Last month, Saskatoon's modest Mendel Art Gallery weathered a storm of national and international interest when it unveiled its latest exhibit, Voices: Joni Mitchell. The show is the first ever major retrospective exhibit of Mitchell's visual art - a small coup for the Mendel, which plans to tour the show through larger Canadian galleries (yet to be determined) in the coming year.
Mitchell, who considers herself primarily a visual artist despite her obvious success as a musician, was in attendance at the June 30 opening. The event drew a substantial crowd - though significantly smaller than the 5,000 attendees expected by the organizers. It also turned Mitchell's quiet hometown (she now lives in Los Angeles) into a celebrity-watchers dream, with rumors that everyone from Jack Nicholson to Neil Young would be in attendance. Finally, though, the only celebrity on hand was Mitchell herself, accompanied, in unassuming prairie style, by her partner and parents, all of whom still live in Saskatoon.
Mitchell and curator Gilles Hébert (formerly of the Winnipeg Art Gallery) have selected 81 pieces covering 35 years of Mitchell's work, which includes paintings, drawings and photographs. In addition, song lyrics are posted throughout the gallery and selections of Mitchell's music are played on a continuous loop, offering sometimes subtle, sometimes startling connections between the different aspects of this multi-faceted artist's work.
And while the quality of the work is somewhat varied, there is enough interesting material in the exhibit to make the trip to Saskatoon worthwhile for loyal fans and interested observers alike.
Several captivating and very successful self-portraits comprise the centrepiece of Voices. "Both Sides 1 and 2" are two remarkably candid oil paintings of Mitchell from front and back, smoking alone in a bar under a "No Smoking" sign. Funnily enough, the Mendel broke its own no-smoking policy to allow Mitchell to smoke during the opening. "Turbulent Indigo" is probably her best-known painting, an imitation of a Van Gogh self-portrait that was used in the cover art of her 1995 album of the same name. Mitchell's version is rich in depth and colour, a somber examination of a middle-aged artist.
The most striking feature of the exhibit is Mitchell's obvious affection for and preoccupation with the Saskatchewan landscape. In "Flaming June Revisited," another oil painting, she carefully transposes Edward Leighton's classical figure onto a distinctly Canadian panorama, as if claiming the image as her (and our) own. "The Road to Waskesui" and "40 Below 0" are simply winter landscapes Mitchell painted from photographs she took on one of her frequent treks through rural Saskatchewan.
There are a number of huge abstracts, some of which work better than others. 1982's "Malibu" is bland, washed-out and overly pastelly, while "The Road to Uncle Lyle's" hits closer to home and is more successful for it.
It is in her photography, however, that Mitchell truly shines. Voices includes a 1986 photo series in which darkly haunting images of her gaunt-looking face are gently super-imposed over such provincial mainstays as grain elevators, tumbled-down barns and railway tracks. The series comes closer to capturing the soul of Saskatchewan than anything else in the exhibit.
Mitchell's visual art, even in a high-profile exhibit such as this, is unlikely to ever bring the acclaim - and, let's face it, financial compensation - afforded by her musical career. But the intelligence and artistic commitment she readily displays in Voices mark her as an artist worth paying attention to - whatever the genre.
Voices: Joni Mitchell continues at Saskatoon's Mendel Art Gallery until September 17. Admission is free.
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