January 24, 2019

Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires

My attitude toward our southern neighbour swings wildly, from: “That hell hole,” to “We have so much to learn from the USA!”  The work of Mickalene Thomas, and her show at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) titled Femmes Noires, makes me truly appreciate the USA and the driving, pure, singular force of innovation that springs up fairly frequently in that turbulent and mesmerizing country.

Mickalene Thomas, Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires (detail)

“Visibility, empowerment, celebration.” That is a quote from Mickalene Thomas, talking about what she wants people to take away from her AGO show.  She succeeds.  It is an exultant display, uplifting to visit.  So many images of queenly, glittering, sumptuous women.  I guess it takes a gay, black woman to shrug off deference to a male art world and let glitter and sequins reign.

Shinique: Now I know by Mickalene Thomas (detail)

The paintings shown in the Femmes Noires exhibition – collages of oil paint, photographs, and other materials – often refer to revered works by male artists from the past, like Picasso, Manet or Ingres. The women that emerge in these paintings have a deep sense of themselves: Their gaze is frank, self-contained, self-knowing and profoundly calm in the center of riotous color and pattern.

Une Odalisque by Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres

The painting titled “Shinique: Now I Know” references the Neo-classical touchstone “Une Odalisque.” This painting, by Ingres, above, was widely reviled when it was first shown. Critics pointed to the elongated curved creature in the painting as anatomically impossible. And yet this picture has endured, sits in the Louvre to this day, and is included in every Art History survey around the world.  Apparently, it had more than anatomical correctness going on.

Guerilla Girls at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

People respond deeply to Ingres’ painting.  What is it that makes people decide to redo it, or use it in provocative sloganeering, as per the Gorilla Girls famous poster above.  Maybe there is something essentially irritating about “Une Odalisque” itself, that paradigm of “Orientalism.”

Installation shot of Femmes Noires at the AGO

The Femmes Noires show is big! There are two massive galleries where the visitor can lounge in a living room environment — with potted plants, comfortable chairs and cushions — browse novels or other works about the black experience, and watch media (some random snippets are included below:)

It seemed like there was a bit of a disconnect from the present. We see Whitney, Eartha, Pam, Diana and so many other fabulous black women icons from the past but where are today’s powerful black women?  In fact Mickalene Thomas has collaborated with Solange, Beyonce (The Queen!!!) and other contemporary black superstars but that work just doesn’t happen to be included in this exhibition.

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Portrait of Solange Knowles by Mickalene Thomas

I was feeling pretty good about my former homeland by the time I left the Mickalene Thomas exhibition at the AGO.  What an exciting place of invention and possibility!  All the fraught recriminations and anger that characterize this contentious era in the USA don’t really come up at Femmes Noires.  It’s like an invitation to a new world.

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Portrait of Maya #10 by Mickalene Thomas

 

September 15, 2019

Loner Culture at Inter/Access

To be a loner today is to raise suspicions.  We know now that Alek Minassian, Adam Lanza, Dylan Klebold, Elliot Roger, and many others, stayed in their rooms, alone, until rage and frustration drove them out, in a frenzy, to commit mayhem.

Loner Culture, the exhibition currently on display at Inter/Access is about something else.  It’s about trying to connect.  It’s social.  And weirdly, to be social, is to exclude one group in favour of another.  That’s the human way!  Sometimes the exclusion piece means solitary confinement in a pink bedroom.  But it’s temporary — a brief, high-drama interlude, an emotional eddy on the river towards self-actualization.

The exhibition re-creates vestiges of the long lost bedrooms where the tender, new self was honed and tested.

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Above: Installation at Loner Culture

I chatted with one of the artist’s in the show, Suzanne Kite, through her live link on the Discord Platform.  She described how in her late teens and early twenties she traveled hours on connecting buses to make the scene.  In her case, the scene was an all ages DNB Happy Core Trance House DJ event in some off-the-beaten track warehouse in a remote corner of sprawling LA.  That is dedication!  That is really wanting to be there!  Needing to get it absolutely right and knowing that the others at this event are just like you!

