Alex Janvier’s art is often abstract. His brilliance isn’t

Art | by Gregory Beatty


Alex Janvier
Mackenzie Art Gallery

Until Sept. 10

Denesuline/Saulteaux artist Alex Janvier has seen a lot in his 82 years.

Janvier, who was born on Le Goff Reserve in northern Alberta in 1935, was taken from his family at age eight and put in residential school. Later he studied at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and Art, and exhibited at Expo 67.

He helped found a professional arts organization in Winnipeg with six other artists (known collectively as Canada’s Indian Group of Seven), and did  residencies in Sweden and China.

He’s done a lot more, but I’ve got 600 words so that will do for now. As for you: this Greg Hill-curated retrospective on Janvier opened recently at the MacKenzie Art Gallery after a five-month run at the National Gallery, and it’s worth your time.

Janvier began his artistic journey at Blue Quills residential school. Showing early signs of talent, he was given art materials. The show includes two paintings he did at Blue Quills: “Our Lady of the Teepee” (1950) and “Sacred Heart” (1952).

“One reason these pieces are included is to show that aspect of his life,” says MacKenzie associate curator Michelle LaVallee. “But even at that age he was still resistant to losing connection to his culture. The characters he’s created obviously reference Christianity, but he’s given them Indigenous features and adornments, so it’s really showing that moment in his life when he’s combining these different world views.”

After flirting with becoming a priest, Janvier enrolled at SAITA in 1956.

“The pass system was still operating, so he needed a pass from the Indian agent to come and go from the reserve,” says LaVallee. He originally applied to an Ontario art school and was accepted, but the Indian agent told him he wasn’t smart enough and only gave him a pass to go no further than Calgary.”

Abstract expressionism was the dominant art form then, and you can see echoes of that in some paintings with drips and splatters, built-up textures and expressive rendering of figures. But the comparison is limited, says LaVallee.

“It’s often been read as a Western influence, but Indigenous artists have always worked with abstract concepts without Western imposition. And when you talk to him, and look at the works, I think the basis really is his particular cultural knowledge and experiences.”

One influence Hill does flag is Spanish artist Joan Miro. It’s a legit comparison, although Janvier’s brushwork seems lighter and more lyrical than Miro’s. Then there’s the content of the paintings which, LaVallee notes, is rooted in Janvier’s cultural knowledge and lived experience in Canada.

There’s also a recurring number: 287. You won’t find it on every work, but it does appear frequently — and for good reason. It’s Janvier’s treaty number.

“He signed 287 in reaction to a dehumanizing bureaucracy that worked through the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, and also residential schools,” says LaVallee. “It was very much a political act in acknowledging this number that those of us with status are assigned.

“Alex was painting at the same time as the Regina Five and many other abstract artists we’re familiar with, so it’s always boggled my mind — for me, his work blows most of that out of the water,” says LaVallee. “It’s infuriating to think he was never recognized at that time for the masterful work he was producing. You look at these works, and they still look quite fresh. But they’re 40 years old.” ❧