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.

March 11, 2018

“Take My Breath Away” 

Danh Vo at the Guggenheim Museum

A Dane, a gay man, a refugee from the Vietnam War, a child raised in the Catholic faith, an artist who lives in Mexico and Berlin: these are some of the unique qualifiers that can be applied to Danh Vo, whose current exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum is entirely original and beautifully expansive.   I mean “expansive” in a particular sense: Danh Vo has a way of offering a succinct starting point with his work and assigning nuanced speculation and circuitous trails of thought to the viewer.  It is such a lovely and uplifting intellectual exchange.

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Installation view “Take My Breath Away” by Danh Vo

The chandelier, depicted above, already loaded with cultural, economic, sentimental and literary meaning, has been installed in a startling fashion.  It barely skims the surface of the glossy Guggenheim ramp. It is described on a nearby label as having a particularly disquieting provenance.  This, and two other chandeliers which Danh Vo was able to purchase and which are also in the Museum in different “states,” hung in the Hotel Majestic in Paris.  The Hotel was the site of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, which ostensibly ended the Vietnam conflict but also marked the beginning of a period of violence, betrayal and humiliation on both sides of that war.

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Lot 20. Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs by Danh Vo

What appears to be an abstract sculpture, above, is defined by the artist as leather upholstery from two chairs.  The chairs were purchased at Sotheby’s at an auction of items belonging to Robert McNamara.  McNamara was the defense secretary for both Kennedy and Johnson during the period of Vietnam War escalation.  They were given to McNamara by Jacqueline Kennedy after President Kennedy’s death.

Danh Vo deconstructed the chairs.  Parts of them are scattered around the exhibition.  The frames here.  The springs and stuffing there.  To me the dismemberment of these potent objects manifests as rage.  But then (…) I was 21 in 1973 and I remember the end of the war.  What do these objects and the wordy labels mean to someone in their 20s now?

I really like the way Danh Vo allows meaning to change, to evolve and to flicker in and out of objects.

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Robert McNamara – US Secretary of Defense, 1961-1968

There are other objects in the show that a similar proximity to notorious events: Ted Kaczynski’s manual typewriter for example. (Which somehow I did not see.  Only read about!  But even in pictures, it seems to hold barely restrained malevolence within its banality.  But of course that is my projection.  Not long ago I watched Manhunt: Unabomber on Netflix.  All eight episodes!)

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Theodore Kaczynski’s Smith Corona Portable Typewriter, by Danh Vo

It should be pointed out that although many of the objects in the show are accompanied by rather lengthy texts the work does not rely on labels.  I concluded this because of the following: I was in NY for just a few days.  I went all the way up to 90th Street and Park to see this show on Thursday.  The Guggenheim is closed on Thursday.  Pressed for time and overly committed I went back on Friday.  At one point wandering up the ramp I got irritated waiting, in back of an overly witty couple, to read the descriptive cards.  I struck off, ignored the texts and was swept up in the pure visual power of the show.

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Massive Black Hole in the Dark Heart of our Milky Way by Danh Vo

The piece by Danh Vo entitled “We The People” is an extreme undertaking.  I didn’t quite understand that I was looking at a dismembered replica of the Statue of Liberty, constructed of copper at full scale, until I was on the subway going back downtown reading the exhibition notes.  This extraordinary artwork will never be exhibited in one place as it is gradually being dispersed to various cultural institutions around the world.

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We The People by Danh Vo

To see Danh Vo talk (in Danish with subtitles) about the creation of We The People, click here:

 

The inclusion of Catholic imagery, especially the medieval sculpture, adds gravitas and grace to the exhibition.

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Artwork by Danh Vo

The piece above is an example of the artist’s joining of objects from different era: damaged medieval wooden sculpture is fused to fragments of Roman marble statuary.  Elsewhere naturalistic tangles of branches have grafted to them tiny, finely wrought medieval countenances.

