Terrance Houle has always been a performer. Growing up on the Canadian Prairies while his father served in the armed forces, the Calgary-based artist, who is of Blackfoot and Ojibway descent, regularly danced at powwows while attending military-base and public schools. Out of these experiences Houle has developed a multidisciplinary practice centring on notions of contemporaneity, identity and being raised in one’s culture. For him, it often comes back to the body.
This exhibition’s title, “Givn’r,” means, in prairie slang, to work and rock hard, and Houle has done both. In the five years of work represented here, something of a punk spirit comes across. He subjects his masculinity to scrutiny, brings on moments of no-holds-barred self-deprecating humour and uses rock music written by friends in his delightfully playful films to make serious issues about Aboriginal history approachable. While the exhibition privileged Houle’s photo series spatially, it also included more than an hour of short films and performance documentation.
The art is simultaneously sad and funny. In his Urban Indian photographs from 2004, Houle shows us his everyday routines, from leaving the house and kissing his family goodbye to lunching at a diner and buying groceries. Throughout, he wears powwow regalia, and his face droops in a tired expression. Everything seems like a chore; society’s expectations of Nativeness weigh him down like a ball and chain. There’s a gag here, to be sure, but the poignancy of the sentiment lingers. Similarly, Landscape, a series of three photographs, depicts the artist in everyday environments such as parks and a baseball field. In these more cinematic images, Houle corrupts the otherwise serene landscapes, wearing an absurd feather-and-loincloth outfit, his limp body appearing either asleep or dead. Yet in alternating between stereotypical and realistic imagery, the elegant photos have a dreamlike quality that opens onto wide narrative possibilities.
In the film Landscape (2008), which parallels the photo series of the same name, Houle again riffs on the image of the lean, mean warrior to subvert colonial representations. In hazy, slo-mo close-up, he runs and lumbers, as though pursued, across a grassy field, covered only by a loincloth and wearing very urban, rectangular-frame eyeglasses. The implied pursuer turns out to be his small daughter, who rides a plastic toy horse. Hollywood notions of cowboys and Indians crumble like a dead thing as the image suggests the generational connection of simply being on the land. Houle’s near-nakedness also works to elicit an awareness of humanness in tandem with cultural identity.
In his other films and videos, Houle is a trickster, a storyteller and, above all, a truthteller. His sense of play evokes the Aboriginal tradition of using parody and humour to speak honestly and affectingly. But the artist brings something fresh too. It’s an attitude of cowtown subculture that made this, one might say, a wicked awesome show!