May 7, 2015

May is like a door opening to the pleasures of summer.  May!  April is so last month.

Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival

Photographic images are so utterly ubiquitous in art — and everywhere — and so wildly diverse in their intent and content that I just don’t think of photography as a singular medium with a singular historical trajectory.  However, since the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, on from May 1 to 31, declares itself a “celebration of photography” I am playing along and thinking photography first, art second.

Ryerson Image Center

At the Ryerson Image Center I was transfixed before Phil Solomon’s eight channel piece called Empire X 8.  All eight screens of the Salah J. Bashir New Media Wall display the same direct view of the Empire State Building, but the time of day is different, and evolving, on each.  The continually changing environments — inky night where the building glitters like a jewel in the black sky, desperate grey dawn where scraps of garbage flutter on updrafts around the famous icon, rippling sunsets of orange and pink backlighting the building — play off one another, within the sleek matte grid of images.

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Installation shot of Empire x 8 by Phil Solomon

The static shots are from uptown, facing toward lower Manhattan, but the peripheral landmarks seem wrong.  The World Trade Center is gone and there is no sign of the Freedom Tower — so we have a time frame — but gone too is the World Financial Center, and hmmm, instead of the Hudson River banked by the shores of New Jersey, there appears to be a hulking military bargelike installation floating near the west side of the island.  Small planes and choppers roam the sky.  The soundtrack is weather only: wind, rain, rumbling thunder.

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Still of single channel of Empire x 8 by Phil Solomon

For anyone who has been even mildly hooked on Grand Theft Auto this is familiar terrain; it’s a real (unreal) image, manufactured in some digital sweatshop somewhere, from one of the Liberty City Series.  The images are so smooth, dense and controlled, endlessly fascinating to view, and like Andy Warhol’s famous 8 hour Empire movie of 1964, are a blank slate upon which so much meaning can be heaped.

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Still from Empire 16 mm film by Andy Warhol

Also at the Ryerson Image Center are the photographs of Mark Rowedel, this year’s winner of the Scotiabank photography award.  At first look the photographs of Mark Rowedel appear to be traditional fine art photography in the style of maybe Ansell Adams: technically masterful, documenting nature’s grandeur, black and white (mostly), devoid of humans or animals, deep, meditative.

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Photograph by Mark Rowedel

Coming a little closer and the formal and compositional elements are seen to be bold and radical, particularly the use of deep black swaths of shadow enveloping the foreground, dramatic arcs, gaps and crosses.

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Nevada Test Site Aluminum Bunker by Mark Rowedel

Closer still and these photographs release their emotional impact; often creating a sense of folly, loneliness, despair.

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Oh-My-God Hot Springs #6 by Mark Rowedel

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Central Pacific #18 from the Series “Westward the Course of Empire”

The stylized titled printed in pencil are sometimes hilarious.  Could there really be a churned up expanse of desert known as ” The Devil’s Golf Course?”

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The Devil’s Golf Course by Mark Rowedel

In other works Mark Rowedel gives a nod to Robert Smithson and Ed Ruscha adding another layer of interest to these intense photographs.  They are in dialogue with important art of the recent past.

January 22, 2015

The weather softened as I traversed Dundas Square and crowds spilled out of the Eaton Centre to mill about aimlessly in the late afternoon light. Rounding the corner, the approach to the Ryerson Image Centre has a gloomy, underpass feel and the clatter of hockey sticks and shouted taunts echoes up and down Gould Street.

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Ryerson Image Centre

Even in the vestibule area of the Ryerson Image Centre glamour is front and center.  The Salah J. Bachir Media Wall continuously plays a loop of thirteen vignettes by Alex Prager.  The piece, commissioned by The New York Times Magazine and called A Touch of Evil, is all high production values and top shelf Hollywood talent as Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, George Clooney, Mara Rooney, Mia Wasikowski and others get all campy, ironic and self-referentially post modern to portray peak Noire moments. It’s kind of fun to take in the special effects, lavish colour and tension enducing music, like watching movie trailers or some patische put together for Oscar night, but I couldn’t help feeling that I’m tired of celebrities and their faces.

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Stills from Alex Prager piece, A Touch of Evil

The world is the playpen of this gang of mega stars and now it seems they have insinuated themselves into every aspect of life; even romping into the art world with a knowing wink. (I wish Tilda Swinton would stop doing performance art too.)

Burn with Desire: Photography and Glamour

Thinking about the fire theme I recalled the Is Toronto Burning? show which opened in September of this year at the Art Gallery of York University.  Whereas the York show, curated by Philip Monk, examined an intense period in the creative history of this city, the show at Ryerson Image Centre, curated by Gaëlle Morel, is a longing gaze mostly at Hollywood.

