Maria Hupfield is a Brooklyn-based artist from Wasauksing First Nation, an Anishinabek community on Parry Island, five hours north of Toronto along Georgian Bay. It’s watery country out there. If you look down from the Google satellite, you’ll see hundreds or even thousands of interconnected lakes and islands, densely scattered far inland from the bay. Zoom in on the South Channel below Parry Island and there’ll be motorboats carving long, narrow Vs as they make their way to open water. Hupfield’s exhibition The One Who Keeps on Giving, currently at Galerie de l’UQAM in Montreal, launches from the same impulse: to get out to that timeless place between lake and sky – to return, in a sense, to the beginning.
In the new work, Hupfield inclines toward her mother, Peggy Miller, after whom the exhibition is named. The One Who Keeps on Giving is an English translation of Miller’s Anishinaabe name. In its most straightforward sense, the show is an homage to an oil painting that Miller made back in 1974, the year before Hupfield was born. The painting is a wonder. It depicts Georgian Bay on a clear day, though anyone might easily mistake it for the ocean, with its wide horizon and turbulent water. Miller doesn’t waste a brushstroke on the usual tropes of seascapes. Her composition includes no sentimental ships or rocky promontories, no sun or moon casting their reflections, and no crashing waves or wheeling birds overhead. The painting has nothing to prove, ask, or show; it’s just water and light, told true and straight.
This is the still point around which the exhibition turns. The One Who Keeps on Giving also includes paired video documentation of two performances that Hupfield enacted with members of her family – her sister, brother, and sister-in-law – one on stage for her home community in Parry Sound and the other at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto with no audience. Before visiting the show, I confess that I wasn’t eager to attend these family scenes. I worried that they would feel precocious or emotionally coercive. I didn’t want to play spectator to someone else’s special moment. The rest of the exhibition made me similarly apprehensive. The One Who Keeps on Giving includes a collection of felt sculptures representing objects that have personal significance to Hupfield, as well as video recordings of previous performance works, wherein she “activates” those simulacra. Having never seen the work before, it all sounded dangerously cozy.
The introductory wall-text to The One Who Keeps on Giving didn’t reassure. It begins on a note of teacherly self-seriousness: “Objects contain meanings beyond their materiality, meanings that we bring to them or receive from them.” It’s a mistake to become too distracted by the mannered language that affixes to art, but seriously, to whom is this addressed? Which gallery-goer has never heard of subjectivity before? No one needs “context” art-splained to them. It’s condescending. Don’t tell me that things can be meaningful, or that people experience things differently.
While this makes for a disappointing first step, Hupfield quickly arrives at more nuanced terrain by pinning us between the two recorded performances. The videos take turns across two facing walls, like a call and response, but with subtle-yet-significant variations. In both iterations, Hupfield holds her mother’s painting in front of her, while her brother John Hupfield performs a grass dance in full regalia, her sister-in-law Deanna dances in a jingle dress (one of Hupfield’s felt creations), and her older sister plays a rhythm on a hand drum, and sings. But as we watch – first the Parry Sound version, then Toronto, and then back again – we start noticing slight differences, and a dialogue emerges. In one, Hupfield holds the painting facing inward and gazes down on it; in the other, she holds it out to the camera and stalks along the back wall. Each divergence conveys a nuanced message about the setting, and as the clues accumulate, we start to see the subtle tonal assumptions and emotional parameters enforced by an art venue like the Power Plant, particularly as experienced by Indigenous performers.
The performances by Hupfield’s siblings dissolved my anxieties about sentimental manipulation. Like Miller’s painting of Georgian Bay, they don’t plead for attention or approval. On the contrary, the performers are so confident in their intention, and so gracefully forthright in how they accomplish it, that my own presence as a viewer felt incidental. I can’t venture to describe exactly what they were achieving – for their mother, for themselves – but I would hazard that they succeeded, and it was beautiful to watch.
While I was slowly absorbing the back-and-forth between the two videos, I observed a determined art person power-walking through the exhibition, strafing Hupfield’s videos and sculptures with penetrating, sidelong looks, like someone rifling through the bins at a second-hand clothing depot. Only Peggy Smith’s lake and sky were able to interrupt this efficient survey. The viewer halted in front of it, leaned forward and back appraisingly for a minute or two, then exited the gallery with a last sweeping scan of the show, the way a surveillance drone might check for signs of life.
Only Miller’s painting performs a feat of immediacy, grabbing you instantly. Hupfield’s own works require a major energetic downshift to appreciate. The paired video performances take a long time to unfurl, and it’s hard to join the same frequency as her muted felt sculptures. But linger a while, and Hupfield’s wit comes creeping into the quiet. Apart from being thick and benumbed, her sculptures also look ultra-contemporary, like they might fare better in a trendy furniture store. For Hupfield, I suspect the greyness is partly a joke on information-age aesthetics and how globalization makes everywhere nowhere. Coming out of Galerie de l’UQAM after visiting the show, I passed a woman wearing simple grey garments that flowed down from her head and shoulders, and then a man clad in a grey sweatsuit. They could have been emissaries from Hupfield’s grey dimension: unresolvable moderns: inscrutable yet basic, matching everything.
In interviews, Hupfield has expressed her distaste for how the internet captures so much of our attention and intermediates our relationships. In her work, she quietly insists her viewers exit the digital cloud, its over-stimulation to the point of numbness, and return to this old earth. For all the nuances of context that Hupfield highlights, the process is simple enough. Hupfield uses the gallery to make us look at her mom’s painting. Peggy Miller uses the painting to look more carefully at the water. What she sees reflects back. We receive, and it gives.