Ryan Heshka, the Vancouver-based artist, does not have a typical view of his home country, at least as evidenced by his work. Heshka was raised in Winnipeg, in the nineteen-seventies, in what he says was a conservative household. He recalls a city very closed off, at least culturally, from the outside world. As a child, Heshka sought out strange imagery in old magazines, comic books, and movies—anything that varied from the bland diet offered by Canadian television, one of the few exterior windows available to him at the time. He also enjoyed exploring nature, and viewed its microscopic elements as eerie, alternate worlds.
In many ways, Heshka’s childhood influences are brought full circle in Romance of Canada, a series of paintings he created for the Antonio Colombo Arte Contemporanea gallery, in Milan, in 2015. Heshka’s Canada is neither realistic nor cliché, but a literal dreamscape both frightening and grotesque. It is a land where the early twentieth century’s vision of the future—a vision in many ways ironically unable to see past its own time—has become reality, but not in ways expected or desired. Beautiful high-heeled women wield menacing power, and nature suffers no fools. “It’s a sort of glamourized postcard of Canada, an excuse to create these tableaus of Canadian bathing beauties or costumed winter carnival queens,” Heshka says. “It’s very un-Canadian. Maybe it’s a little bit decadent, maybe a little bit violent.”
Romance of Canada touches on a few Canadian totems. A young wife weeps over the ice-encased, uniform-clad body of her dead husband in Hockey Widow. The full-frontal figure of a red-haired woman—nude save for heels, stockings, an eye mask, and a cape—crawls out a window, a scarlet rodent at her side, in Red Beaver Bandit. A motley crew of hunters, divers, and freaks pose under a banner reading i’m sorry in Canadian Military. Other pieces, such as Masters of the Man-Dogs, have a more tenuous connection to Canada the Good, as chain gangs of masked men in Devo jumpsuits are enslaved to work as sled dogs by Russ Meyer extras. Some, like Myth of the Blue Caribou, create bizarre, altogether new Canadian legends. “When I had booked the show, I thought, ‘This will be a fun subject matter to tackle where I don’t have to be serious and I don’t have to speak to Canadian people,’” Heshka says. “So there was no one saying, ‘This isn’t accurate’ or ‘This is wrong’ or ‘This never happened.’ If I was to show it in Canada, I think there’d be a lot of scrutiny. It seemed like a good excuse to just present something that’s totally ridiculous.”