John Armstrong

Up North: A Northern Ontario Tragedy
Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery, Owen Sound, Ontario

In 1993, curator Andrew Hunter placed Tom Thomson’s painting, The Birch Grove, Autumn (1917) along with several Thomson-indebted contemporary artworks, a suspended aluminum boat, and a tasseled and flocked souvenir cushion presenting Canada as idyllic moose country, in a stairwell at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. He titled this exhibition “Tom ( ) Tom.” Hunter’s interest in the reverberations of Thomson’s work found further expression this past summer in an exhibition at the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery in Owen Sound where he pursued Thomson’s mythic presence by way of the worlds of pop culture and fine art into the wilds of the seriously subjective.

With “Up North: A Northern Ontario Tragedy,” auteur-curator Andrew Hunter has assembled a cast of props and artwork (or relics, perhaps) to support his exploration of the intersection of his own life story — in art, hockey and Canadiana — with two mythic deaths: of painter Tom Thomson and Maple Leaf hockey player Bill Barilko. Part “Cat’s Cradle” (Kurt Vonnegut Jr.), part Twin Peaks (David Lynch), “Up North” weaves in the author’s own dreams and builds on arbitrary parallels and chance encounters to create a narrative thread — the story appropriately unravelled in an exhibition-catalogue cum dime-store-thriller. In the gallery, one (strategically?) dog-eared copy of this four-act novelette sits beside a stuffed Canada goose on a 40s hi-fi that belts out 90s recordings by Kingston, Ontario rockers, The Tragically Hip.

Tom Thomson came paddling past
I’m pretty sure it was him.

The Tragically Hip, “Three Pistols” from their album Road Apples (MCA Records Canada, 1991)

Bill Barilko disappeared that summer
he was on a fishing trip.

The Tragically Hip, “Fifty-Mission Cup” from Fully Completely (MCA Records Canada, 1992)

Best for the viewer to sit down in the 1940s easy chair with the carved maple-leaf arm-rests, beside the hi-fi (under a stuffed duck) and pick up the book. Here we meet a younger Hunter coming of age on Voyageur bus rides to hockey games in Northern Ontario, meditating on the model of his hockey-coach father, and his grandfather, known respectively (and coincidentally) as Bill and Tom. Hunter, the story-teller, admits to not realizing the ideal of his father’s past achievements in hockey; as an alternative, he sets off in pursuit of an elusive male ego-ideal, and here fact and fiction begin to melt down. The figure, who is encountered in dreams as a mysterious man in a tweed fedora, also, curiously shows up as an unidentified gent in two photographs taken by Tom Thomson. (Both are reproduced in the exhibition.) In addition to Hunter’s personal spirit-chasing, the novelette also contains his representations of the lives and mysterious deaths of the two larger-than-life Canadian icons.

Hockey player, Bill Barilko, died in a 1951 plane crash in the bush near Kapuskasing, Ontario and remained undiscovered there until 1962 — the year the Leafs next won the cup. Stacked TV monitors loop a replay of Barilko’s deciding goal in the 1951 Stanley Cup Championship. But the grisly, torn wreckage of an aircraft pontoon, a supergraphic map indicating the crash site and newspaper headlines vinyl-lettered around the gallery walls, define Barilko here.

Markers of Tom Thomson’s 1917 canoeing “accident” also abound: more headlines, another map, an actual cedar-strip canoe and a Thomson sketchbook open to a page depicting two skulls — here again, death’s prosaic account eclipses life’s work. Hunter includes ten of Thomson’s landscape sketches chosen from the permanent collections of the host gallery and the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Hunter seems to have selected the works for their compliance with a romantic image of Thomson — moody autumnal colours, crepuscules and nocturnes — or for Thomson’s trademark interlace screen of branches that finds an echo in a Department of Lands and Forests photograph of the Barilko wreckage site. The bright, less stylized late-Thomsons depicting close-up views of spring thaw on the forest floor (of which the TTMAG has several stunning examples) are not included.

