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Cross-Border Visualities and the Canadian Image

In the courtroom scene of the 2002 film Chicago (dir. Robert Marshall), Roxie Hart (Renée Zelwegger) is being tried for the murder of her abusive boyfriend. Shot in Toronto, and featuring a number of Canadian performers, this scene condenses, I will argue, common patterns by which Canadian cultural materials share visual space with others originating in the United States. I begin with this scene as a way of raising a set of questions having to do with popular visuality in Canada. In what ways do images produced in Canada betray some of the broader features of Canada’s relationship to a variety of cultural elsewheres and, most notably, to the United States? If we are rightfully suspicious of attempts to isolate visual forms that are coherently or exclusively Canadian, might we speak, nevertheless, of characteristically Canadian inflections of the image?

My intention here is not that of rushing to develop a Canadian version of the “pictorial turn” that has been observable across the humanities over the last decade (Curtis 95). Given the rich traditions of art-historical thinking already concerned with image-making in Canada, this could only be both belated and presumptuous. (See, among many examples of important work, Nelson; O’Brien and White). By treating several images in terms of the ways in which they stage some of the predicaments of Canadian cultural expression, however, I hope to contribute in a speculative fashion to the study of Canadian popular visuality. Some of the images to be examined here are photographs and paintings; others are sequences from films. These are not all “pictures” in the same way, of course, and those that form part of narrative feature films invite readings that would acknowledge their larger textual surroundings. Nevertheless, the audiovisual excerpts discussed here function as relatively circumscribed tableaux that allow me to detach them, for the purposes of analysis, from the larger narrative structures to which they belong.

Figure One.  Colm Feore in Chicago.

Figure Two.  Sean McCann in Chicago.

Economies of passion

In the courtroom scene that serves as the climax of Chicago, secondary roles embodying stuffy legal authority are played by Canadian actors. Colm Feore plays Harrison, the prosecuting attorney (Figure One); Canadian character actor Sean McCann is the presiding judge (Figure Two). Their appearance in such roles resonates, at least slightly, with longstanding stereotypes about Anglo-Canadian character and its legendary investment in notions of order and propriety. Both of these actors are perhaps best known for having played Canadian Prime Ministers in television miniseries (Feore in the 2002 series Trudeau, McCann in the 1988 series The King Chronicle.) Neither has more than a few lines of dialogue in Chicago, however, and McCann, in particular, is listed far down in the film’s credits. To Canadian viewers of Chicago, memories of Feore and McCann in these earlier roles can only enhance their associations with authority, even as the same memories make their diminished screen time in Chicago seem all the more humiliating. The well-known Canadian character actress Jayne Eastwood (Goin’ Down the Road, King of Kensington) appears for a few seconds early in the courtroom scene, shrunk by the magnitude of this large-scale Hollywood production to the status of a bit player.

I treat this scene as hieroglyphic for the ways in which it offers an image of materials (people, spaces, objects) overlaid within a distinctive arrangement that condenses a broader set of relationships. The courtroom scene in Chicago becomes a visual surface on which are laid bare some of the economic and cultural arrangements that structured the making of the film. The scene exposes these relationships, not by somehow elaborating a meta-language with which to speak of them, but by visually staging patterns of subservience and stereotypification that have longer histories. Chicago does this, in particular, through a telescoping that is typical of Hollywood films shot wholly or in part in other countries. In such productions, usually, performers who are prominent in national entertainment industries outside the U.S. appear with diminished presence relative to the U.S. stars who surround them.

More is involved here, however, than the predictable consignment of Canadian performers to roles of secondary status. The relationship between international stars and Canadian performers in films like Chicago regularly expresses what Marta Savigliano, writing about the global circulation of musical forms, once called the “political economy of passion” (Savigliano 1). This economy takes the form, Savigliano suggests, of a “trackable trafficking in emotions and affects” (Savigliano 1). The version of this trafficking to be discussed here is minor both in its scale and in the levels of inequity it presumes and reinforces. Nevertheless, a distribution of emotional intensities is one effect of transnational co-production arrangements that set charismatic stars from the U.S. industry at the centre of dramatic narratives, then fill the backgrounds of these narratives with performers, hired locally, whose bodies function as social texture.

As is so often the case with U.S. films shot in Canada, the most prominent Canadian actors used in Chicago appear as fleeting figures of judicial or bureaucratic authority. The appearance of Feore and McCann in Chicago’s courtroom scene exposes the limited exportability of English-Canadian “stardom,” but it also repeats a pattern whereby locally-hired performers occupy the roles of passionless enforcers of social or legal discipline. (As a result, and not incidentally, these locally-hired performers tend to be overwhelmingly white, middle-aged and male.) This is all the more strikingly the case in Chicago, whose star performers (Richard Gere and Renee Zelwegger) express themselves in libidinous musical fantasy numbers that are interspersed throughout the courtroom scene and make use of its space. Neither Feore or McCann participate in these numbers, figuring, as they do so clearly, on the side of a reality principle to which these musical sequences are opposed.

As has been noted by others, Canada was once the source of exotic, picturesque landscapes that filmmakers employed as decorative backdrops (Gittings). Now, arguably, Canada’s status as a source of cinematic raw materials has been transformed. Our cities, touted as being virtually indistinguishable from those of the United States, are now more likely than our natural landscapes to serve as the settings for American films. Increasingly, the recognizably Canadian elements in present-day Hollywood films shot in Canada (or in U.S.-Canadian coproductions) are human figures whose function, within urban narratives, is that of the emotionally flat, functional narrative detail. At the same time, the narratological function of such characters usually requires that they serve as momentary, frustrating impediments to the central characters’ trajectories of triumph or self-realization. Like the detention-dispensing geography teacher played by Canadian actress Jayne Eastwood in the 2007 film Hairspray (shot, in part, in Hamilton, Ontario), Canadian performers in Chicago often populate a dramatic background of institutional and moralistic forces against which the lead actors must struggle. (Eastwood herself turns up first in Chicago as a snoopy landlady delaying the sexual liaison between Roxie Hart and her boyfriend.) Other cases of such uses of Canadian performers in Hollywood films shot in Canada, among hundreds of possible examples, include John Boylan as “Officer Brucks” in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (dir. Danny Leiner, 2004), Andrew Gillies as “Principal Woodhouse” in The Virgin Suicides (dir. Sofia Coppola, 1999), Kenneth Welsh as “Vice President Becker” in The Day After Tomorrow (dir. Roland Emmerich, 2004), and Quebec actor Al Dubois as “Pan Am Executive No. 1” in The Aviator (dir. Martin Scorcese, 2004).

The dramatic “thinness” of these roles contrasts sharply with the psychological complexity and affective expansiveness of the leading roles played by Hollywood stars. This distribution of Canadian performers, as backgrounds and blockages to the pleasure-seeking trajectories of popular narratives, cannot help but invoke (and nourish) longstanding ideas about Canada’s place within broader moral and emotional geographies. Among other responses, it invites us to consider Kieran Keohane’s claim that a prominent feature of Canadian experience is the sense of our own enjoyment having been stolen from us (32.) Arguably, as well, the functions typically assigned to Canadian performers-–those of narrative interruption and irritation-–somehow resonate with these performers’ industrial status, as local resources bureaucratically imposed upon a film’s producers by union regulations and co-production agreements.

Staging the nation

We might, through the familiar methodological protocols of cultural studies, want to treat the courtroom scene from Chicago as material inviting a resistant reading. Certainly, it is easy to imagine a relationship to this image which reclaims it as fundamentally “Canadian,” by noting how the presence of Feore and McCann reorders, for Canadian viewers familiar with these actors, the relationships of foreground to background presumed by the film’s makers. This seems less useful to me, however, than a consideration of the labour done by these images themselves, as they gather up and arrange the constituent features of a complex transnational relationship.  This work takes place across series of images that works to establish and stabilize certain regularities, producing a national version of what Mirzoeff has called “intervisuality,” the effect of culturally specific “interacting and interdependent modes of visuality” (Mirzoeff 7). As Canadian performers circulate through the backgrounds of American audiovisual texts, their hazy familiarity as actors or actresses (often derived from their television appearances) underpins the slightly reassuring (and quickly communicated) elements of social control or moral convention that the roles they play are so often meant to enforce. This experience of vaguely recognizable faces thickening the social structures within (and against) which charismatic lead performers pursue their destinies is a persistent, if generally unacknowledged, feature of the intervisuality of English Canadian audiovisual culture.

Treatments of visual imagery in the United States have often been concerned with the capacity of pictures to gather up the constituent features of national belonging and, in Jack Hogan’s phrase, “stage the nation” (100). The concern of such studies is normally with the work of images in crystallizing a coherent, collective sense of purpose and identity. Writing about iconic examples of American photography (like the image of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima), Hariman and Lucaites suggest “that photojournalism provides resources for thought and feeling that are necessary for constituting people as citizens and motivating identification with and participation in specific forms of collective life” (13). The process suggested here is one by which fragmentary features of a collective imaginary are molded together within a “visual eloquence” that gives expressive fullness to scattered, inchoate sentiments (3). Clément Chéroux’ book-length analysis of press images of the events of 11 September 2001 shows how iconic photographs of the twin towers in flames were displaced quite quickly, in the days following those events, by other images (most notably, those of New York firefighters holding a flag) that resonated more forcefully with imagistic traditions expressive of national cohesion (and with the Iwo Jima photographs, in particular).

In contrast, the “visual eloquence” of images circulating in Anglo Canada is regularly seen to be undermined by the collective suspicion that such images are too blatantly imitative of models from elsewhere (usually the United States), or that their circulation within public life is intended to fulfill civic purposes whose contrived and official character is only too obvious. Some of the most interesting analyses of Canadian visuality have dealt with the projects of national cohesion embedded within canonical or institutionally cherished cases of image production. As Anne Whitelaw has shown, in her influential study of Canadian art museums, the consolidation of a national painterly tradition, with the Group of Seven painters at its centre, was inseparable from the designation of empty landscapes as core features of a collective national experience (Whitelaw). In her analysis of the Heritage Minutes short films (1991- ) and CBC documentary series Canada: A People’s History (2000-2001), Emily West traces the manner by which disparate features of national history and collective memory were assembled within  representations that treated Canadians as eternally multicultural and tolerant (West). All of these projects were directed at “staging the nation,” by offering visual resources for the nourishment of civic cohesion and virtue. Each, to different degrees, floundered when the images around which they turned failed to resonate fully with more quotidian experiences of place, identity, and social cohesion.

My own interest here is less with such instances of Canadian visuality, which seek to “stage the nation,” than with images that stage fleeting instances of co-presence between elements we may recognize as in some way Canadian and others that come, just as clearly, from somewhere else. A key analytic question posed by images in general is the manner in which the spatial proximity of elements visible within them offers itself up as emblematic of social or political forms of intimacy and estrangement. In her sharp analysis of documentary film, Marion Froger suggests ways in which particular formal devices characteristic of documentary may be deployed to convey the sense of a social bond (Froger). The extended travelling shot that moves past a city’s inhabitants, for example, may reveal, in the reactions of human figures encountered in its movement, a resistance to being filmed, but in seeking out the consent of these figures the same shot may manifest a concern for linkage “[le souci du lien]” that expresses something of the film’s ethical project (Froger). Conversely, modes of scene construction in Chicago that regularly exclude Canadian actors from moments of affective charge express a relationship between primary and secondary characters that is expected in complex narratives, but that need not inevitably reproduce a transnational division of labor. More broadly, we find enacted, within Canadian popular imagery, ways of being together that stand as implicit propositions about the relative claims of different figures—human or non-human—on social spaces and the relationships such spaces may enable.

As I have argued elsewhere, drawing on the ideas of Ira Wagman, the Canadian cultural artefact is almost invariably marked by a particular ratio of imported to domestic materials (Wagman; Straw, 188). In narrative forms, like the novel or the feature film script, this interweaving of elements is the object of a labour of articulation that works between textual levels and materials to endow this ratio of materials with a sense of seamless intelligibility. In contrast, the image (the photograph, painting, or film segment) is more likely to give us an overlaying of motifs and influences which flattens them upon a shared material base (the canvas or photo-chemical surface, for example), such that clues as to their differential provenance are elusive. This flattening problematizes any easy distinction between language and metalanguage, between those elements, which come from various kinds of cultural elsewhere, and a narrative or authorial voice that would work to reframe them within national or other frameworks of collective understanding.

In this respect, commercial and culturally mainstream Canadian images provide weak cases for the application of compelling concepts developed in recent work on the transnational traffic in images. In her work on diasporic visuality, Kate McFarlane writes of the “syncretic visuality” of images produced under conditions of postcolonial displacement and emigration–images marked by the “intercultural mixing of visual regimes” (McFarlane 177). Within such images, she suggests, we may observe the frequent clash or collusion of culturally distinct visual traditions and practices of looking. This same stitching together of visual regimes clearly characterizes innumerable images produced within the vernacular and artistic spaces of Canadian diaspora (see, for several accounts, Li). At the level of the widely-circulating Canadian image of commercial or official provenance, however, the evidence of syncretism will be weak. With their styles and themes formed, most of the time, in an unending cultural traffic with the United States, mainstream Canadian images are unlikely to manifest a significant interweaving of distinct visual systems. The national character of Canadian images is more likely to reveal itself in the minor ways in which their various iconographic elements are ordered and set in relationship to each other within homogeneously legible visual fields.

In his analysis of photographs, Pierre Bourdieu suggests that one of their key functions is that of offering the image of a group’s integration. Bourdieu is speaking here primarily of the family photograph, and of its variable capacity to convey a sense of untroubled familial harmony (Bourdieu 39). Nevertheless, we might extend this analysis to the range of phenomena that images gather up within themselves. Photographs regularly pose the question of the image’s capacity to make spatial proximity an affirmation of cohesion or a staging of its failures. If, in Philippe Bonnin’s words, the photograph serves as the consecration des liens (228), the bonds or linkages that photographic images propose and reinforce are not inevitably those of comfortable affinity. Pictures that place the recognizably Canadian and the obviously non-Canadian in spatial proximity almost inevitably risk exposing the discrepant levels of legibility, charisma, historical pedigree, or cultural power possessed by the various elements these pictures bring together.

Proximity and difference

We may explore versions of these discrepancies through the brief consideration of two very different kinds of images. The first (Figure Three) is one of the widely-circulated photographs of Brian and Mila Mulroney posing with Ronald and Nancy Reagan on the occasion of the U.S. President’s visit to Canada in 1985. This was the visit marked by the “Shamrock Summit” in Quebec City. (The photograph shown here is held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in Slim Valley California, and available on its website.) Framed in the conventional fashion of the diplomatic photograph, this picture cannot help but let slip, I suggest, the uneven investments of these Canadian and American figures in the “special” quality of their relationship, the ceremonial significance of the occasion, and the common Irish ancestry of Reagan and Mulroney. Mulroney’s gaze, turned towards Ronald Reagan in an attitude that conveys both devotion and a slight anxiety, works against the image of shared and controlled satisfaction that is a usual requirement of this photographic genre. If Mulroney’s solicitousness and possible unease may be qualities of his relationship to Reagan (and not simply formal features of the photograph) these nevertheless function in more formal terms to bring a surplus of animated emotion to a genre of photograph normally marked by ceremonial flatness.

Figure Three.  Brian and Mila Mulroney with Nancy and Ronald Reagan, 1985.

While, from one perspective, this picture offers a coherent image of Canadian subservience to American power, I am more interested in the ways in which that subservience is made manifest in the image’s instability, in its incapacity to hold these four people in a pose of equally distributed respect and comfort. Like the minor forms of estrangement that may reveal themselves in the family photograph, the slight turn of Brian Mulroney’s head suggests an inability to comfortably inhabit the formal space of the diplomatic image. It may simply be that the Madame Tussaudish poses of Ronald and Nancy Reagan are naturalized through the intervisuality in which they participate–through our familiarity with hundreds of other widely circulated photographs of the couple. As a result of this familiarity, the Reagans’ stance here seems self-sufficient and detachable, repeated from innumerable similar events involving other political leaders and thus conveying little investment in the harmony or significance of this specific group and occasion.

The textual and media forms that disseminate images in Canada are differentiated, for the most part, along linguistic lines. This remains the case even as linguistic lines might seem to recede as forces structuring identity in Canada, and as linguistic communities themselves are more obviously lived as shifting coalitions criss-crossed by multiple other forms of diversity. Nevertheless, the dominant examples of cinema, television, and print culture in Canada are usually in the French or English languages, so that even when images are not linguistically marked or annotated, the circulatory matrices within which they travel typically follow the lines of linguistic division. On either side of this division, one finds very different systems of mutual reference, of the intervisuality referred to earlier. Almost paradoxically, the domain of images is one in which the distinctiveness of Francophone and Anglophone cultural life is expressed most starkly, even if images themselves are not “linguistic” in any obvious way. These systems, which bind together series of images on either side of the linguistic divide, are further differentiated by the extent and character of their proximity to models from elsewhere and, in particular, to those that come from the United States.

The Quebec celebrity gossip magazine Echos Vedettes, shown in Figure Four, is notable in at least two ways. Its most obvious feature, to English Canadians, is the extent to which, with one obvious exception, none of the faces displayed in photographs are familiar (I have tested my Montreal-based students in several classes, using this image, and never found an Anglophone able to recognize a single celebrity other than Céline Dion). The Echos Vedettes cover stands as evidence of the well-known self-sustaining character of Quebec show business. Its second and most striking feature, to me, is how coherently it models itself on the U.S. celebrity-oriented supermarket tabloid. The “apartness” of Quebec entertainment culture is such that it may borrow models from elsewhere without running the risk that the various elements configured within their local versions will be weakened by this evidence of cultural proximity. Like the Quebecois television variety show, Echos vedettes is more “American” than most of the forms that make up English-Canadian popular culture, even as English-Canadian culture is more frequently criss-crossed by cultural fragments that come from the United States.

Figure Four.  Echos vedettes.  January 2003.

Figure Five.  Hello! Canada.  July 2007.

In contrast, the English-Canadian entertainment tabloid must contend with the fact that it can neither model itself completely on U.S. models (which would render it redundant relative to such easily available models) nor base its distinctiveness on coverage of Canadian celebrity culture exclusively (since that culture is widely viewed as insufficiently large, sensational, or interesting.) Figure Five shows the cover of a 2007 issue of Hello! Canada, one of the few English-Canadian celebrity-oriented magazines to achieve any longevity in several decades. If Echo Vedettes works centrifically, gathering the different components of Quebecois popular culture within a coherent universe of places, names, and sensations, the cover of Hello! Canada shown here does little more than stage the awkward proximity of elements, whose origins and national pertinence are widely varied. Based on a British magazine (the original Hello!), Hello! Canada can offer, as the only plausible source of its distinctiveness, the fact that it is neither a blatant copy of a U.S. tabloid, nor as narrowly British in its focus as the U.K. title that serves as its model. While the image shown in Figure Five labours to convey a sense of the convergence of British, American, and Canadian entertainment worlds, the cover’s energies seem, in fact, to be centrifugal, scattering viewer attention along multiple and disconnected lines of association.

The overlay of images

Figure Six.  Peter Doig.  Canoe Lake.  1997-98.

Figure Six is a very different kind of image: the painting Canoe Lake (1997/1998), by Canadian-British-Trinidadian painter Peter Doig. As the artist has acknowledged, and critics have noted (e.g., Grande), Canoe Lake is one of a series of works by Doig that imbue the canonical Canadian iconography of northern landscapes with a sense of eerie menace borrowed from low-budget American horror films of the early 1980s, like Friday the 13th. It was typical of these films to feature teenagers confronting danger in remote, “natural” locations (like summer camps), and the locus of menace these films offered was that of both an untamed nature and the resurgence of repressed familial trauma. In Doig’s painting, the iconographic traditions of Group of Seven painting and the U.S. serial-murder horror film are overlaid upon each other in a way that avoids the marginalization of Canadian elements seen in the images discussed so far. In Doig’s painting, there is neither the effort to deceive, to disguise a Canadian location as something else, nor the uneasy, stumbling attempt (as in the photo of the Mulroneys and Reagans) to stage a harmonious relationship between elements whose unequal status, in more broadly geopolitical terms, cannot help but betray itself.

The artfulness of Doig’s image stems in part from the ways in which it produces a constant reversal of our sense of the primary and the secondary. On the one hand, the wildly successful Hollywood film is overlaid upon the globally “minor” traditions of Canadian painting; on the other, the canonical tradition of Canadian landscape art is made to be haunted by the unsettling constituent features of a debased American film genre. In other words, the Canadian and U.S. elements of this painting function simultaneously (or alternately) as its major and minor features, advancing and receding between foreground and background. The “proximity” of these different elements in Doig’s painting does not generate easily decipherable propositions about hierarchical cultural relationships between Canada and the United States. Neither, however, does the painting occlude these relationships. For the noble Canadian landscape tradition to acquire a veneer of terror, it seems, it is necessary to invoke the collective memory of cheaply-made U.S. horror films, to partake of that cross-border trafficking in “emotions and affects” that Savigliano has identified. At the same time, this sense of terror further dignifies the Canadian landscape painting, rescuing it from the merely pastoral or canonical and joining it to older means of representing a terrifying and unsettling nature—means whose art-historical pedigrees are of considerably greater prestige. It is as if, having diagnosed the multiple dynamics that mark cultural traffic between Canada and the United States, Doig devised a work that maintained them all in perpetual motion.

Conclusion: Cultural forms and public spheres

The sense that national or supranational entities might be distinguished by the pre-eminence of one cultural form or another has woven its way through analyses of media and culture for a long time. Harold Innis’ claims about a culture’s “bias” towards time or space presumed the predominance of specific cultural forms over others (Heyer and Crowley xvi). This predominance is suggested, at the very least, by Marshall McLuhan’s notion of the sensory hierarchies characteristic of particular times and spaces (McLuhan 22). More recently, scholars across a range of fields have made claims about the dominant role of post-literary cultural forms in the consolidation of new sorts of public spheres. Michael Warner has suggested that, as the contemporary public sphere (in the United States, at least) has come to be oriented more and more towards electronic, audiovisual media, it has made “the bodies and expressive lives of politicians and citizens”—phenomena which circulate primarily through visual representation—more important than the abstracted subjectivity characteristic of a public life organized around print media (Warner 102).

Scholars working within Latin American cultural studies have offered new accounts of national or regional public spheres that are no longer organized around the cultural expression of a literary elite, around the “lettered city” conceptualized by Angel Rama in an influential work (Rama, 1996). In different ways, Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier and Rosalind Winocur have argued for the aural as a dominant feature of new public spheres in Brazil and Mexico, respectively. Identifying what she calls a “sonic turn” within Latin American identity, Ochoa Gautier suggests that “under the contemporary processes of social globalization and regionalization coupled with the transformations in the technologies of sound, the public sphere is increasingly mediated by the aural” (Gautier  807). In more restricted terms, Winocur has traced the contours of a Mexican sphere of civic engagement organized around the aural and the vocal, through the interconnection of such technologies and cultural forms as the cell phone and the radio call-in program (Winocur, 2002, 2003).

If I resist the temptation to characterize the public culture of Canada in terms of any dominant sense, medium, or cultural form, I would nevertheless argue that still or moving images express, in distinctly revealing ways, the varieties of our relationship to the United States and its commercial, popular culture. This is, in part, because images have become the principal token in the cultural traffic between these two countries, but that is almost incidental. Rather, as I have suggested, images stage the proximity of things, people, and places and, in doing so, pose the question of their equitable coexistence. Most of the time, the proximity of elements appearing within an image is at least partially naturalized, through the sorts of conventions that mark specific genres, like the family portrait, the diplomatic photograph, or the cinematic courtroom scene.

At the same time, it is part of the work of images to distribute their various elements along the axes of foreground and background, major and minor, the communicatively expansive and the restricted. It is in relation to this distribution that the formal analysis of still images and dramatic audio-visual excerpts may open onto a broader analysis of the transnational cultural traffic in affect, stature, and degrees of imagistic presence. When, as is so often the case, these axes serve to differentiate visual elements that are recognizably American and others we read as Canadian, a transnational relationship has assumed cultural solidity as iconographic convention.


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Image notes

Figure One and Figure Two

Colm Feore and Sean McCann in Chicago (2002).

[DVD grab, Miramax Films, 2002]

Figure Three

Brian and Mila Mulroney with Nancy and Ronald Reagan, 1985.

[Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library. www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/photographs/large/c27762-8.jpg

Figure Four

Cover, journal Échos-Vedettes, January 2003.

[TVA Publications, Quebecor Media]

Figure Five

Cover, Hello! Canada, July 2007.

[Hello LTD]

Figure Six

Peter Doig, Canoe Lake, oil on canvas, 1997-98.

[The Saatchi Gallery, London UK]

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