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Issue 137

Logan MacDonald: Lay of the Land
by Gloria Hickey

At the tail end of a year characterized by personal and political anxiety, Logan MacDonald’s The Lay of the Land offers a surprisingly gentle investigation of the harsh realities of cultural erasure and assimilation. MacDonald self-identifies as a queer visual artist with settler/Mi’kmaq ancestry and the body of work in the exhibition reflects two years of recent travels to Indigenous communities across the country. In The Lay of the Land, curator Jason Penney supplemented MacDonald’s work with a selection of videos ranging from the sauciness of Kent Monkman to the poignancy of Erika MacPherson and Katherena Vermette (This River) to the DIY zeal of Thirza Cuthand and others. Taken together, the project accomplished its intent to tackle “the complex politics of how media characterization, Canadian history and institutional prejudice have impacted the Indigenous experience.”

The concept of “land” was the uniting theme of MacDonald’s sculptures, drawings, paintings and mixed-media works. In 2015, he set out to look at the manipulated landscapes of earthworks, structures and signage created in Indigenous communities and how they established property against government and corporate encroachment. Images of landscapes, regardless of the employed media, are most often depictions of the relationship of the viewer-artist with the landscape. Perspective, for example, is an indicator of whether the artist holds nature at arm’s length or in a more intimate stance. What evolves out of MacDonald’s work is an investigation of his own shifting perspective. The tone is at times probing or playful but is consistently lyrical.

The title of the exhibition, The Lay of the Land, suggests a process of determining orientation and identification. “What is the situation?” MacDonald seems to ask as he visits Indigenous communities from coast to coast. He presents the viewer with the general appearance of the landscape and we join him in trying to figure out the situation. In a pair of impressive graphite drawings, we are struck with an inextricable duality rather than an either/or situation. Monumental depicts the conquering hero on horseback memorialized in an urban park, while Wolverine shows an indigenous hunter with a carcass. These are large, subtle drawings built up with shadow-like strokes, like the impressions of a memory or whisper. This is a reflective process rather than a shrill or long-simmering statement of anger. What might be characterized as a pleasing formalism rather than a hard-hitting graphic style is in reality more seduction than submission.

The exhibition is dominated by the presence of large (4 or 6 × 8 feet) photo installations of landscapes that are alternately wall mounted or suspended from lumber trestles that evoke A-frame structures with their three-dimensionality. The images are built up of 8.5 × 11 sheets in a grid – a device present in many of the works, be they photographic installations or as more forceful, drawn interventions on historical reproductions. Here, the grid is reminiscent of the longitude and latitude of mapping and other colonial forms of commodifying the land. MacDonald confirms this with the occasional title like Parceled Land (Kwanlin Dün), which offers a quiet view of a sand dune meeting the edge of a forest. Only a patch of erosion on the dune suggests possible human presence.

Coast to Coast, a photo installation, is shown horizontally on the floor, slightly raised by its supporting lumber mounted into concrete foundation blocks. It presents three images from Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario and Yukon-Kuskokwim, respectively. The central image of a graffiti-sprayed patch of concrete proclaiming “Native Land” is flanked by images of juniper brush (NL) and birch forest (YK). The strident voice of the graffiti is then carried forward in a series of acrylic paintings. No Access Without Consent portrays a protest sign of a skull image on a “cross bones” of a leaking pipeline. It is stark but a shadow silhouette suggests the artist’s presence with an arm upraised in a gesture that conjures both rebellion and selfie. Status Update shows a hand holding MacDonald’s status card. There is an eerie resonance between the grid in the other works and the bar code in this self-portrait – as if to say, first they parcel off your land and then they put you behind the bars of a UPC.

The exhibition is accompanied by a short text by Camille Georgeson-Usher, a Coast Salish/Sahtu Dene/Scottish scholar, artist and writer from Galiano Island, BC In it, she offers a personal reflection on her struggle with Indigeneity and on the nature of intentionality and home. She acutely observes, “Indigeneity takes consistent intention, care and work.” Georgeson-Usher concludes with a question, “How do we form ourselves and our homes on someone else’s land?”

As mentioned earlier, a selection of videos curated by Jason Penney complements MacDonald’s work and extends the discussion of cultural erasure and appropriation with pointed views from four diverse artists. In The Lay of the Land, text and video come together around MacDonald’s thoughtful investigations of the land in this country, to form a complex but cohesive exhibition that made this European Canadian ask herself, “what grounds you?”

The Lay of the Land is scheduled to travel to aceartinc in Winnipeg from March 29–May 4, 2018.

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