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Christmas (Rome) by Danh Vo

The artwork above is made of velvet fabric which was used as backing for an exhibition of objects in the Vatican Museum.  (Just thinking about how Danh Vo came to get his hands on this particular velvet has so much narrative potential.)

One of my favourite pieces in this show are the letters from Henry Kissinger to New York Post theater critic Leonard Lyons:

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In another letter, dated May 20, 1970, Kissinger writes the following:

“Dear Leonard, I would choose your ballet over contemplation of Cambodia any day — if only I were given the choice.  Keep tempting me; one day perhaps I will succumb.”

At the time, Kissinger was helping to orchestrate the so-called Cambodian Incursion.

 

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

August 6, 2016

The McMichael Art Collection – Sarah Anne Johnson

In terms of the perpetuation of the species and the human life span, the period between 15 and 25 is the really crucial one.  This is the period of maximum fertility and all its attendant characteristics: the fierce courage, idealism and passion that belong only to the young; and of course, on the dark side, the selfishness, fecklessness and brutality that hopefully dissipates with maturity. Looking back to this era in one’s own lifetime can produce feelings of awe and possibly an overriding sense of good fortune that we even survived at all.  Sometimes we barely recognize our former selves and are obliged to murmur, almost inaudibly: “Was that idiot me?”

Sarah Anne Johnson wanders into this territory of youthful enthusiasm and misadventure in her exhibition called Field Trip, at the McMichael Collection.

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Yellow Dinosaur by Sarah Anne Johnson

The “trip” Sarah Anne Johnson takes the viewer on is deep and quixotic, at times hilarious, contemplative and hopeful, and then suddenly frightening and grim.  I really liked looking at this show.  For me the dazzling images conjure up a sense of how perception is shared, how my own perceptions conform to contemporary custom and how they change.

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Zombie Dance by Sarah Anne Johnson

I’ve been reading a book by Jenny Diski called The Sixties.  She writes:  “We were …a bunch of dissolute, hedonistic druggies.  We lay around and got stoned, had sex, listened to music that exalted lying around, getting stoned, having sex, and hymned our good times.”  It seems that fifty years later this is the same crowd that Sarah Anne Johnson has photographed. In her book Jenny Diski goes on to chronicle how the sixties became the Reagan years and turned into ” that beast: the Me generation.”  Time will tell.

Chillin’ at the Void by Sarah Anne Johnson

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Detail of Chillin’ at the Void by Sarah Anne Johnson

Sarah Anne Johnson intertwines so many interesting threads of thinking. The detail of Chillin’ at the Void depicts a new crop of “dissolute, hedonistic druggies.”   It makes me think of a different kind of chill: a cold and dreadful chill, of how marketing and propaganda ease each  generation through its own very special, unique and individual journey.

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Group Portrait by Sarah Anne Johnson

In the piece entitled “Group Portrait” Sarah Anne Johnson captures the joy and satisfaction of belonging, so critical for the young.  The individuals are obliterated with dopey masks and transformed in an instant to exotic creatures that have banded together.   We will always be together!!  We celebrate our originality!  We defend our tribe!!  It’s such a brief sentiment.  Maybe only an afternoon or two.  That weekend at Bird’s Hill Park.

Sarah Anne Johnson’s trip includes some dark alleys, strewn with garbage, seriously dangerous drugs and stoners slipping over the edge.

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Blob by Sarah Anne Johnson

The lurid, day-glow monsters of nightmare and death are observed with nonchalance.  This is an ability of the very young and very stoned, and a feature of their passage into the humdrum adult world….if all goes well.

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Glitter Bomb by Sarah Anne Johnson

May 14, 2016

I was wandering by the Piri Piri Churrasqueira Grillhouse at the corner of Dupont and Campbell and took some time to check out the neighbourhood.  Just a few steps north there is a cluster of no-nonsense, newish buildings.  They look like the kind of place you might go to pick up parts for, say, a malfunctioning Moccamaster or maybe confer with an insurance broker.  But no, in fact, here is a chance to look at art in Toronto.