By the way, if you do not know — like me– the difference between DNB (Drums and Base) and Happy Core you can watch a tutorial above:

Suzanne Kite identifies herself as a Oglala Lakota performance artist.  When the movie Pocahontas came out in 1995 Suzanne Kite’s parents bought her absolutely every conceivable Pocahontas tie-in item.

According to Wikipedia:

… promotional tie-ins included Burger King distributing 55 million toy replicas of the film’s characters with kids’ meals, Payless Shoes selling a line of moccasins, and Mattel peddling a Barbie-like Pocahontas doll.[93]

Payless!  Obviously Indigenous youngsters, especially girls, were starved for dolls, toys and anything else Mattel and Payless could come up with that somehow related to them.  Suzanne Kite has carefully saved these items.  They are displayed on the walls of the gallery overlaid with projections of posters from her youthfully intrepid music life.

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Detail of installation by Suzanne Kite titled “Better Off Alone”

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Installation view of Suzanne Kite artwork “Better Off Alone”

Typing on the keyboard filled the large space at Inter/Access with Suzanne Kite’s favourite music from that era:

Video of interactive installation by Suzanne Kite

With all the memorializing of the past bedrooms of origin it is hard to keep the decades straight.  Patti Smith, Michael Jackson, Lydia Lunch and B52s must mean late seventies or early eighties.  But no, nostalgia has already kicked in.  This is a moment in the early 2000s where icons from twenty years prior are revered.

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Above: Installation detail from Loner Culture exhibition, re-creating a bedroom from the 2000s.

Both Thirza Jean Cuthand and Fallon Simard presented bedroom-ish settings and both featured monitors.

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Installation by Fallon Simard

In Fallon Simard’s piece the utterly bland dresser, standing alone in the rather cavernous, grey space, has a bleak feeling.  It is free of knickknacks and/or personal items of any kind, something that might indicate an era or anchor a sensibility. Instead there is a cold sense of isolation and detachment. The monitor displays anti-homophobic/transphobic internet memes with vague, delicate, pastel backgrounds.

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Art work by Fallon Simard

A camera is clipped to top of the  monitor in the Fallon Simard piece.  Are we observing or being observed? 

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Installation by Thirza Jean Cuthand

Thirza Jean Cuthand provides a heap of cushions and head phones to kick back and watch videos.   The tapes by Thirza Cuthand have a graceful poetic sensibility throughout.  The artist is fearless: sex, insecurity, fear, sex, mental illness, rage, grief, sex, youth, race, sex.  All the topics that are endlessly pondered in bedrooms around the world are covered here in an inventive and original voice.

August 18, 2018

For me, there is a true sense of luxury in slipping into a museum for a short visit.  The edifice – in this case the AGO – becomes like my local library.  It’s no big deal.  I’m merely popping in.  Two wonderful shows were just waiting for me…

Jack and the Jack Paintings: Jack Goldstein and Ron Terada

Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia is available for purchase on Amazon for CDN 52.94.  Complete pages of the book, which was written by Jack Goldstein and a collaborator, are reproduced as large paintings; white text on black, in Ron Terada‘s show, Jack and the Jack Paintings, at the AGO.

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Jack by Ron Terada

The paintings are fascinating. They contain so much: cringe worthy emotionalism, insight and aspiration, the personal/political dichotomy, and, most importantly, they are powerful objects, flickering between realms of subjective and objective meaning.

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Photograph of Jack Goldstein

CalArts was the so-called “sister” school of NSCAD.  Maybe Jack Goldstein was a visiting artist?  I remember the name but…  Was he dating a friend of mine in the eighties?

The viewer can’t escape the texts, which constitute the paintings.  (I tried looking at them as white marks on black ground but I have not reached that level of enlightenment, yet.)  And these texts are so dense with 80’s art world gossip – all the references to Robert, Cindy and Helene!   All the resentment, whining and profound sadness.  It’s all too much.  Finally, the whole idea of the art world becomes something absurd, tainted and shameful.

