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Event Recap: The Idea of North

The American actor, comedian, playwright, banjoist and art collector Steve Martin was the name draw at the media preview of Lawren Harris’s The Idea of North, which opens on Canada Day at the AGO and runs until September.

However, the exhibit itself, which was viewed after Martin had finished a Q & A, (which was nonetheless enlightening and informative), was the real draw of the day, and contains quite a few features for movie lovers as well, and not just the curation by Martin.

The exhibit is divided into three parts, and each part brings with it its own unique element. It begins by documenting Harris’s early work in “The Ward”, as downtown Toronto was known then, is essentially a living history of the region, and interestingly, incorporates the very area upon which the AGO now sits. Harris’s paintings, combined with some photographs and maps document how the landscape has changed in the last hundred years, as The Ward was essentially a slum. In fact, many of Harris’s paintings are suffused with darkness, and only ever really seem to lighten up when he ventures outside of the ward. Furthermore, the early paintings show how far Toronto as a city has come, but, in many ways, how far it still has to go.

The second part of the exhibit, Harris’s paintings of Northern Landscapes, was an infusion of colour and brightness. Not surprisingly, these paintings are what has come to be known about Harris, but ones that this writer found to be less reflective of the idea of the north.

The third part of the exhibit is quite fascinating because very little of Harris’s work is shown, but the narrative thread continues with themes of alienation, gentrification, churches in the downtown core, (in what used to be The Ward), issues of religion, and landscapes, and essentially, what can be considered as modem and as art.

The final moving image is a scene from Jennifer Baichwal and Nick De Pencier’s Watermark, of the rushing Niagara Falls. There is so much about which to ponder about the exhibit (and yes, an interesting video in which Steve Martin explains much of what he said beforehand), the inclination is to go back and view it a second time, which is exactly what we did. The Idea of North still remains unclear, but this exhibit really helps to open up the conversation.