Richard Rhodes Dupont Projects – David Clarkson

Speleogenesis, I have just learned, means the origin and development of caves.  In the exhibition of paintings by David Clarkson, called Remotes, caves function as formal device, content and metaphor.

Here’s another word you don’t hear often: trippy.

On entering David Clarkson’s show there is a painting by the door.  It depicts a rabbit hole, yes, the pathway that Alice took into the discombobulating environment that made no sense.  In this painting bunnies, giant gems and a perfect oval looking-glass are bathed in a dreamy blue light.  For me this painting set up the whole show with a feeling of philosophical nonchalance.   The viewer is free to descend into a labyrinth of ethereal vistas and subconscious triggers without any kind of didactic price to pay.

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Detail of Rabbits and Mirrors by David Clarkson

The cave imagery is a constant in the show.  Such a potent symbol could be heavy handed but David Clarkson creates unpredictable, droll and imaginative art work that never stumbles into cliche.

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Cascade and Curtain by David Clarkson

Looking at Cascade and Curtain the viewer is in utterly unknown territory, gazing outward through the pictorial plane to glimpse what lies beyond the shimmering veil of liquid.  Which way is the sinuous sluice spilling?  Into the frame or out of it?

The inclusion 0f photographic elements, pop art fragments and tiny renderings of hallucinatory creatures combine to form an otherworldly tableau.  But it is the striking formal aspect – the yawning mouth of the cave – that creates such a powerful image.

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Moth and Frog by David Clarkson

A sense of claustrophobia dominates the painting above as ice and mist frame a route to open air but no, it is another cave that confronts the viewer, like a maddening hall of mirrors.  Life is delicate but relentless in this harsh environment.  And consciousness is brutally linked to physical realities.

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Statues and Fog by David Clarkson

In Statues and Fog surrealist tropes litter a grim trail to the void.  Here the cave is the tough slog of life itself.

Ahem…there is only one way out.

 

Erin Stump Projects (ESP) – Elise Rasmussen

Around the corner on Dupont there is an exhibition by Elise Rasmussen called Fragments of an Imagined Place.  (…am I detecting a theme…?)

As part of the artwork Elise Rasmussen declares that the myth of Atlantis “serves as a metaphor for the artistic practice.”  Within this context she presents some fascinating fragments of a Robert Smithson piece that was never created.

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People had a very different appearance in 1970 than they do today.  Within the selection of xeroxed newspaper clippings, cartoons, letters, pamphlets and snapshots is a picture of Robert Smithson posed as a rugged outlaw.  Truly, this artist was onto something new, big and bold and he looks the part.

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Robert Smithson circa 1970

The planned Earthwork was called “Glass Island” and it was to be constructed off the British Columbia coast near Nanaimo.  One hundred tons of broken glass were held at the border and finally sent back to Los Angeles.  Environmentalists opposed the project.

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Installation view of Robert Smithson’s “Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis),” 1969

Included in this sort of scrapbook-like array are copies of the Robert Smithson drawings for other Earthworks.  It was so startling and refreshing to see these humble drawings on graph paper, efficiently packed with ideas and potential.

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Detail of Fragments of an Imagined Place by Elise Rasmussen

I really liked observing the connection Elise Rasmussen created with Robert Smithson and his beautiful idea of a glass island.   She also produced a video in connection to the unmade piece.  Dancers in white stretchy pants and pastel t-shirts gingerly hold shards of coloured glass move and about in a serious though desultory way.

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Still from Video Fragments of an Imagined Place by Elise Rasmussen

https://player.vimeo.com/video/163575629“>Click here to see a section of the video

I wonder what Robert Smithson would make of the art world today?

 

January 20, 2016

Report from New York

Following an afternoon in NYC and 9 days in British Virgin Islands (BVI) it is clear there is virtually no art in BVI.  New York, on the other hand, is stuffed with art. It kind of makes sense if you simply look out the window.

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Shown above is the view out the window in BVI.

