December 30, 2014

Clare Twomey at the Gardiner Museum

George Gardiner, a stockbroker and financier, adhered to the “buy low, sell high” principle in art collecting as well as business.  He initially began collecting ceramics, with his wife Helen, as a hedge against inflation.  The couple went on to amass a spectacular collection and together created the Gardiner Museum, which sits snugly across the street from the ROM at Bloor and Queen’s Park.  Sumptuous, intelligent, preposessing, and optimally-sized are all adjectives that come to mind in thinking about the cultural edifice that is the Gardiner Museum.

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Entrance to the Gardiner Museum with ceramic head by Jan Kaneko

On the third floor, in a very large, dimly lit room of the Museum is a current exhibition and ongoing performance, titled Piece by Piece, by British artist Clare Twomey.

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Details of Piece by Piece by Clare Twomey

Over 2800 white ceramic figures, 2000 made by Clare Twomey in England and imported for the exhibition, and another roughly 800 produced over the duration of the exhibition by on-site “makers,” are arranged on the dark floor.  This array of expressive figurines is bracketed by a spot-lit work table at one end; at the other stand the original 18th century commedia dell’arte figurines – vividly colored, glazed and brightly lit in vitrines – from which the 2800 ghostly replicas are cast.

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Detail of Piece by Piece by Clare Twomey

My first impression of the art piece is of a swirling, emotive tableau, suggesting a replica of a battle or uprising like the dioramas at Gettysburg.  The spotlights in the darkness create long shadows of the expressive objects on the gleaming floor, adding to the look of tangled narrative within which surely some monumental event is depicted.

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Details from Piece by Piece by Clare Twomey

In fact Clare Twomey is not recreating an historical episode but is responding to a particular 18th century aesthetic as embodied in ceramic commedia del’arte figurines from the Museum’s collection and raising questions about the purpose of a museum and the difference between cranking out replicas and the exquisite perfection of a priceless original.  The artist refers to this work as an “intervention.”  This “intervention” is very well mannered indeed and functions not only as a striking visual work of art but also as an enhancer of the Museum’s role in society.

Clare Twomey has selected three figurines from the commedia del’arte pantheon: Scaramouch, the roguish clown; Harlequin, the witty acrobat; and Leda, the flighty love object.

On the second floor of the Museum a large collection of 18th porcelain commedia del’arte characters are on display including the following:

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Pantalone and Dottore, c. 1740 Meissen, Gemany

In commedia del’arte performances intinerant acting troupes performed unscripted performances relying on their understanding of predictable character behaviour to progress the story line.  This is similar to today’s soap opera actors who apparently are not given lines before the director yells “Action!” but are simply advised of what’s going on, for example: “Victor recovers from amnesia and turns up in Nikki’s bedroom.”

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Victor and Nikki are reunited

The lower galleries at the Gardiner Museum were virtually deserted as closing time neared.  It was a pleasure to stroll around and privately view these lovely objects made of clay.

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Ballplayer from West Mexico, 500-300 BC

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Apparently by Greg Payce, 1999

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Dish commemorating John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, 1702

December 20, 2014

John Player at Pierre-Francois Ouellette Art Contemporain

Because of a trip west and the general nuttiness around this time of year I nearly missed seeing a show of paintings by Montreal artist John Player.  Pierre-Francois Ouellette Art Contemporain is just a few blocks west of St. Lawrence Market, which had a raucous atmosphere on this sunny Saturday afternoon before Christmas, and I was able to slip in to see the show on the last day.

At Art Toronto (Toronto International Art Fair) I saw a couple of John Player’s art works. They stood out as not only visually startling but also loaded with frank, serious content.  I was looking forward to coming across more of these paintings.

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Listening Station

This artist has tapped into something entirely current, and that is the culture of surveillance. It’s a fact of life now that surveillance data is captured, stored, analyzed and traded. We all carry tracking devices (cell phones) with us. We identify all our friends and even acquaintances (Facebook) and offer up all there is to know about our habits, thoughts, opinions in texts, Instagram, Snapchats and email.  Its accepted that while working, shopping, driving or just walking around the city we are all in somebody’s crosshairs.  For the most part, we accept it all as an annoying requirement, like security screening at the airport.

