January 11, 2018

York University Station

The exterior view of the brand new York University subway features a graceful, winglike swoop.  It resembles a miniature Kennedy Airport and has the same lightness and fluidity as that iconic structure, which was designed by Eero Saarinen in 1962.

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View of York University subway from AGYU on cold and rainy afternoon.

The new station, which is literally right across the street from the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU), was a collaborative design effort between Foster + Partners with Arup Canada.  Seen from outside, the station has a lovely, rather modest scale.  It’s when the rider descends, or ascends, that the station reveals majestic curves, plunging light sources, grandly sloping glass walls and dramatic stairways.

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Making an entrance at the new York University subway station.

It’s capacious, filled with light and air and it is beautiful!

Apparently the vision for the new subway line started to take shape more than 30 years ago.  What was happening way back then, in Toronto in the mid 1980s?  One thing: getting to York University was a hassle.

Postcommodity at AGYU

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Postcommodity at AGYU

Because I arrived early  – whisked effortlessly upward, upward on the stunning new Line 1 extension – to AGYU, I was able to join the volunteers for the pre-opening stroll through the exhibition by Postcommodity.

Two of the artists who make up the collective were present, and they spoke about their work, explaining in particular the torturous relationships between the US Federal border patrols, the Mexican and Latin American migrants, and, the drug cartels, and how those relationships play out along the border.  Surprisingly, the artists expressed a stoic optimism about the situation, viewing the land itself as infinitely more powerful than the various frontier guardians and extant border walls.

Video of installation by Postcommodity (similar installation is currently at AGYU)

Looking at the artwork however – and experiencing the audio component, which is a major element of the show – did not exactly inspire optimism but rather evoked sensations of disorientation, uncertainty and dread.

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Artwork by Postcommodity

There is a lot of empty, dark space in the AGYU show.  The central room is filled with sounds – whispers and incantations – that dart about, now on your shoulder and then across the room. There is a sole projected photograph, shown above.

The tour group was asked to think about the symbolism contained within this photograph.  We viewed the  horse carcass, unflinching dogs, fence, bleakness, neglect, loneliness, general ghastliness.  (The horse as “symbol of colonialism” was mentioned but that, to me, is a stretch.  The horse is a symbol of so many things.)  We did not need to think about it too long.  It’s immediately clear.  This is a tough place to survive.

Below is another depiction, unrelated to the Postcommodity show at AGYU, of a border and hostile environment.

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Approaching Canada US border at Emerson, Manitoba

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.

September 17, 2014

Is Toronto Burning?

1977/1978/1979 Three Years in the Making (And Unmaking) of the Toronto Art Scene

Art Gallery of York University

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“Our taxes aid ‘blood thirsty’ radical paper” reads a Toronto Star headline from May 1978 and goes on to breathlessly detail “support for knee capping…the blood red front page…active ideological struggle…and the writings of Mao Tse Tung.”  It’s hard to square this pivotal moment in the Toronto art community with, say, a walk down trendy Queen Street West on a Saturday afternoon in 2014.  But in fact, the cheerful shopping district and cultural free-for-all tourist attractions such as Scotia Bank Nuit Blanche were forged in precisely the fires that curator Philip Monk alludes to in “Is Toronto Burning?”  But that’s another story…

1977 to 1979 was a hectic moment for the Toronto art scene.  Relatively, the cost of living was low and space cheap.  Artists devoted most of their time to producing art and developing, debating and expounding the ideas behind it.  Participants had to take a stand…on everything, 24 hours a day.  Art and life were all mixed up and local bars, clubs and restaurants were venues for laying it out as much as the highly significant artist run centers and their related publications.  As the exhibition reveals this intensity was not sustainable.  It quickly collapsed from internal and external pressures to be reborn repeatedly in new forms.

The exhibition freezes the messy, fractious era in a svelte installation of black, grey, and blood red: the cardinal colors of the time.  The fascinating publications (yellowing and slightly dogged-eared – sometimes just “Selectric” typewriters, rubber cement and tape) are laid out in elegant vitrines.

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Ross McLaren’s raucus film “Crash ‘n Burn” documenting the mayhem in the CEAC basement, silently loops against a wall of the emblemantic red.

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Video, mostly black and white, was the pervasive, although difficult medium of the time, and it is included everywhere in the show:  Clive Robertson decked out as Joseph Beuys; Colin Campbell, fresh-faced and eager, prancing about as the scene-making naif; the sleek General Idea trio, dripping in irony.  (Two of my own tapes are included.  I found them drole and, well, it is just odd to look at work from 35 years in the past.)

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The large photo pieces, by David Buchan and General Idea, create an arch universe where the conventions of fashion,advertising and disconcerting subversion collide.

Some items are hilarious!  Carol Conde and Karl Beveridge describe Carmen Lamanna, an art dealer at the time, as an odious creature. “Lamanna pumps out propaganda, reactionary propaganda.”

At the opening of “Is Toronto Burning?” people hung around the publications table, thumbed through the thick bound xerox copies of numerous texts from the era and speculated on the hostilities on display.  The materials were amusing, vulgar, iconoclastic, provocative, vitriolic and on and on.  So much was packed into those three short years.  What the hell was it all about?  That’s what this show wants us to explore.

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Indeed, “Is Toronto Burning?” demands a closer look and time to watch the videos (with headphones) and read the materials closely, particularly in regard to some of the work seen rarely: the CEAC documentation, Tom Sherman’s video and writings, the dance pieces by Lily Eng and Peter Dudar and Elizabeth Chitty, and work by Judith Doyle and Isobel Harry.

So I guess that means another trip to York.

There are many ways to reach York University.  Thousands of people do it every day!  Here are some landscapes you may see on the way:

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I took the Performance Bus, which was free and very entertaining, thanks to Peter Kingstone.  He dared us to sing along to the following:

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