Three beavers lounge in poses that could easily be described as languid, jaunty, and seductive. These are no ordinary woodland creatures, but then again, the Robert McLaughlin Gallery is no ordinary art gallery. The beavers, of course, are only sculptures, a witty take on the classic “Three Graces” that have dominated art for centuries, and they prove to be delightful defenders of the gallery’s gates.
For anyone who thinks that modern art is too unusual, too conceptual, or just too plain strange to enjoy, prepare to have your preconceptions shattered. The Robert McLaughlin Gallery is visitor friendly: well curated, well organized, and well explained. Its works can be striking or soothing, familiar or foreign, but there’s not a piece out of place. The collections, the exhibitions – they make sense and it’s easy for the average visitor to follow the curator’s thoughts as you walk from room to room. Pieces of art which speak to the idea of communication fit in nicely next to a beautiful, colorful QR code inspired piece of art from Douglas Copeland. A small Tom Thomson painting nicely compliments its neighbor, a piece of art influenced by Thompson’s mysterious death in Algonquin Park.
That’s right – a Tom Thomson work in a modern art gallery! Several of his devotees from the Group of Seven are represented as well, making the McLaughlin Gallery a must-see for anyone who loves Canadian art. I had never considered their work as “modern” -but less than 100 years ago when they were working and painting, their perspectives and techniques were utterly unconventional, radical, ground-breaking – and thoroughly modern. Taking their unique, inspiring vision into consideration, it suddenly seems a shame that not all modern art galleries have a Thomson, Harris, or Jackson in their collection.
Thompson and members of the Group of Seven aren’t the only legendary Canadians represented at the gallery. The Robert McLaughlin Gallery holds Canada’s largest collection of works by the Painters Eleven, which is most fitting as the group’s pioneering member, Alexandra Luke, was an Oshawa resident. Luke organized the country’s first exhibition of abstract painting in Oshawa in 1952 and today the Painters Eleven are honored with their own, dedicated gallery within the building. There are always at least eleven pieces of their work on display for visitors to enjoy.
While the Robert McLaughlin Gallery staff does an impressive job of curating their permanent collection and special exhibits, one section of the gallery remains outside professional control. The Community Curates exhibit is the result of crowdsourcing, with members of the public giving their feedback and votes online to select their favorite landscapes, portraits, prints, abstracts, still life, and photography. A great way to challenge your thinking about art is to see how your views compare with everyone else – you might be amazed to realize your favourites haven’t been included, or that a piece you may dislike has been selected as a top choice.
Finally, if you want to debate your favorite pieces of art in person, the McLaughlin Gallery hosts a monthly open house on the first Friday of each month. You can join other art lovers (and plenty of art novices too!) for wine, live music, and interactive art experiences. A new feature on the Friday art night are “nutshell tours” – short 10 minute tours throughout the gallery, which are perfect for anyone wanting a brief introduction without being overwhelmed.
Visiting the Robert McLaughlin Gallery gave me a new appreciation for modern art, but also for the fine art of storytelling. The history of the region, the passion of local artists, and the vision of the curators beautifully meld together to make for a wonderful, welcoming experience.
Vanessa Chiasson is an Ottawa based travel writer. Her blog, TurnipseedTravel.com, focuses on getting great value – where to save, when to splurge, and how to make every moment count.