Human Scale: From Cradle to Grave at the National Gallery

Human Scale: From Cradle to Grave featured predominately sculptures from the National Gallery’s permanent collection with a newer addition dropped in. It had that thrown together quality. The works themselves spanned out over the large spaces they barely occupied, sometimes sitting a bit off-centre or slouching against the wall. Mostly nude, hyper-realistic figures, they cast few shadows. There was a grey hospital quality to the whole thing.

It is an exhibit that was clearly there to take up space and time between other things. It was a filler show. But what does this actually suggest? After all, the Gallery has fairly vast vaults of material to select from. Any random curator could have been let loose in there. A hundred different possibilities could have easily been offered. So what does this say, this show of mostly giant humans in a gallery that looks like a cathedral beside an enormous spider? First, it’s relatable. It is the human figure after all. Inflated or deflated to grotesque proportions, the figures have an off-kilter quality, a bit of an edge to go along with their technical splendour. There’s not much to explain. The wall cards certainly don’t bother. This creates a strange quality: transparent, grotesque, familiar. This familiarity not just in the mildly de-familiarization (by scale and proportion) of the figures but in the fact that anyone who attends the gallery regularly would likely have seen them before. Thus, the deja vu is doubled: precisely the kind of banalized strangeness that seems to fit the palate of the Ottawans, like when the first Walmart opened there. All the attributes described in this paragraph could be readily applied to the political culture of the city. In this sense, in all of its mild philistinism, half-assed assemblage and inoffensive suggestion of vague meaningfulness in the pathetic wonder of the human form, it offers a perfect summary for the Gallery’s increasingly unclear mandate to mirror the optics of the highly cosmetic state that runs it.

The familiar-grotesque has been a bit of a theme for the Gallery lately. The recent Monet show displayed his famous, and less renowned, bridge scenes in seclusion from his better known work, all superimposed with photos of the devastation of war. The bridge as an index of decomposition and painting’s mimetic relationship to this could be suggested, not that the curators bothered driving at the point. It was more of a haphazard occasion. Likewise, the Mary Pratt show displayed her images of banality, photo realistically inflated to disorienting proportions, and a little grotesque in its flashes of tinfoil and eviscerated flesh. Slotted into a tiny bleak room, their strangeness was exaggerated. All of this Light Surrealism is, of course, replayed in the building itself with its streamlined Gothic architecture and Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture set to guard it, recapitulating the often-recognized if never explained recurrence of the surreal in Canadian art over the past 70 years.

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