It doesn’t take long for artist Michael Magnussen to get in touch with his inner animal. After popping my first question, he’s eagerly chatting about the caribou that served as the inspiration for his current show.
“I’ve been working with painting and drawing the caribou since last year,” reports the Concordia fine arts student. “I painted myself as a caribou self-portrait and then also painted myself as a ‘hunter.’ So there was this hunter/hunted narrative that explored my tendencies to self-destruct.”
Spoken like a true artist. Magnussen’s work is quite wild to behold, with his intricate drawing and painting depicting an unexpected and otherworldly bond between human and caribou. “The animals in my work are just another way to draw myself,” says Saskatchewan-born Magnussen. “I have always been interested in secret identities and super heroes, and sometimes I want to talk about personal parts of my life, but it’s not always easy to be completely honest. So caribous have been my secret identity, and I think drawing from my memories and then translating them into caribou gives me a chance to step back and understand them on a different level. Kinda like when a therapist does an inkblot test and asks you what you see in the inkblot.”
Magnussen adds that he is often pondering his own identity, and that winds its way inevitably into his artwork. A couple of the works show caribou surrounding a male figure, with the two somehow merging through the painting or drawing; caribou and human are separate but somehow one being at the same time. “Being queer, identity becomes an important part of your life — how you choose to identify yourself and how people see you. I guess I wanted to talk about my identity in a different way so I am playful when painting myself as a queer caribou and trying to engage in identity politics in a strange way.
“My ceramics and paintings are an allegorical approach to self-portraiture in which I explore my personal relationships and experience. By translating my life, using my own personal iconography, I am able to displace the memory by offering it to itself, allowing me new modes of analysis. I try to leave open space for personal interpretation, producing the possibility of self-reflection and new meanings for the audience. Every work contains a self-portrait.”
Magnussen says he was also horrified by an article he read in the New York Times Magazine about how gays are treated in Iraq. “I think in Montreal lots of queer people — including me — do not understand how lucky we are to have the rights we do have. I was just blown away by that article and felt awful for being so in the dark and so self-absorbed. That article inspired some of this show as well. My main influences up until this point have been my parents and my rural Saskatchewan upbringing, so this is different.” But Magnussen’s tone remains fundamentally the same: “The work is, at times, sentimental, nostalgic and humorous, which reflects my attitude towards the subject matter and life in general.”
And Magnussen, who cites Joyce Wieland and Martin Wong as major influences, says one of the best parts of this show has been the diversity of responses to his work. “I like it when people see strange things in the work, or try to figure out the words in the antlers, which is something I am experimenting with. I often hope people will relate these paintings to their own lives. It’s very rewarding when people say the work reached them.”
Michael Magnussen’s work appears as part of the exhibit IL ÉTAIT LÀ, which runs at Concordia’s VAV Gallery (1395 René Lévesque W) until Jan 29.