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Jack by Ron Terada

Included in the show is one of Jack Goldstein’s paintings.  It is large, about 8 feet long, and solemn.   It adds a lot to the exhibition: it  is a calming force, dark and silent, judgement free, and, pain free.

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Painting by Jack Goldstein

Joseph Beuys

On the AGO’s main floor, at the end of trek through the Ken Thompson knickknacks, is a small room filled with many drawing, and, two sculptures.  These are early works (late 50s and early 60s) by Joseph Beuys; prior to the global fame precipitated by iconoclastic performance artworks such as I Like America And America Likes Me or How To Explain Pictures To A Dead Hare.

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How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare – photograph of performance by Joseph Beuys

The exhibition notes state that the works on paper “revolve around the theme of death.”  Renderings of the body: truncated, naked and anguished are displayed, images of sunken graves, darkness.  They appear to be made hastily/compulsively, on cardboard, newsprint, office forms, file folders.  Some of the drawings are partially obliterated with opaque black or terra cotta coloured paint, or decorated with the ubiquitous silver or fat substances that Joseph Beuys frequently employed.

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To Saturn by Joseph Beuys

The lights are dim in the exhibition and the delicate, fragile works are framed with excruciating care.   But despite the best attempts by museum preservationists there is a sense that they will not last.  But maybe that’s as it should be, as per the quote from Joseph Beuys below:

That is why the nature of my sculpture is not fixed and finished. Processes continue in most of them: chemical reactions, fermentations, color changes, decay, drying up. Everything is in a state of change.

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Two Women by Joseph Beuys

The sculptures – one: broken and shambolic, the other: mysterious intertwined totems – are displayed in large vitrines.

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Hasengrab  (Hare’s Grave) by Joseph Beuys

 

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Sculpture by Joseph Beuys

During his life Joseph Beuys created the role of Shaman for himself; a figure of healing for modern society.  He engaged in social, political and environmental matters and explored the trauma of his WWII plane crash, and subsequent rescue by nomadic Tartars.  I was grateful to look at this work and to spend some  time thinking about how Joseph Beuys might respond to our current social upheaval and environmental crisis.

 

 

July 18, 2018

Report from Montreal

Life in graceful Montreal moves at a sauntering pace.  The sidewalks feel broad and unhurried.  There is always a table to be had, even at peak time.  The movie is never sold out.  In the hot, white glare of an afternoon in mid-July downtown Montreal feels nearly deserted and the saunter slows to a languid drift.

I am drawn to the churches: hushed, dark, cool, grandly capacious and filled with exquisite objects.  Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral is my favourite.

20180715_160250Narthex of “Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral” in Montreal

The role of the non-cloistered female orders and their leaders, particularly Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys, are exalted in this edifice.  There are a number of depictions of her, always looking beatific, in the Cathedral.

20180716_140119Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys teaching her indigenous pupils in 1694 on ground belonging to the Sulpicians. Work by Georges Delfosse.

20180715_155617Portrait of Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys

I was thinking way too much about faith, charity, devotion and, becoming hypnotized by the candles burning in the dim light.  It was time to buy a Mother Theresa medal and move on to the Museum.

The Museum of Contemporary Art

Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmons piece titled The Prophets creates the absorbing core to a group exhibition of the same name.  Spread about on high tables, Ibghy and Lemmons’ delicate, petite sculptures relate in a playful, irreverent way to the conceptual and/or formalist artworks, by renowned artists, on the surrounding walls.

20180718_143319Detail of “The Prophets” by Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmons

20180718_143407Detail of “The Prophets” by Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmons

The succinct transmission of information in charts, graphs and process maps is slightly subverted here.  Drole captions hint at meaning but these are gestural data depictions, not literal.  They use the familiar forms of  the financial pages but have more in common with Russian Constructivist graphics.  Their connection to, for example, the Sol Lewitt prints in the same room is definite but updated.  Whereas the early conceptual artists, like Sol Lewitt, were obliged to create text instructions accompanying their visual production — the formal texts sounding rather like logic statements or algorithms — Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmons experience no such constraints.  They just go for it.

