Wylie: KAG launches series with Lavallee’s Man and Nature

The series commissions an emerging Aboriginal curator to choose an emerging Aboriginal artist with whom s/he would like to work.

Kenneth Lavallee’s Milky Way

Winnipeg-based painter Kenneth Lavallee blends personal memories with light-hearted but sincere nods to artists working in the mid-20th century to create paintings that are immediately appealing.

His solo show at the Kelowna Art Gallery opened on April 12, and was organized by independent Winnipeg-based curator Jenny Western, at the invitation of the Kelowna Art Gallery. It launches our new One on One series of exhibitions, for which the gallery will commission an emerging Aboriginal curator to choose an emerging Aboriginal artist with whom s/he would like to work.

The initiative is off to a roaring start as Lavallee’s new paintings created specifically for this exhibition attest.

Western’s curatorial essay, the main feature of the KAG’s online publication for the show, is also excellent and sheds light on Lavallee’s thinking and artistic production.

The artist’s acrylic-on-canvas works are extremely colourful, with flat, hard-edged organic shapes, each painted very smoothly and in a single, unmodulated colour. In their style the paintings hark back to the heyday of the second generation New York School painters, such as Kenneth Noland. They also make visual reference to the so-called Woodland School of painting, developed during the same time period (roughly the 1960s) by Canadian Native artists such as Alex Janvier.

Lavallee has mixed and selected his colours with care, and their inter-relationships are all very pleasing, if at times quirky. His sense of internal scale is unerring—that is the size of the elements in relation to the overall dimensions of each canvas—he has good instincts as a painter.

The title of the show, devised by Lavallee and Western, Man and Nature, refers to the title of the former Manitoba Museum, and also to the theme of EXPO 67. As with the retro Mad Men television series, the patriarchal nature of the period is now experienced as part of its distinctive style.

Lavallee The Bush

In an artist’s talk given with Jenny Western in a conversational format the night of the opening of the exhibition, Lavallee revealed the meaning or source of the imagery of each of the paintings. So, for example, the wild animals in The Bush are wolves, which he saw as a child, their steamy breath unfurling out of their mouths in the cold air like white ribbons. In Milky Way, the view of trees with water behind is taken from his grandmother’s porch where he grew up in St Laurent, Manitoba.

I take the trees to be aspens, therefore, and in the sky are bands of colour, first the orange glow on the horizon of the city of Winnipeg at night, and in a pale green area extending above, a reference to the Northern Lights.

In addition to his current solo exhibition, Lavallee was invited by the public program department of the Kelowna Art Gallery to work with a group of local Aboriginal teenagers to create a collaborative mural in the Gallery’s Scotiabank Studio space (indoors). This mural was completed the weekend of the opening of the exhibition and will be in place until the end of June.

Each participant in the mural chose an animal that is related to one of the seven traditional teachings, and then depicted it in a communally painted landscape setting that they devised as an ensemble.

Both the mural and the solo show are worth a look as they each give insights into a young artist’s take and personal interpretation of first-hand experiences along with cultural symbols.

One on One: Man and Nature, with Jenny Western and Kenneth Lavellee, runs at the Kelowna Art Gallery until June 29.

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