"Oh, Canada," edited by Den ise Markonish (MIT Press)
There is a stereotype of Canadians among Americans, and it centers around a kind of mild-mannered approach to life and the sense that they are just calmer versions of Am ericans themselves.
To many Americans, Canada's the place they know little about -- mostly because they think there's little to know -- and the place they threaten to move to when the politics of their own country become unbearable.
This tells you more about Americans that Canadians, though -- it shows that Americans are probably too lazy to make a life-changing, long-distance move to a completely alien place. It's a "no, thank you" protest, gormless and presumptuous.
If you spend enough time in Canada, though, you figure out that Canadians are completely different from Americans, and that the stereotype hits on a truth even as it misses the mark completely. The reason is Americans tend to judge Cana dians against themselves -- and, indeed, it could be argued that Americans exist in order to make Canadians look better. But each national identity needs to be qualified on its own, not in comparison to others.
The major difference be tween Canada and the United States, it has always seemed to me, is that Canada doesn't have a bombastic, holier-than-thou origin story that trickles through the hearts of all its citizens, makes it feel superior and pushes it to spread that heart-swelling
Put more simply, Canadians just aren't as full of themselves as Americans are.
They are also not centralized in the same way -- people from Missouri and Maine will claim a deep, national bond with each other that folks from Nunevit and Prince Edward Island would probably never echo. Canadians don't seem to care much about that.
They do like their provinces, though, and that is certainly one of the keys to Canadian-ness -- to understand its people, its far more important to know about Alberta-ness and Quebec-ness and Nova Scotia-ness.
Which brings me to "Oh, Canada," the book, a companion to the massive show at Mass MoCA with the same name.
Curator Denise Markonish had a sprawling and challenging obsession through the years it took her to compile that massive show, but in gathering artworks, there is a cohesion that doesn't always require explanation.
This is furthered by two other facts that step in if Can adian-ness is not to be found.
One is that the show -- and book -- operates as a travelogue of Markonish's journeys through our northern neighbor's landscape.
The other is that works included are just funny and warm and friendly, and that is not something you encounter very often in contemporary art.
For the companion book, though, Markonish was charg ed with the same issues as the show, as well as adding the written and spoken word to the mix, both of which are in regard to direct questions about the nature of Canada and the ponderings that ensue. To accomplish this, Markonish hands much of the book over to the Canadian artists in the show, as well as several Canadian essayists, that turns it into more of a casual hangout north of the border where the conversations touch on some heavy topics, though with a good humor about it all.
It's getting this persona, easy-going time with the artists that reveals as much about the country and its provinces as their art work does. And they are obviously the stars of the show, with their wonderful work as the main spectacle of allure.
As a survey of current Cana dian art, and a primer in the history of Canadian art, the book is probably indispensable if you're interested. But that large scope is just a side bonus -- it's the more intimate mo ments that capture your heart, the conversations between the artists, and Marknoish's own look back at adventures in her beloved Canada.
What starts out as an art book and morphs into a travelogue becomes a love letter, as Markonish flat out states, and an opportunity for the artists of the provinces to show their real selves as real people and, yep, Canadians -- and not just as future hosts for Americans who disagree with one of their political parties.
By the end of the book, the colors, the shapes, the structures, the words of the artists convince the reader that Canada doesn't need negative Americans skulking about. Canada is delightful. There's a province for everyone! You'll find the one you love. If you must go, go be happy there. Look at the art and laugh, and thank goodness for Canada.