Review by Jennifer Cavanagh
The new Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) is going from strength to strength as the creative hub of switched-on, relevant contemporary art in Ottawa. The dramatic and beautiful interior, the quality and scope of the grand opening weekend (on par with galleries of any major international city), hosts to the vibrant Ottawa Fringe and now unveiling the latest work from iconic author and artist Douglas Coupland The National Portrait.
Coupland has created a garden of delightfully colored sculptures by scanning the heads of random Canadians in nine cities across Canada, including his hometown Vancouver and here in Ottawa. The digital files were 3D printed with the resulting biodegradable plastic casts warped, brightly painted and assembled into a stunning entourage. The massive work, created in partnership with La Maison Simons, is a collection of 1000 sculptures ranging in size from 5cm to almost a meter in height covering an allotted 20×20 feet. Certain stylized heads were named by genre, the tall willowy pieces being “asparagus heads,” the flattened ones “pancakes” and voyage around the work to find the “Gold Mine.” The longer one spends with the piece the more that is revealed. Many sculptures reside on vases from Coupland’s own home. It remained unanswered if the vessels are inanimate reflections of the human vessel they support or simply a found-use for the beautiful things acquired by the avid collector.
Coupland has created a garden of delightfully colourful sculptures by scanning the heads of random Canadians in nine cities across Canada, including his hometown Vancouver and here in Ottawa.
A work commissioned by Simons, it has the feel of a creative and fun in-store display. One can easily imagine The National Portrait brightening an escalator ride or the view from an in-shop champagne bar. It’s not great art but it is accessible and enjoyable. Towards the back of the display, however, was a head in full First-Nation regalia that struck an uncomfortable note. Hard to imagine a Chief turning up in ceremonial style at a store. Was this an inappropriate costume? Without context it feels like an inept token addition and unqualified representation.
The unveiling was impeccably hosted with the sociable Coupland mingling with the gathered crowd. Equating the collaboration and teamwork involved to a traveling circus, Coupland spoke of visiting cities “usually on a Friday, like carnies arriving in town” where a true cross section of Canadians: toddlers, youth, professionals, and seniors lined up to hold a pose for the 60-second-long scan. Though he doesn’t recall names each sculpture evokes a memory of the individual’s “aura” – “everyone shines from within.” “Human beings are beautiful,” said Coupland, “which I never understood before this project.”
The work will ultimately be displayed at a to be determined Simons. It takes a village to grow a garden and The National Portrait collaborative cross-country patch of delightful human beans sprouts at the OAG through mid-August.
The contemporary art scene, rightly controversial, has arrived and it is at the OAG.
Review by Rose Ekins
While visually intriguing due to its impressive layering and fun colour choices, Coupland’s The National Portrait represents the epitome of meaningless corporate art. Sponsored by and sourced in Canadian retailer Simons, Coupland’s 3D-printed portraits opened in the Alma Duncan Salon in the Ottawa Art Gallery Thursday, June 28 to a menagerie of people hoping for a selfie with the author/artist.
While visually intriguing due to its impressive layering and fun colour choices, Coupland’s The National Portrait represents the epitome of meaningless corporate art.
The manipulated digitally-rendered sculptures feature additions and splatters of colour, and morphed, stretched, and slanted busts. Instead of provoking thought like the creative works of Evan Penny, though, Coupland’s come across as pristine and superficial.
The accompanying wall text indicates the work’s stacked style is meant to reference the historied retail displays of department stores, however the work feels as superficial as its method: in Coupland’s portraits all indicators of diversity are erased and replaced by a sterile (but pretty) aesthetic. Ultimately, the assemblaged busts feel like less of a marker of national identity and more like an Apple commercial. It is fitting then, that the work will not continue to be displayed in the art sphere after August 19, intended to eventually live inside a Simons store. Perhaps its real connection to merchandised displays is that it, itself, is one.
Douglas Coupland’s The National Portrait is at the Ottawa Art Gallery until August 19, 2018. The Ottawa Art Gallery, located at 50 Mackenzie King Bridge, is open 9am-9pm and admission is always free.