Review of Diana Thorneycroft’s Group of Seven Awkward Moments
By Miriam Dewar
People had told me Diana Thorneycroft’s Group of Seven Awkward Moments was a controversial show. So I questioned whether to bring my children to this essentially photographic exhibition, as I didn’t know what to expect.
I certainly understand why some viewers might take offence to the works of the iconic Group of Seven being used as backdrops to Thorneycroft’s own works — effectively satirical commentaries on certain aspects of them. Thorneycroft’s dioramas, and the unsettling and perhaps to some viewers uncouth, associations they make/suggest, have given the show its ‘controversial’ billing. Rather than simply setting out to shock as so much contemporary work attempts to, I think it does exactly what art should. While employing obvious technical skill in its execution, the works engage varied audiences and prompts them to ask questions.
Like a condensed and complicated fable, each of Thorneycroft’s images is packed with layers of meaning, although each piece can be appreciated alone, at face or surface value. In her own words, she is attempting to “investigate the relationship between the Canadian landscape and national identity.” The landscape is provided by works from Group of Seven painters, which Thorneycroft has “borrowed” (she explains that parody is considered an exception to copyright) and used as backdrops for works like Jack Pine showing two figurines in a tent, engaged in an amorous embrace, while a lone male figure watches (thanks for the background, Tom Thomson), or White Pine and The Group of Dwarfs, showing a Disney Snow White figurine handing out tickets for a lottery, to see who will win the chance to copulate with her in a canoe. Disney dwarf figurines and even a toy otter wait patiently for the results, while red birds and idyllic deer look on (with a nod to backdrop provider A.J. Casson).
The works are large, some about the size of movie theatre posters, which is useful as there are many details to see, warranting multiple careful viewings. For example, Jack Pine, not only shows a tent with figurines, but is packed with elements of Canadiana – an axe leaning on a pile logs, a fishing rod and fish, various recognizable camping paraphernalia and the iconic rock landscape associated with northern Ontario. Upon further consideration, another layer references the rumour that Thomson may have been killed by a jealous husband, hence the amorous couple and watcher.
White Pine and The Group of Dwarfs, appealed to my pre-teen daughters for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being the ubiquitous Disney images. The Hudson’s Bay blanket, and copy of a Pierre Berton book (notorious for his “only Canadians know how to make love in a canoe” statement), handcuffs and water snake were less informative for them, but made me snicker.
The images in the exhibit can be dissected and analyzed ad nauseum, each with its own copious layers of meaning. But whether you know the stories behind each picture or not, they still work on a level of dark humour, even with the pre-teen set. The tongues frozen to the pole and carried by a dog in In Algonquin Park, later reappearing in another photograph, thrilled my 8 and 10-year olds.
Thorneycroft herself says that this exhibition was a departure from some of the angst-ridden work that preceded it and that this is meant to be, “filled with joy and humour.”
Her technical skill, in terms of diorama design and photography is extraordinary. It’s so good, in fact, that you almost don’t notice you’re looking at toys and handmade accoutrements, leaving your brain free to ponder the images themselves.
Thorneycroft, in her talk at the show’s opening, spoke of the respect she has for the Group of Seven painters. So, then, where lies the controversy? Is it because the show can be seen to poke fun at the revered group in the geographical region where they painted some of their most popular work? Are they being used as part of a joke, and as such being knocked off some sort of pedestal? My viewing, in fact, had quite the opposite effect.
While my knowledge of Canadian history and pop culture may be greater than my children’s, my experience with the Group of Seven is minimal. Nonetheless we explored the exhibition together with real curiosity and delight. We discussed iconic images, Canadian stereotypes and Canadiana, as well as what impact pop culture has on us as Canadians. And, yes, we discussed the Group of Seven. It even resulted in an impromptu library visit to look at some of the Group of Seven images and how they are connected to the Algoma region. I know of at least two other families, with children in tow, who were prompted to drive from Bruce Mines to the art gallery on the recommendation of my daughters.
The exhibition, although deemed controversial, certainly fulfilled all my criteria for being relevant art. I saw individuals, from pre-teen age to the elderly, engaged in the images before them, spending time really looking. I saw some smirks and knowing smiles, as well as overheard lots of varied discussions. Personally, the show had me thinking and talking about it for days. It made me want more information, to find out more about the artist as well as Canadiana and the Group of Seven. While I may still not “get” all the layers of meaning in the images, it doesn’t matter. This is a show that works on whatever level you decide to interpret it.