When I first heard whispers about the lineup of artists slated to show at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art’s spring exhibition, I fell into a momentary ecstatic swoon, a la St. Theresa, Bernini’s Baroque masterpiece. Fitting, then, since the MOCCA show spotlighted that very period in art history, considering its philosophical and aesthetic influence on contemporary artists today. Mounted in conjunction with the National Gallery of Canada (using works borrowed from its permanent collections), the MOCCA exhibition examined how the bombast and bravado of the Baroque surfaces in the work of Mark Bradford, Yinka Shonibare MBE, Lee Bul, David Altmejd, Tricia Middleton and Bahrti Kehr.  

Altmejd The Holes

David Altmejd The Holes

 Detailed views of David Altmejd’s The Holes, 2008

The first gallery and de facto centerpiece of the exhibition was David Altmejds The Holes; a swimming pool-size sculpture, it embodied the artist’s usual extravagant mix of materials. Mirror, plaster, hair and found objects created a wild, intricately-wrought scene of decay and rebirth. His signature “giants” appeared to lie dead on the plinth, their entrails mixing with a earthly elements like geode crystals, and man made ones such as glass. Altmejd is one of Canada’s greatest artistic talents and deservedly internationally renowed; he represented the country at the Venice Biennale in 2007, has held a solo exhibition at the Brant Foundation in Connecticut, and shows with New York powerhouse dealer Andrea Rosen; it was a thrill to see his work on his home turf.

In the adjacent space, another Canadian, Tricia Middleton, had created a similarly dizzying display: a shack of sorts using detritus from her studio: paint, sparkle, ribbon and beeswax (which lent an intoxifying scent to the immersive environment). It spoke to the artist’s ability—to our collective ability, really, given the desire—to create beautiful, and useful, things out of scraps and castoffs. I wondered at how such an incredibly detailed piece was installed on-site in any sort of timely manner.

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 Tricia Middleton’s Oz-like sculpture, Embracing oblivion and ruin is the only way to live now, 2012

Korean-born artist Lee Bul’s stunning chain-link chandelier shone like a beacon in an otherwise all-black gallery toward to back of the exhibition. A massive work comprising thousands of tiny crystal, glass and acrylic chains, it connoted both immensity and weightlessness together. Its shape vaguely suggested a giant seafaring ship, furthering the analogy of a floating boulder.

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 Lee Bul’s After Bruno Taut (Negative Capability), 2008

Rounding the corner, I was delighted to see Mark Bradford’s Africa, a painting that astute art fair goers will have recognized from Hauser & Wirth’s booth at Art Basel Miami Beach this past winter. Fortunately, its buyers have promised it to the National Gallery, and it will ideally remain on display to the public for years to come. The sole painting in the exhibition, Africa was another example of an arduous material process, its canvas worked and re-worked with multiple layers of paper sealed atop one another. While Bradford often uses posters and billboards for the source material of his pieces, in this case he turned to a 17th-century Dutch atlas, basing this image from that book’s map of Africa. It is an exuberant work, but chilling as well; the Dutch were heavily involved in the African slave trade at the time the atlas was produced. A round object at the foot of the picture recalled both the globe in small scale, as well as Bradford’s use of soccer balls and sporting objects in his work.

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 Africa, 2013, by Mark Bradford

Nearby, Yinka Shonibare MBEs sculpture Mr. and Mrs. Andrews Without Their Heads continued the visual dialogue begun by Bradford’s piece regarding Africa, colonialism and exploitation. Riffing on Thomas Gainsborough’s 1750 painting Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, Shonibare outfits two black, headless mannequins in 18th century costume created from African batik material. The work raises questions of race relations and appropriation, much as the British-Nigerian artist does when (perhaps ironically) utilizing his title as Member of the British Empire as his full professional name.

Yinka Shonibare sculpture

 African batik-clad figures in the manner of English nobility, by Yinka Shonibare MBE

A spellbinding triptych by Indian artist Bharti Kher contributed to the converstation of identity, place and cultural property. Created entirely of innumerable felt bindis mounted in kaleidoscopic arrangements, the piece alluded to mystical patterns as well as the earthly lifecycle, while commenting on the bindi’s talismanic powers in Hiduism, and use of decorative accessory at the same time.

Clearly, the Baroque, with its over-the-top aesthetic and material excess, is still alive and well in contemporary art. And for all criticism the movement has endured, this exhbition proved that artwork delighting in intricacy and beauty can pack an equally powerful intellectual punch.

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 Full view and close-up of some of the thousands of bindis comprising Bharti Kher’s Nothing Marks the Perimeter Just a Hollow Sound Echoes