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.

 

 

February 14, 2016

Song Dong – Lori Nix

Art Gallery of Ontario – Song Dong

Wisdom of the Poor: Communal Courtyard is the name of the installation by Song Dong at the Art Gallery of Ontario.  The piece has the strange effect of slowing down time and creating a consuming sense of melancholy.  The viewer steps out of the moment and into a maze, composed of antique wardrobes, and, concurrently, into a bygone era.

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Detail of installation by Song Dong

The wardrobes have been dismantled and roughly knocked together to create twisting, labyrinthine passageways.  Bits of fabric, modest curtains, broken locks, faded posters and other sentimental items cling to the gutted furniture and add to the sense of forlorn domestic ruin.

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Detail of installation by Song Dong

The art piece feels funereal, and there is the lingering presence of ghosts.  Glimpses through openings may reveal another viewer wandering hesitantly, an abandoned bicycle or perhaps a rising tower (wait, its the AGO’s  Sol Lewitt sculpture and elsewhere is the AGO’s Warhol portrait of Karen Kain.)

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Detail of installation by Song Dong

China is famously changing at a breakneck pace despite an increasing public outcry against the demolition of historic neighbourhoods and a gathering preservationist movement.  Song Dong taps into a powerful emotional yearning for an idyllic past that is felt apparently all over the world. The object of the loving backward gaze could be the narrow, crowded streets of bygone China or …… Mayberry.   In North America this imagery can be baldly manipulative romanticism, covering for a suspect agenda, but what it is in China I do not know.

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Mayberry set

Admittedly there are some very appealing aspects to the decades past.  For example, long before the rise of Twitter and ISIS (forever linked in my mind) anyone could smoke and drink with abandon, even on airplanes.  But is it my actual memories that view these activities fondly or is it the “Mad Men” portrayal of them that I like?

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Smoking on airplanes through the eyes of the creator’s of “Mad Men”

Meanwhile the unrestrained development in China has not only resulted in the spectacular buildings we see in the media but some weirdly manufactured nostalgia, for example Thames Town, built to look like a charming Tudor town in the English countryside.

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Thames Town, 19 miles from Shanghai

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Bau-Xi Photo  – Lori Nix

All over North America laundromat seating is the same.  I may have known this as a fact before I saw the show of photographs by Lori Nix at Bau-Xi Photo, but to be honest I never really thought about it much. In Lori Nix’s photo of a post-apocalyptic laundromat (shown below) under dreadful fluorescent light, the seats are identical to those at the “Coin Wash” in the vicinity of Dundas and Keele.  In fact everything is exactly right, except of course the obvious…

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Laundromat at Night by Lori Nix

What I liked about looking at these photographs was noticing the detail and how exacting and precise it is.  Lori Nix builds miniatures of scenes she comes across in her daily life and then she photographs them. (To learn how she does this click on the link.)

Lori Nix does not replicate reality.  In all her photographs something is off, really off.  Something has occurred.  Things will never be the same.

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Fountain by Lori Nix

What’s going on in Fountain, the art work shown above?  A spectacular public space has been vandalized and then abandoned entirely.  The bronze sculptures have deteriorated, maybe because of chemicals in the atmosphere, such as chlorine, sulfur, nitrogen oxides or maybe just rain. Vines have overtake graffiti and then all (hubris) is silenced by cold and ice.

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Bar by Lori Nix

Could this be a bar in rural Ontario on any Sunday morning?  It does look very familiar … except there is no hockey memorabilia.

Despite visions of catastrophe Lori Nix’s art work transmits a sense of enthusiasm for the places she creates.  With meticulous patience she commits these mundane arenas of everyday life to a suspended state of timelessness.

 

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.

October 18, 2014

This week I put the commercial galleries on hold and decided to check out what’s happening in the institutional realm.

Art Gallery of Ontario

What could I possibly say about Alex Colville that has not already been said?

The galleries were packed. The crowds seemed very familiar and knowledgeable about the work and its context. The pop-up gift shop was humming

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Revolver Necklace for $32 Available online from shopAGO

As I wandered through the show (for the second time!) I tried to figure out what draws people to this artist. Alex Colville’s life was shaped by the Depression, WWII and a marriage lasting seventy years. He lived in a small town. Those few facts constitute a set of experiences shared by few people living today. And yet the crowds seemed to identify and recognize something personal.

