January 4, 2022

Robert Houle: Red Is Beautiful at the AGO

One of the many large, elegant paintings by Robert Houle, in his retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario, is particularly arresting. An Indigenous man sits alone on an outcropping of rock, contemplating the shoreline and beyond. He is beautiful and calm; tatooed and tranquil in a bucolic, parklike setting, with broad, green lawns. He is looking east, to Europe, and evidently, he knows what’s coming.

“O-ween du muh waun (We Were Told)” by Robert Houle

The image has a sorrowful quality, like an invented perfect childhood, or the idea of heaven, where a dead loved one might now reside.

It made me think of the video piece by New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana — which I was able to watch numerous times at the AGO. One could think of Lisa Reihana’s piece as a moment later in this perfect, imaginary time. The tranquil Indigenous are no longer alone. The British have landed, and they have disembarked.

Still from “In Pursuit of Venus (Infected) by Lisa Reihana

And I was also reminded of Robert Hughes and his book “The Fatal Shore” in which he reflects upon the shattering of perfection, as the British first sailed into Botany Bay.

“One may liken this moment to the breaking open of a capsule. Upon the harbor the ships were now entering, European history had left no mark at all. Until the swollen sails and curvetting bows of the British fleet round South Head, there were no dates. The Aborigines and fauna around them had possessed the landscape since time immemorial, and no other human eye had seen them. Now the protective glass of distance, broke, in an instant, never to be restored.”

The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes

But this is just one painting in an immense exhibition, covering many decades and using many different media, in a career spanning more than fifty years.

This is the kind of show you might want return to again and again. But that is not possible because the Gallery is now closed due to the Omicron variant.

Entrance to Robert Houle Exhibition “Red Is Beautiful” at the AGO

Robert Houle takes the viewer on a journey; often it’s personal. The painting shown below is entitled Sandy Bay and refers to a residential school in Manitoba attended by the artist. Photographs of the school building, an image of Robert Houle’s sister, and other photographs are included in the painting.

For me, the gorgeous formal aspects of this work exalts its intense emotional weight. It’s a very powerful piece.

“Sandy Bay” by Robert Houle

Many of Robert Houle’s paintings explore the history of Indigenous struggles in Canada as they explore, with equal intensity, the sensuality of paint.

Detail of “Premises for Self Rule: Constitution Act, 1982” by Robert Houle
“Premises for Self Rule: Constitution Act, 1982” by Robert Houle

The painting above is part of a series which extracts texts from Canadian historical documents (The Royal Proclamation, 1763; the British North American Act, 1867; Treaty 1, 1871; and the Indian Act, 1876 and the Constitution Act of 1982) and combines it with a contemporary painting and historical photographs.

Robert Houle never loses sight of his subject matter — which in a way is the entire history of this country– but he does not take a didactic tone. It’s more like he is sharing information. We learn a lot.

“Aboriginal Title” by Robert Houle

The Ipperwash Crisis is commemorated, below, in a painting of jolting colour, embedded with meaning.

“Ipperwash” by Robert Houle
Detail of “Ipperwash” by Robert Houle

Painting appears to be a constant for Robert Houle but the show includes works in other media: prints, drawings, sculpture, video and large scale installations including one which features a big, beautiful, buttery yellow, antique Pontiac.

“I will stand in your path until dawn” by Robert Houle

The AGO provided a quote from Robert Houle in connection with the Pontiac piece.

Growing up in the ‘rez in Southern Manitoba in the 1960s, Pontiac was the family car we drove down to the lake. It was not until High School that I read about Pontiac, the Odawa chief who led a confederacy of eighteen nations against the British Army in the summer of 1763 (the year of the Royal Proclamation.)

Robert Houle

In the painting below, Robert Houle memorializes a troupe of dancers who visited Europe in the 1840s.

“Mississauga Portraits (Waubuddick, Maungwudaus, Hannah)” by Robert Houle
Detail from “Mississauga Portraits” by Robert Houle

I really like looking at the portraits of these confident, graceful, imperious performers. The artist has endowed these pictures with haughty vitality and vivid emotional content.

And occaisionally the artist strikes a light-hearted note and it’s just fun to see, like the video below.

Part of a multi media installation “Paris/Ojibwa” by Robert Houle

It was really great to wander through this expansive exhibition and feel colour and light washing over me. And it’s true that timing is everything! I was able to slip into the “Red Is Beautiful” exhibition the afternoon of January 4, just a few hours before the AGO and every other cultural institution in the city pulled the plug and shut their doors to the public. We are back in lockdown.

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.

*****

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.”

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:)

Video by Mikalene Thomas

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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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.

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.