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Shown above is the view out the window in New York.

In New York the radiators hiss and clang and strange cries rise from Second Avenue, four floors below.  It is a John Cage symphony here in this overheated loft and time to rush downstairs into the brittle cold and take a walk.

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There are two Lehmann Maupin galleries.  I dropped into the one on Chrystie Street.

Lehmann Maupin – Catherine Opie

It turns out Elizabeth Taylor was one of those women who exists with a tiny, precious dog on her lap. She was very close to her white, beribboned, silky, toy-like Maltese called Sugar.  Elizabeth Taylor’s affections, for animals, people and things are sumptuously revealed in an exhibition of photographs by Catherine Opie at the Lehmann Maupin .

The exhibition is called 700 Nimes Road, which was Elizabeth Taylor’s address in the glamorous Los Angeles neighbourhood known as Bel-Air.

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Above: Installation shot of 700 Nimes Road exhibition by Catherine Opie

The photographs have the ability to transport us to this hushed, rarefied retreat where the iconic actress spent her last years in violet tinted luxury. Catherine Obie had access to the home and belongings of Elizabeth Taylor.  Despite the fact that she never actually met Elizabeth Taylor the images and the “indirect portrait” they create are filled with tenderness and respectful reverence.

Below, an array of perfect sling back heels in assorted pastels, about size six, stand ready for the return of their owner as Fang strolls by.

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“Fang and Chanel” by Catherine Opie

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“The Shoe Closet” by Catherine Opie

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“The Quest for Japanese Beef” by Catherine Opie

The jewels are photographed as transcendent objects: sometimes glowing, floating, as if glimpsed in a dream-like, delirious haze.  Or as above, precious trinkets lovingly arranged.

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Photograph by Catherine Opie

Luxurious bags, luggage, sunglasses are maintained in impeccable order, ready for their owner to cast a lovely violet-eyed glance their way.  But sadly, Elizabeth Taylor, never returned to 700 Nimes Road. When Catherine Opie began her project in 2010 Elizabeth Taylor was hospitalized and died before it was completed.

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Elizabeth Taylor, February 27, 1932 – March 23, 2011

The New Museum – Cheryl Donegan

Cheryl Donegan is carrying out a four-month residency at the New Museum. To fill up this immense period of time Cheryl Donegan started a newspaper, opened a store filled with objects she has made and/or repurposed, created an online retail operation of sorts, is planning a fashion show for the Museum in April and continually carries out performances, videos and create more objects.  Simultaneously, a selection of her paintings, other works on paper, objects and videos work together to create a more conventional exhibition of the work of this artist at the Museum.

The exhibition is called Scenes and Commercials.

Looking at this work gives me the sense that Cheryl Donegan does not have much interest in tradition and yet the paintings are successful in a traditional sense. They are fun and surprising to look at and create a hectic feeling of rushing and recklessness.

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Paintings by Cheryl Donegan

Cheryl Donegan is like the girl next door. She is down-to-earth, hard working and a straight shooter. She uses plaid, Kelly green and cardboard. She is earnest and curious about marketing and commerce.

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Details from Concept Store by Cheryl Donegan

The idea of compression is one that Cheryl Donegan frequently references. This concept apparently has an idiosyncratic significance as she observed the gradual flattening of consumer electronics and extends its as a metaphor for society. She speaks about a hovering space of thin layers.  Maybe its about the way objects and ideas are quickly used up and disposed of in our mediated world.  Since nothing has any depth or substance, we need to only glance at it and move on.  Social media, retail items, relationships, events and disasters around the world, beliefs, emotions are all equally shallow, feckless, consumable.

What I really liked about Cheryl Donegan’s work is that she doesn’t let all this diminishment of all things get her down.  She seems to embrace the frantic pace of now and injects a joyful absurdity into it.  Below is a still from a videotaped performance by Cheryl Donegan in which she paints her ass green and creates shamrock prints.

