The gift of artistic diversity

An exhibit at the AEAC is attention-grabbing for a variety of tastes

As someone without much Canadian art background, A Canadian Collection: The Soloway Gift was a welcome introduction.

The exhibit was inspired by Ruth Soloway’s impressive 2012 donation, which included 61 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints. While not all of these artworks are on display, the selected pieces successfully illustrate a wide spectrum of 19th- and 20th-century Canadian art.

Something is bound to grab your attention no matter what your artistic taste may be – from Tony Scherman’s bold, flashy, colour-splashed bowl of fruit to Frederick Arthur Verner’s detailed, soft, naturalistic scene.

The exhibit begins with more realistic works of art and moves towards an increasingly abstract quality. It’s precisely this diversity that makes the exhibit so enjoyable.

Soloway’s previously private collection also includes canonical names such as Emily Carr and David Milne. While these names certainly stand out, I didn’t find their artwork as captivating as the others.

Jean Paul Lemieux’s Le Beau Monde was one such piece. Not only does the painting’s location on the back left wall of the Historical Feature Gallery demand attention, but the scarlet red dress of the woman on the right draws the eye.

The title, meaning “beautiful world,” reflects the appeal of the work. Overall, it’s visually pleasing — but then it dawned on me.

The elderly, corpse-like woman in the background suddenly appeared. She stares out with grey skin and sunken eyes. In fact, most of the figures seem somewhat lifeless. This sort of detail could almost go unnoticed considering the relatively large size of this exhibit.

Under a bit of scrutiny, Lemieux’s figures’ isolation amongst the crowd became apparent. The painting is filled with well-dressed people, perhaps at a gala, yet a sense of quietude permeates the work. The figures’ mouths are closed, noses in the air. This stillness emphasizes the deadened atmosphere.

Another piece that caught my attention was Kosso Eloul’s metal sculpture Eternal Flame. Eloul has several outdoor sculptures in Kingston: the most recognizable being the large waterfront piece, Time.

The small metalwork is mounted on a pedestal in the R. Fraser Elliott Gallery. Eternal Flame consists of three rectangular prisms placed on top of each other, forming a geometrically abstract flame — one that will never extinguish.

I appreciated the local connection this sculpture offered, but the simplicity and the perpetuity of the work is what attracted me to it.

Various other pieces are just as noteworthy.

Jean-Paul Riopelle’s Montmartre, reminiscent of American painter Jackson Pollock’s work stood out, as did Maxwell Bennett Bates’s Beach. Riopelle’s painting is a thickly textured splattering of funereal colour while Bates’s depicts smeared, faceless figures at the beach.

Both the chronological breadth as well as the stylistic range this exhibit encompasses is what made it universally engaging.

A Canadian Collection: The Soloway Gift will be on exhibit until April 20, 2014 at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. A reception will be held Oct. 4, 2013 from 5-7 p.m.

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