Gallery Scene/Seen




Jesse Stewart Icebreaking: La Débacle

Maureen Korp

Jesse Stewart, Glacialis, 2010-2019, single-channel video projection, dimensions variable. Installation view.
Photo Justin Wonnacott

How often have we heard Ottawa described as a “city of two seasons: winter and road repair?” Be brave. Kick the ice aside. Ice melts. This is a good time to traipse over to the Ottawa Art Gallery. Sit down with Jesse Stewart’s installation, Icebreaking: La débâcle, upstairs in the rooms of the Firestone Collection. Stewart’s work can now be seen in concert with a small selection of paintings and drawings from the collection.

Entering the gallery, the visitor takes note immediately of the black-and-white video soundscape covering one wall. The film, on a continuous loop, is being projected onto 10 or 12 white plinths piled along the wall. As the camera works its way in among the musicians, vapours waft around them and their instruments.

Some of the rhythms are deep, others higher pitched. Some are splashy, others chirpy. Some sound like early jug band bleats, others very like notes a throat singer could make. The rhythms are trance-inducing, not unlike those of sitar and tabla. But it ends. It must. The instruments melted.

Only the film can be played again, not the music itself.

The instruments were made of ice. Tubes of ice, a good many, fastened in vertical and horizontal sequences, and played – not unlike a xylophone – with sticks of various sorts. The ice is melting.

“Glacialis” by Jesse Stewart was a singular production. The video itself, a 12-minute loop, is the record of that performance in 2010 at Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto. The performers included Stewart himself, along with Michele McMillan, Jamie Holmes, and Frasier Holmes. Both Jamie Holmes and Frasier Holmes were, at the time, Stewart’s students at Carleton University.

For this exhibition, in addition to Jesse Stewart’s work, the gallery is displaying a number of paintings and drawings by familiar names, Lawren D. Harris, for example. He is represented by a large painting of elegant blues and snowy whites, entitled “Mount Thule, Bylot Island,” 1930. Beside this painting hangs another large landscape. It, too, is an aerial view of blues and whites, rivers and ice floes. A complementary pairing? The colours are alike. Walk closer.

Jesse Stewart, Best Before, 2019, plywood and plastic bag closures, 44” x 92”. Photo: Justin Wonnacott.

The work is a didactic composition by Jesse Stewart entitled, “Best Before,” 2019. The material the artist used is not apparent from a distance. A closer view, however, makes it abundantly apparent the artist has constructed this scenario—rivers, lakes, the curve of the earth—by using hundreds and hundreds of wee plastic tabs, the very same blue-and-white fasteners meant to keep bread inside plastic bags. Each tab is dated, of course; thus, “best before.” Yes. These are the same plastic tabs that are now being fished from the oceans.

Upon the floor of the gallery is a map of North America, entitled “Time and Tide,” 2019. Signs warn the visitor not-to-touch. Jesse Stewart constructed this map with beach glass he collected from the shorelines of our oceans, rivers, and lakes. No subtleties here. One sees the whole more clearly.

The music ended because the ice melted.

For more than a hundred years, artists have been documenting and recording our brutalization of the world surrounding. The combination of Jesse Stewart’s work with selections from the Firestone Collection makes this most apparent, and specific within Canadian lands.

Franklin Carmichael’s “The Nickel Belt,” 1928, for example, is not a romantic, heroic landscape. It is an industrial site, a place very like that seen and painted by Alan Collier in his pictures ”Copper Cliff from Creighton, Ontario,” 1954, and “Algoma Mine, near Lake Superior,” 1958.

“Icebreaking: La débâcle” is the newest chapter of the OAG Firestone Reverb series. The series invites artists to create work in response to gallery holdings in the Firestone Collection—more than 1600 examples of 20th-century Canadian art. “Icebreaking: La débâcle,” curated by Rebecca Basciano, is an important contribution. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue to be published in April, 2019.

Icebreaking: La débâcle
Ottawa Art Gallery
50 Mackenzie King Bridge
Ottawa, ON
Continuing until June 23


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Free. 9.00 am-9.00 pm, everyday

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395 Wellington Street, Ottawa
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