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Still from video by Cheryl Donegan

80WSE – Language of the Birds: Occult and Art

Magic, Alchemy, Astrology, Kabbalah, Spirituality, spells, Divination, extra sensory perception, trance, Wicca, tarot cards, Kenneth Anger: this exhibition covers the range occult practice and imagery.  The title, Language of the Birds, refers to a particular mode of communication available to the initiated. 

The exhibition coincides with The Occult Humanities Conference 2016:
Contemporary Art and Scholarship on the Esoteric Traditions.

Although I do occasionally check my horoscope in the newspaper the occult is something I know nothing about.  I was looking for some context but it was not there.  Is there a current rising interest in these themes?  What’s the connection between the paranormal and the normal?  Why now?  It’s not really clear.

The curator, Pam Grossman, a teacher of magical practice and history, has divided the numerous works into rooms titled Cosmos, Spirits, Practitioner, Alter, Spells.  Many phantasmagorical things and images are displayed.

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Sirens by Kiki Smith

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Touch by Valerie Hammond

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Astrological Ouroboros by Paul Laffoley

Could be its all about plumbing the depths of puny human understanding or misunderstanding?

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Pomba-gira Maria Mulambo – Grande Circulo de Pontos Riscado [Whirling Dove Maria Mulambo – Great Circle of Scratched Points] by Barry William Hale

I could almost smell the incense burning.

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.)

Puce Moment

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 1, 2014

Today, on Spadina Avenue, I experienced the future!

Behold, the airy interior of a new TTC streetcar.

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The wide, bike-friendly, double doors opened (automatically) and I exited (in complete safely) at Queen Street and crossed southeast to Richmond, back in the present…sort of. The building at 401 Richmond Street, which has a seventies feel, was actually erected around 1900, for industrial purposes. It currently has so many culturally productive tenants that the management publishes its own in-house gallery guide.

There are numerous permanent art installations scattered around the wide, creaky hallways.

For example, near the main entrance are a group of photographs by Peter McCallum.  Below is a detail of one of the photographs, which document studios, workshops and infrastructure of the 401 Richmond site.

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This artist has so much skill and sophistication.  Grounded in an uncanny ability to discern and compose a nuanced, insightful view of a particular moment and place, and with superb technical skill, the photographs by Peter MacCallum are always instantly recognizable and a pleasure to view.

The Abbozzo Gallery

The Abbozzo Gallery presents drawings by Olexander Wlasenko.  I was flipping through the decades.  Suddenly it was 1965. These works in charcoal, unframed and velvety, conjure up a time when people dressed up for air travel and sashayed across the tarmac in kitten heels.

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Drawings by Olexander Wlasenko

Are these stills from Pierrot le Fou, Bande a Parte, La Chinoise or some other gorgeous Jean Luc Goddard New Wave film from the sixties?  Is that Anna Karina adjusting her makeup in a Paris boite?  These drawings have a cold intensity, like an old school martini, shaken but not stirred.

YYZ Artists’ Outlet

At the YYZ Artists’ Outlet the paintings of Andrew Rucklidge are on display.  The show is called “You and I are Shifters” and it is accompanied by an essay by Terence Dick, which raises all sorts of interesting ideas about post-photoshop, digital sampling and quantum physics.  This artist clearly enjoys pushing paint around canvas and appears to be painting about painting.  He has a dazzling repertoire of effects and techniques and he applies them to various riffs on a geometric diamond-like object.

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Painting by Andrew Rucklidge

Reading about the Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, which is coming up in a few days, I noticed how many of the performances and/or installations involve interaction and/or something called immersion on the part of the audience.  This is a trend that does not appeal to me, in fact, it strikes me as totalitarian in nature.  Despite the multiple and fascinating directions art continues to take there is something really satisfying about just looking passively at a painting by Andrew Rucklidge or any painting and accepting it as is.

Gallery 44 Center for Contemporary Photography

At Gallery 44 I came across an exhibition about wood called “Standardizing Nature: Trees, Wood and Lumber” by Susana Reisman. Yes, trees grow only to end up as a pile of lumber.

