Great escape

Leah Modigliani takes a multimedia approach to our tenuous national identity. Sue Carter Flinn looks through maple glasses.

photo Michael Tompkins

Douglas Coupland’s Souvenir of Canada books prove our country’s fascination with our own iconography. From stubby beer bottles to Nanaimo bars, Coupland’s photographic dissection of Canadian culture is one of the most amusing visual interpretations of our home and native land.

Artist Leah Modigliani grabs hold of Coup-land’s magnifying glass and looks much deeper. Although it’s not a “Canadiana” show, her exhibition The Great One, at Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery, does deal with issues of national identity, as well as gender, celebrity and fan relationships, and the commercial marketing of visual artists.

You have to experience The Great One to understand how these points intersect. The side room of the gallery has been deftly transformed into a hockey player’s basement rec room, thanks to a little help from eBay and the artist’s skilled hand. Not just any hockey player: it’s Leah Modigliani of the fictitious NHL team The Windsor Beavers.

Wayne and Garth would be comfortable here. There’s a signed hockey stick on one wall. A jersey is proudly stretched behind glass. Framed fan drawings and a hooked rug lovingly crafted with the team’s logo mix it up with a hockey Barbie and a set of nested dolls dressed in team uniforms. Plus beavers, beavers, everywhere: on a homemade quilt laid on top of the couch, carved into the base of a wooden lamp; they gnaw their way onto a pair of salt and pepper shakers.

“There are really three perspectives to the installation. There’s a famous female hockey player, the fan and there’s the artist. It’s open for you to decide who it is that you relate to,” Modigliani says over the phone from Long Island, New York. Originally from British Columbia, she was living in San Francisco until this week when she started her PhD at Stony Brook University.

It’s Modigliani’s experience living on the other side of the border that made her aware of how art is frequently valued commercially, and not critically. Her acute observations of “false celebrity” (she uses controversial UK artist Damien Hirst as an example) make a strong connection between those who wield a bat or stick and those who work with a paintbrush. From General Idea’s pageants to, more recently, Mitch Robertson’s Art Star trading cards, Modigliani carries on a great Canadian tradition of challenging the star system.

The concept of artist as celebrity is scattered throughout the room. Modigliani’s mug shot is unavoidable. She appears, in classic poses, on hockey cards and on cereal boxes. She peers out from the cover of Sports Illustrated. But the cornerstone of the installation is a hilarious video playing on a TV where an emotional Modigliani announces her retirement from professional sports. If it looks familiar, it’s for good reason.

“I was working at a bar for a short time, although I usually don’t do that sort of thing,” she says, laughing. “The television was on and it caught my attention. Wayne Gretzky, in front of this standard press conference blue or grey backdrop, teary, announcing his retirement…I even remember the date; it was April 17, 1999.”

Thus, the title of the show and a new focus for Modigliani: “Why is Wayne Gretzky such a golden hero? What is it about him that is loved by both, in Canada and the US?”

This is not the first time Modigliani has addressed issues of identity and celebrity. There was a show on the roof of the San Francisco Art Institute where, from a wooden booth, she educated visitors on Canada geese. Or the “group” exhibition she curated—a tribute to Blondie—where she created works from four fictional artists, unbeknownst to unsuspecting gallery patrons.

Saint Mary’s director Robin Metcalfe was interested in The Great One because it’s representational of a generation of artists who toy with ideas of persona. “And I love telling people that there’s a Modigliani show at the gallery,” Metcalfe jokes. (Leah is a distant relation to Amedeo Modigliani, the Italian artist.) “The show also really speaks to the strong sports tradition at SMU.”

Although an art gallery might be the last place you expect to see sports memorabilia, Modigliani definitely scores a point with The Great One.

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