We all know the lovely goddesses of the past, with arched spines and eyebrows captured in satiny black and white,  especially Marilyn Monroe.  In this show there is definitely a surfeit of Marilyn pictures and yet somehow, new angles and unfamiliar expressions are revealed.  How is that possible when the woman’s image is available in every cut-rate t-shirt shop on Yonge Street?

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Manfred Linus, Untitled [Marilyn Monroe], date and location unknown. BS.2005.190119/113-1226. The Black Star Collection, Ryerson Image Centre.

We also see Brigette, Sofia, Natalie, Gloria and others, all swanning about in the glory of mid century USA.  (Below is an incendiary Ava Gardner.)

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Burn with Desire: Photography and Glamour (installation view), 2015 © Eugen Sakhnenko, Ryerson Image Centre

Vanity Fair’s celebrated pull-out covers by Annie Liebovitz work the time-tested glamour signals.  With only minor adjustments to old Hollywood style the images capture throngs of interchangeable starlets with bare shoulders, limpid expressions and more satin.
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Burn with Desire: Photography and Glamour (installation view), 2015 © Eugen Sakhnenko, Ryerson Image Centre

The show gets more interesting and the understanding of glamour broadens with the inclusion of a bit of authentic counter culture from the late sixties. The Kenneth Anger film Puce Moment is totally loopy and delightful.  (Click on the link to view it on Vimeo.)

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Burn with Desire: Photography and Glamour (installation view), 2015 © Eugen Sakhnenko, Ryerson Image Centre

There is also a hilarious Richard Avedon film from 1973, actually an ad for a Japanese Fragrance, in which Lauren Hutton, Anjelica Huston. Jean Shrimpton and Avedon himself send up the whole glamour enterprise.  The short piece, which predates MTV by about ten years, has a frothy, giddy excitement to it that might be impossible to achieve in this more cynical era.

The giant colour portraits of black women by Mickalene Thomas add gravitas to the exhibition.  One of the few that are not actual celebrities, the image below depicts an utterly self-absorbed beauty, shimmering and adorned and posed for maximum impact in a kind of trance of narcissism.

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Burn with Desire: Photography and Glamour (installation view), 2015 © Eugen Sakhnenko, Ryerson Image Centre


There is picture of Kim Kardashian in the exhibition; nude shots with Barbara Kruger’s trademark red and black bands of confrontational texts strategically placed.  What occurred to me was the following: Why do I know so much about Kim Kardashian?  I have never watched her reality tv show nor really read anything about her and yet…and yet I possess numerous facts and impressions about the woman.  Was it like this when Marilyn was ascendent?  What about the future?   Will the Google glass have a filter?

October 8, 2014

Hart House

Nestled in the U of T campus, just off University Circle, is Hart House, a student activity center which contains a gym and the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, among other facilities.

John G. Hampton, the curator of the current exhibition at Hart House, titled “Why Can’t Minimal,” for some reason decided to illuminate the lighter side of the Sixties art movement known as Minimalism. (Incidently, when searching for a good Minimalism site I stumbled upon a whole new meaning of the term. Yes, there is, in fact, a second type of Minimalism: it’s an entirely contemporary social movement which advises people on how to get rid of the excess stuff in their lives in order to make room for the essentials.)

Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, Frank Stella (for his minimalist Black Paintings) are a few of the artists associated with Minimalism. Carl Andre, the ultimate American Minimalist sculptor, likes to say “It’s all the materials… there are no ideas hidden under those plates. You can lift them up but there is nothing there.” No hidden ideas and therefore nothing funny… about zinc plates or a pile of bricks or massive oak cubes.

Rather than actually finding the humour in Minimalism what the curator did was round up some Conceptual artists who commented on utterly humourless Minimalist standards. The result has a particular off-key, dry wit (verging on absurdity) so close to the heart of the Conceptual artist.

Some of the works in this show are delightful: John Boyle-Singfield’s Untitled (Coke Zero) references the Hans Haacke Condensation Cube of 1962, replacing water with Coke Zero. The Coke Zero does create condensation but it has also undergone a gross transformation, breaking down into its elemental components: On top, an evil looking red liquid and below, a suspicious powdery substance.

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Ken Nicol created Carl Andre Drawer Piece and got into the spirit of “truth to materials” by typing the Carl Andre quote “If a thing is worth doing once, it’s worth doing again” on 1611 index cards.

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I always associate John Baldessari with Cal Arts and a particular brand of flat humour that came out of that school. In his video Baldessari “sings” each of Sol LeWitt’s 35 “Sentences on Conceptual Art” to the tune of popular songs. It must have been Christmas when he made this video because the tune sounds distinctly like a holiday carol.