In fact, in August, when I dragged a visiting Australian relative to the AGO – a guy who was unimpressed by Niagara Falls and expressed disdain for art in general – he was transfixed by Alex Colville’s paintings. They seemed to speak directly to him. He even purchased a reproduction of Pacific, an elegantly composed painting all about dispair.

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Niagara Falls

GUN AND WATER

Pacific

Exacting, taut, restrained, subtle, precise: these words can all be used to describe the paintings. But within those muted tones and careful, painstaking surfaces Alex Colville planted content. Graceful young athletes and middle class pleasures are there but so too are fear, decay and death.

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Horse and Train

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Three Crows

In his rendering of the revolvers, bolting terrified horses, crows and his own bleak gaze at the relentless unfolding of life these paintings are not so much about any particular external crisis as they are about an individual’s efforts to endure.  Alex Colville addressed the human condition and his public responds.

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V-Tape

I accidently came upon an artist’s talk, by Lisa Birke, at V-Tape.

When I was in art school visiting artists gave talks almost on a daily basis.  Food and beer were provided for all so they were well attended events.  The talks broke down into two basic catergories: first, the vague, rambling, sometimes painfully awkward sessions where the speaker might say something like: “…and then I got interested in triangles…”  To me, that type of presentation was very honest and accurately reflected the artistic process, which is mostly unsure, groping and testing, interspersed with periods of incomprehensible clarity and assurance.  The other type of talk had a bit more of a sales pitch tone.  In those cases the artist forgot about the lonely, intuitive struggle to make art and just lined up a list of ideas that could be applied to the work after the fact, i.e. “…here the Hegelian Dialectic is represented as a triangle.”

I respected Lisa Birke for the dignified tone of her talk.  She gave a nod to Kant and Burke and the sublime but she was clearly in the intuitive, groping camp.  She talked about how she made the piece: failing and trying again and being cold and frostbitten and alone in the dark early morning; being embarrassed and unsure and continuing to try and figure something out.

The result is her video entitled Red Carpet.  The piece is lovely to look at, capturing some gorgeous extremes of the Canadian landscape experience.   It also constitutes an interesting response to the Celebrity Gossip culture that seems to be taking over the world, i.e. she is in solidarity with not just the consumers but also the producers of the endless painful parade of distraction.  The red carpet leads the protagonist under water and to obliteration.  She can’t stop.  We can’t look away.

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Art Gallery of York University

I went back to the AGYU to have a closer look at the Is Toronto Burning? show.

Once I crossed the 401 there were thickets of Ford Nation signs everywhere and it rained hard.  I prayed for God to save Toronto.

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View out the bus window

It was luxurious to have this trove of artefacts to myself as almost no one was around.

Some of the artists are so vividly represented.  I’m still not quite sure what to make of the question “Is Toronto Burning?” but David Buchan, for example, was definitely on fire during those years.

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He was so rakish and arch as a rat pack Lothario or Bond man or lounge act.  There are numerous videotapes of David Buchan lipsynching.  I watched him perform “Bread and Butter” (which was originally recorded by the Newbeats in 1964).  It is unforgettable.

I watched tough girl Elizabeth Chitty furiously shrugging her shoulders and whipping out her Polaroid like a lethal weapon.

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And I looked around a little more carefully.  Somehow at the show’s opening I missed the piece by Carol Conde and Karl Beverage in which they approximate poses from China’s Cultural Revolution ballet to spell out Art is Political.  I really like the ambition in this artwork.

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Art is Political

Here is an image from a Chinese Ballet which was hosted by the Kennedy Center in Washington in 2011.  The caption reads:  A landlord from the ballet cowers as one of the revolutionary woman soldiers hardens her face and strikes a pose with her pistol.

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But most of the time I spent watching Colin Campbell’s delightful videotapes.  One scene featured Colin with Ron Gabe, Tim Guest, David Buchan and Stephen Davey.  It seemed like yesterday.