During 2013 the Winnipeg born Canadian artist Evin Collis (b. 1988) finished his most recent series of contemporary history paintings, Rupertsland Ruckus. It can be said that Evin’s work, spanning media such as painting, drawing, animation and sculpture, has always sought to create multifaceted representations of local histories in an allegorical mode, contesting the legacies of colonization, expansionism and industrialization. Collis is engaged in a kind of political historiography, he creates political messages while interrogating dominant historical narratives, often appropriating symbols from the institutions he attempts to subvert. Rupertsland Ruckus is the artist’s most successful series to date, the scale and ambition of these paintings, packed with layers of symbolism, are certainly representative of a pivotal turning point in his artistic practice.
Stefan Nicoloff: Painted with enticing colours Rupertsland Ruckus is a series of four complex large-scale paintings depicting characters and their gestures amongst vast natural and urban landscapes, the titles of which reference Greek mythology and Christian symbolism. How does the title of your series, Rupertsland Ruckus, set up the contextual parameters of this body of work, what are the specific histories you are trying to bring forward for us to bear witness to?
Evin Collis: It provides a regional historical context. Rupertsland was the name bestowed upon a large swath of North America that the Hudson’s Bay Company laid claim to from the 17th century till about 1870. I am interested in how history is qualified, quantified and represented in our culture. Also, how myth, perspective and prejudice influence and can obscure history. Within these paintings I am examining the enduring legacies wrought through colonization, expansionism and industrialization.
SN: It seems like you’re really trying to dig into the pervasive influence that political and economic models have on historiography, would you say a bit more about how you attempt to come to terms with the enduring legacy of colonialism and its relationship to Canadian history through your painting.
EC: I suppose I just want to expose it. The reasons why we are, is because of these colonial structures we follow and imitate, many of us unknowingly. Personally, I have been extensively researching my family’s history to better understand where I came from and where my ancestors were positioned throughout North American history. Things are often not how we imagine them. Canadian history is raw, difficult and complex and all of us need to recognize this in order to move forward together.
SN: In the majority of these paintings there are piles of what appears to be leftover material: slabs of wood, heads of sculptures, piping, tires and other bits of garbage. These assemblages seem to be making their way into your paintings from your drawings, Piles (c. 2012), that conflate Canadian and European geographies through a visual record generated from anecdotal evidence. The piles are not the main focal point in any of these paintings, but they certainly seem to have a strong influence, they almost predict the way you have reconfigured symbols of Canadian and European identity in order to give them new meaning; for instance in Red River Pieta, the pieta is sat atop a pile of detritus.
EC: The piles of garbage represent in my view society’s consistent disregard of the natural environment. The urban rivers of Winnipeg are absolutely filthy and the subject of many local jokes. Since my time working as a porter on the trans-continental railroad, I have passed by a great lot of abandoned industrial debris and junk of all kinds that has melded into the landscape. Our waste leaves visceral traces and indicators of our society and culture.
SN: In Red River Pieta and Assiniboine Odyssey, you have appropriated two key moments in Western history, the moment when the Virgin Mary holds the body of the dead Christ, and, Homer’s epic poem recounting Odysseus’ return from the Trojan War. In the painting you re-contextualize these moments through a reconfiguration of the iconic symbols attached to them. In keeping the gestures of the Pieta and replacing the bodies of the Virgin and Christ, with a bison and Louis Riel, your use of allegory positions the gesture as a container for bodies to pass through; similar yet divergent from the usual notion of the body as a container for multiple meanings to pass through.
EC: It’s a regional subversion. Louis Riel is the father of Manitoba and was arguably martyred by the Canadian government. The Bison headed Virgin, is intended to symbolize the motherland, significantly the abundance of the bison, a time not so long ago before Canada and the United States dominated the prairies. They are seated upon an urban beaver lodge, constructed from driftwood and debris pulled from the river.
SN: Would you elaborate a little more about the significance in referencing Homer’s Odyssey in your painting Assiniboine Odyssey; particularly the importance of pairing the epic poem with the Assiniboine river, the ship and crew members, and finally how you have connected Assiniboine Odyssey and Red River Pieta through this aspect of Manitoban geography.
EC: A long, turbulent voyage was what I was imagining. I was also thinking of the allegory of the Ship of Fools while painting it. The crew consists of a medley of outcasts and characters drifting in a York boat. (the boats the HBC primarily used for shipping freight from the Red River up to Hudson’s Bay). That epic journey, I can only imagine would have been an arduous odyssey. In many aspects they are post-apocalyptic paintings of Manitoba. In Assiniboine Odyssey, The Manitoba Legislature is in the background and the signature statue of the Golden-boy has been toppled and decapitated. The old cathedral of Saint Boniface is present in Red River Pieta, along with Riel House and a massive tipi portray the ethnic fusions and tensions. Winnipeg’s genesis is the rivers; they are meeting places, once an integral trading route. The convergence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers is the heart of Winnipeg. The history and development of the Prairies can be traced using the old trading routes and later the railway lines and highways.
SN: Rail Yard Resurrection depicts a rail yard, various trains, wrecking balls amongst the city, and in the foreground a group of three men, a dog, speaking and pointing at what appears to be a bison’s ghost. EC: The railyard depicted is an inner-city rail yard located in Winnipeg, a couple blocks from my studio. It is a very divisive rail yard that separates the city economically and racially. I intended it to be a white bison, which is sacred to many First Nations communities and can symbolize the end of an era or a new beginning in the Lakota white buffalo prophecy. Maybe it represents a chance for reconciliation between Canada and the First Nations. The ghost reference could work too; maybe as a restless spirit haunting its perpetrators in the appropriated lands.
SN: Filled with arrows, the walrus in No Escape immediately stood out as a reference to the early Christian saint and martyr St. Sebastian. There seems to be a chain of references present, starting with the walrus, continuing with the severed hand, ending with the woman standing and protecting what appears to be a group of settlers.
EC: I am captivated by the popular composition of Saint Sebastian, so I wanted to do a version with an Arctic mammal. No Escape is a Northern Manitoban fantastical history painting in some ways. It’s set in Churchill, where there aren’t any walrus but it’s the end of the line for the railroad. Much of the grain from across the prairies is gathered and shipped up to the Port of Churchill, which I painted in the distance. The initial settlement was an HBC post, Fort Prince of Wales and the woman towering over and providing shelter for the desperate explorers and settlers is Thanadelthur. She was instrumental as an interpreter when brokering peace between the Dene and the Cree while assisting the HBC expand their empire. Currently a Master’s candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), Evin Collis graduated in 2010 from the Ontario College of Art and Design. Rupertsland Ruckus will be on display in 2015, at TRUCK in Calgary, Alberta, and, at La Maison des artistes visuels in Saint Boniface, Manitoba as part of the exhibition Commerce, Prudence, Industry (the original motto for the city of Winnipeg).