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Monitoring Room

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Remand Center

John Player’s paintings make us consider the upshot of this obsessive documentation.  His paintings explore fear and its manifestation as a powerful and cold bureaucracy in which listening devices are linked with incarceration structures and drone excursions.

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Watch Floor

I recently saw Citizen Four by Laura Poitras and the paintings inspire the same kind of spine tingling unease as the movie.  Whereas the film is shocking in its focus on the few pivotal days in which Edward Snowden “came out” and then fled, the paintings suggest something equally dark but more stable and entrenched; a sprawling, well funded set of infrastructures with their own expotentially expanding agendas.

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Container

Frequently the mysterious structures, often in desert locales, reference architectural drawings in their replication of space and mass.  The palette is often very subtle, as if the objects are sun-bleached and the viewer has caught the image from a distance, hastily and warily, like the scene of catastrophe or menace.  Some of the interiors have a subterranean, over-lit feeling, as if there is no off switch for the flourescents.  The installations appear deserted yet infused with paranoia and anxiety.  Who exactly is the viewer?  Is John Player trying to turn the tables on the surveillance establishment and watching the watchers?

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Tactical System

John Player’s paintings also have a rich sensuality.  The painting above, titled Tactical System, depicts some unknowable, militaristic hijinx from the night sky and the ominous view nearly disolves into just paint and colour and shape and light with appealing success.

Meanwhile, although Mr. Obama has assured Americans that the NSA is no longer listening in on their phone conversations (internet data continues to be collected even for US citizens) Canadians and the rest of the world might be interested to know we are still under full monitor.  According to The Guardian that means all phone communication and includes: “a log of every communicative act that you make in cyberspace – where you went; who you emailed or texted; who emailed or texted you; the URL of every website you visited; a list of every web search you’ve ever made; and so on.”  It’s sobering to think about all that scrutiny.  Makes me want to detach from my gadgets and start writing letters again… in disappearing ink.

December 9, 2014

(Report from Winnipeg)

Bracing weather in Winnipeg this morning: -27 and gusty. Fortunately I have retained my childhood skill of running backward into the wind.

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Sundogs were visible throughout the day and could be captured clearly with the camera as the sun began to set.

Winnipeg Art Gallery

The annual Sobey Award of $50,000 goes to a single Canadian artist under 40 years of age. Four runners up receive $5,000 each. This year the Winnipeg Art Gallery hosted an exhibition of the finalists and the ceremony in which this year’s winner, Nadia Myre of Quebec, was announced. Finalists include Evan Lee (West Coast and The Yukon), Neil Farber and Michael Dumontier (Prairies and the North), Chris Curreri (Ontario), and Atlantic (Graeme Patterson). I’ve never seen the country divided up quite that way. For me, the art on display is equally novel.

The work of Graeme Patterson is almost indescribably strange. The exhibition displays a half hour long, stop-motion animated film featuring two fur covered humanoid creatures: a bison/human and a lion/human. These two cavort, party, moonwalk, build furniture, chop wood, practice archery, light fires, watch sports, hunt and battle desperately with their fully animal counterparts, until finally, the bison/human gravely injures the lion/human.

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Stills from The Secret Citadel by Craeme Patterson

It’s impossible to walk away from this film. It is so bizarre and original and at the same time has such engaging emotional nuance and a very solemn depth.

Another piece by Graeme Patterson, called Taming the Wild, is a kind of natural history diorama displaying a ragtag selection of roughly taxidermied  animals. A sculpture of a man, possibly a self-portrait, is included in the tableau of delicately posed creatures on slender pedestals.

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Details of Taming the Wild by Graeme Patterson

Two pieces by Neil Farber and Michael Dumontier, members of Winnipeg’s Royal Art Lodge, are on display.

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Library is a giant painting utterly stuffed with information.  It consists of hundreds of tiny precise paintings of books, rendered in a flat, comic-book style.  Their titles – always drole, sometimes ironic, sometimes fey – are visible.

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Detail of Library by Neil Farber and Michael Dumontier

Another piece by the collaborating artists, Neil Farber and Michael Dumontier, is sheer poetry.  Dozens of epigrammatic phrases are displayed in a grid of framed pieces.

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Here is one of the pithy texts:

“…and I started getting really

interested in eloquence and profundity.

