It’s January in Winnipeg. You can fight it, or you can have some fun with it. Two cool new shows at the Winnipeg Art Gallery explore the pull of the north. Looking Up is a group exhibition that brings together Winnipeg artists with the Inuit artists who have influenced them. Meanwhile, Icelandic art star Ragnar Kjartansson plays around with the Canadian alpine winter in The End—Rocky Mountains, a catchy music and video installation.

Simon Hughes

Simon Hughes: Fractured Monochrome #4 2011. Oil on birch plywood panel. (Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery)

Winnipeg is known for its hot contemporary art scene. We also, at the WAG, have the largest public collection of Inuit art in the world, numbering almost 13,000 works. According to curator Paul Butler, that’s not a coincidence. In Looking Up, Butler starts with eight local artists who have acknowledged a northern influence in their art. Each was asked to create new work in response to work by Inuit artists and to choose pieces from the WAG vaults to exhibit alongside their own.  

The results are intriguing. This is not a demonstration of how “exotic” art has affected the current scene, but a look at an equal exchange between two groups with different histories but a lot of shared ground. In works by both Winnipeg and northern artists, you can see an interest in landscape and the environment, innovative ways of working with abstracted forms, and flashes of quirky comedy.

Aganetha Dyck:  Shrunken Crochet

Aganetha Dyck: Shrunken Crochet, 2013. (William Eakin)

There are stand-out works here from Aganetha Dyck, Simon Hughes, Jeanette Johns, Paul Robles, Michael Dumontier and more. And the works they have picked from the Inuit collection are just as strong. From the matter-of-fact magic realism of Pudlo Pudlat, to the humour of Nancy Pukingrnak Aupaluktuq, to the pared-down purity of Andy Miki, the northern works show how dynamic, diverse and contemporary Inuit art is. Several Winnipeg artists cite the influence of Luke Anguhadluq, for example, who was born in 1895 and lived most of his life on the land, but whose raw, minimalist work feels absolutely modern.

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Meanwhile, in another cultural exchange, Ragnar Kjartansson gets in touch with his inner frontiersman amid the spectacular mountainscapes of Banff, Alberta. Kjartansson is big in his native Iceland and becoming increasingly well-known worldwide. A recent Vanity Fair profile suggests that his popularity comes from the way he has brought pleasure back into performance art.

' It wouldn’t be a bad way to spend a long winter’s night.'- Alison Gillmor

That’s certainly true in this easygoing, incredibly likeable work, which features a five-track audio loop and a five-channel video projected onto five big screens. Kjartansson and collaborator Davíð Þór Jónsson play a rambling alt-country song, which builds and recedes in waves over 30 minutes. The two men play different instruments on different screens, so basically they’re jamming with themselves.

Ragnar Kjartansson

From a video of The End, 2009, by Ragnar Kjartansson (Ragnar Kjartansson)

​Kjartansson is fooling around with mountain-man clichés, from the Nordic-sublime scenery to the men’s raccoon caps and cowboy boots and the nearby whiskey bottle. But there are also comic incongruities—a grand piano out in the middle of a frozen lake, an electric guitar and amp near a cliff.  

It’s a simple set-up, but it becomes increasingly irresistible as it unfolds. I started watching everything very carefully, but by the end I was lying on my back and just going with it.  

Looking Up and The End—Rocky Mountains both have a free public opening on Friday, January 17th , and it wouldn’t be a bad way to spend a long winter’s night.