In 1979 the American Conceptual artist Michael Asher moved a bronze statue of George Washington by the 18th century French artist Jean-Antoine Houdon from its plinth outside the Art Institute of Chicago inside the museum. It was reinstalled in the centre of a gallery exhibiting 18th century art and furniture. This gesture, at least according to critic Benjamin Buchloh, was an example of the “conclusion of modernist sculpture.”
Well, I’m not so sure about the concluding part – Modernism, in sculpture or otherwise, hasn’t gone away despite being superceded by ‘postmodernism.’ But Asher’s sculptural gesture was weighty, even monumental, in its impact on the conversation around the place for art. Modernist art, it can be said, presupposes the gallery or museum – it is made for the context of the ‘white cube.’ Postmodern art is also often made with the conditions of its display in mind. Postmodernism bites the hand that feeds it. It is critical of the gallery system and tries to de-construct the conditions that make the system, and the art within it, possible. French Conceptual artist Daniel Buren called the gallery/museum, “the inescapable ‘support’ on which art history is painted.” Since the late 1960s, at least, the gallery/museum has been both container and content for much postmodern art. Closer to home (although Buchloh was editor of the NSCAD Press and published books by Asher and Buren who were guest artists at NSCAD), Marie Josée Lafortune in her exhibition Happy Days turned the British galleries of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery into the site for her own conceptual intervention into art history’s “inescapable support.”
Janice Wright Cheney, who recently completed a residency at the Beaverbrook, is no stranger to intervening artistically into the contested sites of the art gallery and museum. In 2010 she exhibited Trespass at the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John, a project where she put her sculptures in and among the museum’s natural and material history displays, and this summer her work is occupying the International / European galleries at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.
Rewild features sculptural representations of common animals to the Maritimes: rats, raccoons, and an Eastern coyote, or Coywolf. What is less common, however, is their close proximity to the Beaverbrook’s spectacular collection of European high art. A coywolf, for instance, decked out in a veil and jewels, delicately lifts its paw, seemingly mimicking the stance of a hunting dog in a baroque tapestry. Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Lord Beaverbrook looks down on a rat, made from a discarded fur coat and featuring a brown felted tail, which hugs the wall in fealty to the habits of the real thing. Another rat, startling white with a bright pink tail (an escapee from a laboratory somewhere?) sits below a Sir Joshua Reynolds allegorical portrait of a woman in a flowing white gown. A gaudily attired fox holds a rat in its jaws beneath another Sutherland portrait, this time of the fashion icon and cosmetics queen, Helena Rubinstein. Just which looks more formidable – the fox or the grande dame, is for the viewer to decide.
Wright Cheney explains that “rewilding” is “a progressive approach to conservation where nature takes care of itself, with little or no human intervention.” It is “a call for nature to resume a wilder state – unmanaged and unfettered.” It is hard to imagine a space more managed or fettered than an art museum filled with priceless treasures, an apparent contradiction that the artist plays up with gusto.
Her intervention is both playful and serious, coy and critical – it’s all in how you choose to interpret it. In an artist talk at the gallery she described her project as “a symbolic rewilding,” one that suggests “a bit of wildness, a bit of chaos in a curated space.” The suggested chaos of this rewilding animates the permanent collections galleries in unexpected ways. For visitors to the BAG in the summer of 2019, her “rewilding” ensures that the experience is more than a familiar glimpse at old favourites. Her work sparks delight and surprise and leads to conversations. It shows both its own impact, but perhaps even more importantly, it shows how much life is still to be found in the “treasures” that populate these galleries. Art is a conversation, and by engaging directly with the collection, Wright Cheney shows us how that conversation works, how art speaks across the years, decades and centuries, and how a little wildness remains even in the most familiar old favourites.
All photographs by Jeff Crawford