Interview: In conversation with Mark Cheetham

Have an interest in visual culture and art theory in the Canadian context but not quite sure what it entails? Find out in this interview! Here, we chat with Dr. Mark Cheetham, Professor of Art History at the University of Toronto, about his research around eco art, art making, and curation. Here, Professor Cheetham discusses a variety of projects in which he has been involved and his hopes for the future of the study of these topics in Canada…

Mark A. Cheetham, Ph.D., Professor in the Department of Art History, University of Toronto

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m a settler scholar of visual culture, art history, and art theory. I’ve been teaching at the University of Toronto since 2000; before that, I taught at Western University and McGill University. I did my BA and MA at UofT in Philosophy and my PhD in History of Art at University College London in London, England. I spent several years studying in the USA (John Hopkins) and have held research fellowships in the USA as well.

Teaching and research are closely connected for me, so to ask about one is to ask about the other. My PhD dissertation was on landscape depiction and the nascent geological sciences in the later 18th century, proto-German Romanticism. I still do some research on late 18th-century image cultures of the land, especially in the UK. I have published more on 19th-century topics than in any other chronological designation and my current research is mostly in that area, but I also work actively across the 20th century in Britain, Europe, the USA, and Canada on topics from early abstraction through contemporary eco art.

Teaching and research are closely connected for me, so to ask about one is to ask about the other.

The visual arts in Canada have been important to me since I began teaching at McGill and they are an ongoing research and teaching area. I have led research projects on art in Canada (CACHET [Canadian Art Commons for History of Art Education and Training], SSHRC Partnership Development Grant, 2013-16. Principal Investigator). I was director of UofT’s Canadian Studies Program (University College) from 2004-07. I have supervised several PhD dissertations and two Postdoctoral Fellowships that feature art in Canada. Most of my teaching includes some ‘Canadian content.’

How did you become interested in Canadian art?

My interests in art in Canada started with teaching art and architecture from this country from ‘first contact’ to the present at McGill. I had not formally studied this area beforehand; the position I filled was not in this area. When I moved from McGill to Western, I also taught art in Canada and developed what has become an ongoing commitment to curating contemporary art. Most of my exhibitions focus on artwork and artists from Canada. The first, Memory Works, detailed Postmodernism in this country for the first time. This was a large touring exhibit and resulted in further research published as Remembering Postmodernism: Trends in Canadian Art, 1970–1990. (1st ed. Oxford, 1991; 2nd, revised ed., 2012). More recently, I’ve become interested in Public Art in Toronto in a global context and now teach in this area.

How does your work connect with the built environment of Canada?

Eco Art makes its primary concern the ‘natural’ environment, broadly defined, and explores the interactions of people, animals, and materials in this realm. I have little expertise in the built environment per se, but much eco art worldwide is sited in gallery spaces and interacts actively with them and/or adjacent architecture. Public Art is of course closely allied with the uses and planning of civic space and architecture.

How do you research the history of architecture, landscape, and space in Canada? How do you engage with the space and the people who built/use it?

Epic questions! I have always been a ‘theory person,’ but what that has meant to me and in the contexts of art history and visual culture more generally has changed substantially. I frequently have a theoretical interest in the topics I research and teach. I don’t believe one can validly separate such concerns from the material realities of works of art. But I’m less concerned than I used to be with the Western philosophical tradition. Perhaps I worked through and out the other side of that once-held passion in Kant, Art, and Art History: Moments of Discipline (Cambridge, 2001) and the co-edited collection The Subjects of Art History: Historical Objects in Contemporary Perspective (Cambridge, 1998).

What methods do you use in your research on eco art and public art?

I’m interested in visual culture in the broadest senses, though I also curate and write about canonized art (including Olafur Eliasson’s and Tacita Dean’s in Ecologies of Landscape, a show I curated in 2018). I do a lot of archival research for some topics. That was true for the exhibition, book, and articles I did on Canadian artist Jack Chambers, for example. I also have a commitment to writing about and showing artists (internationally and in Canada) who are, let’s say, under-discussed for no good reason, or perhaps only because they are from Canada. An example is the Toronto conceptual artist Janice Gurney, on whom I have a forthcoming book chapter. I’m writing an article now on Noel Harding’s Elevated Wetlands (1998), a pioneering environmental and public artwork that is sited in the Don Valley in Toronto. How this innovative, 5-piece water-filtering sculptural group works in a public space will be central to my article.

Janice Gurney (2013). Credit: Embassy Cultural House.
Jack Chambers (left). Credit: Wikipedia.
How do you connect your work to social history?

Working with contemporary artists means listening to them on these topics. The elements of identity that you list often come up, as they necessarily do in artworks. Since the 1990s, I’ve been especially interested in contemporary Indigenous art in Canada, how it relates to nationhood and to land. Such topics are central in Landscape into Eco Art: Articulations of Nature since the ‘60s (Penn State UP, 2018) and Ecologies of Landscape.

Working with contemporary artists means listening to them on these topics.

I have a book chapter appearing soon on artistic responses to what’s now called the Grange area of downtown Toronto (the AGO is in the centre of this neighbourhood) by Camille Turner (BlackGrange), Iris Haüssler (He Named Her Amber) and Robert Houle (Garrison Creek Project). I’m an active member of the national group Unsettling Canadian Art History.

