Reframing the Art of Canada

Every art gallery, and every exhibition within it, is a frame upon a work of art. You, the viewer, will impose your own frame of mind upon each artwork that you encounter – bringing with you your own subjective likes and dislikes, understandings and personal insights.

Art collections initiate conversations that recontextualize the individual works either by re-examining socio-cultural issues, revisiting art history or the aesthetics of the work, or addressing aspects of popular culture. Artwork is not static, in other words: its meaning can change according to its context.

We have dedicated four galleries to “reframing” the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Read on for some examples and behind-the-scenes stories of the work currently hanging in this exhibition.


From left to right: Tony Scherman (born 1950), Conversations with the Devil, 2010, encaustic on canvas, 153 × 137.8 cm, Gift of the artist, 2015.11.4. Tony Scherman (born 1950), 600,000 Horses, 2004 – 2006, encaustic on canvas, 152.4 × 183.4 cm, Gift of the artist, 2015.11.1. Tony Scherman (born 1950), Walk On, 2010, encaustic on canvas, 71.6 × 61.7 cm, Gift of the artist, 2015.11.3. Tony Scherman (born 1950), Savannah: Better Days, 2007 – 2009, encaustic on canvas, 102.7 × 115.7 cm, Gift of the artist, 2015.11.2

Born in Toronto in 1950, Tony Scherman is a painter known for his portraiture and encaustic technique.

In an interview with Carte Blanche, Tony Scherman describes his work as “an aggregation of mistakes.” He works with encaustic, using pigments mixed with hot wax. He found the process by accident, he says: “I was at the Royal College of Art and I was doing a painting degree, but I wasn’t painting – I had painters’ block. I’d been working with wax crayons and my tutor said “you’ve got to paint for your degree, right?”

This is how he landed upon encaustic.

“The process is very fast, but I’m also very slow,” he explains. “Unlike oil paint where you can just move it around, with this stuff you can’t, so if you make a mistake you have to decide whether to scrape it off, burn it off, or go over it. The painting builds up. There’s an archeology here.”

Detail of Conversations with the Devil, by Tony Scherman (born 1950), 2010, encaustic on canvas, 153 × 137.8 cm (60 1/4 × 54 1/4 in.), Gift of the artist Tony Scherman, 2015.11.4

Detail of 600,000 Horses, by Tony Scherman (born 1950), 2010, encaustic on canvas, 152.4 × 183.4 cm, Gift of the artist, 2015.11.1


Edward Burtynsky is one of Canada’s most respected photographers. His remarkable photographic depictions of global industrial landscapes are included in the collections of over sixty major museums around the world. Born in 1955 of Ukrainian heritage in St. Catharines, Ontario, he received his BAA in Photography/ Media Studies from Ryerson University in 1982.

Early exposure to the sites and images of the General Motors plant in his hometown helped to formulate the development of his photographic work. His imagery explores the collective impact we as a species are having on the surface of the planet; an inspection of the human systems we’ve imposed onto natural landscapes.

Regarding his series on oil, the artist says: “When I first started photographing industry it was out of a sense of awe at what we as a species were up to. Our achievements became a source of infinite possibilities. But time goes on, and that flush of wonder began to turn. The car that I drove cross-country began to represent not only freedom, but also something much more conflicted. I began to think about oil itself: as both the source of energy that makes everything possible, and as a source of dread, for its ongoing endangerment of our habitat.

“I wanted to represent one of the most significant features of this century: the automobile. The automobile is the main basis for our modern industrial world, giving us a certain freedom and changing our world dramatically. The automobile was made possible because of the invention of the internal combustion engine and its utilization of both oil and gasoline. The raw material and the refining process contained both the idea and an interesting visual component for me.”

Left: Edward Burtynsky (born 1955), Grasses, Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, 1981, printed 2008, digital chromogenic print on Kodak photographic paper, 99.1 x 124.5 cm, Gift of the Artist, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 2013.3.8, Reproduced Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery. Right: Dulcie Foo Fat (born 1946), Kananaskis Wildflower, 1985, oil on canvas, 153 x 107 cm, Gift of ICI Canada Inc., 1995.19.19


Both images above: details of Kananaskis Wildflower, by Dulcie Foo Fat (born 1946), 1985, oil on canvas, 153 x 107 cm, Gift of ICI Canada Inc. 1995.19.19

Dulcie Foo Fat was born in London, England in 1946. She obtained a BA in painting from Reading University in 1969 and an MA in Fine Art from the University of Calgary in 1974. In 1989 she received an Alberta Project grant which enabled her to undertake a photographic expedition in the Northern Yukon.

Her paintings involve a multi-step development process. Many of her images begin with small-scale photographic studies of landscapes or of details of the detritus, plant-life and patterns of colours revealed by natural light which illuminates the ground in forest interiors.

Her painted views of the forest floors – or “groundscapes” – offer the viewer a perspectival shift from a horizontal ground plane or low angle point of view to a vertical one. The all-over arrangement of flowers, grasses and other elements rendered by minutely detailed brushwork demonstrate not only the artist’s ability and confidence in handling the medium, but also indicates her capability to move beyond the notions of illustration to position her work within abstraction.

Through their command of their respective media, both Dulcie Foo Fat and Edward Burtynsky have transformed seemingly mundane details of nature into an engaging presence for contemplation.

Foo Fat says that her influences “range from the depiction of the nature in early Renaissance painting and the interiors of Vermeer to the colour field abstractions of Jackson Pollock. I would like to create an art that occupies a territory between Abstract Expressionism and Photorealism. My ambition is, in the manner of a craftsperson, to add a few works of beauty to the world.”


Norval Morrisseau (1932 – 2007), Shaman and Disciples, 1979, Acrylic on canvas, 180.5 x 211.5 cm, Purchase 1979, 1979.34.7.

Norval Morrisseau’s passion for visual storytelling led him to develop a pictorial vocabulary, which transformed the traditional readings of the teachings and stories of the Anishinaabe people and enabled him to express his own spiritual voice. Morrisseau sought to reinterpret the cultural and spiritual narratives of his heritage by exploring various means of invoking a state of transcendence. The artist’s work presents references to Christianity as well as Eckankar, a contemporary belief system.

We have 64 of Morrisseau’s works in the permanent collection and this one, “Shaman and Disciples” (1979) was one of the first that Signe and Robert McMichael purchased, back when he was at the gallery as Artist in Residence. Morrisseau’s paintings have traditionally been shown in the far, long gallery (#8) here at the McMichael. With this reinstallation, we aim to reframe the way we see even the most familiar works from our permanent collection. Display space can act as a frame and therefore influences the way in which we look at art.