Due to the aura surrounding the chosen landscape sketches — these are the real thing! — the paintings fare somewhat better at calling attention to themselves than the Barilko film clip. But the competition is stiff: many of the paintings are not helped by being hung on another supergraphic (consisting of three coloured horizontal stripes) that doubles as hockey jersey motif and maybe even as the side of a 70s Voyageur bus. In one instance, the close-valued ochres and plums in Thomson’s Cranberry Marsh and Hill (undated) practically disappear into a supergraphic ochre stripe.

Hunter, a veteran of curatorial work in the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the Vancouver Art Gallery and now at the Kamloops Art Gallery, undoubtedly knows how to sensitively foreground cultural artifacts; but it is the maintenance of posthumous myth that concerns him here. If the paintings and video clips register rather faintly in the rec room gloom, the mythic spectres of a collective and personal consciousness are subtly spot-lit: in the half-light, the ghostlike bear cubs of Toronto sculptor Carl Skelton appear to emerge from wall and floor; the smallest version has fish hooks mounted on its feet to facilitate a scritching descent down a wall. Skelton’s auto-body-filler sculptures look like sabotaged maquettes for tourist-trinket Kermode bears from BC. The cubs are a peek-a-boo chorus to two central figures consisting of suspended hockey jerseys and socks. The socks, which sport birch bark patterning were knit by Hunter’s mother, Anne Hunter. Above the socks are the sweaters — made by his partner, Lisa Hunter — featuring a variation on a maple leaf design painted by Thomson on a ceramic bowl; on the back of one jersey is sewn “Barilko,” on the other, “Thomson.” Behind the duo, Thomson’s painted bowl sits atop a Sonotube base, recreating the Stanley Cup. Hunter has created a trinity of idols, a syncretistic altar at which two (now decidedly pop) Canadian cultural icons find a disquieting marriage.

The carefully crafted reconstitution of our two heroes, in impeccably cut-and-sewn insignia and knitted wool, is a far cry from the rows of cellophaned flowers and handwritten testimonials outside buildings associated with Princess Diana in the days following her death. And yet in Hunter’s gesture there is, similarly, something of the bizarre ritual that accompanies heart-felt identification with and projection onto suddenly absent exemplars. As Roland Barthes suggests, myth reflects not back to its source, but outwards into representations that can encapsulate a new set of signs and a language particular to myth itself. With winking humour, Hunter attempts to recuperate adolescent fervour for his own evanescent, Ontario-centric models: a man with a brush and a paddle (like the group of seven men with brushes and paddles, soon to follow) and another with a stick (like his five teammates and ill-fated pilot).

Hunter’s installation is cast in a boy-scout earnestness that invokes death with trade-show gloss and campy Bob-and-Doug-Mackenzie bric-a-brac. If all this self-consciousness makes you squeamish, it has perhaps worked its sly magic. If we stay with Hunter through his autobiographical (even confessional) text, we may come across the embarrassed vulnerabilities of our own childhood hero-worship — which given our endless fascination with spectacle and tabloid disclosure may not be so distant. In the story, Hunter never does catch up to the man in the tweed fedora — and this is not the way most paperback thrillers arrive at closure. Like the novelette, this tenebrous installation is made up of what appears to be parts of half-remembered stories — dimly lit artworks and found objects, flickering videos — that when juxtaposed suggest how myth’s unlikely ingredients work to recuperate loss. And what of Hunter? Art reviews, like hockey, anticipate a definitive judgment: Hunter’s inner boy wins in the end.

“Up North,” initiated by the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery, Owen Sound, Ontario, will travel to the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton, Ontario and the Kamloops Art Gallery in British Columbia. Andrew Hunter’s novel-catalogue text is on the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery Web site. To view it go to:

“Andrew Hunter: A Rec Room Requiem.” C International Contemporary Art 56, November 1997 - January 1998