There were just both so fucking awesome

and cool.”

– by Neil Farber and Michael Dumontier

I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at when it came to the photographs of Chris Curreri. Is this organic matter, closeups of a damp seaside grotto, body parts, melting ceramics or some kind of darkroom manipulation?

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Untitled (Clay Portfolio) by Chris Curreri

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Untitled (Clay Portfolio)

Technically masterful, this series of black and white prints lining a long hallway provide a intense visual experience.  It is partially because of the ambiguity of the subject matter and too because they are so formally voluptuous.

A bust looking out over the gallery above eye level has a shocking quality.  It is approached from the rear and it’s only on walking around it to see the front that the viewer is startled to find it has been violently defaced.

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Views of Medusa by Chris Curreri

Work by Evan Lee has an urgent, contemporary political sense to it. It seems like the artist is trying to keep up with numerous ideas and social forces colliding and richochetting around his world. Black Bloc Abstraction, shown below, initially appears to be an abstract painting until it coheres into waves of black clad protestors, as per the infamous G-20 Summit, held in Toronto in 2010.

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Black Bloc Abstraction by Evan Lee

Large, mostly black paintings consisting of rich fields of varying depth, reveal themselves to be depictions of masked or hooded youth.  Are these guys violent thugs or idealistic protestors?  Evan Lee raises ideas about anarchy, fraying social bonds and alienation in his portrayal of Black Bloc idealogues.

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Black Blot 2 by Evan Lee

In an art piece using numerous different media the subject matter is the migrant to Canada.  Darkly murky portraits attempt to celebrate the importance of an individual: unknown, far from home and alone.

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Migrant Portrait by Evan Lee

The snapshots shown below, of young men nervously vamping for the camera, anxious about their chances for the future, are displayed in a vitrine, with other depictions of a migrant experience.

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Art piece by Evan Lee

Nadia Myre’s work is a grand sociological effort to heal the wounded.  Ongoing since 2005 The Scar Project is a the remarkable focusing of one individual’s compassion to engage numerous others (800 at last count) to participate in a healing action.  Nadia Myre has travelled around the country convincing people to create a “canvas representation of a physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual scar they may have, and write out the accompanying narrative.”

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Hand stitiched on unbleached fabric, using humble tools and unsophisticated imagery, these artworks have a feeling of humility, earnestness and honesty.  Nadia Myre is delving into profound subject matter: social change at the level of the individual, involving self reflection, pain and forgiveness.

December 5, 2014

Suzy Lake at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Walking up Beverley Street on the overcast, relatively mild December afternoon I saw the AGO in a whole new light. The big brilliant blue box was incandescent against stark black and white.

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The exhibition I came to see – Introducing Suzy Lake – is on the fourth floor of the Gallery.

I’ve always associated Suzy Lake with Montreal: cool, remote, sophisticated, avant garde in a sort of unknowable way, so I was surprised to learn that she has been living right here in Toronto for the past more than thirty years.

Who is this woman with the magical name? Who is Suzy Lake?

At the AGO Suzy Lake is seen through the decades: the demure high school portraits altered with a sketched in older self; transforming, with hilarious effect, into local icons of the Montreal art scene; slathering on white face or makeup within a grid of images; adopting kittenish fashion poses of the era; homewrecker (with a sledge hammer); domestic drudge; aging Lothario; puppet, matron in haute couture…. On and on, Suzy Lake presents Suzy Lake, as art. That is the core of her work: the female persona that just happens to be her.

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Detail of 16 over 28

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Suzy Lake as Francois Sullivan

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A Genuine Simulation of...

Suzy Lake creates a fascinating tension between the notion of Everywoman and her unique individual self.  We see her again and again and again but we don’t get inside her head.

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Peonies and the Lido #7

The coherence of this body of work, and the way it unfolds in the context of the exhibition, is truly impressive. Throughout it has a consistency and unwavering direction, no side trips or blind alleys here.  She understands media – print, tv, film, music – and turns it back on itself through her own filter.

