“Evidence” at Mercer Union

Children’s art has been a frequent source of inspiration for the avant-garde, but is rarely accorded the proper importance because it is seen as a form of unbridled, naïve creativity, plagued by a sentimentality for a lost state of innocence that never existed in the first place. “Evidence,” a group exhibition curated by Amy Zion, attempts to upend these assumptions, treating children’s mark-making practices as part of a shared historical and cultural record.

Using only the pictures created by kids at a residential school in northern Ontario, the documentary Christmas at Moose Factory, 1971, by renowned Abenaki director Alanis Obomsawin, is the most raucous and lively of the works on view. Overlaid with the words, laughter, and songs of Cree students, Obomsawin’s short film captures her protagonists’ memories, feelings, and aspirations as the holiday season approaches. The noisy scenes of village life filled with dogs barking, Ski-Doo engines revving, and young people laughing are complemented by bold drawings of sleds, pets, and home-cooked meals. Yet the children’s drawing repertoire becomes narrower, more conventional, and more routine as they move on to depict—and slyly poke fun at—the choreographies of Christianity they are forced to perform and internalize at the school, a product of a violent colonialist system.

Ulrike Müller presents eight reproductions of pencil drawings made by children who survived the Spanish Civil War and places them atop a colorful mural, executed by a local Canadian artist, of interlocking animal and abstract shapes. The mural’s pastel colors and cheerful imagery recall the interiors of certain youth institutions, yet feel flat against pictures of war planes, displacement, and disaster.

Oscar Murillo’s ongoing project, Frequencies, 2013–, comprises more than forty thousand pieces of raw canvas packed with doodles and abstract forms rendered in ink, Wite-Out, and paint. The artist had these surfaces, originally blank, sent to schools around the world and affixed to students’ desks for a semester in order to record their handiwork, resulting in images that index moments of boredom, frustration, and reverie. Petrit Halilaj’s objects similarly treat children’s drawings as symptoms of psychological events. Halilaj transferred pictures scratched into desks from his elementary school in Runik, Kosovo, to roughly hewn iron sculptures that imposingly hang throughout the gallery.

What unites all the works in this show is a steadfast refusal to water down a child’s vision of life for the purposes of adult nostalgia, offering us a rare glimpse into the ways young people are always responding to the world-making and world-ending cultures that enclose them.

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