“…in Houle’s art, there was a sense that his point was different – that there was an element of symbolism to his abstraction, and that it sought something more direct than Newman’s spiritualism and more spiritual than Bush’s formalism. Sure enough, there is another early work nearby that makes Houle’s interests explicit: Ojibway Motif, #2, Purple Leaves Series, of 1972, features a column created by alternating chevrons, or arrowheads, in different shades of lilac. The artist was looking for a vocabulary that would somehow unite modernist abstraction with a sacred geometry inspired by his own culture.” Kate Taylor, Globe & Mail
On December 3, 2021 the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) hosted the public opening of Robert Houle’s Red is Beautiful. The title of the exhibition comes from “the first work Houle ever sold to a museum – what is now the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.” (Globe & Mail)
The extenstive exhibition covers Robert’s artistic practice from 1970 until now and features 90 works in total. The works range from small and intimate paper works to large and monumental paintings that speak to the political turmoil Robert has witnessed as inflicted on Indigenous people by the Canadian state. The CBC writes:
Houle pays tribute to the Oka Crisis in an oil painting called The Pines. Three panels depict a scene from a forested area, which was the subject of a land dispute between the Mohawk and the town of Oka, Que. (read more)
In walking through the exhibition, the AGO and Wanda Nanibush, the AGO’s Curator of Indigenous Art, have provided an opportunity for the viewer to take in the mastery of Robert’s work as both a “modernist” and “colorist.” As Nanibush says: “He created a new trajectory in modernism: towards the organic, towards the feminine, towards the Indigenous. That’s something that no one did before him.” Nanibush also points out how Robert “understands the spiritual nature of colour itself.” (The Star)
A highlight of the exhibition is seeing Robert’s remarkable ability to integrate modernist abstraction with the visual and material culture of the Anishinaabeg. His ongoing use of parfleches as a motif provides many brilliant examples. The Globe and Mail’s Kate Taylor reflects on one such body of work:
In 1983, in Parfleches for the Last Supper, he executed 13 small paintings, one for Jesus and each of the disciples, in which he inserted quills directly into the paper. The parfleche is a fascinating motif because it plays so effectively off the tension between the flat, abstract paintings Houle echoes and the traditional container, which would hold three-dimensional content. (read more)
The exhibition will continue to tour with dates at the Winnipeg Art Gallery as well as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian as well as other locations.
An ambitious show, Red is Beautiful, exemplifies the incredible contribution that as an artist Robert has made to Contemporary Canadian Art.
Listen to Robert as well as curator Wanda Nanibush speak on the exhibition on APTN News.
Visit the Art Gallery of Ontario’s website for more information on Red is Beautiful.
In the Media:
Globe & Mail: Modernism meets sacred geometry in Robert Houle retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario
The Star: In Robert Houle’s ‘Red Is Beautiful’ at the AGO, ‘a good way to look back at the history of this place’
CBC: New retrospective explores 50-year career of First Nations artist Robert Houle
APTN: Art Gallery of Ontario features work of Anishinabe-Saulteaux artist Robert Houle
View a selection of available works for purchase at KRG by Robert Houle.
ABOVE IMAGE: Robert Houle speaks with acclaimed Indigenous director Alanis Obomsawin of the National Film Board at the public opening of Red is Beautiful.