Wanda Koop Brings Haunting, Complex Paintings to Montréal | Québec Guide | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Wanda Koop Brings Haunting, Complex Paintings to Montréal

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Published July 3, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


"Ukrainian Quartet – Power Plant" - PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE ARTIST/WILLIAM EAKIN/NIGHT GALLERY
  • Photos Courtesy Of The Artist/William Eakin/Night Gallery
  • "Ukrainian Quartet – Power Plant"

In "Wanda Koop: WHO OWNS THE MOON" at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, the celestial orb is an ominous presence.

This is the first major exhibition in Québec for the Winnipeg artist, who has shown across Canada and internationally, including a survey at the National Gallery of Canada in 2011. Koop's family, like many in western Canada, emigrated from Ukraine during the last century; the war in Ukraine is central to her current work.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's military bombed Zaporizhzhia 100 years to the day that Koop's family left the town, so it's no surprise that her most arresting painting is "Ukrainian Quartet — Power Plant." In it, we see the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on the shoreline of the Dnipro River, described in mauve tones under a scab-colored sky. A fluorescent red moon hangs heavily over it, reflected in the water.

One cannot get an accurate sense of the color except in person. Fluorescent paint can sometimes be gimmicky, but not here. Koop, known as a master colorist, uses it to great effect against the rest of the scene. The moon is unreal in this picture, as though hovering in front of the canvas. It is an undeniable, nuclear-level visual threat within an otherwise unsettlingly calm scene.

Koop carries the dark mood into other works, such as "Note for Eclipse" and "Black Rose," both of which are hung high on the wall above "Ukrainian Quartet — Power Plant." The purple-black sky and brilliant light of "Note for Eclipse" read as sinister, unlike the celebratory atmosphere of the April 8 solar eclipse, but to those who witnessed that event, the scene will nonetheless seem familiarly spooky.

"Black Rose" and its nearby neighbor "Ghost Tree" are part of a series of paintings of dead trees, painted just before Russia invaded Ukraine. In the spruce bog near Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba, where Koop spends part of the year, she sees trees like this as hopeful evidence of a life cycle, particularly when they shine in the moonlight.

In the exhibition, the dead trees bring us back to Earth from the moon. They are close and tactile, and in a gallery filled with skies and distant landscapes, they stand in for the human skeleton.

"Black Sea Portal — Luminous Red" - PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE ARTIST/WILLIAM EAKIN/NIGHT GALLERY
  • Photos Courtesy Of The Artist/William Eakin/Night Gallery
  • "Black Sea Portal — Luminous Red"

The show may have an undertone of doom and gloom, but there are luminous breaks in Koop's four monumental-scale "Black Sea Portal" paintings. Each one is 10 feet high and more than 13 feet wide. They show the same landscape — a shoreline at the Black Sea — in four different color schemes, ranging from snowy white to midnight blue. Each has a "portal" — a vertical strip of contrasting color — hovering over the scene.

Koop uses layers of color to create subtle shifts that build to a dramatic contrast. There's light within each vertical portal, so that even bright red and fluorescent yellow have enough variation in them to convey depth. It's particularly effective in "Black Sea Portal — Sunset Orange," in which Koop interrupts a muggy, grayish-purplish-green sea and sky with a slice of the sunset on a clear summer day.

The portals may remind some viewers of James Turrell's Skyspaces. His room-size installations frame the sky with carefully constructed openings that present the sky as if it were a painting. Here, Koop gives us the reverse — a painting that offers a sense of escape from the landscape and into the air.

"I think we've all been so sad," Koop says in an interview in the show's catalog; "we're in this place in history where we're all kind of filled with sorrow about what's happening around the world. For me, when the war started in Ukraine, I sort of understood my parents' grief for the first time."

"Sleepwalking — Flowers" - PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE ARTIST/WILLIAM EAKIN/NIGHT GALLERY
  • Photos Courtesy Of The Artist/William Eakin/Night Gallery
  • "Sleepwalking — Flowers"

That melancholy is palpable throughout the show, especially in the suite of four 9-foot tall, narrow paintings called "Sleepwalking." Here, Koop uses a personal symbology to explore memory and cultural heritage. One is an image of a thick braid of hair, which the artist says was a real object — her grandmother's braid, kept as a keepsake after her death. Another, of barely visible white cross- stitching, references her mother's baby blanket. The third has a drip motif that Koop calls a "bloodline" and has used before in her work.

The last of these canvases depicts a handful of wildflowers and references the feeling of wanting to throw yourself into an open grave as flowers are tossed onto the coffin during a burial. The flowers are bright and pretty but also drip and blur, as though they can't come into focus. The whole suite of paintings, strikingly starker and simpler than Koop's landscapes, gives off haunted vibes.

The moon reappears in another quadriptych called "Objects of Interest." One version, in a hazy blue August sky, pairs it with a painting of the International Space Station. The other, bright in a nighttime void, hovers next to a painting of the Chinese-built Tiangong space station. With these, Koop is raising questions about surveillance and ownership.

While many mythologies cast the moon as a watchful presence, humans are now placing objects into orbit that literally fulfill that role. Koop began painting the suite after a Chinese spy balloon, which looked a little like the moon, traversed Canadian airspace and was shot down by the U.S. in 2023. That prompted the artist to reflect: "This is so strange. I thought I was painting the Moon, but maybe I'm just painting objects of interest."

Describing her exhibition, Koop says, "It's a big poem, the whole thing." That rings true, from her unusual sense of color and pared-down visual vocabulary to the "concrete poetry" of the title, which intentionally is all upper case with no question mark.

"The Moon belongs to all of us," Koop continues, "as does the Earth. And I think not adding the question mark allows the title to be such a big, big, not a question but a big place to go psychologically. It gives us space."

"Wanda Koop: WHO OWNS THE MOON" is on view through August 4 at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts. mbam.qc.ca

The original print version of this article was headlined "Bad Moon Rising | Wanda Koop brings haunting, complex paintings to Montréal"

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