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Photographs by Susana Reisman

Whereas the photographs were competent, even impressive, the show had the tone of a science textbook. I was looking for the art part. I did find it in the secondary room, which consisted of a sculpture composed of numerous lengths of wood, some partially painted or decorated and simply leaning against a wall.

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Artwork by Susana Reisman

There is something quirky and anthropomorphic in this sculpture.  It’s so simple and yet it delivers something complex…and it smells really good.

Red Head Gallery

I wandered into the Red Head Gallery and found a show called “Insomnia Salon Soiree”, set up in connection to the Scotiabank Nuit Blanche event.  The numerous pieces in the show were not labelled and will only be on display for five days, to be dismantled once the hoopla over Nuit Blanche dies down.  A couple of paintings caught my eye:

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(At post time I don’t have the names of the artists who produced these works but I’m hoping the Red Head Gallery can provide me that information shortly.)

A Space Gallery

I read on the A Space website that this Gallery was founded in 1971.  That is a long time to be alternative.

The current show is called “Welcome to Tkaronto”  and among others, features work by Meryl McMaster:

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Photographs by Meryl McMaster

McMaster’s use of popping color and strange other-worldly costumes in stark northern landscapes spoke vividly to me about the rich culture of the Indigenous that is all around us in Ontario (and Canada) and yet hidden.

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The V-Tape people think a lot about how to exhibit video…and there is a lot to choose from

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I was invited into a comfortable, otherwise empty screening room, which could accommodate maybe thirty people.  The lights were turned down and I watched the feature presentation.

Su Rynard‘s piece “As Soon as Weather Will Permit” is currently on exhibit at V-Tape.  It tells a story about an uncle who was a US World War II pilot.  Uncle Vern found himself endlessly training out the war in the luridly colorful desert vistas around Los Alamos…waiting…waiting for just the right moment. Eventually, of course, the weather aligns with the military and political imperatives of the moment.  The protagonist participated in the bombing of Hiroshima. To paraphrase the narration: they dropped the bomb and they left.

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Stills from video by Su Rynard

Su Rynard uses a split screen to mix home movies and archival footage; glowing dream-like sequences of bubbling atoms and frothing energy, radar screens, hand-written texts and folksy, matter-of-fact narrative to create a riveting piece. Although there is a brief mushroom cloud burst the artist uses restraint very effectively. For me, the controlled, dispassionate story and the undeniably voluptuous imagery combine to pack a potent message into this short, powerful piece.

Nicholas Metivier Gallery

After looking at only a sampling of the art on display at 401 Richmond I needed some air and took a walk along King Street to see the John Scott exhibition at Nicholas Metivier Gallery.

John Scott’s paintings are all about men’s business: motorcycles, spiraling jets, prize fighters, disasters, hulking cars,  and always the ominous “Dark Commander,”  the ultimate, critical, punishing father figure.

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Paintings by John Scott

The bunny figures, another of John Scott’s consistent characters, tend to be sympathetic, even endearing, although they sometimes get up on their hind legs and become, for example, “Imperious Bunny” which is also included in the show.  But its the “Dark Commander” that the viewer has to reckon with.  Who is this guy?

I kept thinking about opera when I was looking at this show.  In fact, the Commendatore is the name of the terrifying character in Don Giovanni who knocks on the door in the last act and in the horrible bass voice reminds Don Giovanni that “he invited him to dine..”  Then the vengeful creature exacts his bargain and drags Giovanni down to hell with him.

Maybe John Scott is exploring his feminine side with the inclusion of a couple of flower paintings in the show.

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Dollarama Flowers by John Scott

They are clearly labelled as “Dollarama Flowers,’ supposedly just the kind of disposable plastic trash we would expect a real guy would pick up.  They do add another dimension of emotional content to the show, like observing a biker at the supermarket: there he is, in full biker regalia, comparing cake mixes.

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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