Baring Canada’s unmentionable art

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Though it hasn&rsquo;t been the Children&rsquo;s Museum in years, downtown Kitchener&rsquo;s Themuseum still plays host to seemingly thousands of kids every day, all playing with duplo, in awe of the museum&rsquo;s current dinosaur exhibit, or beating the snot out of each other with foam blocks. Upstairs, Themuseum&rsquo;s gallery space is bringing in a different type of visitor; with over 100 nude or partially nude works from the Canada Council Art Bank for art enthusiasts to view.</p>

The exhibit, called Getting Naked, showcases a variety of works from Canadian artists that have rarely been seen by the public. Most of them have stayed hidden among the collections of the Canada Council for the Arts, which rents Canadian art out to public and private organizations. The art bank, which houses upwards of 17,000 pieces, has more than 2,000 works with some element of nudity. Those pieces are rarely loaned out, as banks, doctors’ offices, and the like are reluctant to hang them on their walls.

The goals of the exhibit are to make these long-forgotten works available to the public, generate interest in renting out the works, and to help enhance the dialogue about nudity and representations of the body in Canadian society. 

The gallery has a number of notices up reminding patrons that they can contact Themuseum for help in renting any of the art on display. A series of Naked Dialogues from March to early May will include a variety of activities like a nude drawing workshop, a naked visit to the gallery, documentaries, panels, and lectures. Topics like nudity and censorship in film, the lives of nude models, an art history of reclining nudes, and nudism/naturalism will be addressed.

“Our CEO David Marskell was talking with [Getting Naked curator Virginia Eichorn] about [the art bank] and she was talking about how there are a lot of pieces that haven’t been seen because of the fact that there are nude bodies in them,” said Themuseum’s Kelly Hornung. “That sparked the idea of why Canadians are okay with seeing a nude person on a TV show or in a magazine but considering it as artwork to hang on the wall is not always okay.”

The exhibit itself was sizeable, with five large rooms, each loosely connecting to a period of time. The final room of the exhibit featured works not from the art bank, but from the Tom Thomson Art Gallery of Owen Sound, all brought in by Eichorn, who is director and chief curator of that gallery. Outside of nudity, the pieces do not have an overarching theme or similarity in style or execution. There were paintings and drawings, photography and lithography, carvings and sculptures. Some pieces were overtly political, others were more academic treatments. There were highly sexual pieces, as well as works that stripped bodies of any sensuality. Some featured nudity prominently, in contrast to many pieces, which left it as an afterthought.

While the majority of pieces were all rather interesting, a number of them seemed to attract substantial attention. Betram Brooker’s Endless Dawn featured a somewhat abstracted couple looking over a beautiful, Lawner Harris-like mountainscape. A massive linen tapestry displayed Natalka Husar’s Odalisque-at-Heart of an older woman living out an orientalist fantasy in a hotel room. Some pieces, like Thomas Corriveau’s Mireille (a collage made at least partially with lingerie catalogue cut-outs) took a while to see and understand the greater shape and character of the piece — in this case a cartoony face of a young woman.

The exhibition featured works from esteemed members of the “Indian Group of Seven” Daphne Odjig and Norval Morrisseau, both representing human-animal duality in mythology. There were playful works, like John Greer’s Detail of Adam and Eve (can’t very well be called Naval Disarmament), which featured a male and female torso without belly buttons on an ocean background. There were also pieces that could be called disturbing, like Frank Nulf’s Sutured Forms with Bolt, which featured flesh stitched around nuts and bolts in some potent phallic imagery, or Mark Prent’s rather horrifying Thawing Out of a man’s frozen naked body in a freezer. The majority of the exhibit was far less shocking than that.

It was well attended, even on an early Wednesday afternoon. All ages were welcome, and some parents did visit with young children, who, if they paid attention to the art at all, weren’t scandalized. Apparently children were rather fond of Tom Henderson’s Untitled, a large wooden penis sculpture with legs, and several of them hugged it.

The exhibit opened March 7 and will stay open into May.