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There is a certain slyness to John Marriott’s various sized cubes surfaced with pigeon-proofing strips. They also achieve a cool elegance in an incidental, i.e. Minimalist, manner.

See below for an installation view and a close up of the pigeon-proofing strips.

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University of Toronto Art Center (UTAC)

A few steps from Hart House is UTAC and an exhibition of the photographs of Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) called “We are Continually Exposed to the Flashbulb of Death.” This is a fascinating show for anyone with an interest in the Beat Generation.

A recording of Allen Ginsberg reading his 1955 poem “Howl” can be heard throughout the gallery’s rooms.

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It is, of course, primarily as a poet that Allen Ginsberg is known. These photographs however attest to his skill as a photographer (he was mentored in this ability by Robert Frank) and moreover they document a life profoundly rich in relationships, friendships and experiences.

Below, William Burroughs in 1953:

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Gregory Corso, Paul Bowles and Burroughs in 1961.

From Gary Snyder, Peter Orlovsky, Jack Kerouac and Paul Bowles to Kathy Acker, Rene Ricard, and Michael McLure the pictures in this show depict so many of the literary and intellectual luminaries of the past four of five decades. Each picture includes a description, hand-written by Allen Ginsberg, identifying the subject, the date, the place and the circumstances.

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An essay by Louis Kaplan in the exhibition catalogue quotes Ginsberg as follows: “The poignancy of the photograph comes from looking back to a fleeting moment in a floating world.” Captured here in black and white, the humble New York diners and living rooms of the fifties have disappeared forever. This show provides a glimpse of this vanished world and its inhabitants.

September 20, 2014

The weather did a U-turn and suddenly it was mid-summer again. I exited the hot, packed Dufferin Bus at Queen Street and headed east.

Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects

Throngs of people crowded the sidewalks as the sudden heat created a carnival atmosphere on this Saturday afternoon. The feeling carried through to the Patrick Lundeen’s exhibition at Katharine Muherin Contemporary Art Projects.

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The paintings and assemblages in the show appear to reference African or Australian aboriginal art in their careful application of dots and stripes of color but more certainly the work is all about pop culture. In this case the artist is in Stephen King territory. You can almost here the screams behind the fun-house laughter as he explores the pyschological potholes of clowns, extra pointy fingernails, crumpled asses and howling faces. This artist is very skilled at conjuring up uncomfortable feelings.

Down the street (the gallery space kind of meanders, featuring three separate storefronts) was another installation by Mr. Lundeen entitled “Chefs.”

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Two other artist’s work was on display at Katharine Mulherin:

Lively, inventive drawings by Balint Zsako are displayed in the storefront.

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And, in a secondry room are Michael Harrington’s beautiful oil paintings which depict men statically posed beside their possessions: a rusty looking trailer, a shiny new SUV, a mysteriously glowing couch. Drink in hand, these guys are caught between pride and despair as they consider their material achievements.

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Stephen Bulger Gallery

Duane Michals is a celebrated artist shown in prestigious institutions around the world. I was thrilled to see the narrative series “The Fallen Angel” from 1968. This sequence of photographs, and another from 1969 titled “The Moments Before the Tragedy”, read like the best kind of short story: filled with emotional complexity, intelligence and beauty.051 049

I checked the price list and found that a snapshot size photo of Andy Warhol by Duane Michals goes for 50,000 CAD.

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I suppose an item like this approximates a Christian relic, like a splinter from the True Cross. It’s a piece of history and is valued as such. (When I was an art student we all read Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and its interesting to consider it now in the context of all that is free on the internet and the astronomical prices of authenticated objects.)

The Ryerson Image Center

The streetcar ride downtown took forever amid the sunshine drunk crowds and I was too late for more than a cursory view of  Dispatch: War Photographs in Print 1854-2008

There is a fascinating piece, however, in the foyer of the exhibition by Public Studio.  It’s called “Drone Wedding” and it consists of eight channels of video commissioned for the Salah J. Bachir Media Wall.  A traditional montage of a radiant bride and groom and a few dozen guests during a ceremony in some verdant, tranquil Western setting is interspersed with the “negative” images of the event: ghostly blue infrared surveillance footage, a crackling military jargon soundtrack, eerie targetting and identification technology are all on display. How often have we heard a news snippet about an Afghani or Iraqi wedding party slaughtered when a drone mistakenly went in for the kill?  Drones are the univited guests at this happy occasion. The artists comprising Public Studio, Elle Flanders & Tamira Sawatzky (and sometimes others), have stated they aim “to provoke conversations about surveillance and warfare” and they have created a chilling piece on those topics.

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