Amongst the clutter of the forty paintings that compromise Milos Milidrag’s A Global Inuit (Sex, Jokes and Polar Bears), I was immediately drawn to a piece entitled “Live to Skate, Skate to Learn, Learn to Fall.” It is a light-hearted painting dominated by a phallic-shaped polar bear standing on its hind legs, swooping towards a small cartoonish man welding a sword. To add to the playfulness of the painting, the bear is wearing crimson nail polish on his human-like feet. It is this particular piece that embodies all of the quirkiness promised in the title of the exhibit, currently showing at the Ken Segal Gallery.
Milidrag draws heavily on the cultural, religious and spiritual practices of the Inuit people in A Global Inuit (Sex, Jokes and Polar Bears). His images depict shamans, as well the glowing skies which might be interpreted as the northern lights, and, according to some Inuit spiritual beliefs, are associated with the afterlife. Interestingly, the Winnipeg-based artist is not Inuit. Indeed, Milidrag refers to himself as a “Global Inuit,” which he cryptically comments on in his artist statement — “How many similarities between them and us, how many same fears, how much of the same lust for life, how much love, humour, sorrow and pain. One sun but it bathes us differently. If the word “Inuit” means people, then we are all Inuit. [ . . . ] Am I an Inuit or a Serbian? Is the answer hidden in this exhibition? Does it matter at all?”
Milidrag’s range of colour is perhaps his most impressive trait. Indeed, while some canvases are brought to life with energetic fields of color — bright oranges, royal blues and vivid greens — others are composed of a cool pallet, using muted yellows, crisp whites and ivories and soft blues. Amongst these sunset-like backdrops, grotesque yet charming creatures appear. Some look to the sky with malformed eyes sunk in hairless heads resting upon misshapen bodies. Others, dancing wolves and polar bears, are positioned within the vast fields of colour. These loosely defined fields seemingly disregard the formal technicalities of painting and draw heavy inspiration from Henri Matisse and others associated with the artistic movement Fauvism. Indeed, Matisse and his contemporaries, Les Fauves or “the wild beasts,” were defined by their use of harsh colours and simplification of technical skill.
The opening reception of A Global Inuit (Sex, Jokes and Polar Bears) was held on Sept. 10. That evening, the small space housed a moderate crowd and was filled with chatter as people cut slices of exotic cheeses and drank wine from pixie-sized plastic cups. The majority of observers remarked on the mesmerizing swirls of rich colours, but it seemed that the conceptual meaning, that critical question of identity articulated by Milidrag in his artist statement, was lost on the crowd. While I waited to ask the artist a question, a petite woman commented that, while she didn’t quite understand the content, she loved the colours. It’s a sentiment I am sure was on the minds of many others in the gallery.
I asked Milidrag what the curious paper airplanes featured in several of the canvases represented. These paper airplanes are depicted in different stages of creation, some still a half folded piece of paper, while others soar past the sun or glide down from the orange-red skies. Milidrag pointed to one work, titled In the Night of the Full Moon (White Night), explaining that the paper plane gliding through the sky has four folds in its tail, perhaps mirroring the four ghoulish and menacing figures that fill the canvas. Clearly fascinated by these paper planes, in his studio he finds that they take on different forms and fall different ways. He told me that they could mean whatever I wanted them to mean. Gallery owner Ken Segal echoed this sentiment, saying of the entire exhibition, “Whether it is the image of a shaman, dancing polar bear, migrating geese or the arrival of the sun, they all have different meanings to the observer.”
A Global Inuit (Sex, Jokes and Polar Bears) runs until Oct. 3 at the Ken Segal Gallery, 531 Osborne.