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Features / August 16, 2013

Pushing Forward: Mark Igloliorte and the Observational Life

Mark Igloliorte loves skateboarding. As we walk west along Montreal’s Ste-Catherine Street, toward his opening at Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery for the group show “Material Traces,” he is grinning through the February cold just thinking about it. He mentions legendary California skateboarder Mark Gonzales, a psychogeographer before such a thing existed, who is known for his streetwise execution of the sport. Igloliorte then reminisces about his own days doing his MFA at Concordia, when he would learn the urban terrain by skating to and from class. This enthusiasm is a postscript to our long lunch together, kicked off by his animated description of a new skate park built near his office in Amherst, Nova Scotia, to which he commutes from Sackville, New Brunswick, and where he currently works as the education program officer for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. (Igloliorte is also on a committee in Sackville to get a skate park installed there.)

“I went up yesterday just to check it out,” he says of the park in Amherst. “It’s buried in snow right now, but it’s warming up. I can’t wait. There are some days at work when I bring a gym bag with a change of clothes—spend an hour skating, douse my head with water, towel off and go back.”

Igloliorte learned to skateboard in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, when he was 16. He was born there in 1977, and his Newfoundlander mother was raised there, but he spent the majority of his childhood in the more remote Goose Bay, where he went to school at an air-force base and, on the weekends, snowmobiled, hunted and fished with his siblings and Inuit father. Igloliorte’s father worked as a provincial court judge, on occasion flying up and down the coast of Labrador on circuit. By the time the family moved back to Corner Brook in 1993, Igloliorte was ready for it: the town was bigger, and more connected. He got into art. He made skating zines with friends.

It wasn’t the last time skating and artmaking would intersect for him. Recently, Igloliorte contributed three works to curators Kathleen Ritter and Tania Willard’s “Beat Nation” show about hip hop and Aboriginal culture: a video projection on a skateboard, a red-rail sculpture and the 2011 work Komatik Skatebox. For Igloliorte, this last work is an important personal and conceptual bridge: from Goose Bay to Corner Brook; from childhood hunting trips to adolescent and adult skate tricks; from minimalism to ethnography; and from past to present.

A komatik is a precolonial slatted sled, in use today with dog teams and, in adapted form, with snowmobiles. Igloliorte remembers riding with his siblings in the large box placed on top of one, amid supplies or, on the return trip, cut wood he and his father had amassed. In Labrador, the komatik is often painted with a diamond. For Igloliorte, who has done skate tricks on a self-fashioned komatik and its box both for gallery performances and a photographic series, this diamond, “bold and understated, static and dynamic,” is “a resounding sign of the impulse to paint.”

That impulse is strong in Igloliorte—as strong as skateboarding. It grew slowly. He relates simple activities from high school and first- and second-year university that got him started. He name-checks Betty Edwards’s bestselling 1979 book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, with its still-life and upside-down-drawing exercises. Such things would not be remarkable (countless art students have done them) had Igloliorte not chosen observation as the meat of his practice.

For Igloliorte, observation is not passive. It is a mode of inquiry that privileges processes of reflection and analysis, and that combines the subjective and the formal. It suits the artist, who gives the impression of an introverted extrovert. Observational work makes the artist into an experimenter and witness. It’s an old way to make art, tied to the plein air tradition, one that curator Kitty Scott explored in her 2012 group exhibition at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, “À Ciel Ouvert,” in which Igloliorte was included.

Among the works in “À Ciel Ouvert” were those sparked by an Aboriginal New Works Residency Igloliorte did at the Banff Centre in 2006. It was a turning point for him. Igloliorte had graduated in 2003 from the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design University and, with his wife, also a NSCAD grad, decided to pursue a teaching degree at Memorial University in St. John’s. But Igloliorte found the program pedantic and careerist, and the couple was interested in real educational outreach, having spent several summers in Innu communities in Labrador, where his wife was raised. On finishing at Memorial, Igloliorte did a work study at Banff. He returned the following year for his residency.

“The cool thing about Banff was the level of Aboriginal programming that they were doing,” says Igloliorte. He mentions Candice Hopkins, who led his residency (entitled “Storytelling”), as well as Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Joseph Naytowhow, Lori Blondeau, Ryan Rice, Sharon Shorty and Kung Jaadee (Roberta Kennedy)—all artists at Banff during this period. “When I was with these people exploring different sides of their culture, I started thinking differently. I remember after a storytelling evening getting really fired up, and thinking about how I could make this rail for snowboarding, which would have a clear connection to my Inuit background but also my Newfoundlander background.”

