— Marcel Proust
In Heraldry the purpose of the Motto is to formally summarize the motivation and guiding principles of a social group. The original Coat of Arms of the City of Winnipeg first bore the motto “Commerce, Prudence, Industry.” This declaration reflected the guiding principles of the Settler culture of the territory and the lasting legacy of colonization to the region. The City Motto was replaced in 1972 with the current Crest bearing the Latin "UNUM CUM VIRTUTE MULTORUM" or “One with the strength of many,” a reflection the complex identity and history of Winnipeg, firstly as “one city formed of people of all races; and secondly, … one city formed from many cities.” It is this complex history and narrative that the Winnipeg based artist Evin Collis explores in his exhibition “Commerce, Prudence, Industry.” As a Winnipegger, a Manitoban and a Canadian, of a combination of Scottish, French, English and Métis origins, Collis delves into the “complexities and vulnerabilities of [not only the history of Winnipeg, but the whole of] Canadian history, identity and mythology. Collis’ works focus on re-interpretation and amalgamation of the histories interwoven with satire, folklore, social commentary and classical allegory.”
One of Romanticisms enduring legacies is Nationalism, and Nationalism lies at the very heart of the colonialist project. In his 2008 novel “A Fair Country,” Canadian author John Ralston Saul writes about the ‘triangular reality of Canada,’ rooted in the founding nations, the First Peoples, Francophones and Anglophones. Saul argues that the entity of Canada has a malleable identity instead of the monolithic identities of other states. Indelibly shaped by the above trifecta over the past three centuries, with Aboriginals playing a quintessential role. Saul also makes it clear that the recognition of this fundamental influence is lacking, but necessary to define a contemporary Canadian identity. Arguably, the denial of these essential and complex interactions, in particular the disavowal of the Indigenous influence has been a defining feature of Canada’s colonial project of building a white settler nation on Indigenous land. Complexities are pushed aside in favour of romantic notions of destiny, settlement, commerce, and nation building.
In his large-scale paintings and mixed media sculptures Collis grabs the wibbly wobbly malleable thing that is Canadian identity and myth by the soft rubbery parts and shakes it free from its settled state. Influenced by the High Renaissance, allegorical painting, the Mexican Muralists, Graffiti, and Folk art, Collis takes on the icons of Canadiana. The fur trade, the transcontinental railroad, and the expansionist colonization of the west, become grist for the artistic mill in an exploration how history is qualified, quantified, and quadrated. Making use of such implements of satire, allegory, humour, Collis “conjures differing notions of icons, heroes, and monumentalism while questioning our enduring relationship with history," and from this emerges a new mythology.
Myths and Icons recur throughout the works. The mixed media sculpture “Hydra Goose,” references the classical Greek myth of the Lernaean Hydra, a multi headed poisonous water serpent so terrifying that when a single head is cut off two immediately grow back to take its place. The “Canadian” Hydra Goose - like Canadian history – is a multi headed creature and vain attempts to trim and obscure it through a singular perspective only allow it to become stronger and a greater threat to that perspective. The Hydra Goose recurs in the large scale painting “The Assiniboine Odyssey,” lurking in the quagmire of the Assiniboine river bottom as the ship, reminiscent of the “Raft of the Medusa” under fauvist skies, grinds by.
Collis’ works combine the best elements of satire and allegory designed to elicit either humour or consternation. Satire serves as an answer to the romantic notions of a singular view of Canada, a modus operandi that Collis is well aware of in his explorations of identity and nationhood. Satire and humour exist in direct conflict with romanticism, often dismissed as irrelevant, frivolous, or unworthy of serious consideration. This romantic reading of satire fails to recognize the critical capacity of the imagery or irony in Collis’ milieu. In satire reality dominates over ideology, and ironically this is often involves a parody of romantic mythical forms, for in satire irony is militant. The “natural” soft focus is relinquished in favour of a gritty reality unmasked.
Referencing the German expressionists, and with an eye to the works of painters such as Jorg Immendorff’s (Café Deutschland history painting series) combined with the grittiness and unabashed tone of cartoonist such as R. Crumb or Spain Rodriguez, Collis takes on even the touchiest of subjects. The core ideologies that were/are historically at play, namely religion (Christianity) and spiritualism are explored in works such as “Rail Yard Resurrection” or “Red River Pieta,” in a manner that is uniquely Collis’ own. The monumental mounds perhaps reminiscent of artists such as Phillip Guston include the detritus of history and the colonialist project juxtaposed in the most unexpected ways. When first encountering these works, the combined images, icons, and idols, made me laugh out loud, but after the initial flame of humour, the slow burn of thoughtful contemplation began. A masterful demonstration of that old adage, “first make them laugh, then make them think.”
Essay by Renato Vitic
1 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary. . The ARTFL Project. The University of Chicago. Chicago, Retrieved 15 April 2015
2 Hartemink, Ralf. . Heraldry of the World. Ralf Hartemink. Retreived 10 April, 2015.
3 Collis, Evin. Artist Statement. Calgary, TRUCK, 2015.
4 Saul, John Ralston. A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada. Toronto: Viking, 2008 : 174
5 Thielen-Wilson, Leslie. White Terror, Canada’s Indian Residential Schools and the Colonial Present: From Law Towards a Pedagogy of Recognition. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2012 : 4
6 Martin, Rod A., ?The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach?. Academic Press, 2007: pp. 27–8???
7 Herring, David. Northrop Frye's Theory of Archetypes Winter: Irony and Satire . Retreived 10 April, 2015.- See more at: http://www.truck.ca/events/763#sthash.w447QdBg.dpuf