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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September 13, 2014

On this cold, overcast afternoon I walked south on Dundas toward Roncesvalles, skipped the Polish Festival, and headed for the clutch of galleries on Morrow Street.

Gerald Ferguson paintings are on exhibit at the Olga Korper Gallery.

This artist taught at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design (NSCAD) from 1968 to 2004 and his work embodies the cool, dispassionate aesthetic that defined the school as the nexus of Conceptual Art.  These are paintings in which the idea is paramount and the actual framed objects are merely resulting detritus.  Composition, allusion, color, form, symbol were all rigorously ignored, and yet, the paintings are entirely contemporary, powerful and complex.

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I particularly liked seeing the “Dropcloth” paintings.  Gerry picked up dropcloths strewn around the worksite of commercial painters.  He then had them framed and stretched.  They are subtle and suggestive, like a Cy Twombly or maybe even a Jackson Pollack…but wait a minute, they are dropcloths!  The idea lingers, inhabiting a sensuous formality, but it remains pure.

This show is particularly successful in its display of the range of work as it skips through various decades and series to give a sense of the breadth he achieved.  Using frottage, rollers, stencils, found objects, spray paint and various mundane, utilitarian objects he never flinched in exploring and manifesting the concepts that appealed to him.

Below is a snapshot of Gerry Ferguson’s take on still life: a stenciled urn and rubbing of cast iron fruit.

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Gerald Ferguson died in 2008.  This was a great loss for the Halifax art community and his friends, colleagues and former students everywhere.  Gerry was a true artist and a catalyst for so many.

Across the courtyard is the Christopher Cutts Gallery

The multi-media artist Simone Jones was standing outside the Gallery.  It was her work that was on display and she looked a little uneasy.  She warned me as I was about to enter that it was very dark and could be disorienting.  She was right.

The large gallery was divided in half and each half was displaying a large screen format video.  On one side, in the center of the space, there was a low-to-the-ground robotic ramp on which the video projector slowly travelled backwards and forwards in relation to the projected image.  Definitely a tripping hazard.

I positioned myself in the center of the divided space and watched the two synchronized videos.  A guy in period costume, trailed by a wolf, tramped through a snowy landscape.  On the other screen a woman in period costume clacked out a message on an ancient manual typewriter.  A shot rang out and the guy collapsed and lay in the snow.  The woman cried. The wolf looked menacing.  I felt like I was at a tennis match.  There was some elegiac music but no dialogue.  The woman at the front desk, who had to sit in the dark all day, mentioned Tom Thompson and his mysterious death.  (I decided not to tell her that he was not shot in the snow.  He died in Canoe Lake.)

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This piece, for all the imposition for the audience and difficulty in presentation, was strangely lacking in ambition.  I assume this artist will go on to develop more deeply the ideas she has hinted at here.  On the other hand, bravo to Christopher Cutts Gallery for supporting her and showing the piece.  A Gallery is a business just like any other.  How a media installation will generate revenue for this gallery is as mysterious to me as the death of Tom Thompson.