Jan. 31, 2023

The painter with the pen: UCalgary alum claims Métis space in the art world

New Nickle Galleries exhibition highlights David Garneau’s remarkable expression of ideas and history
David Garneau, How the West Was
David Garneau, How the West Was…, 1997-2003, oil on canvas, collection of Glenbow, Calgary, Alta. Andy Nichols, LCR Photoservices

“My people will sleep for one hundred years. When they awake it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” (quote attributed to Louis Riel, Métis leader)

In 1997, a Calgary-based painter was invited to submit a work of art to the Alberta Biennial. He wanted to create something playful and ironic that engaged his interests in history and popular depictions of masculinity. So he created a eight-page comic “book” that covers 33 feet of wall space.

How the West Was bursts with classic pop Western iconography and marks David Garneau’s “coming out” as a Métis artist. How the West Was is one of 53 artworks featured in Métissage, an exhibition of Garneau’s work curated by Mary-Beth Laviolette. The exhibition opens Feb. 2 in Nickle Galleries.

David Garneau, Two Métis Flags

David Garneau, Two Métis Flags (Quilt), 2012, oil on canvas, Indigenous Art Collection, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada

Dave Brown, LCR Photoservices

Laviolette, who has written four books about art in Alberta, began her career at a time nearly 45 years ago when, besides landscape art, there was not a lot of interest — critical or curatorial — for artists to “reflect on their own place, community and environment,” she recalls. “But among the Indigenous community they have been doing it and we are in the midst of a real renaissance propelled by them.”

Garneau, BFA’89, MA’93, has spent the last two decades puzzling over what his Métis heritage might mean and how it might inform his art-making.  

If you’re from Edmonton, you might recognize the Garneau surname. The Garneau neighbourhood occupies river lot #7, where Laurent and Eleanor Garneau settled in 1874. Laurent, David’s great-great-grandfather, was a soldier with Louis Riel during the Red River Resistance (1869-70). Riel’s likeness makes several appearances in the exhibition.  

One Riel portrait is painted in the style of Van Gogh — both men struggled with mental illness — and another is overlaid with an intricate circular pattern of multi-hued dots, Garneau’s reference to Métis beading. Riel was also a central figure in several of Garneau’s performance art works (2014-2017).

Dumont and Riel portraits

David Garneau, Persistence of Vision (Gabriel Dumont), 2008, Acrylic on canvas, Collection of Private Lender; David Garneau, “when they awake…(Louis Riel)” 2020, Acrylic and charcoal on canvas, Courtesy of the Artist.

Andy Nichols, LCR Photoservices

A university professor for nearly 30 years, Garneau approaches painting as a writer, curator and educator. His artistic process is multi-layered, involving sketchbooks, photographs, canvas and “probably the most important part,” titles that stimulate ideas. Whether writing, painting or curating, “Each practice helps to inform the other,” notes Garneau. The process spans months, sometimes years, and reflects the sum of his life experience and interests.

Garneau’s mother, Noreen Monroe, is a talented painter and calligrapher. His father, Richard Garneau, was an amateur Métis historian and genealogist. His stepfather, Tad Guzie, taught education at the University of Calgary. All were influences on Garneau’s art and life.

When he wasn’t exploring Edmonton’s River Valley, or keeping an eye on his younger brothers, he was at the library, the Royal Alberta Museum or the Art Gallery of Alberta — all free and within walking or busing distance from his home. After completing a certificate in early childhood education, and working in day care, he landed at the University of Calgary, where he pursued a Bachelor of Fine Arts. Most of his professors were modernists. Garneau was less interested in self-expression and abstraction than in ideas, history and irony, in “facing the issues of the day, rather than avoiding them,” he recalls.

He spent his second year at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (Halifax) where he became excited by postmodern art and theory. He returned to the University of Calgary the next year, eager to apply these new ideas in the studio and in writing.

With academic aspirations and a keen interest in books and critical thinking, he stayed to complete a master’s degree in American literature. After graduating, he taught at Alberta University of the Arts for five years, and then the University of Regina, where he is head of the Visual Arts Department.

Métissage focuses on the last 20 years of Garneau’s career but also includes work as far back as 1984. If you’ve seen Garneau’s captivating still-life paintings on display in the TFDL, you might be surprised to also see figurative sculptures, beading, video, quilt, collage and pop-art paintings in the exhibition.

David Garneau, Tipis

David Garneau, Treaty Four Tipi, 2010, Acrylic on canvas, Collection of David Kim Jones; Transition (Jack Fish), 2010, Acrylic on canvas, Collection of Frèdéric Dupré, Nexus (Dragonfly), 2010, Acrylic on canvas, Collection of Regina Public Library.

Dave Brown, LCR Photoservices

“Unlike a lot of painters, David is not limited to one particular style or way of putting things together,” notes Laviolette. “He’s quite remarkable in that way.”

There are portraits of Gabriel Dumont and Neil Stonechild, layered with that same circular pattern resembling pointillism Garneau used in Riel’s portrait. A subtle white-on-white painting of a noose reveals strong technical skill. “The idea comes first. Different ideas require different styles to best communicate them,” explains Garneau.

The exhibit also includes a vest, hand-beaded by Garneau so that he would have Métis regalia to wear for keynote talks and other presentations around the world. Métis people are known for their flower beadwork and Garneau’s vest references that along with personalized touches — thistles for a prickly personality, flowers made from paintbrushes and “my critical eye watching my back.”

As a writer, Garneau is known for his critique of reconciliation (preferring conciliation), consideration of Indigenous strategies for working with colonial art and museum institutions, and his art criticism. He believes critical engagement is essential to the understanding and development of Indigenous contemporary art. To understand, rather than simply like or dislike a work of art, “You have to humble yourself before the [object], assume there’s knowledge and experience there that you don’t have,” says Garneau.

It may be a necessary approach for art criticism but, replace ‘object’ with ‘person’ and this might be the ideal posture for conciliation.

Métissage opens Feb. 2 at 4:30 p.m. with a tour led by David Garneau and public reception beginning at 5 p.m. Nickle Galleries is open to the public Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. All are welcome.

Exhibition curator Mary-Beth Laviolette will give a tour on Feb. 16 at 12 p.m. as part of the weekly Nickle at Noon talks.

Interested in viewing the Indigenous Art Collection located throughout TFDL? Members of the public are invited for tours on March 6 and April 3 at 11 a.m. The collection includes art by David Garneau, Adrian Stimson, Alex Janvier, Jane Ash Poitras and Joane Cardinal-Schubert. Free with pre-registration.