Robert Houle. Paris/Ojibwa, 2009-2010

Robert Houle. Paris/Ojibwa, 2009-2010. Multi-media installation: painted plywood, 4 panels oil on canvas, video projection and sound component, Installed: 358 × 488 × 488 cm. Gift of Robert Houle, 2020. © Robert Houle 2020/3

Robert Houle: Red is Beautiful

December 3, 2021 - April 3, 2022

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EXHIBITION OVERVIEW

Robert Houle is one of most influential First Nations artists to break into the contemporary art world. His work blends abstraction, modernism and conceptualism with First Nations aesthetics and histories. Houle went from residential school to art school to museum boardrooms and on to the art world stage as an artist, curator and writer.

Robert Houle: Red is Beautiful consists of over 90 large installations, paintings and drawings created between 1970 and 2021. Themes in the exhibition include Sacred Geometry, The Spiritual Legacy of the Ancient Ones, Beyond History Painting, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, Residential School Years, and Sovereignty.

Houle is a colorist working in oil and has painted an impressive body of work that challenges our understanding of Western and First Nations art history.

Works from 1970 to 1983 are marked by his exploration of abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Jasper Johns and the pure abstraction and geometry of Mondrian and Malevich. Houle brings an older Indigenous abstract tradition to this history and, in the meeting of the two, he emerges as a new voice in modern abstraction that values immediacy, gesture, the spiritual qualities of colour, piercing the canvas with organic materials, Anishinaabe geometry and Indigenous sacred belongings.

This exhibition shows iconic works, such as Kanata, a reworking of Benjamin West's The Death of General Wolfe, and Parfleches for the Last Supper, addressing his respect for Indigenous spiritual traditions. 

Houle’s large-scale paintings and installations challenge commercial appropriation of First Nation names like Pontiac and Apache and bring Indigenous land rights to the forefront for the public. Houle's work also address major resistance movements, in Kahnesatake X, and global topics like war and nuclear fallout, in Zero Hour.

As a curator, his first exhibitions began a brand new discourse on contemporary First Nations art. His work challenged audience expectations of what First Nations art looked like. Houle stayed independent from the trends and stereotypical cultural performances of the day. 

Bravely, Houle also brought the residential schools era into sharp relief. His work Sandy Bay (1998-99) dealt with his own experience of being torn from his home. Later, in 2009, he began to deal with his memories of abuse in the school through a series of visceral drawings and paintings. Houle turns to the spiritual power of the ancient ones providing a new vision for an Indigenous future that holds the complexity of contemporary First Nations identity in its grasp. 

This exhibition is a walk through fifty years of what matters to First Nations and Settler relations today with an artist who was always ahead of time.


ABOUT THE ARTIST

From growing up in Sandy Bay First Nation (Kaa-wii-kwe-tawang-kak) and attending residential school to pursuing extensive academic studies and becoming an internationally recognized artist, Robert Houle (b. 1947) has played a pivotal role in bridging the gap between contemporary Indigenous art and the Canadian art scene. As an artist, curator, writer, educator and critic, he has created change in museums and public art galleries, initiating critical discussions about the history and representation of Indigenous peoples. As a contemporary Anishnabe artist, he has played a significant role in retaining and defining First Nations identity and has drawn on Western art conventions to tackle lingering aspects of colonization and its postcolonial aftermath.  Relying on the objectivity of modernity and the subjectivity of postmodernity, he brings Aboriginal history into his work through the interrogation of text and photographic documents from the dominant society.

Robert Houle - About the Artist

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Houle studied art history at the University of Manitoba, art education at McGill University, and painting and drawing at the International Summer Academy of Fine Arts in Salzburg, Austria; he has been exhibiting since the early 1970s.  His most recent exhibition, Robert Houle: Histories, recently closed at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Among his many solo exhibitions are Lost Tribes, at Hood College, Maryland; Indians from A to Z and Sovereignty over Subjectivity, at the Winnipeg Art Gallery; Palisade, at the Carleton University Art Gallery, Ottawa; Anishinaabe  Walker Court, an intervention at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Paris/Ojibwa, at the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris, Peterborough and Windsor; Shaman Dream in Colour, at the Kinsman Robinson Galleries in Toronto; Looking for the Shaman, at the John B. Aird Gallery in Toronto; and Robert Houle: Pahgedenaun, at the Carleton University Art Gallery in Ottawa.

