Los Angeles Hammer Museum Showcases Lawren Harris Landscapes

North Shore Lake Superior Hammer Museum Lawren Harris Idea of North

Lawren Harris’s “North Shore, Lake Superior” flips a reassuring thumbs-up to Hammer Museum visitors in LA, the epicenter of Southern California’s drought-stricken landscape. Lawren Harris, North Shore, Lake Superior, 1926. Oil on canvas, 102.2 x 127.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada; purchased 1930. ©Family of Lawren S. Harris. Photo ©NGC

The Idea of North provides refreshing perspective in drought-ravaged SoCal

In a recent New York Times piece entitled “My Dark California Dream” Men’s Journal contributing editor Daniel Duane wrestles with Southern California’s perennial existential crisis. Decades of exponential urban development now backdropped by “soul-destroying” traffic, drought and desertification, he writes, have caused successive generations of Californians to mourn the death of their “lost Eden.”

Showing until January 24, 2016 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris is a timely tonic. Defining the national character landscape was the mandate of the Group of Seven, of which Harris (1885-1970) was a founding member.

Viewing some of Canada’s most cool and commanding iconography in the land of perpetual summer while it suffers a super-nova bout of geographic ennui, brings the landscape painter’s images and intent to life. The fact that curator Steve Martin is one of the most beloved faces of Hollywood, American’s own identity-making machine, is apropos as a polar bear hosting a climate-change conference in Winnipeg.

Many of these paintings portray the topography of the Rocky Mountains, the north shore of Lake Superior and Elsmere Island in the Canadian Arctic. Included is “North Shore, Lake Superior,” created in 1926. Perhaps one of Canada’s most-familiar works of historic art (to Canadians – Harris and co. are largely unknown outside Canada), its glowing firmament frames a digit-like stump. Though the painting resembles a flip of the bird, sometimes a transcendent stump is just a transcendent stump.

Sunny Los Angeles

Though it’s stricken by long-term drought and its inhabitants are traffic-weary in the extreme, Southern California remains a fantastic place in which to live and/or visit. Photo, Ian Doig

Northern Canadian rejuvenation

Depicting stylized vastness, just two of these 30-plus paintings executed between the early 1920s and 1933 feature buildings, and none contain people. In them, Canadian-ness is rendered in geographic terms. In the north is the nation’s stoic pride; a familiar but magnified burden of distance, difficult terrain and sparse population, twinned with rich resources and nature that braces and rejuvenates. The north is to Canadians as spinach is to Popeye.

Harris put it this way: “We in Canada are in different circumstances than the people of the United States. Our population is sparse, whereas the States fill up and the masses crowd a heavy psychic blanket over nearly all the land.” Of course, the far north of our time feels anthropogenic change acutely, the melting permafrost liquefying the very ground upon which Arctic communities are built. Our Eden is melting just a bit more slowly than California’s is baking.

Further linking the Arctic with the desert, Harris’s modernist paintings share a strong stylistic similarity and geographic spirit with those of Georgia O’Keefe, whose defining works were created in arid New Mexico. Harris painted there as well, though after the time period of this exhibition. Both painters sought the timeless and universal in local geographies.

In an exhibition curated by actor, musician and art enthusiast Steve Martin, the work of Group of Seven founding member Lawren Harris is on display at the Hammer Gallery in Los Angeles until January 24, 2016. Photo by Brian Forrest, courtesy the Hammer Museum

In an exhibition curated by actor, musician and art enthusiast Steve Martin, the work of Group of Seven founding member Lawren Harris is on display at the Hammer Gallery in Los Angeles until January 24, 2016. Photo by Brian Forrest, courtesy the Hammer Museum

 

“Here is an artist who is national, but deserves to be international,” says Martin in the exhibition’s promotional materials. “He’s not telling the story of landscape; he’s taken it to another level of the metaphysics of landscape.”

Against SoCal’s cars-and-climate cluster funk, Harris’s chilly yet life-affirming perspective is a tall drink of ice-cold water. Here’s a reprieve from the ever-present feeling that our corner of the world – be it LA or TO – is getting worse.

This is the tack Daniel Duane takes in the conclusion to his Times piece. “[Maybe] I have merely witnessed a fleeting chapter in a centuries-long human story in which the lost Eden we all heard about from our parents is eternally changing into the pretty damn nice place we found….”

Canadians and Californians alike can use the reassurance.

Curated by Steve Martin, The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris runs until January 24, 2016 at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, which presents the exhibition in partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Free, guided 45-minute tours of The Idea of North exhibition will be held November 21, December 5 and 19, 2015 as well as January 2 and 16, 2016. Admission to the museum is free.

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