At the end of a large retrospective dedicated to Saulteaux artist Robert Houle at the Art Gallery of Ontario, is a small but seminal painting. Red is beautiful was the first work Houle ever sold to a museum – now the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. The AGO borrowed the piece itself for display and took its title as the name of this exhibition.
Showing a series of flat-topped concentric pyramid shapes in varying shades of red and pink, the 1970 painting could be read as a small example of the color field or geometric abstraction of the era. During his travels in Europe, Houle was inspired by the grids of the Dutch abstractionist Piet Mondrian. He had also discovered the American colourist Barnett Newman and had surely seen the work of Jack Bush in Canada.
And yet, already in Houle’s art, there was a feeling that his point was different – that there was an element of symbolism in his abstraction, and that he was looking for something more direct than Newman’s spiritualism. and more witty than Bush’s formalism. Indeed, there is another early work nearby that makes Houle’s interests explicit: Ojibway Pattern, # 2, Purple Leaves Series, from 1972, features a column created by alternating chevrons, or arrowheads, in different shades of lilac. The artist was looking for a vocabulary that would unite in a way modernist abstraction with a sacred geometry inspired by his own culture.
Standing near these paintings at a recent media event, Houle described himself as being committed to biculturalism (he grew up in Sandy Lake First Nation in Manitoba, where he was educated in Catholic residential schools, and the ancestry of both parents is Saulteaux and French). The retrospective is a great testimony to this. His long career has been devoted to the incorporation and criticism of Western art into a practice devoted to Indigenous themes. During the 1980s and 1990s he added photographs, text, and figurative elements to make his case, but never lost a colourist’s love for pure painting.
In 1992, in Kanata, perhaps his best-known painting, on loan here from the National Gallery of Canada, he revisits the work of Benjamin West The death of General Wolfe. Houle makes all Europeans disappear from the famous history picture in a monotonous beige grisaille, while a thoughtful brave man with his red feather and blue loincloth indicates Aboriginal centrality in Canadian history. The image is flanked, like the Canadian flag, by bands of color: a rich, saturated blue for the French and an intense, brilliant red for the British. Beyond the political symbolism, there is also a lot of power in this painting.
In a more personal way mixture of the abstract and the figurative in Sand bay, from 1998-99, Houle faced the boarding school where he spent every day of the week of his elementary years, able to see his house through his windows but forbidden to speak his language with his peers or his own sister. (Weekend visits and a strong family kept her connection to her culture alive.) The artwork includes a ghostly photo-based painting of the school and two actual photographs of the local priest and children, as well as two colored panels that contradict the realism of the school. panel with an evocative indigenous abstraction. In the largest of the panels, Houle uses the parflèche motif – a rawhide bag, often decorated with feathers – which recurs in his work.
In 1983, in Parfleches for the Last Supper, he made 13 small paintings, one for Jesus and each of the disciples, in which he inserted feathers directly into the paper. The parfleche is a fascinating motif because it plays so effectively on the tension between the flat, abstract paintings that Houle echoes and the traditional container, which is said to contain three-dimensional content.
Houle appears in this exhibition, curated by AGO Curator of Indigenous Art, Wanda Nanibush, as a central figure in both the advancement of Canadian abstraction and the pioneer of new contemporary Indigenous art. . In the exhibition catalog, there is a photograph of Houle in 1978 meeting Norval Morrisseau, whose invention of a distinct Indigenous iconography inspired the young man. by Houle his own work would be so to advance Indigenous art through a generation by effectively incorporating contemporary styles and approaches. Today, the careers of Kent Monkman or Brian Jungen, both artists of Aboriginal heritage and mixed settlers, would be unthinkable without Houle’s unprecedented work.
By claiming land rights or denouncing historical betrayals, the work often becomes didactic. For example, collages using Maclean’s magazine covers from the Oka Crisis seem too literal to have much impact. In the multimedia room from 2007 Do not open until you get home, Houle uses a newspaper clipping and video to compare the introduction of smallpox to North America by Europeans in the 18th century with the US decision in 1999 to keep small samples of the deadly virus. Here he literally highlights the words of a historic letter from a British officer, which suggests that First Nations resistance fighters led by Pontiac are receiving poisoned blankets.
And yet, this kind of open and informational approach is often saved by Houle’s formalism. Do not open … is displayed next Palisade, a more subtle reference to the eight British forts that Pontiac successfully attacked in 1763 – a move that forced the British to recognize Indigenous rights. Eight large vertical wood panels are painted in different shades of green. It has been said that Pontiac gave the signal to attack by flipping the wampum belt to show its green underside.
This tension between symbolism and formalism powerfully runs through Houle’s work, and sometimes he only has to laugh about it himself. A series of works intended to reclaim the Pontiac name from the General Motors automobile brand include an actual 1947 Pontiac Convertible in Daffodil Yellow (on loan from Winnipeg collector Norm Dumontier). It’s a magnificent piece of industrial design, counterbalanced by a mighty red wall on which is inscribed Pontiac’s promise: I will stand in your way until dawn.
Should we read Pontiac’s words as a threat to enemies, or as a simple declaration of endurance? Houle speaks of the past and present, of Turtle Island and North America, of Indigenous cultures and settlers as they present themselves today: imperfectly reconciled but actively bicultural.
He is 74 years old and, like Pontiac, his art does not go away. The most recent work in this exhibition dates from 2021.
Red is Beautiful runs through April 17 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It will be on tour at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and Contemporary Calgary in 2022 and in 2023 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.