It seems to be a very popular show.  Visitors linger and are compelled to take numerous photographs, intently focused, peering into their smart phones and leaning over the tables of sculptures they wile away the summer afternoon.

20180718_143533Museum goer photographing art work by Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmons, while standing in front of a painting by Jack Bush

Also at the Museum of Contemporary Art is a massive exhibition of the work of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer.  The show is called Unstable Presence. 

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer is interested in human interaction with systems, benign and otherwise.  Sometimes the work manifests as big, flashy public-type display, something you might see at Nuit Blanche.  For example: A sensor detects a human heartbeat and ignites a dazzling display of glittering bulbs in the museum rotunda.  I guess the “unstable” is the human participant.

20180718_154903   Pulse Spiral by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

Other works — for example Zoom Pavilion – suggest sinister forms of control: non-stop surveillance, facial recognition technology, drones, heat-seeking threats and menaces, remote body scans and all the other oppressive technologies the techie geeks have come up with.  In fact, this phone I carry around with me everywhere is a tracking device!  But if I don’t have it…. how am I going to know where the nearest Starbucks is?  I guess its a trade off.

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20180718_151054Installation shots from Zoom by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

Walking into the Zoom Pavilion installation is highly unsettling.  Multiple camera immediately focus on the viewer’s face, enlarge the image, then analyze, compare and store it.  There is a strangely disturbing soundtrack of zip lines, clicks, whirs and hums.  The walls are covered with real-time images of the audience, as they tentatively observe. The museum goer becomes a passive participant in a ghostly, black and white world.  A sense of being tracked or hunted is pervasive and the worst kind of corporate/government malfeasance is evoked.

In fact many of the works by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer create a sense of stepping into a reality much bigger than ours.  We can participate but only minimally.   A sinister power that lies elsewhere is amplified and our actions and interactions become trivial.

 

Video of works by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer in “Unstable Presence”

And there was more.  The Museum showed art works by some of my favourite artists … so it was a great day in sultry Montreal.

a128p1_in001-1200x1629                              “Earthling (Red Sweater)” by Janet Werner

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                                         “Zombie Dance” by Sarah Anne Johnson

 

July 8, 2018

The Toronto Outdoor Art Fair

2018 constitutes the 57th edition of the Toronto Outdoor Art Fair.   Rain or shine, since 1961, Toronto artists have been hauling their work down to City Hall.  The idea is to connect with a member of the public and make a sale!

TOAF is juried.   750 applicants were whittled down to 360 participants.  Fees are low: $50 per application.  Artists get to keep 100% of sales receipts.

TOAF is intent on getting people in the buying mood.  For example: The organizers set up an apartment tableau so that prospective buyers could test a painting over a generic couch/lamp/coffee table setup and get a sense of how it might look at home.

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“Quite good.  I’ll take it.”

Established artists rarely talk about the connection between money and art.  In art school, the topic of how to make a living as an artist is frequently dismissed with a shrug.  That’s not the case at the TOAF.  This is a place to openly market artwork, figure out a price point that works and be prepared to make change.

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Art work by Ezio Molinari

The global art market grew 12% in 2017, to total $63.7 billion, according to Art Basel.  Market share is largely located in the US (over 40%) with China a distant second, followed by the UK.  Because Donald Trump is in power the US figures are expected to rise again this year.  Why?  Art sales apparently escalate as income inequality increases.   (…)   Changes to US tax law are also favourable to buyers of pricey art.  Note, however, that the recent rise in the art market is confined to the high end galleries and auction houses.  Galleries with more modest prices did less well.  (TOAF does not allow prints or multiples, which interestingly are the one bright spot on the lower end market, according to Bloomberg.)

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But the buying habits of the 1% are not really relevant here on this stretch of hot cement.   The TOAF is bootstrap capitalism: refreshing, raw and often surprising.