Later, Igloliorte combined his NSCAD training—which, true to the institution’s reputation, stressed surface and materiality in painting—with the identity-exploration Hopkins and others had imparted to him at Banff, creating the luscious, eerie works on Plexiglas that kickstarted the series from which Scott selected for “À Ciel Ouvert.” These Igloliorte refers to as his Kayait works, “kayait” being plural for “kayak.” They can be traced back to his playing around with Post-It notes (part of his prolific observational sketching practice that he keeps up even during periods of artist’s block), which he was starting to translate into monochromatic, low-contrast paintings. Igloliorte was Googling one day and found a trove of images of kayait in Labrador taken in the late 19th century by German and Moravian missionaries. He decided to paint these photos on Plexiglas: impressions of impressions, mimicking the glass negatives that would have produced the original prints, and also a topical acknowledgment of his mixed heritage and its colonial dimensions.

Igloliorte’s subsequent thesis work used the Kayait series as a counterpoint. Instead of a photo-based approach, he embraced immediate observation from life. A notable aspect of Igloliorte’s thesis is a series of diptychs he painted on telephone-book paper. These are quickly executed works, finished in a day: dual views of items around him, usually in his studio, from easy-to-recognize things like sneakers to more abstract glances at desk corners and tangled cords. Igloliorte mentions as inspiration one of the dictums in Bruce Mau’s An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth: “Begin anywhere.” One sees much of Giorgio Morandi in the diptychs, an influence Igloliorte readily acknowledges.

The diptychs’ connection to Igloliorte’s personal experiences appears oblique, but several things can be noted. First, although the works are now sold readily by Igloliorte’s Montreal dealer, Donald Browne, they are not archival: telephone paper disintegrates in about 10 years. (At “Material Traces,” one could already see holes developing in these works, only a few years old.) The ephemeral quality can be connected to Igloliorte’s persistent revisiting of Labrador during his MFA to do work with at-risk Inuit youth. (Igloliorte has regularly returned to the community of Hopedale.) This time was marked by the suicide of one of the youths he had taught, the suicide rates in Labrador being so high that, in Igloliorte’s words, “you’re bound to bump up against it. It’s part of the cultural landscape.”

A number of the diptychs were in fact made using paper from a Labrador phone book, and one could draw conclusions about the nihilism essential to these (slowly) self-destructing works. But Igloliorte, who, prior to his thesis project, did make “direct” art about suicide before needing to “give up and try something else” is also celebrating his outreach efforts with the diptychs. The idea, of course, is that art is not a commodity, but rather a rich experience in and of itself. The diptychs will be around long enough for people to view and be inspired by them. In Igloliorte’s thesis paper, he identifies the Inuit community of Labrador as the preferred and primary audience for his creative output. Strange, coming from a young artist who also, in the thesis, writes of Pierre Bonnard and Francisco de Goya, and makes art in the vein of a European Modernist-Minimalist icon like Morandi.

Yet, as Igloliorte points out, Morandi was an educator himself, a drawing instructor in elementary schools for more than two decades. Igloliorte, in turn, is excited to begin the next phase of his career. This summer he goes on leave from his job, returning to Hopedale on a Canada Council grant in order to teach observational drawing to youth, and to do some of his own.

In light of this, I ask if he sees his artwork as fundamentally social or formal. Unsurprisingly, he brings us back to skateboarding. “When I got to the observational work, I started really thinking about skateboarding magazines,” he says. “A large part of the skateboarding industry is producing videos, which have to be reviewed in the magazines. The same criteria always come up. It’s not necessarily the biggest and best, the most technically skilled, but it’s: ‘Do you feel when the video is over like you want to go out and skate?’ You get a transfer of energy.

“With the diptych work, in being a little bit loose and accessible, not in a dumbed-down way, but as an expression of possibility—that’s a way of engaging with people. To share my practice, to put it out in the world, to put out my internal decisions and engagements: I hope that someone is able to take something back from me and put it into whatever they’re doing. And that it pushes them forward.”

This is an article from the Summer 2013 issue of Canadian Art, available on newsstands now as well as on the App Store and Zinio.

David Balzer

David Balzer is the author of two books, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, winner of ICA London's 2015 Book of the Year, and the short-fiction collection Contrivances. He has written about art and culture for the Globe and Mail, the GuardianFrieze, Artforum, The Believer and others, and from 2016 to 2019 was editor-in-chief and co-publisher of Canadian Art.