Ten Significant Canadian Artists You Should Know

Emil Carr, First Nations War Canoes in Alert Bay, 1912 © the artist, courtesy Wiki Commons
Emil Carr, First Nations War Canoes in Alert Bay, 1912 © the artist, courtesy Wiki Commons
Photo of Ellen Von Weigand
5 January 2017

Although known primarily for its vast wilderness, Canada is also home to a vibrant cultural scene. This list of ten great Canadian artists highlights two types of creative talent: those for whom Canada’s history and traditions have been of paramount influence in the development of their work, and those who have taken a more global approach. In either case, the chosen artists demonstrate the consistent strength of the country’s artistic output.

© Emily Carr | Wikimedia Commons

Emily Carr (1871-1945)

Emily Carr was born in Vancouver, Canada and spent her career writing and painting on themes related to the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest. Carr travelled to Ucluelet in 1898, on her first of several art inspired trips, to create work amongst the Nuu-chah-nulth people. In 1910 the artist went to Europe in order to educate herself on the dominant artistic trends of the period and, upon her return, she became one of the pioneering artists of the modernist and post-impressionist style of painting in Canada. The artist’s interests evolved as time passed, and landscapes, rather than indigenous people, dominate her later canvases.

The Cave Painter, 2013 Plaster, wood, foam, synthetic hair, sculpting epoxy, metal, paint, glitter, glass, three overhead projectors on custom sculpted plinth, photo-collage projection acetates, timer sequencer 301 x 427 x 457 cm | © Shary Boyle

Shary Boyle (b. 1972)

As the Canadian pavilion representative for the 55th Venice Biennale, Shary Boyle has taken her place at the forefront of the international contemporary art scene. A graduate of Ontario College of Art and Design, Boyle traverses a range of media, including sculpture, drawing, paintings, installation and performance, in her explorations of sexuality, class and gender injustices, and alternative human experience through the creation of highly personal, often folkloric, worlds. Music frequently plays a part in her installations, as the artist recognises that, when done properly, the combination of the visual and acoustic can elevate one’s experience of both. Boyle is also renowned for her fragile, sometimes disquieting ceramic figurines, combining the human and the animal in universal themes.

© Jessica Tracey | Flickr

Agnes Martin (1912-2004)

Agnes Martin was raised in Vancouver, but moved to the United States in 1931. Although Martin is considered a minimalist painter, she is known to have viewed her work as Abstract Expressionism. While studying at Columbia University in New York, the artist was introduced to Zen Buddhism, and became intrigued by Asian thought as a set of guiding principles. Martin revered American mid-century painter Mark Rothko for his success in stripping down art to ‘zero’, so that pure truth could be revealed through his painting. Inspired by this reductionist aesthetic, Martin resolved to pare down her own work, turning her back to representations of the world in favour of the expression of pure perfection and transcendent reality. Her paintings are characterized by subtle grids and fields of soft colour.

© Boberger | Wikimedia Commons

Bill Reid (1920-1998)

Bill Reid made such a substantial mark on the cultural identity of Canada, that his artwork was depicted on the $20 bank note of the Canadian Journey series, which was printed between 2004 and 2012. The son of a Scottish-German father and a mother from the Kaadaas gaah Kiiguwaay, Raven/Wolf Clan of T’anuu, more simply known as Haida, Reid became fascinated by the art of the Haida people. Although he was also an accomplished jewelry maker, the works for which he is most well known are three large scale bronze sculptures. Two of the works feature a canoe almost overflowing with human and animal figures, highly stylised in a recognisably indigenous manner.

© stephane333 | Flickr

Janet Cardiff (b. 1957)

Although Janet Cardiff lives and works in Berlin, along with her partner (both in art and life) George Bures Miller, she was born in Brussels Ontario. Cardiff is most famous for her ‘audio walks’, interactive tours where visitors are led to a series of locations by an audio guide created by the artist. During the walks, the artist facilitates an experience which weaves together fictional narrative with an acknowledgement of one’s actual physical surroundings. The resulting artworks immerse viewers in an alternative world, while leaving them firmly rooted in their environment.

© lightsgoingon | Flickr

Jeff Wall (b. 1946)

Jeff Wall is renowned for his large scale, backlit, transparent images which he began to produce around 1977, seven years after he graduated with his MA from the University of British Columbia. With a background in conceptual art, many of his photographs, which are usually staged, allude to art history and often revisited philosophical issues of representation. Alongside references to Édouard Manet and Diego Velázquez, Wall also recalls the work of famous twentieth century writers such as Franz Kafka and Ralph Ellison in his works.

© Jim Linwood | Flickr

David Altmejd (b. 1974)

Born in Montreal, artist David Altmejd constructs his sculptures using materials such as wood, foam, plaster and burlap, creating frantic anthropomorphic renderings. These sculptures, which typically stand several metres tall, show uncontrolled overlapping of figures or elements. In the work The Healers, for instance, fragments of body parts emerge from unusual places, as one figure’s overgrowth of hands rips a cavity in its own chest. The figures kiss and engage in oral sexual activity, in a fury of orgiastic pleasure and suffering.

© Shaun Merrit | Flickr

Shayne Dark (b. 1952)

Shayne Dark began his career as an artist in the 1980s, and has since created both a national and international reputation for himself. His sculptures recall the organic forms of the natural environment, but are frequently painted in rich hues that make evident their fabricated quality. Dark’s sculptures are placed both inside the gallery and in public and wild settings, instigating a tension between the natural and cultural worlds. Beyond this they are meant to produce a spiritual and bodily reaction from the viewer.

© Rebecca Belmore

Rebecca Belmore (b. 1960)

Rebecca Belmore represented Canada in the 2005 Venice Biennale, where she was the first aboriginal woman to show in the pavilion. The Anishinaabe-Canadian artist creates installations, performances, video and sculpture which engage with the history and struggle of Canada’s indigenous people. Her works, at once elegant and highly political, are often related to a particular location and unravel as ritualistic expressions tied to the body, the land, language, violence and colonialism. As a result, her practice bears strong ties to her Canadian identity.

© Heido De Vries | Flickr

Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002)

Jean-Paul Riopelle was born in Montreal in 1923, and began to study drawing as a young boy. During his education at the école du Meuble in 1945, he became a member of the Les Automatistes movement, a group of dissident Montreal artists who were interested in the principles of Surrealism and its focus on automatism. Riopelle moved to Paris in 1947 and became, for a short period, associated with the Surrealists there – he was the only Canadian to exhibit with them. Soon after the artist’s painting style changed from Surrealism to Abstraction, and these are the paintings for which he is most well known. These canvases show thick impasto and texture created with the use of a palette knife, spatula or towel. He is also known to have thrown paint at his canvases, creating long slashes of pigment.