Two Roads Diverged in a Wood

2015, Exhibition and intervention, Ottawa Art Gallery.

Text by Ola Wlusek, Curator of Contemporary Art:

Three little-known works from the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art by painter George Thomson (1868-1965) provide the foundation for a new body of work by Toronto-based artist Jon Sasaki. The exhibition pays homage to the life and accomplishments of an artist who was too often discussed only in connection with his famous younger brother, Tom Thomson (1877-1917).

In a standoff, Sasaki positions a monitor with a live feed of the Centennial Light next to a regular light bulb in suspension. This exceptional light that has been burning at low wattage for over a century represents George’s artistic endurance. The latter refers to Tom’s career, growing increasingly brighter, until it finally culminates in a brilliant flash at the end of the exhibition.

Three sculpturally improvised dried flower presses made up of tables, candelabras, vases, and tea sets, described in newspaper articles of his day, suggest the social sphere in which George was immersed and heavily committed to. George deployed his considerable talent generously, using pedagogy as a means of coalescing a body of like-minded people around him. To acknowledge his community service, George was voted Owen Sound's Citizen of the Year in 1963. In a performance entitled Crowded on a Velvet Cushion, Sasaki orchestrates a workshop in which the participants are instructed in George’s meticulous and ritualistic painting method as a way of creating a convivial temporary social space.

Presented in the exhibition as nocturnes, George’s paintings are lit approximately twelve hours out of synch with the world, using a heavily filtered day for night light source (a cinematic technique that simulates night). This dissonance with the outside world could suggest George's paintings were either antiquated or ahead of their time, depending on whether or not we see a cyclical return to George's artistic concerns on the horizon.

George Thomson, Rock, Water and Sky, c. 1960, oil on panel, Firestone Collection of Canadian Art.

Finally, a selection of works by George courtesy of John A. Libby Fine Art, Toronto, presented inside the OAG’s Art Rental and Sales space, accompany the exhibition. This gesture showcases George’s broader spectrum of talent and emphasizes his lifelong commercial focus, which can be seen as a holdover from his previous life as a business school instructor.

Sasaki explains: “Often billed as ‘Canada's oldest active artist,’ George’s lifetime spanned nearly 100 years of remarkable global events, yet his work depicted a far more immutable world, one that seemed to value stability and changelessness over innovation or transformation.”

Grateful acknowledgements: Ontario Arts Council; The Tom Thomson Art Gallery: Virginia Eichhorn, David Huff; John A. Libby; Angie Littlefield, and the Ottawa Art Gallery.

Above: "Three Works By George Thomson 180 Degrees Out Of Phase" as they appear at nighttime.
"Three Works By George Thomson 180 Degrees Out Of Phase" , installation view
detail, paintings lit with day-for-night filter, as seen during the daytime.
Day-for-night paintings, installation view
"Tea Table Reconfigured Into a Press To Preserve a Bouquet of Zinnias"
"Tea Table Reconfigured Into a Press To Preserve a Bouquet of Zinnias" (detail)
Review of George Thomson exhibition describing hospitality table, circa 1960.
"Tea Table Reconfigured Into a Press To Preserve a Bouquet of Chrysanthemums"
"Tea Table Reconfigured Into a Press To Preserve a Bouquet of Chrysanthemums" (detail)
Review of George Thomson's exhibition describing hospitality table, 1964.
"Tea Table Reconfigured Into a Press To Preserve a Bouquet of Asters"
"Tea Table Reconfigured Into a Press To Preserve a Bouquet of Asters" (detail)
"One Bulb That Has Burned at Low Wattage For An Extraordinarily Long Time, And A Second Bulb That Will Burn Extraordinarily Brightly For A Short Amount Of Time"
"A Chronological Survey of George Thomson's Work." Paintings courtesy of John Libby Gallery, price tags.