I was happy to see this big, pink foam thing, made by Michelle Cieloszczyk.  She said it doesn’t really need  to be suspended.  It can be shown leaning against a wall or just laying down on the floor or somewhere.  I like the way this piece flips between a kind of fuzzy feeling, like flannelette, and then suddenly evokes hanging meat or something equally ghastly.

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Michelle Cieloszczyk with her sculpture Flat Can

I saw ceramics at the TOAF that were inspired, fresh and beautiful.  Water jugs by Jordan Scott appear so effortless and loose.  Joon Hee Kim creates complex narratives, bizarrely detailed and imaginative, using fired clay.

 

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Ceramics by Jordan Scott

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Ceramics by Joon Hee Kim

There were hand printed scarves, home decor and lots of jewelry but the bulk of the TOAF is painting and photography.  It was a lot of fun wander through the blazing heat and peak into a unique sensibility created within each 10 x 10 foot white tent.

 

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Beverley Hawksley created a glamorous, business girl mood.

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Parveen Dhatt dressed appropriately.

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Clare Allin came up with a sixties counter-culture vibe.

I came home with a pocket full of festive business cards, reminding me to shell out and buy some original art.

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June 22, 2018

Le Grand Continental

The annual Luminato Festival always brings something unexpected to town: this year  I was thrilled to catch Le Grand Continental, an outdoor dance extravaganza, featuring roughly 250 local performers.

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Le Grand Continental dancers

As the long day was ending dark clouds began to gather over the immense space at Nathan Philip’s Square.  Was rain going to fall in buckets and ruin the months of work these amateur performers had dedicated to the piece?  The rain held off and the dance performance went on.  It was truly a joyful celebratory piece!  Everyone was feeling good about people! How they can work together!  People can achieve anything!  And about comfortable footwear!  And colorful sports attire!

Video of Le Grand Continental

The choreographer, Sylvain Emard, has had a lifelong fascination with line dancing and has created similar, massive, outdoor artworks, with amateurs, all over the world.  Participants — all non-professionals of varying age, physical ability and body type — must commit to three months of rehearsals. They report feeling challenged and ultimately changed by the sometimes daunting experience of mastering 30 minutes of choreography.

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“The work has a  certain vision of humanity,” says Sylvain Emard.  He mentions a political element and I can see that some might want to earnestly explore that aspect of the piece because, yes, it is there — but for me what was so entirely refreshing and delightful about this work is the spectacle of pure, unrestrained joy.   Sometimes that’s all it takes.

June 10, 2018

Toronto Sculpture Garden

Tucked into a petite, green space – which initially appears to be part of the neighboring bistro’s outdoor patio – and right across King Street from St. James Cathedral, is the Toronto Sculpture Garden.

I looked at the installation, titled Pins and Needles, by Karen Kraven.

Video of sculpture by Karen Kraven at Toronto Sculpture Garden

A giant clothing rack holds oversized garment pieces: a pant leg, a bodice fragment, a sort of apron adorned with long ties, a stiff belt, random pockets, gathers, plackets among other objects.  The items, arrayed as though waiting for the next step in a manufacturing process, are made of sturdy fabrics, workmanlike, serious, and in Mark’s type colours.

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Pins and Needles by Karen Kraven

The history of King Street, as a manufacturing hub, a place where workers – especially women – toiled to create valuable objects of utility is gracefully evoked.  Of course, now King Street is home to lofts, furniture boutiques and technically advanced service industries.  Clothing manufacturing from the past is now viewed as unsavoury, exploitative and generally noxious and it has been moved offshore for the most part, out of sight…somewhere.

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Pins and Needles by Karen Kraven

This artwork struck me as strangely nostalgic.  Intellectually we may be meant to reflect on the harsh, dark past of urban textiles factories with a shudder, but these things suspended before me are so appealing the opposite thought occurs: wouldn’t it be great if we made stuff to last, right here in Toronto.

The supple, handsome objects caught the afternoon sun and shifted slightly in a soft summer breeze, as I gazed at them.