He has also participated in several important international group exhibitions, including Recent Generations: Native American Art from 1950 to 1987, at the Heard Museum, Phoenix; Traveling Theory, at the Jordan National Gallery, Amman, Jordan; Notions of Conflict, at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Real Fictions: Four Canadian Artists, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia; Tout le temps/Every Time, at the Montreal Biennale 2000; We Come in Peace...: Histories of the Americas, at the Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal; Sakahàn at the National Gallery of Canada; Before and After the Horizon: Anishinaabe  Artists of the Great Lakes at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto; and Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries, 1971 – 1989 and  Every, Now, Then: Reframing Nationhood, both at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Houle was curator of contemporary aboriginal art at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, now the Canadian Museum of History, from 1977 to 1981 and has curated or co-curated groundbreaking exhibitions such as New Work by a New Generation, in connection with the World Assembly of First Nations at the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina in 1982, and Land Spirit Power: First Nations at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa during the Columbus Quincentennial.

As a writer, Houle has written many essays and monographs on contemporary First Nations and Native American artists, including Jackson Beardy, Rebecca Belmore, Bonnie Devine, Robert Davidson, Jeffrey Gibson, Faye HeavyShield, Alex Janvier, Norval Morrisseau, Nadia Myre, Daphne Odjig, Alanis Obomsawin, Arthur Shilling, Greg Staats and Kay WalkingStick, among others. He also taught Native studies at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto for close to 20 years, mentoring a new generation of artists and curators.

Houle's considerable influence as an artist, curator, writer, educator and cultural theorist has led to his being awarded the Janet Braide Memorial Award for Excellence in Canadian Art History in 1993; the 2001 Toronto Arts Award for the Visual Arts; the Eiteljorg Fellowship in 2003; membership in the Royal Canadian Academy; distinguished Alumnus, University of Manitoba; honourary doctorates from the University of Manitoba and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology; the Canada Council International Residency Program for the Visual Arts in Paris; the Governor General’s Award in the Visual and Media Arts in 2015 and most recently, the 2020 Founder’s Achievement Award from the Toronto Friends of the Visual Arts.  Additionally, Houle has served on various boards and advisory committees including those of The Art Gallery of Ontario, The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, The Aboriginal Curatorial Collective, A Space, The Power Plant and the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto.

ARTWORKS FROM THE EXHIBITION

Robert Houle, Kanata, 1992. Acrylic and conte crayon on canvas.

Robert Houle, Kanata, 1992. Acrylic and conte crayon on canvas, 228.7 x 732 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchased 1994. © Robert Houle.

Robert Houle: Red is Beautiful artwork
Robert Houle, Aboriginal Title

Robert Houle, Aboriginal Title, 1989-90. Oil on canvas, 228 x 167.6 cm. Acquired with the assistance of the Alfred Wavell Peene and Susan Nottle Peene Memorial, 1992. © Robert Houle. Photo: Robert McNair.

Robert Houle: Red is Beautiful artwork
Robert Houle, Sandy Bay, 1998-99. Oil on canvas, black and white photograph and colour photograph on canvas, Masonite, 300 x 548.4 cm.

Robert Houle, Sandy Bay, 1998-99. Oil on canvas, black and white photograph and colour photograph on canvas, Masonite, 300 x 548.4 cm. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Acquired with funds from the President's Appeal 2000 and with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance program/Oeuvre achetée avec l'aide du programme d'aide aux acquisitions du Conseil des Arts du Canada. 2000-87 a-e. © Robert Houle. Photo: Ernest Mayer, courtesy of the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Robert Houle: Red is Beautiful artwork
Robert Houle. The Pines

Robert Houle, The Pines, 20022004. Oil on canvas, panel (centre): 91.4 x 121.9 cm. Panel (side, each of two): 91.4 x 91.4 cm. Gift of Susan Whitney, 2017. © Robert Houle.

Robert Houle: Red is Beautiful artwork
painting by Robert Houle titled In Memoriam, Oil, feathers, leather, ribbon on plywood

Robert Houle. In Memoriam, 1987. Oil, feathers, leather, ribbon on plywood, Overall (framed): 137.2 x 151.9 x 9 cm. Gift of Vanessa, Britney and Nelson Niedzielski, 2000. Robert Houle 2000/1196

Robert Houle: Red is Beautiful artwork
Robert Houle, Red is Beautiful, 1970. Acrylic on canvas.

Robert Houle, Red is Beautiful, 1970. Acrylic on canvas, 45.5 x 61 cm. An exhibition developed with objects on loan from the collection of the Canadian Museum of History. © Robert Houle.

Robert Houle: Red is Beautiful artwork
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