintings from the 1960s in which McCarthy used an unconventional palette to represent nature in joyful, fluid sweeps of colour.


Angela Leach’s A.R. Wave #96 (2008) takes McCarthy’s hard edge experiments many steps further. From the high energy Abstract Repeat Wave series, Leach paints vibrating waves—of sound, of the ocean, of colour—that shrink and expand in density, the bands of vivid colour snapping energetically in and out of infinity. The painted shadows in the work act as the undulating horizon line. In McCarthy’s Oily Cross Currents (Wave Movement) (1969) a softer palette of blues and greens, and a looser approach, reveal rolling bands of colour that capture the movement of light on water.


Doris McCarthy had her own skating pond in the yard of her home, Fools Paradise, located on the Scarborough Bluffs. Her painting Skating on the Small Pond (1967) depicts the four blues of the ice, and the flow of the skater’s marks carved into its cold surface.

In her series of painted photographs Lac des Arcs (2006), Laura Millard has embellished the traces left by a skater’s loops and swerves. The bright white lines of the circles are over-painted, creating a lyrical line-drawing that records the movement of the body.

As with Sarah Anne Johnson’s works from the Arctic Wonderland series, Millard adds watercolour and acrylic ink onto large scale colour photographs. In Snow Blow (2013) and Snow Tree (2013), the images confirm our body memory of walking in the woods in a snowstorm—yet these images are staged, the glorious veils of snow have been tossed up by a snowblower into sunlight, to be captured by the artist’s camera. Millard’s painted marks on the photographs render the snow spray three-dimensional, and more tangible than the photograph alone could provide.


White Pine (2008) by Robert Wiens is one of a series of watercolour paintings that derive from his sojourns in the old growth pine forests of Temagami, Ontario. Wiens speaks of this place as one of “contrasting rhythms and cycles, of death and renewal...”4 His detailed watercolour of the bark of the white pine registers as a colour photograph from across the room, but close-up, more as a rolling, hilly landscape seen from high above. The life-size painting presents the skin of the tree at eye level. For many years Wiens tried to “avoid landscape”, but with these works he looks at landscape in a different and more immediate way.

Three small paintings by McCarthy are shown alongside Wiens’ White Pine. Two are recognizable as the landscape of Ontario: gnarly, upturned roots in a pond, and a row of spruce in the ditch, from the 1950s and the 1970s, respectively. In a painting from 1993 of the bush in the Queen Charlotte Islands, McCarthy adopts both the subject matter and palette of Emily Carr to capture the lush, mossy undergrowth of British Columbia. McCarthy’s bush paintings are studies in form and light, representations and records. Robert Wiens’ landscape is “fraught with competing ideologies and visions, of mineral wealth and timber rights, provincial parks and a native land claim; of tourists, protesters and roadblocks.”5

Included in the exhibition are two items from the Doris McCarthy archival fonds at the University of Toronto Scarborough Library—a pair of McCarthy’s ice skates and faded purple skate guards, still bearing her name and phone number written on a yellowing strip of masking tape, and an archival photograph of Doris sitting in the snow in front of an iceberg in Grise Fiord. In the photo, which looks like graphite drawing, she seems very small and very alone. Her paint box is open before her (a student in the gallery understood the rectangular open lid as a laptop).

Glam North pays tribute to one of Canada’s most renowned landscape painters and to the tenth anniversary of the gallery named for her. The eight contemporary artists in the exhibition use their cameras, their laptops, their paints and stone to create landscapes they have experienced, to represent a life they know intimately, or to fashion mindscapes. Together with the works of Doris McCarthy, the exhibition produces a varied, multidisciplinary interpretation of the concepts of “North,” “Arctic” and “Forest”, shifting our understanding of the “natural” environment in Canada today.