Why do you think it’s important to examine or consider landscape histories and art histories in Canada?

I believe strongly that students, scholars, and curators should know as much as possible about the places they are working in and from. That can mean the land and water itself in the Great Lakes region, for example, and the intersecting and often conflicting histories and interests of the peoples here with that non-human environment.

I remain stunned and baffled by the general lack of knowledge in Canada about the art produced here in the past and especially now. Not true in (choose a major country/art tradition) China, France, the USA! Why learn about art in Canada? So that we can develop a better present and future here – socially, environmentally – on the basis of what has come before us. That said, I am wary of provincialism and discuss art in Canada (and Toronto) in comparative international contexts.

For students interested in this topic, what are some courses and/or opportunities that they might pursue in your department (or beyond)?

Courses: I’m excited to be teaching “Public Art, Local/Global” (FAH 194F) this year. We meet outside, at works of public art in the city. My graduate course on ‘GeoAesthetics’ looks at Arctic voyaging in the Nunavut archipelago in the 19th-century (FAH 1921F). One of the best reasons for studying the art of Canada here is that ‘primary’ resources are abundant, as are research facilities, experts, and artists, both on campus and in the city.

How would you recommend new students engage with the history of space, landscape, and ecological art in Canada?

Learn more about it; write about and curate it. There is much more ‘room’ for such enterprises here than in many other places in the world.

What projects are you working on now?

I’ve mentioned some past projects, both academic and curatorial. About half of my research and teaching now is devoted to image cultures of Arctic voyaging from the Angloshpere (USA, Britain, later Canada) to Nunavut in the 19th century. There are few richer spaces than the Arctic, whether in terms of the environment or culture, but in and before the 19th century, it was often imagined by visitors as ‘blank’ and ‘white,’ a space ready for exploration, mapping, and then colonization. Some years ago, I curated an exhibition at McMaster University called Struck by Likening: The Power & Discontents of Artworld Analogies (2017). Because it was Canada/Colonialism 150 year, much of the work was from Canada and some of it concerned land and landscape (since as we all know, ‘Tom Thomson was the van Gogh of Canada!’). This research exhibition is part of a large and global project on analogy in art history and museums, supported by SSHRC. I spent quite a lot of time extending the life of this exhibit by creating an online version, Likening Redux.

§3 George Grosz, “the German Hogarth”: Anachronism & Enlightenment? Credit: LIKENING: An Introduction to the uses of Analogy in the Art World.
§1 “Tom Thomson is the Van Gogh of Canada” / William Kurelek is “Canada’s Van Gogh.” How Many Vincents Were There? Credit: LIKENING: An Introduction to the uses of Analogy in the Art World.
How did you approach these topics?

One aspect of the Arctic research is archival, reading the many 19th-century accounts of travel (what a euphemism!) in this region. Fisher Library has an excellent collection in this area, including one unique illustrated book from 1836-37 that I’m writing about. These publications often include a range of visual materials.

It’s the interactions of these visual and textual components that most interest me. Because of the pandemic, I haven’t yet had the chance to do field research on this topic, though I have previously done so in Iceland and Greenland.

Another part of my approach is to collaborate. With incoming Postdoctoral Fellow Dr. Isabelle Gapp, who as of Sept. 2021 is based in the Department of Art History, I’m co-convening a Working Group at the Jackman Humanities Institute called Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North. About a dozen scholars (PhD candidates, PDFs, and faculty) from UofT and nearby institutions will engage the many questions arising in this region.

What are some of your most memorable moments in the field?

I am amazed anew every time I hang a show to sense how works in the space ‘speak’ to one another in unexpected ways.

For me, the most memorable moments are in the classroom (when students see much more in works of art than I ever do, for example, or read a theoretical text in new ways. This happens regularly at UofT), and in curating. I am amazed anew every time I hang a show to sense how works in the space ‘speak’ to one another in unexpected ways. One example: putting Jack Chambers’ ‘silver’ paintings beside his magnificent films, on the same walls, as my co-curator and I did in Jack Chambers: The Light from the Darkness / Silver Paintings and Film Work in 2011. It was bittersweet to take that show down.

What do you think is the future of the study of space, (ecological) art, landscape, and the environment in Canada?

Your praiseworthy initiative [the Canada Constructed initiative] and courses in architecture, and the wonderful appointment of Professor Migwans suggest that our Department could be a hub for such work, especially given its location in (arguably) the best-resourced place in the world for the study of such topics, both in the University across many fields and the City of Toronto.

What is your favourite space (building, park, neighbourhood, etc.) in Canada and why?

The Galleria Italia at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It’s a wonderfully spacious and resonant space, exceptional for the display of large artworks and truly a sculpture in itself. One feels attached to the 19th-century fabric of the older city visible on (what is that street out there called?). I have given up (for the moment) being a crank by complaining about the coffee shop plopped in the middle of this Frank Gehry design, choosing to enjoy coffee and conversation in this superb space.

Galleria Italia. Credit: Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).

Thank you very much, Professor Cheetham!

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