When Annie Pootoogook’s career blossomed in the early 2000s, she became widely known for her coloured pencil and ink drawings of everyday life in the Canadian North, rendered in flat planes and roughly finished. Among the first images one sees in ‘Cutting Ice’, the McMichael Collection’s survey exhibition of the late artist’s drawings, is Composition (Family Portrait) (2005–06): a modestly sized pen-and-paper depiction of a family dressed for the North’s bitter cold, it is in some ways a familiar example of Pootoogook’s oeuvre. But the confidence and use of volume in the representation of the mother (the main figure) in particular are unusual, as are the monochrome palette and relatively high degree of finish. And while we shouldn’t overplay this drawing’s deviation from what we might expect of Pootoogook’s work, its presence near the show’s entrance sets an important tone: formally and thematically, there’s more to this artist than the standard line suggests.
This presentation demonstrates that Pootoogook’s experience and imagination ranged far beyond the desperation underpinning her iconic drawings of a young woman destroying her parents’ alcohol cache (Memory of My Life: Breaking Bottles, 2002) or a man beating his wife (Man Abusing His Partner, 2003). Cheeky subject matter abounds in the work on display: for example, in Red Bra (2006), a red brassiere floats on a white background, looking like something a woman might wear when feeling playful. Whether the bra is about to be put on or has just been removed matters less than its recording of a moment when its owner (Pootoogook?) feels poised, sexy and carefree — an insouciance that also marks the artist’s drawing of a couple watching porn (Composition: Watching Porn on Television, 2005) or of a woman (Pootoogook again) primping before a mirror, naked but for her high heels (Woman at Her Mirror [Playboy Pose], 2003).
This exhibition sheds light on the artist’s technique by displaying other formal strategies she’s tried, encouraging a reconsideration of her relationship to modern and contemporary art. For instance, her interest in scenes of everyday life links her to countless artists concerned with common experience, from Gustave Courbet and Pablo Picasso to Tracey Emin and Sally Mann. Yet Pootoogook viewed her association with the contemporary art world wryly, as we see in drawings of the media scrum she faced upon winning the Sobey Art Award (Sobey Awards, 2006) or of her time in Scotland for the Glenfiddich artists’ residency Myself in Scotland (2005–06) – as well as in Composition (Pipe) (2006), a large still life of an elegantly curved pipe whose resemblance to René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (1929) seems hardly accidental. As Heather Igloliorte observes in an obituary for Pootoogook, this skillful, witty art de-exoticizes the Arctic while underscoring its literal and figurative distance from the Canadian South.
The invitation to reframe our thinking about Pootoogook presented by the sweep of her work here – together with several drawings by other key members of Cape Dorset’s art community like Itee Pootoogook and Siassie Kenneally – is welcome. For one thing, the work deserves it. For another, throughout 2017, the Canadian government enjoined its citizens to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary even though, as grassroots protesters have argued, to do so unavoidably celebrates the genocide of indigenous people. Not everyone shares this view; the many concurrent contemporary indigenous art shows in Toronto address this history in different ways. But the fact that we still do not know how Pootoogook died at the age of 46 in September 2016 strongly suggests that, fame notwithstanding, she remained ensnared by the social malaise her work decries. I wish I could believe that her artistic legacy – smart, articulate, compelling – was a strong enough rebuke to provoke real action.
Main image: Annie Pootoogook, Annie and Andre, 2009, coloured pencil and graphite on paper, 50 x 66 cm. Courtesy: McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg