October 29, 2021

Plastic Heart: Surface All the Way Through

The Art Museum at the University of Toronto is hosting an experimental exhibition. This one has a twist. It questions the whole idea of exhibiting art at all.

The work of The Synthetic Collection, a collaboration between scientists and artists, comprises the basis for the exhibition, in particular their work studying the microplastics pollution of the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes: Accumulations by Kelly Wood, member of the Synthetic Collection

Whereas the exhibition does a great job of displaying numerous art works, it also posits an institutional critique, and it is hardcore. It’s not just a show, but a manifesto on responsibility in making and showing art, a series of public dialogues, and a call to action.

A Manifesto for Curating and Making Art in a
Time of Environmental Crisis

1. If you’re going to make it, make it count.

2. Lead by example.

3. Take steps to mitigate environmental damage of art making and exhibitions. Doing so reveals other economies of inequality and acknowledges the art world’s culpability in upholding systems of oppression. Projects should enhance initiatives aimed at preventing, reducing, and mitigating harm.

….

excerpted (first three steps of ten) from downloadable booklet: A DIY Fieldguide for Reducing the Environment Impact of Art Exhibitions

Unlike most other exhibitions, here the gallery space has not been made immaculate in preparation for a new exhibition. Nail holes, scuff marks, scratches are left as is.

Signage at Plastic Heart

Signs are handwritten and pinned to the wall. Nothing is hidden. There is no dumpster filled with incidental debris that is hauled off to a landfill. The “Plastic Heart” exhibition aims to be totally transparent.

Waste on display

It’s a big show, featuring numerous artists – contemporary and historical – and tackling a breadth of topics, some truly nightmarish. Particularly in the visual depictions of toxic pollution in the Great Lakes, one difficult upshot of the exhibition becomes clear, i.e. the overwhelming sense that there is no way out of this mess.

Watching one of the teaser videos for the show, the following phrase stood out as alarming, verging on terrifying: “All the plastic we have ever made is still with us.”

Visual depiction of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes region, by Synthetic Collective member Skye Morét

I was so impressed by Skye Moret’s website! She describes herself as a designer /scientist /adventurer and the site provides a glimpse of the many roles she inhabits.

Mermaid’s Tears
Description of Mermaid’s Tears by Synthetic Collective

Some of the artwork took the form of lists of plastic producers or plastic descriptors.

Research documents by Synthetic Collective

The names of the various plastic compounds have a particularly chilling, incantory quality. I randomly googled “crystal styrene” and learned the following:

The conventional method of producing styrene involves the alkylation of benzene with ethylene to produce ethylbenzene, followed by dehydrogenation of ethylbenzene to styrene. Styrene undergoes polymerization by all the common methods used in plastics technology to produce a wide variety of polymers and copolymers.

 

And voila! …”crystal” styrene is the fully transparent form of styrene, a rigid and rather brittle low cost thermoplastic. When you by a box of organic baby spinach, chances are you are buying crystal styrene. Is it recyclable? Maybe.

Some of the artists in the show decided to bite the bullet and work with the ubiquitous material.

Flexi-Shield (Eostra) by Amy Brener is made from Platinum silicone, pigment, larkspur and chrysanthemum flowers, fern leaves, miscellaneous objects.
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Detail of “Permeations of a Dataset’ by Tegan Moore

Tegan Moore has a very successful piece in the show, balanced beautifully on the edge of elegance and banality. The photo above depicts a very small section of the long, complex stream of material. The work is made from “Factory reject’mystery foam’ sheet with anti-static agent, haildamaged polycarbonate roofing, photodegraded corrugated plastic, plastic pellets, plastic fragments, salvaged phone, starch packing peanuts, mulberry paper.”

Detail of “New Balance,” sculpture by Meghan Price is made from used sneakers

Detail of “Water Song” by Hannah Claus, made from acetate, thread, pva glue and plexiglass

In the notes about Hannah Claus‘s piece, “Water Song” the fact that it “packs small” is mentioned.

I couldn’t help thinking about some of the superstar global artists and the “bigger is better” sensibility that has existed for many decades.

For example, below is an installation shot of a 2020 show of the work of Anselm Kiefer. Clearly, this work does not “pack small.”

Installation view of 2020 exhibition of the work of Anselm Kiefer.

Anselm Kiefer — and he is only one example! — talks about his work in extravagant terms. He claims he is trying “to articulate the known fundamental interactions of the universe and forms of matter.” Could it be that this type of work, boundless in its ambition and scale, corporate in its fundamental self-absorption, might be slightly out of touch?

That is the really interesting thing about seeing the “Plastic Heart” exhibition: suddenly we are thinking about a different moral equation and a different motivation for making and exhibiting art.

Artwork by Christina Battle

For instance, Christina Battle‘s piece alerts us to those “plants helping us to remediate land and wonders how we might support them in return.” Part of this artwork is to invite her audience to receive a Natural Plant toolkit in the mail, and to plant and monitor seeds appropriate to the region. (I was too late. All the seeds were sent out.)

And then there is this video by Leticia Bernaus. What can I say?

Excerpt from video by Leticia Bernaus

Plastic Heart: Surface all the Way Through includes work by the following artist.

Christina Battle, IAIN BAXTER&, Sara Belontz, Leticia Bernaus, J Blackwell, Amy Brener, Hannah Claus, Sully Corth, Heather Davis and Kirsty Robertson, Aaronel deRoy Gruber, Fred Eversley, Naum Gabo, General Idea, Kelly Jazvac, Woomin Kim, Kiki Kogelnik, Les Levine, Mary Mattingly, Christopher Mendoza, Tegan Moore, Skye Morét, Meagan Musseau, Claes Oldenburg, Meghan Price, Françoise Sullivan, Catherine Telford-Keogh, Lan Tuazon, Marianne Vierø, Joyce Wieland, Nico Willliams, Kelly Wood

The featured image at the top is by Iain Baxter.

October 8, 2021

GTA2021

The title of the big, new exhibition at MOCA is GTA2021. This title “plays on the name of the city’s broad metropolitan area” we are earnestly informed, on the MOCA home page. It wasn’t until I looked at the biographies of the participating artists that I understood why a definition of GTA would be required. Many of these artists have deep connections elsewhere. Places — around the world — are named, where the artists currently live, where they were raised or educated, where they exhibit or find influence and inspiration. Other places and a sense of otherness, are core to many of these artist’s identities and overtly manifest in their work. “GTA” wouldn’t mean much back in their far-flung communities and too, there is the possibility of confusion with a certain popular video game.

What then, does the show say about the GTA? Yes: Toronto is the most diverse city the world! But beyond that cliche, in this context, Toronto doesn’t really exist at all. Instead it has a sort of airport status, bland, meaningless, a place from which to participate in a “global discourse.” A characterless point converged upon rather than a vital place from which art emerges.

21 Greater Toronto artists and collectives address the most pressing issues of our time — and our city.

MOCA GTA2021 brochure

The idea of addressing city issues was not really in evidence. But does that matter? Could be it’s just a marketing glitch. The important thing is there are many interesting things to look at and think about in the GTA2021 show! Here are a few:

Mashrabiya Ghazaleh Avarzamani

On the main floor of MOCA, inserted into the exterior wall, is a sculpture by Ghazaleh Avarzamani. Referencing Islamic screens and patterns, Catholic confessionals and some undefined utilitarian object, the work plays with daylight and shadow and with ideas about private and public, outward and inward and seeing and being seen. Encountering this object upon entering the exhibition sets the viewer up perfectly. This piece is beautiful and thought provoking.

Detail of The Parade of All Feels by Common Accounts

Also on the main floor, displayed in a hard plastic bubble, is a model for a parade float by the collective Common Acccounts.

The Parade of All Feels by Common Accounts

I wish this artwork was bigger! It’s packed with tiny details and shimmering mini-video displays, but it’s so small that it becomes toylike, hard to look at and to take seriously.

Installation by Walter Scott

I’m still on the main floor! Walter Scott could not ignore the pillars in MOCA. He half-dressed them and created a complicated installation with a raw, youthful, shambolic appeal.

In the background are hung big, bold, voluptuous, painted curtains by Julia Dault, one of the most well-known artists at GTA2021.

Paintings by Julia Dault

I wandered upstairs and was startled and impressed to encounter the sound installation by Sahar Te, which consists of a massive SUV, a Toyota Tacoma from 2003, this one draped in stretchy black nylon and emitting a deep, throaty, menacing breath. It made me wonder how many incel creeps are roaming the streets of the GTA in their oversized potential weapons of mass murder!

“Listening Attends” by Sahar Te
2003 Toyota Tacoma

The artist indicates the vehicle beneath the drapery is a 2003 Toyota Tacoma: truly a beast!

Also upstairs, is work by Tony Romano, a Toronto native who is drawn to the imagery and culture of Southern Italy, his ancestral home. Here, Tony Romano fuses fragments of found objects to create a romantic sense of yearning for another place and time. All these pieces have a soft, dreamy, tenderness about them.

Sculpture by Tony Romano
Installation by Tony Romano

Personal ethnic heritage is more often the subject of the art in GTA2021 than Toronto and its problems. Maybe the artists have to look back first, and only then, can they look ahead.

Installation by Azza El Siddique

The artist Azza El Siddique used the “architectural plan of a Nubian burial chamber” to create an atmosphere of decay and abandonement. Cultural artefacts and heirlooms lie scattered, looted, broken and water streams down to further erode and destory. Here there evocation of a cultural past feels sorrowful and bitter.

Installation by Azza El Siddique

I kept going.

At the back of the third floor I found a screening room. Here are the results of a collaboration. Parastoo Anoushahpour, Faraz Anoushahpour & Ryan Ferko worked together to create a truly original, witty and engaging video titled Surface Rights. I was so happy that I made the effort and rounded the corner of the third floor at MOCA to find this wonderful video tucked away in the most distant part of the exhibition.

“Charity” by Ron Baird

This is what it’s all about: The city of Markham has an illustrious past as a leading breeder of dairy cows. A work of public art, in the form of a chrome cow, by the artist Ron Baird, was gifted to the city. From there, everything unfolds.

Parastoo Anoushahpour, Faraz Anoushahpour & Ryan Ferko have two pieces in the show. Charity, which you can watch here, is an interactive documentary (jointly produced by the NFB and MOCA) in something called 360 video. “Surface Rights,” a related video, you have to see at the Museum. It’s worth the trip.

I hope one of Toronto’s most celebrated cultural ambassadors makes his way down to MOCA to check it out.

Toronto Booster and Art Collector

September 26, 2021

The end of September is one of those perfect times in the year; the honey-coloured light, the tension between perfection and decay, new clothes and sharpened pencils, and suddenly, Gallery Weekend!

Dahlias peak at the end of September

Everything feels tentative after this long period of fear, isolation and lockdown. I enter cautiously: masked, distanced, with proof of a second dose ready on my phone.

Will this city ever feel carefree again?

Maybe next year.


Bill Burns at MKG127

Installation of view of Bill Burns show at MKG127 titled “The Salt, The Oil, The Milk”

At MKG127 Bill Burns is into the third year of his slow performance, described below:

Bill began his slow performance called variously The Great Trade or The Great Donkey Walk in Amden Switzerland in 2018. With the help of two Donkeys, Bill carried salt from the local salt mine up some gentle slopes in the Swiss Alps and so this project began. Goat milking, donkey walking, sheep shearing, honey rendering, cheese making and occasionally country singing are Bill’s modes. This exhibition includes several dozen drawings that Bill refers to as “pre-documents”, pictures that depict events that have yet to occur, as well as “documents”, pictures of events that have already occurred.

MKG127 handout

The numerous drawings — which are small, pale, delicate watercolours, featuring text, which is sometimes descriptive and sometimes not — were apparently ripped from Bill Burns’ notebooks and then meticulously framed and hung in tight grids.

Detail of drawing by Bill Burns

Detail of drawing by Bill Burns

Installation view of drawings by Bill Burns

It’s such a liberating concept of what art could be: slow, thoughtful, lots of unexpected twists, delightful objects that spin off the activities and make sense in terms of the internal logic of the piece, big questions to mull over.

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Pennants by Bill Burns

I have yet to witness a Bill Burns performance but I am excited to report that I will attend one October 8th, at the Oculus on the Humber River Trail.

In the meantime, I appreciate the meandering, round about, surprising way this artwork touches on so many aspects of our present day world: Where does all the stuff that we have come from? How do things get done, made, traded, shipped, bought and sold? What is our connection to farms, to animals? What kind of hierarchies govern our lives? Our we wasting our time rushing around, getting, and spending? What does time even mean now?

Bill Burns walking a Donkey in Amden, Switzerland in 2018. This was the start of the slow performance.

I really like the way Bill Burns uniquely speculates, slows down and simplifies contemporary life, teases it apart and offers it to us — with a light and playful touch — for consideration.

And what about Donkeys? They are so appealing. I learned the following on The Donkey Sanctuary of Canada website:

Donkeys have been a cornerstone in human existence and they still prop up entire communities today, ferrying water, food and crops.

Donkey carrying water in Kenya



*****

Marcel Van Eeden at Clint Roenisch

Marcel Van Eeden is a major Dutch artist. I learned this from the many publications available at the Client Roenisch gallery, on the occasion of this exhibition, titled “Stolen Pictures.”

Drawing from the Rijks Museum series by Marcel Van Eeden

According to Client Roenisch, there is a key to this artist’s obsessive rendering of imagery which existed prior to his own birth. Marcel Van Eeden came into this world on November 22, 1963. Yes, that was the day JFK was murdered in Dallas! Even as a child Marcel Van Eeden saw the coincidence of the assassination of JFK and the beginning of his own life as an almost mystical nexus.

Marcel Van Eeden’s creative production has been to draw everything – “the light, the architecture, the travel, the people, the cities, the familiar, the foreign, the intrigue, the art, the violence, literally everything” — from the period including the start of photography and concluding at the moment of his own birth.

Drawing from the Rijks Museum series by Marcel Van Eeden

The drawings in the main gallery at Clint Roenisch — which all reference a distant art theft, including text and locale — are huge, powerful, intensely black (rendered in charcoal), and extremely elegant. They have a certain reckless vitality that also manages to be very precise.

Artwork by Marcel Van Eeden
Artwork by Marcel Van Eeden

There are also some small paintings, some in colour, also referencing the past, which is moving further and further away from Marcel Van Eeden.

Video about Marcel Van Eeden

I found this video on You Tube. It goes deep into the practice of this fascinating artist, his relentless drawing and his obsessions. There is very little talking in the video, although at one point the artist does explain his underlying motivations and what he’s getting at and why and just what its all about and so on… but then, of course, I don’t speak Dutch.


*****


Rae Johnson at Christopher Cutts Gallery

At the Christopher Cutts Gallery Rae Johnson’s paintings are on display. Sweeping vistas and low horizons, serene and majestic, filled with awe and reverence, these paintings express a deep and joyful love of nature and an acknowledge of the stark indifference we are all faced with — in our brief, frantic lives — as we look out, in a moment of calm, on this astonishing world.

STORM FRONT BREAKING, 1989, painting by Rae Johnson

The show is called “Of Light and Dark” Water, Land and Sky Paintings: 1989-2009.

SELKIRK/GROUND SHADOWS, 2008, painting by Rae Johnson

In many of her paintings, not shown here, Rae Johnson has depicted archetypes of depravity and redemption, populated by lonely, dreamlike sylphs in dimly lit nighttime haunts, or caught in painful scenes under a harsh fluorescent glare. This exhibition is another side of Rae Johnson’s work. Here, she is enthralled by the elements: air, light and colour

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STORM FRONT WINNIPEG MANITOBA, 1998, painting by Rae Johnson
GREEN SKY, 1989, painting by Rae Johnson

I wanted to bring the sublime into people’s existence.

Rae Johnson

It’s so uplifting to wander around the Chris Cutts Gallery, look at Rae’s paintings and realize that yes, she definitely succeeded in her goal.

*****

February 12, 2021

Fashion tries to cope with the pandemic. Richard Quinn Project for RIKA Magazine. Styled by Patti Wilson.

We are all so tired of this wretched pandemic and pulling on a miserable mask to line up at No Frills. To hell with cooking every night and working out on a mat in front of You Tube with Coach Kel. To hell with the variants, the restrictions, Zoom meetings, vaccine hesitancy, Netflix and the poisonous political ideologies drifting northward from the USA. We want to be in a crowded bar listening to live music! We want to go to a packed opening! We want to linger over an overpriced coffee at the MOCA cafe! We want to push our way onto an overflowing streetcar!

Well, maybe not that…

Eventually, spring will come and eventually we will all be vaccinated. In the meantime, museums and galleries are shut down and virtual art experiences are hard to find online.

It is not the right time to restart my blog, except that I did stumble across some artwork that’s fun to look at and think about.

Pinterest!

Pinterest, that swampy trap of visual quicksand, has been brilliantly repurposed by a collaboration with It’s Nice That, the British on-line art and design magazine. The piece is called Thread of Inspiration and features a number of artists artists including Shamma Buhazza, Louise Borinski and Puzzleman Leung.

The endless stream of generally bland visual content (ideas for renovating my bathroom, for instance) that I once associated with Pinterest, suddenly become bold and declarative statements, found on the fascinating boards and pins of participating artists.

I admire the way the Pinterest infrastructure is efficiently used to create fresh content and how the artworks adopt the vitality and relentless novelty of the form, leading the viewer down labyrinthine paths of visual and intellectual stimulation.

As opposed to working in the pure art realm the featured artists combine commercial design, typography and photography and easily dissolve the boundaries between fine art and commercial practice.

Puzzleman Leung, who is a photographer in Taipei, created a mysterious narrative for his Pinterest project.

Raw Egg pin saved to Puzzleman Leung’s board in Thread of Inspiration with It’s Nice That

Looking at Puzzleman Leung’s boards is the opposite of doomscrolling. It is a joyful affirmation of the ocean of images at our fingertips! Elon Musk has been promising for a while now that Neuralink will connect the internet directly to our brains. Happily, there are still a few hurdles to overcome before it is as simple as Lasik surgery to have “the implant.”

Pin saved to Puzzleman Leung’s board in Thread of Inspiration with It’s Nice That
Pin saved to Puzzleman Leung’s board in Thread of Inspiration with It’s Nice That

Berlin designer Louise Borinski interpreted Leung’s photographs in a series of cryptic posters. She uses the site “as a platform to fall into deep inspiration scroll holes.” I like that!

Posters by Louise Borinski

Language Muse pin save to Louise Borinski’s board in Thread of Inspiration with It’s Nice That

Abu-Dhabi based graphic artist Shamma Buhazza concludes we need to decolonize design. Decolonizing has lately been a powerful sentiment in North America. It makes sense that would be true in the Middle East too. Shamma Buhazza’s Pinterest boards attempt to disrupt the flow of visuals to create pauses for reflection and the raising of generally unheard voices.

Decolonize Design pin saved to Shamma Buhazza’s board in Thread of Inspiration with It’s Nice That

Pinterest board by Shamma Buhazza
This Space is Occupied pin saved to Shamma Buhazza’s board in Thread of Inspiration with It’s Nice That

Covid-19 needs to get wrapped up soon. I feel like I lost the few social skills I ever possessed. Who knows if they will come back?

June 8, 2020

In Toronto and elsewhere, the lack of distracting activities like movies, concerts and sports is contributing to profound events. The real world is changing so fast, as people get focused and rise up. Meanwhile, in the cultural domain, time and place, and, openings and closings, don’t really matter. Many cultural products have become digital and are therefore on demand, untethered by time constraints. Time itself can be compressed to almost nothing or drawn out and made to last.

2020 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival

Ho Tam at Paul Petro Contemporary Art

For example, the 2020 Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, which normally takes place throughout the city in the month of May, was largely postponed, except for the bits and pieces of it which can still be seen, either online or, in a few instances, as outdoor public installations (in the real world.)

In a 25-year-old video by Ho Tam, which was exhibited at Paul Petro Contemporary Art as part of CONTACT, Godzilla is the opening act. The video, titled “The Yellow Pages”, has a lightness and playfulness that belies its serious content.

The Yellow Pages by Ho Tam

Silent and less than eight minutes long, Ho Tam’s video is an illustrated alphabet of racial cliches and assumptions. A is for “Asian Crimes,” B is “Butterfly”, C is “Chinatown,” D is “Dogmeat.” The artist has a very graceful way of layering one cliche upon another. E is for “Enter the Dragon” but instead of Bruce Lee we are treated to a clip of a painfully decrepit Mao Zedong meeting (possibly) Soviet dignitaries sometime in the early 70s. Everything feels so weighted with meaning. Maybe that’s why the piece is so delightful to watch. The cliches are off, and, therefore unsettling.

Uniformly bathed in sepia, the images diverge wildly: “Head Tax” is a ghastly heap of skulls documenting the reign of the Khmer Rouge, “Ninja Turtles” refers to a group of elderly Tai Chi practitioners, and the “Asian Crimes” section — the first letter — introduces the endearing yet ruinous antics of Godzilla. I’m not sure if Godzilla is punishing “Asian Crimes,” or maybe Godzilla himself is the crime, unleashed upon the world.

According to social theorists, since the first Japanese movie featuring Godzilla debuted in 1954, the giant lizard has effectively tapped into our fears and preoccupations. He embodies nuclear weapons, catastrophic bio-hazard, global environmental degradation, cross-species virus transmission and whatever comes next. That’s why we love him!

Toho Studio

Dawit L. Petros at Power Plant

On the CONTACT Festival website I was advised there was a public installation currently On View at The Power Plant. I rode my bike down to Queen’s Quay to have a look. The Power Plant was closed. But, I did get to see the giant, outdoor banner, art piece by Dawit L. Petros, erected as part of the 2020 CONTACT festival.

Installation view of Artwork by Dawit L. Petros titled “Untitled (Overlapping and intertwined territories that fall from view III)

Reading the accompanying text makes clear that this is a scene of current and historic misery. A man is holding a large photograph, which conceals his identity. The man is named Moktar. He is described as one of the millions of migrants who have embarked on dangerous journeys all over the world. Coming from Eritrea, Moktar traveled through Sudan, Egypt, Libya, and across the Mediterranean to a new life in Italy. He was photographed at an unspecified location.

Detail of installation view of Artwork by Dawit L. Petros titled “Untitled (Overlapping and intertwined territories that fall from view III)

The photograph Moktar is holding is “a reproduction of an etching by Georgina Smith, an eyewitness to the sinking of the transatlantic steamship SS Utopia. In a tragic accident on March 17, 1891, the SS Utopia—used frequently to transport European immigrants to the United States—collided with a battleship off the shores of Gibraltar and sank quickly, killing over 500 passengers, many of whom were poor southern Italians seeking better lives across the Atlantic Ocean.”

Detail view of installation by Dawit L. Petros titled “Untitled (Overlapping and intertwined territories that fall from view III)

Looking closely at the photograph of the etching, the detailed image of the terrible event can be seen.

The migrant experience, quickly forgotten by subsequent generations, is perilous today, as it was in 1891.

View of Lake Ontario from southern facade of the Power Plant.

The view southward from the art installation appears serene. Queen’s Quay, normally thronged with tourists during the summer months, is deserted. The lake is very calm in the sudden summer heat.

Museum of Contemporary Art

MOCA closed on March 14th, right in the middle of a exciting moment in the Museum’s brief history. Exhibits by four celebrated artists —Shelagh Keeley, Megan Rooney, Carlos Bunga and Sarah Sze — at various points in their respective career — made the building feel suddenly packed with bold endeavour. What a letdown when the pandemic wrapped things up way too soon!

Since that time, MOCA, like so many other cultural institutions, has tried to figure out ways to retain their audience and foster engagement.

Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art is located at 158 Sterling Road
Ben Rahn/A-Frame/A-Frame

During the lockdown, each week the Museum presents a new time-based work, frequently in collaboration with another local cultural organization. This week you can watch an experimental play, which is particularly relevant to the Black Lives Matter events of the moment. It is titled On Trial: The Long Doorway, by Deanna Bowen, and it can be seen on MOCA’s Shift Key platform.

Meanwhile, the real exhibits, which were scheduled to run to mid-May, languish in the silent halls of the Museum. Hesitancy and confusion about when shows start and end constitute more pandemic fallout. (So many changes in the world right now: I really like the fact that Grind Culture is taking a hit during this global episode! Slow the hell down!)

Guided virtual tours, by MOCA curators, are provided in connection to some of the works inside, including a tour of An Embodied Haptic Space which is the title of Shelagh Keeley’s exhibition of site specific wall drawings and photographs. Tarp paintings from 1986 and a fascinating video are also in the exhibition.

Installation view of drawings at MOCA by Shelagh Keeley

Watch a guided tour of the exhibition here.

Shelagh Keeley, “Fragments of the Factory / Unfinished Traces of Labour”, 2020. MOCA Toronto. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid

The washed out greens and purples in the drawings multiply the feeling of decay and putrescence seen in the photographs, themselves part of the visual wall, which the artist took, when the site at 158 Sterling Road was still unrenovated.

The sense of intuitive confidence, so evident in the beautiful drawings, was also at work in the video part of the exhibition. The text accompanying the video, titled The Colonial Garden, explains that this place, now largely shuttered and in disrepair, was part of the 1940 Portuguese World Exhibition, where it functioned as a kind of human zoo, exhibiting native people from Portugal’s colonies. Shelagh Keeley’s video, creates a growing sense of the sinister, as it takes the viewer on a slow tour of the shambolic garden.

Still from The Colonial Garden by Shelagh Keeley

May 18, 2020

Where is Clarington?

After the pandemic, it may be that visual art exhibitions no longer principally take place in urban centers.

To get to the Visual Art Center of Clarington, for example, take the 401 past Ajax, Whitby and Oshawa. Continue all the way to Bowmanville. Make a left.

At present, the Visual Art Center of Clarington is closed, until further notice. All planned activities and exhibitions are canceled or postponed, except for the digital incarnation of an art piece by Cole Swanson titled The Hissing Folly.

Documentation from the phragmites harvest at Thickson’s Woods Land Trust, 2019. Photo by Jamie McMillan

An online video beautifully documents the construction of the mysterious “Hissing Folly.” (A “folly,” in architecture, by the way, is defined as “a costly ornamental building with no practical purpose.”) Cole Swanson’s folly, built within the gallery space, is made of phragmites thatched over a wooden frame.

Phragmites are an invasive species. They came to Ontario from somewhere in Europe in the 1920s. They are huge plants, over five meters tall, which form dense thickets of vegetation, crowding out native species such as wild rice, cattails, and native wetland orchids. Cole Swanson partnered with Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority to collect and remove the phragmites from the Thickson’s Woods Land Trust of Durham Region in an operation involving chain saws.

The video, which shows the harvesting of the towering reeds, features a lovely sighing, rustling sound which emanates from the phragmites as the breeze whistles through them. That same hissing sound is reproduced on speakers within the installation.

The completed folly, pictured below, has a serene simplicity and attests to the long history of thatched structures. They go back 5000 years.

The Hissing Folly by Cole Swanson

Interior of the Hissing Folly by Cole Swanson

Phragmites are a disaster for Ontario’s wetlands and Cole Swanson seems to find this a fitting metaphor for the whole shit show of colonialism as he gamely wades into a “dense thicket” of ideologies. I really like this artist’s confidence! He does not pretend to have a solution to problems caused by invasive species in Ontario’s wetlands or by “the colonial, consumer, and cultural systems” which conveyed them here. He spends his energy collaborating with various stakeholders in the region and stirring things up to create this thought provoking art piece.

Covering the crops… In 1880’s Sussex, England. Photo from Thatching Info.com

Devil’s Colony

I happened to see another art piece by Cole Swanson, at Hamilton Artists Inc., last year. The Devil’s Colony is described by the artist as a “cross-disciplinary exhibition that examines the sociocultural, material, and scientific relationships between humans and an often-reviled colonial species, double-crested cormorants.”

Prior to being enlightened by Cole Swanson’s art piece I was totally down for reviling these appalling birds. For example, on a sultry summer afternoon last August we rented a kayak and paddled down the Humber river. At one point, we entered gang territory, and by this I mean we were surrounded by thousands of cormorants, perched on dead trees — trees they killed! — on either side of the river. They literally growled, in menacing unity, as we rushed by.

Photo courtesy of Muskokablog.com

What is with these birds?

In his show in Hamilton, Cole Swanson replicated a bird blind. He also showed films of the huge numbers of double-crested cormorants nesting in Tommy Thompson park, on Leslie spit. For this exhibition he worked with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and under the mentorship of an environmental biologist from York University. I really like the way this artist works with scientists to explore the way various plant and animal species, including humans, continually alter the natural world. Cole Swanson seems to be able to do this without judgement or didactic scolding.

The cormorants make bulky nests full of sticks and other materials, like rope, deflated balloons, fishnets, plastic debris, parts of dead birds (yes). Cormorants love the colour blue (like me) and Cole Swanson documented the blue festooned nests of the Devil birds, as part of his exhibition in Hamilton.

Nest Samples is a photographic archive of nests containing human-made waste products selected by the cormorants at Leslie Spit. They evince the material and colour preferences of the birds while providing a glimpse into the after-life of commonplace materials. – Cole Swanson
The Blind is an installation artwork that recreates the scientific observation blind within which environmental researchers are able to observe the world’s largest colony of double-crested cormorants at Toronto’s Tommy Thompson Park. – by Cole Swanson

Cormorant populations suffered greatly from exposure to DDT in the 20th century and their numbers were decimated. Over the last few decades the birds have made a comeback. So much so that they are now viewed as destructive to sport fishing stocks. Some scientists, however, insist the birds actually protect native fish stocks, since they feed on invasive fish species whose presence is harmful to human interest. People loath these creatures, so much so, that they are now threatened by massive culling efforts.

Photo by Peter Wallack, from Great Lakes Echo

The show in Hamilton included photos, video and a life-size sculptural representation of a bizarre creature formed from non-biodegradable materials gathered by the cormorants.

Spit Spectre (sculpture), human and cormorant-foraged materials, textiles, PVC, and earth by Cole Swanson

What is it about this sculpture that makes me uneasy? Oh yeah…

May 6, 2020

Is the global pandemic a good time to restart this blog?

Random wandering through art galleries and museums in real-life is only a memory now, since Covid-19 brought down the hammer. Previously– before the global pandemic –I had not bothered with the digital realm as a primary source for looking at art. I saw it as a secondary, less interesting, impoverished facsimile of the real thing, and, as a vast back-up archive for research, speculation, discussion and documentation. And now? Digital art is ascendant, the only game in town, so I’m looking at it.

Artists, galleries and art institutions are all trying to come up with ways to maintain their audience, offer up a virtual version of themselves for consumption, and survive. What seems to work, in the digital sphere, not surprisingly, is work that is originally made using the right tools: digital tools.

csm_Photo_by_ian_dooley_on_Unsplash_wsp_21a2c9e074

Conversely, trying to contort a real-life exhibition into a digital show, is often disappointing. For example, the various stake-holders in the highly anticipated (all Judd, all the time) show of Donald Judd’s work, which opened on March 11 at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and is scheduled to run through this summer in New York, are trying to come up with some way of realizing their labor. The Judd exhibition involved 12 years of planning and negotiations and was to occur not just at MOMA, but also at the Judd Foundation, the DIA Foundation and several of the biggest galleries in the city. There was a lot of excitement about seeing so many extraordinary objects by Donald Judd together, for once!

Donald Judd. Untitled. 1991. Enameled
aluminum. 59” x 24’ 7 14” x 65” (150 x 750
x 165 cm). The Museum of Modern Art,
New York.

Now, with the galleries closed, the MOMA website invites visitors to view photos of the work, listen to talks about the work, see a video of the curator of the show as she walks us through it, hear interviews with Judd’s children, and, so on and so forth. But none of that is particularly interesting, compared to what it would have been like to see the show.

Online Exhibition of Brad Necyk’s Beyond Here Lies Nothing

Joshua Tree and All of Everything by Brad Necyk. Created with Gary James Joynes

I stumbled across the ARTsPLACE Gallery Online Exhibition of Brad Necyk’s Beyond Here Lies Nothing through the Akimbo listing service.

ARTsPLACE is a gallery and arts center, operated by the Annapolis Region Community Arts Council. It is located in Annapolis Royal, in Nova Scotia, a town with a current population of 491. The town was originally founded (as Port Royal) in 1605, by Samuel de Champlain, and it has had a turbulent history, fraught with assaults, sieges and expulsions.

The artist, Brad Necyk, is from Alberta. He looks just like any guy you might see loading up his SUV with groceries in the Costco parking lot; kids in the back seat, wife scrolling through her phone. A few minutes into a conversation with Brad Necyk, however, would probably dispel those first impression notions of suburban normalcy. This is a man with very dark preoccupations, a precarious grip on his own mental health, and a past of endured pain, illness and trauma that is truly shocking.

Alberta #3, video by Brad Necyk

The first video I watched was Alberta #3.

Details about his multiple surgeries, recollections of a madness experience “coarse and twisted,” references to the genetic matter nested within him and to his awareness of genetic strands stretching across a geologic time scale, reflections on illness as a “very ancient space we all inhabit”, yearnings for a connection to grandparents and great grandparents as a way to understand himself and his children, fears around his bi-polar diagnosis and the statistical probability that he will suicide, painful scenes from his marriage, and many other intense topics, are recounted with a flat, perfunctory Alberta delivery.

I found this work quite riveting, fearless and very original, and I spent some time watching this video and others in the exhibition.

The early work of Brad Necyk — like Alberta #3 — is so raw and autobiographical that it was a relief to watch something very recent and completely different. I had the feeling that Brad Necyk could not take working with all that intensity. He needed a respite and so he moved into meditation. I really like looking at his waterfall pieces. They are just as powerful and mesmerizing as the earlier work but in a different way.

Jewels by Brad Necyk

There are so many fascinating ideas in this show. The idea of genetic lineage, for example, really got to me and seemed to dovetail into an event that occurred a few months ago. I happened to chat with someone at an event whose favourite pastime is ancestry tracing. I gave her a few facts about my Manitoba family and the next day she sent me the photo below. The little girl in the center is apparently my grandmother, Flora Taylor. She stands beside her father, John “Johnny Boy” Taylor and the rest of the family is arrayed around her. Is it just me or does “Johnny Boy” look more than a little bit like Freddy Mercury…?

Cluster XI Digital Edition

The 11th Cluster New Music and Arts Festival, usually held in Winnipeg in late February/early March, was cancelled shortly after the pandemic struck. But then, the organizers saw the writing on the wall, pulled themselves together and decided to push on. This year’s Cluster was resurrected and opened on May 1st as the Cluster XI Digital Edition.

(Full disclosure: I participated in Cluster X and my nephew, Eliot Britton, is one of the curators. Also, I love the vibe of being in Winnipeg in February; it is extreme in so many ways.)

Although I do miss the reality of Winnipeg and actually being there, I think this Cluster digital edition is definitely a success. Cluster excels at getting the mix of art works exactly right, in real-life and digitally. It is never too slick , there is a feeling of newness, experimentation and “becoming”and there are always at least a few stunning events.

The piece called Quigital, for example, put together by a collective of artists known as Made by Mandate, is so weird that it took me a while to realize it was not an advertisement for an unlikely Cluster sponsor.

Quigital Intro Video with Susan Solomon

The Quigital call tree, just one component of this sprawling art work, is really masterful. That familiar feeling that we are endlessly mined for our thoughts and opinions by corporate interests with an earnest offer of “points”, goes off-the-rails absurdist in the call tree. (Somehow, hearing the news today about the cancellation of the Sidewalk Labs project, which involved creating a futuristic data-gathering city on the Toronto Waterfront, relates to the Quigital call tree. Data mining hits a wall! )

I spent nearly an hour listening to “The Joy Channel”, a collaboration between sound artists Emmanuel Madan and Anna Friz. The whole Mad Max-y type narrative is a little bit cliched at this point, as per below:

In the year 2146, after nearly 150 years of business as usual (government corruption and privatization, toxic resource extraction and industrial practices, bad weather, civil uprising, earthquakes and pandemic), approximately 40 million people remain in New North America.

Anna Friz describing the “Joy Channel”

But the sound is great. Particularly when it becomes entirely abstract, the dialogue fades out and the listener is left with sheets of ambient, shimmery sound, switching and clicks and soft hisses to get lost in.

There are some straight-up musical groups like Slow Spirit in the Cluster mix. “Sound baths”, “High-rising melodic arcs”, “frolicking” and “defiant” are some of the words and phrases on the Cluster site used to describe the gorgeous Slow Spirit sound. On their Facebook page the band members list their influences: Joni Mitchell, Land Of Talk, Dirty Projectors, Radiohead, Feist, Parquet Courts, Sufjan Stevens, Sam Amidon, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Wilco, Patrick Watson, Deerhunter, Lhasa, Big Thief, Neko Case, Aidan Knight, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Plants and Animals, Elliott Smith, Stevie Wonder.

Photo of Slow Spirit band members

The manipulated wildlife sounds by Brendon Ehinger are based on a banged-up cassette tape found in Riding Mountain park, South Asian hip hop by Shamik is a joyful escape from the dreary pandemic world; Bad Wave achieves emotional depth in a cross-country duet of piano and voice, and there is much more to peruse in the Cluster XI Digital Edition, during its run until the 31st of May, including images by Luke Nickel, which through Machine Learning software, compress ten years of pictures from Cluster Festivals past.

3ladies-blur by Luke Nickel

April 7, 2019

Koffler Gallery – Nevet Yitzhak

On the eve of the Israeli election, where the polls are projecting “King Bibi”, it seems like a good idea to check out Israeli artist Nevet Yitzhak and her exhibition, titled WarCraft, at the Koffler Gallery.

Detail of WarCraft video installation by Nevet Yitzhak

When I arrive, Nevet Yitzhak is speaking about her work to a rapt audience of a few dozen. The gallery lights are off, the only illumination of the event comes from the huge, animated digital projections on three sides of the space.

The projections look like very large rugs. They are flat, patterned expanses, with light coloured strips of fringe running down both vertical ends. The projections share the flattened, stylized look of traditional rugs from the Middle East. And they have the same warm palette of reds, ochers and yellows. But traditional subject matter, that of animals, plants and various domestic scenes, has been replaced with something new. In fact they are “war rugs,” – reminiscent of those that emerged during the Afghani conflicts – displaying the implements of contemporary warfare, like choppers, tanks and AK-47s.

Detail from digital video animation by Nevet Yitzhak

And the rugs move. In a rather slow, desultory manner, bombers cruise here and there, missiles are dispatched and explode, helicopters meet dramatic ends and fires continually burn. The slowness and repetition gives the scene a routine, humdrum feel.

Detail of animated digital video by Nevet Yitzhak

Meanwhile in the gallery, the artist is describing her family background, which is Yemeni, Kurdish Iraqi and Syrian. She tells the audience about the Arabic Jewish communities within Israel and their attempts to maintain their cultural identities, and, about her sense of self as an Arabic Jew growing up in a state of continual conflict, where Arabs are the enemy. She tells the audience that she has no hope, her generation has no hope, and, that this artwork is not a metaphor. This artwork reflects reality.

She also talks about Afghani war rugs and how they inspired her. But in this respect Nevet Yitzhak emphasizes the fact that, unlike the Afghani rug producers, she is a citizen of the aggressor state, and, her audience is mainly an Israeli audience.

Afghan war rug from 2002

Q & A Period arrives: Someone in the audience suggested that the artist’s work celebrates war. “It is the opposite of Picasso’s Guernica, ” the person complains, “It does not show suffering.”

Detail of Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Nevet Yitzhak responds to the question as follows: She repeats she is an Israeli citizen. She can not show the victims of Israeli aggression, because that is not who she is.

In an aside, the artist mentions that textiles are always political. I never really thought about that before, but, yes, remember the Pussy Hat? It is now a cultural artifact, frequently disparaged.

Pussy Hat is now decried as racist and trans-phobic

Exhibiting concurrently with Nevet Yitzhak’s show is a work by Shaista Latif. Shaista Latif’s video work, called “Learning the Language of my Enemies” (I have to go back and see it!) was created as “an intervention and an attempt at empathetic critique” of the work in the main gallery.

Still from two channel video piece by Shaista Latif

Shaista Latif has a very charming, bubbly personality and she jumps into the rather tense Q & A session with a declaration of herself as working class, Afghani-Canadian and Queer. She somehow gets the assembled group to agree with her that when you are in Toronto it is very important that you identify where you are coming from, what your point of view is and who you are speaking for.

Nevet Yitzhak’s English is a little shaky and in fact, she has a translator with her. Someone in the audience asks her if her work is political. She talks to the interpreter for a few seconds, and then she replies: “Everything in Israel is political.”

Map of Israel and surroundings


April 5, 2019

InterAccess

“Film Path / Camera Path with under-titles” by Daniel Young & Christian Giroux

The multi-media sculpture, by Daniel Young and Christian Giroux, on display at InterAccess is a dazzling feat of mechanical production wrapped around an idea. A film loop whips rapidly through a complex roller-coaster-like construction, in the center of which a giant, antique film projector is fed. The machine projects the depiction of the path the film takes through the sculpture. It’s a dizzying, hectic journey, and, watching the film – the ultimate, self-absorbed travelogue – is weirdly tension inducing and hypnotic at the same time.

Sculpture by Daniel Young and Christian Giroux

The piece, shown in the darkened gallery at InterAccess, is composed of big tangled loops of tubular steel. The loops, which create a kind of knot, are lined with brackets to hold the moving film. Even though the steel structure is still, there is a lot of intense movement going on as the film zooms around. In fact, the racket of the whirling film is so frenetic the whole thing feels like it could fly apart at any moment.

Rear view of sculpture by Daniel Young and Christian Giroux

Below the screen, sits a electronic text box slowly revealing rather opaque phrases. The script is displayed in a tingly blue LED, which casts the room in a dreamy light.

Details of Sculpture by Daniel Young and Christian Giroux

And what about the text box?

I was told that the artists invited thirteen individuals to contribute “under-titles” for the piece. A pamphlet containing all thirteen texts is available in the gallery. I knew of a few of the writers, but not many.

Details of sculpture by Daniel Young and Christian Giroux

The writings tend to be poetic and/or philosophical. Here is a particularly lovely piece written by Erin Moure:

It was a harsh and brutal climb across the wastelands and we were unprotected from ideas that lashed us left and right each day till tears streamed down our girlish faces. The air crackled. Ice pans heaved up in the river and we had to cross in wet shoes over the abyss of orange contradiction that grabbed us by the throat until we could no longer utter human sound. Language left us. Sound left us. There was a human track across the ditch full of coarse reeds and small animals trembling where the ice dissolved into such torrents we could not cross O vertigo…tanto queremos vivir neste mundo di frio… incorruptas nas ondas onde non haixustia nin palabrina ni corpo

Erin Moure

I googled a few of the contributors to see if there might be some common denominator. What turned up was lots of impressive accomplishments and associations with prestigious institutions. It’s harder to find out much, if anything, about some of the contributors, particularly the poets.

John Barlow –Poet

Ina Blom – Writer and Academic

Eric Cazdyn – Critic and cultural theorist

Geoffrey Farmer – Sculptor

Agnieszka Gratza – Writer

Daniel Hambleton – Mathematician and designer

Erin Moure – Poet and translator

Bridget Moser – Video and performance artist

Judy Radul – Multidisciplinary artist, writer and educator

Patricia Reed – Artist and writer

Reza Negarestani –  Philosopher and writer

Mohammed Salemy – Artist, critic and curator

Michael Snow – Artist

March 29, 2019

It can be tricky to find the right building in the maze of U of T. Look for Sidney Smith Commons and you will find your way to the Trans-Disciplinary and Trans-National Festival of Art & Science Exhibition. This year’s theme: Evolve, Mutate, Transform!

What better time to follow the lead of those in the Art & Science Salon and opt to “reflect on the condition of co-habitation and co-existence of human and non-humans in this world (and beyond?) and pose questions about transformation; forced or elective mutation and survival; agency and decision making; conservation and intervention.”

Detail of “Mud (Lake Ontario)” by Nicole Clouston

The exhibition is on a relatively modest scale. For example, the flourishing colonies of microbial life displayed by Nicole Clouston, in her piece called “Mud (Lake Ontario)” fit into a few feet of eye-level vitrine. The contained ideas, however, are big, highly original and delightful to observe.

“My work with mud arose out of a desire to engage with microbial life,”

is how Nicole Clouston describes the origins of her project, which involves harvesting mud from the lake bed and nourishing it with sunlight and nutrients until the living colonies are visible. Looking through Nicole Clouston’s on-line book, Lake Ontario Portrait, gave me an optimistic sense of the irrepressible life-force all around us.

Detail of Mud (Lake Ontario) by Nicole Clouston

No subject is too large for the trans-disciplinary crowd. Jenifer Wightman, for example, addresses our prevailing creation myth — including the tree, the snake, the apple, and, Adam and Eve — in her piece, Addendum (to the Gutenberg Bible).

The piece consists of a single page letterpress broadside, which updates the story of Genesis, using contemporary scientific images and references.

“Addendum (to the Gutenberg Bible)” by Jenifer Wightman

In 2014 this artist pulled 180 editions of the print (shown above) in the style and dimensions of the 42-line Gutenberg bible. That same year, she began hand-delivering editions of the “Addendum” to the 49 libraries and institutions of the world which hold these priceless artifacts, i.e. the world’s last remaining Gutenberg bibles.

One of the shimmering, ethereal “multi-species portraits” by Gunes-Helene Isitan is on display in the exhibition. Gunes-Helene Isitan refers to these portraits, which include the microorganisms from her subjects faces, as “Hybridities.”

“Zania-Microorganisms Hybrid” by Gunes-Helene Isitan

The artist regards the notion that a human is a “unified and autonomous entity” as stemming from “a modernist conception of ‘human exceptionalism.'” In fact, she points out, we are all made up of 50% microbial cells!

And microbial cells can be beautiful. When I googled “microbial” I was surprised to be shown this page from Zazzle (which is a global shopping platform) and given the opportunity to buy DNA MICROBIAL MISCROSCOPIC CELL STRAND LEGGINGS. 92.00 CAD

Suzanne Anker showed several small black sculptures. They have the appearance of some obscure, minute insect life, or maybe they reference Rorschach blot tests. Were they made with a 3D printer? They have an appealing weighty, mysterious quality.

Sculpture by Suzanne Anker

On her website Suzanne Anker’s creative interests are described as follows: “Concerned with genetics, climate change, species extinction and toxic degradation, she calls attention to the beauty of life and the “necessity for enlightened thinking about nature’s ‘tangled bank’.”

Possibly the artists in this exhibition represent the vanguard of change in how humans think about the biological world; the “tangled bank” not simply as a resource to master and exploit, but as a sentient partner and ally.

Biosphere 2

Back in 1991, it was not that way. “Biospherics” – the study of closed systems that recreate Earth’s environment – found some deep pocketed adherents and Biosphere 2 was built, in the Arizona desert, near a town called Oracle. I am trying to imagine the hubris of deciding to build a closed system replicating all the complexity of Biosphere 1.

Biosphere 2 was an epic failure.

Elaine Whitaker filled a vitrine with vaguely organic shapes entangled with human by-products.

“Intertwined” by Elaine Whitaker

The piece, called “Intertwined” seems to suggest that organic life forms are responding rapidly to human intervention. Or maybe not rapidly enough.

Marta de Menezes included a video in the exhibition. In this video, the artist and her partner, Luis, undergo skin grafts from one another. The grafts are summarily rejected as anti-bodies are created. How does the body identify itself and it’s non-self?

Still from video “Anti-Marta: Self and Non-Self” by Marta de Menezes

Despite the rather shocking gore – the bloody operation is witnessed in the tape – the artwork is charged with philosophical suggestions that will take some time to unravel.

Meanwhile, Marta and Luis are recovering nicely.