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Choreographed Puppet

The name Travis Bickle will ring a bell with anyone who lived through the seventies. The protoganist of the Martin Scorses film Taxi Driver famously asked “Are you talking to me?” in the 1976 movie view of a dystopic New York City.  Suzy Lake spoke these words in a state of agitated confrontation and this massive photographic piece, recently recreated, documents the performance.  In the movie Robert DeNiro was crazy; a Vietnam vet whose alienation led him to violence.  To me Suzy Lake seems to speak about a different kind of alienation and frustration, that of the objectified woman who has had enough.

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“Are You Talking to Me?”

One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition is Suzy Lake decked out in a Rei Kawakubo outfit.  This work is powerful and playful at the same time.  She looks directly at the viewer with startling confrontation daring them to insinuate that her getup is just verging on absurdity.

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Performing Haute Couture

A film “Suzy Lake: Playing with Time”, by Annette Mangaard, was visible near the end of the exhibition.  It provided a great deal of background about Suzy Lake’s life and influences.  I was not prepared for the joyless tone taken in this movie.  For example Lisa Steele and Martha Wilson, both extraordinary artists with histories rich in community and accomplishment, spoke with grim faces about loneliness and struggle in their early careers.  Surely it must have been exhilirating, even fun, to take on the male dominated art world, push forward and thrive?  Something about her expression in the Performing Haute Couture piece tells me that Suzy Lake is definitely enjoying the game.

November 30, 2014

The Aga Khan has bestowed his mythic glamour — which normally involves race horses, yachts, French chateaux and movie stars — onto the modest Toronto neighbourhood known as Flemingdon Park. There lies the site of the brand new Aga Khan Museum, which I glimpsed from the Eglington Avenue East exit of the Don Valley Parkway. On approach, through various off ramps and merges, the structure rises up, like some giant dazzling white envelope, or packing crate, elegantly unfolding in the late November chill.

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Entrance of the Aga Khan Museum

Designed by Fumihiko Maki, the Aga Khan Museum is like a sundial in that light moves around a central open courtyard. Throughout the day the suns rays are cast through elaborately etched glass to create an ever changing panorama in the spacious multi storey structure.

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Aga Khan Museum interior

Tracing the spread of the Islamic faith across the world, the Museum displays numerous exquisite objects from past centuries.

The Museum curators have used the contemporary world map to locate the physical origin of the collection.  For example, Iraq was created only in 1958 but the watercolor shown below is identified as 13th century Iraqi.

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Where does this beautiful artifact fit in?  

According to Wikipedia, the area now called Iraq has been home to various cultures since 6th century BC and was “center of the Akkadian, Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires. It was also part of the Median, Achaemenid, Hellenistic, Parthian, Sassanid, Roman, Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid, Mongol, Safavid, Afsharid, and Ottoman empires, and under British control as a League of Nations mandate.” 

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11th century Iranian flask

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14th century gold leafed Egyptian Koran

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This is a painting from Iraq in the 1800, when the East began to encounter the West.

The ground floor of the museum is devoted to display of historical objects and showcasing events and performances, many of which take place in a spectacular domed auditorium.

Take the staircase to the second floor to see the current show of contemporary art from Pakistan.

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Lapis-blue plaster wall backs staircase to second floor

The exhibition of young Pakistani artists, titled The Garden of Ideas, immediately looks like present day art from anywhere and could have easily been covered in one of the links from Artsy that regularly floods my inbox.  But looking a little closer this show is curated to link to the Islamic identify of the artists, using embroidery, textile and carpets, gold leaf miniatures, tiles and paving stones to create fresh interpretations with traditional materials.

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Your Way Begins on the Other Side – Aisha Khalid (gold-plated and stainless pins on velvet and silk)

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United Kingdoms – David Chalmers Alesworth (embroidery on antique carpet)

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The Garden of Love – Mani Abidi

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Details of works by Atif Khan

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detail of painting by Aisha Khalid

The whole experience at the Aga Khan Museum was relaxing, enlightening, refreshing.  It was like a trip to a distant spa.

On the way out we skipped the gift shop and had a beautiful view of the Ismaili Centre which sits across from the Museum separated by some celebrated gardens designed by Vladimir Djurovic, which I will look forward to seeing in April.

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It would have been a perfect day except for a traffic jam of historic proportion on the DVP, which meant more than two hours later we were still in the Flemingdon Park neighborhood, trying to crawl back to Toronto.

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