Contemporary Canadian Artists You Need to Know
Marked by thousands of years of habitation by First Nations Peoples and waves of immigration, art in Canada has always reflected these diverse origins and traditions that these Canadian artists originating from various parts of the world brought and adapted them to reflect their new lives in Canada. The Group of Seven is often considered as the first uniquely Canadian artistic group and style of painting. Existing from 1920 to 1933 and initiating the first major Canadian national artistic movement, the group consisted of seven infamous painters inspired by the Canadian landscape who believed that a distinctly Canadian art could be developed through direct contact with nature. In the beginning of the 20th century, artist such as Kathleen Munn and Bertram Brooker first started experimenting with abstract or non-objective arts in Canada. They have influenced generations of abstract artists that proliferated after the World War II. Since the 1930s, Canadian painters have developed a wide range of highly individual styles and involved themselves in various modernist movements.
From the 1960s, Canadian artistic practice was influenced by several important local developments that nurtured a dialogue with international trends. Through various teaching and exchange programs, the younger generation of Canadian artists was introduced to conceptual art. As traditional artistic forms were discarded, contemporary Canadian artists tested the limits of art through exploration of the link between means and ends, blurring the lines between art and ‘reality’ and redefining the artistic object in its aesthetics, social and economic contexts. The artistic practice in Canada was influenced by various trends such as the developments in computer technology, new ideas in social sciences, philosophy and linguistics, and various international ideas about art coming largely from the US, but also Europe.
Today, the Canadian artistic scene is remarkably dynamic and vibrant. Engaging with the larger social and political context, contemporary artists continue to explore interdisciplinary modes of self-expression that exceed traditional categories, materials, and genres of art. There are hundreds of galleries, museums and artistic spaces across Canada such as Urban Gallery in Toronto, Bonded Services in St. Etobicoke, Centre A in Vancouver, Narwhal Contemporary in Toronto, Galerie Factory in Quebec and many more. There are numerous annual art festivals and fairs such as the Artist Project in Toronto, Art!Vancouver in Vancouver, Feature Art Fair in Toronto, and many others. With a diverse set of practices, Canadian artists are majorly influencing the global scene and market.
Our list is comprised of contemporary Canadian artists that are widely appreciated in the international scene, but also the 20th-century ones that have significantly marked our times.
Rodney Graham - The Multimedia Artist
Associated with the Vancouver School, Rodney Graham is a versatile artist from Vancouver working in various fields such as photography, film, music, performance, and painting. His multimedia works often incorporate historical, philosophic, literary or cinematic allusions and puns from Lewis Caroll and Sigmund Freud to Kurt Cobain. In his short films, he plays performs various narratives and plays various characters and such as a young sailor under a coconut tree, a cowboy or a castaway. All of these characters are engaged in endless loops of activities. In 1979, he installed a giant pinhole camera was installed in front of twelve different trees for one month and invited the public to enter the camera and view those trees upside down on the back of the camera. During his career, Graham produced several works on this theme.
Jeff Wall - The Pioneer of 'Non-Photography'
Jeff Wall is a Canadian photographer who is best known for his large-scale back-lit cibachrome photographs, as well as for his cinematographic approach to constructing images. Seemingly, his photographs capture people engaged in everyday life but are actually staged to refer to the history of art and philosophical problems of representation. His best-known work involves constructing complex mis-en-scenes that are photographed and displayed in wall-mounted lightboxes. Unlike many other artists, Wall believed that post-Renaissance painting could be integrated into Contemporary Art. Thus, he often borrows compositional elements and relationships from these masterpieces updating the photograph with subjects from modern life. As he states himself, he wants to exaggerate the artificial aspect of his work to create a distance from the dominant context of reportage.
Philip Guston - The Master of Cartoon Realism
The Canadian painter Philip Guston is best known for his unique and influential style of cartoon realism. Influenced by Italian Renaissance art, but also contemporary cities and worldly conflicts, he first started painting large-scale murals depicting fantastic scenes and monumental figures. His later abstract works are characterized by blocks and masses of gestural strokes and marks of color floating within the picture plane. These works were imbued with a light touch and shimmering abstractions of hovering forms. In 1960s, he developed his unique cartoon-styled realism that often resembles fearful urban worlds of racism and violence. Throughout these later works, he created a personal iconography consisted of recurrent abstracted motifs, such as hooded heads and shoe soles.
