08/13/2011 07:41 EDT | Updated 10/13/2011 01:12 EDT

Dreaming Of "My Winnipeg"

Winnipeg art has for some time been about two kinds of dreaming. Some of it dreams about bizarrely-ordered cities in some imaginary future. However, Winnipeg art also dreams "backwards" in time, in dozens of works that evoke the innocent stuff of childhood.

One of this summer's best art exhibits in Paris, France (where I spent my vacation) was the show "My Winnipeg", held at the Maison Rouge gallery just off the Place de la Bastille. With over 200 works by 70 plus artists, and the heavy involvement of Canadian institutions at all levels, the "My Winnipeg" show felt like a powerful showcase for art from this most culturally vibrant of Canadian cities. As you enter the gallery, you are invited to enter a draw, sponsored by Air Canada, for a "free trip to Canada." I politely declined, though it was unclear whether winners were required to go to Winnipeg or would, instead, join the thousands of Parisians now wandering around Montreal in search of work or pleasure.

My Winnipeg is also, of course, the title of Guy Maddin's much-adored 2007 pseudo-documentary film about his home town. That film isn't part of the Maison Rouge show, which instead includes Maddin's video installation Hauntings, originally produced for the opening of the Toronto International Film Festival Lightbox in 2010. Hauntings consists of imagined scenes from lost or abandoned films in cinema history, running in cycles on a series of screens arranged in collage fashion in a bordered-off space of the gallery.

There are other films and videos in the "My Winnipeg show," including Andrew Wall's short work The Long Wooden Tobogganist, a charming and slightly silly bit of fake anthropology. Most of the works on display, however, are drawings, paintings and sculptures, interspersed with articles from Winnipeg newsreels and old photographs. (The exhibit, like the comprehensive catalogue that accompanies it, tries valiantly to tell you everything you need to know about Winnipeg's history, geography, climate and culture.)

As my wife, an art historian, pointed out, Winnipeg art has for some time been about two kinds of dreaming. Some of it, like the paintings of Eleanor Bond, dreams about bizarrely-ordered cities in some imaginary future. A century ago, the curator's notes remind us, Winnipeg imagined it would become a giant metropolis of the plains, a modern hub for trans-continental travel on the scale of Chicago. The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 meant a quick end to those dreams, which linger on in artists' images of giant, futuristic cities sitting in empty spaces.

However, Winnipeg art also dreams "backwards" in time, in dozens of works that evoke the innocent stuff of childhood -- toys, coloured drawings, dolls and miniatures of all kinds. The drawings of Marcel Dzama and Daniel Barrow, the elaborate images of kindly lesbian heroism staged by Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan, Dan Donaldson's images of cartoony tree trunks come to life -- all of these mobilize high levels of whimsy and stylistic innocence in the name of pointed cultural and political commentary.

A different kind of "dreaming backwards" marks the work of Rosalie Favell and Kent Monkman, which explores the complexities of aboriginal identity by drawing on age-old popular cultural clichés about first peoples (warrior princess stereotypes in Favell's case, 19th century feathers-and-furs costumes for Monkman). In Monkman's monumental installation The Collapsing of Time and Space in an Ever-Expanding Universe, an aboriginal drag-queen looks through the window of a stuffed Victorian century living room at a stodgy 19th century landscape painting.

"Why Winnipeg?" is the title of the exhibition catalogue essay by Hervé di Rosa, who conceived this show. That question seems less and less necessary as time goes by and Winnipeg artists in all media edge our their contemporaries from Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver in terms of inventiveness and international acclaim. In November of last year, I had the honour to be invited to the conference My City's Still Breathing, held in Winnipeg and focussing on the role of art in that city's life and regeneration.

While city governments across Canada eagerly launch cultural plans and promote cultural districts built on the ruins of red light zones or sunset industries, Winnipeg's cultural vitality seems to rest on the ethos of open-minded experimentation and generous collaboration so much on display in the "My Winnipeg" show.