Future Possible: An Art History of Newfoundland and Labrador

Canada’s youngest province also has the country’s longest history of European settlement, from the ultimately doomed Norse settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows (abandoned over 1,000 years ago), to the seasonal camps of French, Basque and English fishers that were concurrent with the so-called age of exploration, if they didn’t predate it by centuries (the jury is still out on that). And of course, the presence of Indigenous peoples in Newfoundland and Labrador extends back to time immemorial. So, obviously, there’s a lot to cover.

One would expect that telling any history of a young place with such a long history (the project was sparked by a desire to mark the 70th anniversary of Newfoundland’s entry to Confederation with Canada, which occurred in 2017) would be fraught, even contentious. Quite simply, we don’t live in times that easily accept formerly dominant narratives.

Future Possible: An Art History of Newfoundland and Labrador, ed. Mireille Eagan, Goose Lane Editions, 2021, 312 pages, hardcover, $60.00.

Future Possible: An Art History of Newfoundland and Labrador, a handsome and expansive book, dodges any attempt at a defining narrative though the expedient of inviting numerous tellers to recount their views on the histories of art in Newfoundland and Labrador. It doesn’t create a traditional historiography, but it does provide a vibrant and compelling picture of a vibrant and compelling place.

Mireille Eagan, curator of The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery, put this project together to accompany two large exhibitions of Newfoundland’s and Labrador’s visual arts, one examining the arts pre-Confederation (2018), the other looking at 1947 until the present day (2019). She subtitled the book “an art history” with intent, writing that the title “acknowledges that there’s no one definitive story.” Far from a chronological listing of events and personages, this book is more a compendium of approaches. It doesn’t have a timeline of events, for instance, and neither is there a biographical listing of artists of note, both things one might reasonably expect in a traditional history. But, of course, that’s exactly what this book isn’t.

With a foreword, a preface, an introduction, a monologue and 14 chapters (all by different writers), there is no lack of range in the stories told. Eagan’s preface sets the stage when she evokes Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” In his introduction, James Fitzpatrick evokes the importance of an early 1980s performance in Gander by the renowned comedian Tommy Sexton, in which Fitzpatrick saw a “great leap forward” into the future. “That’s how the future reveals itself here,” he writes, “we get a passing glimpse as it sprints into the distance.”

The reader is well aware that they are into something completely different by the time they read the final introductory piece, the script of Andy Jones’s monologue Future Possible, Possible Horrible, from which Eagan took the title of this expansive project. Heather Igloliorte contributes a fascinating essay describing how the Labrador Inuit were excluded from the narrative surrounding Inuit art in Canada, and what that exclusion has meant to the art history of Nunatsiavut (the Inuit selfgoverned territory in Labrador). An essay looking at the earliest settler attempts at European-style artmaking is provided by Jeff Webb, and Darryn Doull looks at the history of mapping the territory, while Bushra Junaid looks at Newfoundland’s and Labrador’s connections to the slave trade. Of Parisian salons, royal academies and New York art students’ leagues—staples of most histories of 19th- and early 20th-century art in Canada—there is no mention. The “an” of this history looms large.

Institutions do get their mentions, with lively essays on the evolution of the provincial art gallery (by Patricia Grattan) and art school (Gerard Curtis), as do the anti-institutions of artist-run culture (Craig Francis Power). Caroline Stone, a long-time curator at the various iterations of the provincial art gallery, provides a memoir of her three decades working with public collections, and novelist Lisa Moore provides a more idiosyncratic text on interacting with works of art. Vernacular art and its role in Newfoundland’s and Labrador’s traditional culture is the subject of an essay by Cory Thorne and Kelly Totten, while Eva Crocker provides an essay on three recent collaborative art projects, a meditation on possible futures rather than (possibly horrible) pasts. Andria Hickey, a St John’s native who works as a curator in New York, provides the last text, a thoughtful take on Newfoundland’s and Labrador’s simultaneous peripheral state (to the larger art world, to Canada) and its centrality (as a fully alive place in and of itself, the capital of its world).

Over half of the book is taken up with illustrations of work from the two exhibitions, featuring works by over 100 artists. For the most part, the artists are left to speak for themselves through their work, rather than as subjects of the various texts. The one exception is an interview between Mireille Eagan and Christopher Pratt, in which the painter talks about his long career and his approach to painting.

Future Possible: An Art History of Newfoundland and Labrador is a very readable book, and through it the reader gains not a collection of facts but a picture of the spirit of the place. Less like the slide lectures of my art school art history classes, the book is closer to the long conversations afterward, in the cafeteria over coffee, in bars over beers, conversations where we were telling and making stories, trying and failing, trying and failing again, to make sense of art and artmaking. Future Possible is no typical historical text; rather, it is an immersion into a place. Perhaps all attempts at history fail ultimately. The past is another country. Future Possible, in providing versions (and visions) of Newfoundland and Labrador, not reasons or explanations, lives up to Beckett’s maxim. It fails better. ❚

Future Possible: An Art History of Newfoundland and Labrador, ed. Mireille Eagan, Goose Lane Editions, 2021, 312 pages, hardcover, $60.00.

Ray Cronin is the author of nine books on Canadian art. His next, Colleen Wolstenholme: Damn Control, will be published this fall. He lives in Nova Scotia.