Janet Cardiff - The Sound Artist
Janet Cardiff is an artist who is mainly focused on sound, sound installations, and audio walks. She works in collaboration with her husband and partner George Bures Miller. Their multimedia works create transcendent multisensory experiences that take the viewer into often unsettling narratives. Their breakthrough piece was The Dark Pool from 1995 when they created a room full of bric-a-bric that made noises as viewers passed by and interacted with it. Through their later works, they confront viewers with the uncanny through ambiguous objects and fractured narratives. Installed in various spaces, her solo work The Forty Part Motet from 2001 involves a circle of 40 speakers each playing a member of a choir singing Thomas Tallis’ piece Spem in alium from 1573. She often creates site-specific audio walks with suggestive narratives.
Jean-Paul Riopelle - The Abstract Expressionist
As the only Canadian artist involved with the seminal post-World War II School of Paris, Jean-Paul Riopelle became the first Canadian painter to attain widespread international recognition. His Abstract Expressionist paintings are characterized by the use of paint squeezed straight from the tube that was freely applied in thick demonstrative strokes by a palette knife. He used various techniques such as gouache, watercolour, and ink, but he also experimented with bronze sculpture. In the 1960s, he started to incorporate representational elements into his works that were later described as ‘abstract landscapism’. During his final period, Riopelle stopped using palette knives in favor of spray cans. This late style where he mastered the new technique inspired by urban graffiti could be seen in his piece Hommage à Rosa Luxemburg created after he has heard of the death of Joan Mitchell in 1992.
Evan Penny - The Hyperrealist Sculptor
Evan Penny is a South African-born sculptor living in Canada, widely known for his works that range from the almost precisely lifelike, hyperrealist sculptures, to the ones distorted or stretched. His perfect or overextended human forms are created out of silicone, pigment, hair and aluminum. These lifelike figures test the limits of human optics through the experimentation with depth, scale, blurring and other phenomena. He rose to prominence in the 1980s with his hyperrealist renderings of life models created in resin with stunning accuracy. For his remarkable skill, he has worked for a while in the special-effects department on Hollywood movies. He has also experimented with abstraction but soon after he has returned to figuration questioning our perception of ourselves and nature through digital rendering.
Agnes Martin - The Minimalist
A Canadian- born artist with the remarkable conviction of the emotive and expressive power, Agnes Martin is best known for her suggestive paintings characterized by pale colour washes and subtle pencil lines. Seeking the inspiration in the spiritual realm, she believed that art can be created without the awareness of beauty, happiness and innocence. Her legacy of abstraction consisted of the limited palette and geometric vocabulary has inspired generations of artists. With paintings inscribed with lines or grids hovering over subtle grounds of colour, she explored metaphysics and internal emotional states. In her late works, she started incorporating familiar shapes of trapezoids and triangles. Although diagnosed with schizophrenia and living a life of solitude, she has managed to become widely celebrated and highly influential artist.
Marcel Barbeau - Exploring the Colour and Form
With a career spanning over seven decades, the artist Marcel Barbeau was one of the first non-figurative painters in Canada. He was an original signatory of the Refus global manifesto in 1948 that called for liberation from typical Quebec values of the time. In addition to painting, he was also involved with sound and public art. Always responding to his creative impulse and a need to exceeds the limits of a given form, he has taken his work into a variety of directions. He was initially involved with the Automatiste movement based on the French Surrealist idea of taking inspiration from the subconscious mind. His early ‘allover’ paintings were characterized by gestural strokes and spontaneous squirts and drips of paint. Eventually, he destroyed these works. In his later works, he started focusing on using pure colours and altering the viewer’s optical perception.
Larry Towell - The Influential Documentary Photographer
One of the greatest photographers of all times, Larry Towell creates works imbued with visual poetry. Focused only on black and white photography, his camera has immortalized emotions, people, stories and conflicts all around the world in a unique and candid way. In the 1980s, he joined Magnum, the world’s most prestigious photo agency, and he describes this decision as life-changing. Working in a number of war torn and conflicted areas all around the world, his career took him to Palestine, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Afghanistan. His experiences with poetry and folk fiction have largely influenced his photographic style. Each of his photographs is followed by a short description of the moment captured. He is often involved in several long-term projects at the same time – projects that would even last several years.
Featured images: Larry Towell; Larry Towell – Daily Life, 1993, via worldpressphoto.org
Yousuf Karsh - The Master of Portrait Photography
The Armenian-Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh is now considered to be one of the greatest portrait photographers of the twentieth century widely famous for his distinct style and theatrical lighting. His rich oeuvre consists of statesmen, artists, musicians, authors, scientists and various men and women who have marked our times with their accomplishments. Characterized by a stunning mastering of technique, his photographs present an intimate and compassionate view of humanity. His infamous photograph of Winston Churchill was the one that has launched his remarkable career. Karsh approached all his subject in the same way, and he preferred to capture them in their own environments after spending some time with them to know them better. His camera has immortalized legends such as Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Audrey Hepburn, Walt Disney, Mother Theresa, among others.