Garry Neill Kennedy's retro perspective
December 8, 2011

Garry Neill Kennedy with his exhibition, Retrospective (In Quotations), on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia to January 8.
It seems such a small room for a retrospective, especially a retrospective of Garry Neill Kennedy’s work. As an artist and educator for more than four decades, his work could fill entire galleries.

But then it dawned on me, this exhibition wasn’t so much of a retrospective as a retro-perspective on art museums and galleries and their procedures.

The exhibition—Garry Neill Kennedy’s preferred name is Retrospective (In Quotations) —dates to 1983 and was originally shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It is indeed a retrospective in that it looks back over 14 exhibitions that the artist took part in from 1979 to 1982.

For each of the 14 exhibitions, Kennedy assembled a panel, each one framed and official. Each panel contains the invite for the show profiled or the front page of the catalogue, as well as accompanying photographs from the opening and pictures of gallery officials and other artists.

It’s all so authoritative and corporate-looking that you don’t think twice about its authenticity. That is, until you think three times and it dawns on you—Hey, wait a minute!

As Kennedy himself says, “it’s so false that it’s believable.”

Once you catch the wink, it’s a pretty funny exhibition. In putting it together, Kennedy cut out images from the now-defunct Executive magazine, a magazine that used to be delivered to him when he served as president of NSCAD. Executive might have been the Sears catalogue of the corporate world, full of business men with Ken Doll hair in three-piece suits going out to lunch, smiling from behind desks or shaking hands heartily. And these are the men that Kennedy posits as gallery directors and owners.

There are no sacred cows here—he includes himself in the satire. In one of the panels, there’s a picture of a glass-walled office building which he labeled as “the artist’s studio at Hollis and Duke.”

He loves controversy and invents it here; he posts a picture of a building engulfed by flames, stating that the gallery that showed his work later burned to the ground. In another, he declares other Canadian artists were enraged by The Average Size, The Average Colour, which showed at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1978. (True story: in creating the work, he looked at the paintings of 32 Canadian artists and deduced the average colour was a mousy grey-brown and the average size was 55 ¾” by 55 ¾” by 1½".) But somehow, according to a photo caption, he and the artists were able to resolve their differences and posed for a group photo—each artist uniformly smiling, well-to-do and male in the phony Executive photo.

“It’s a critique of the system within which we were working,” says the Governor General Award-winning artist.

The exhibition was recently donated by the artist to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Curator David Diviney (MFA 1998) is delighted to be able to present the work.

“It’s fun to bring things out that haven’t been on public view here before,” he says. “Especially in this case because it’s at once playful yet political ... It probes on a lot of different levels.”

Retrospective (In Quotations) is on view in the Manning Gallery at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia to January 8, 2012.