Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bucking Art Market Pressures at Printmaking Paradise Open Studio

Today is the first day for scholarship exhibitions at Open Studio, an artist-run printmaking gallery, studio and society in Toronto. Each year at Open Studio, three scholarships provide artists at established, emerging and just-out-of-school levels with the opportunity to make and exhibit some print-related work outside of the demands of the art market. In other words, it's not that these artists can't or don't sell work, as is often accused by those against public arts funding. Rather, these kinds of publically managed funds allow successful artists to make a work that uses all their saleable skills but doesn't have to sell. And it also allows the public to enjoy it. This year, the scholarship artists were paper-sculpture master Cybele Young, ink-drawing star Luke Painter and recent York U grad Mark Small. I wrote an essay for their exhibition, which you can find in their print brochure or read after the jump.

Image of Luke Painter's Victorian Bust 2007 from

Essay for Open Studio Scholarship Exhibition 2008
Cybele Young, Luke Painter, & Mark Small
By Leah Sandals

I admit—shamefully—that for some time I had little clue how the words “Open Studio” related to running a printmaking gallery and workshop. After all, galleries often take liberties with their names, or in the very least sport historical ones that have little to do with what one might find inside. London’s Serpentine Gallery has nary a snake on display, and Vancouver’s Blanket Contemporary shows painting and installation, not quilts. So I skipped over the possible meaning of Open Studio’s name even as I watched its shows.

But slowly, the name began to make a kind of literal sense to me. My first brainwave was sparked by seeing the variety of what ended up on view—everything from screenprints on record covers, such as Suzie Smith showed earlier this fall, to knitted replicas of boobs and dinks which Shannon Gerard showed last spring. My second mini-epiphany came when a friend took me into the massive printmaking studio behind the gallery—an airy, available-to-nonmembers space filled with all the heavy-machinery and acidic-chemical goodies that printmakers adore. And the third realization of this true-to-nameness arrived while preparing to write this very essay, talking to Open Studio’s 2008 scholarship recipients—Cybele Young, Luke Painter, and Marc Small—about the freedoms they enjoyed and works they planned to make for their end-of-term exhibit.

What I’ve discovered from getting to know Open Studio, as well as its practices and artists, better, is that it really does provide a very rare and necessary openness—an openness both physical and conceptual—to print-related artists in Canada. First, like most artist-run centres, artists participate in deciding what works are most relevant to exhibit. Second, unlike most artist-run centres, it has a huge space and excellent tools available for artists to make work at a reasonable cost. And lastly, through its scholarships, which offer free studio time and a related exhibition to three artists per year, it provides Toronto artists with the increasingly rare opportunity to do what they wish in a space somewhat removed from the demands of the art market.

Now don’t get me wrong as some starry-eyed ingenue; I know every artist-run centre has a raft of their own problems, internal and external, to deal with. But despite all of these, the fact remains that Open Studio really does provide openness—a key ingredient for the nurturance of creative work, creative people and creative communities. Though the art market provides important opportunities in its own right—opportunities to make money from selling art, should it suit current tastes, and opportunities to connect with collectors and associated sources of project financing—it cannot always provide a space for work that is more experimental, or searching, or experiential rather than product-oriented without turning to the issue of gallery rental fees.

The rest of this essay looks at what the Open Studio scholarship program and exhibition—one of those key technologies of openness—has meant to each of its 2008 recipients in terms of both product and process.

Cybele Young is an established Toronto artist best known for the small, eccentric objects she produces in folded paper—everything from movie cameras to windshield wipers are magically birthed in her capable hands from just a tweeze or two of newsprint, a sliver of washi, an inch or two of thread.

Chatting over coffee, Young reveals that even as a child she was fascinated with paper, reveling in piles of it during visits to a Japanese paper shop in Toronto’s Kensington Market. That interest in paper resurged after studies in traditional sculpture at OCAD left her exasperated at the sheer volume of materials consumed. Paper seemed a useful alternative. “Sculpting with paper feels like making something out of nothing,” she says. “It’s not precious, but it’s strong.”

Young also became engaged with paper in a different way through printmaking, which she applied first to fabric, and then to cotton rag and Stonehenge. For many years she had a small press in her basement that she used to produce prints. But after some time, she yearned to work larger—not just physically, but technically and conceptually as well.

Thorough her Nick Novak scholarship period, Young’s traditional printmaking practice in copperplate etching and chine colle, as well as her commercial sculptural practice in framed micro-objects, has expanded to include silkscreen, installation and video. On one wall of her scholarship show, a collection of silkscreen prints document, in blown-up and reimagined form, the small scraps of paper leftover from Young’s ongoing sculptural practice. On another, a series of small-scale kite forms bearing whimsical copperplate etchings of household detritus—from mops to lightbulbs to ballpoint pens—are installed. Finally, on the last wall of the space, a video of these small kites interacting with one of Young’s other sculptures, this one of a hydro tower, unfurls.

Taken together, these works—and the amusing exhibition title “You Finished With That?”—speak to an intensifying concern in Young’s practice for the environment. Of some significance is the sly way in which Young addresses these issues. In working, for example, with images of her own small paper scraps, Young creates prints that enjoyed both as examples of design as well as attempts to point out that the waste we consider “small” can be writ large collectively and otherwise. Her humour-filled drawings of discarded items both amuse and gently point at the potential transformation of everyday expectations. And her “waste kites” interacting with a hydro tower both fascinates with kinetic zest and hints at deeper concerns with energy issues.

These are small gestures for a big world, but as Young has proved so effectively in her tiny sculptural works past and present, humble need not always mean weak—it can be compelling, persistent and ingenious in its own right.


Luke Painter is an energetic Toronto artist whose love affair with woodcuts and etchings is longstanding. During his undergrad at OCAD and MFA at Concordia, Painter branched those graphic sensibilities into different realms. Painting, printmaking, drawing, and new media are all domains he now works in, with his India-ink-on-paper paintings recently finding a particular (and well-deserved) commercial and critical success.

No matter what his media, Painter’s work tends to emit a darkly fantastic, horror-tinged, backwoods-gothic feel. Discussing his work at a table in the Open Studio printshop, Painter talks about being influenced from a young age by films like The Shining and Firestarter, films which locate a strange, seething, supernatural danger in idyllic-seeming circumstances that range from the expansiveness of a rural resort to the diminutive body of a small, “innocent” child. Painter also speaks humorously of his childhood affection for TV shows The Addams Family, a narrative where the macabre was presented in a warm, campy way, and where beetles for breakfast, disembodied pals, and electroshock recliners are just normalized parts of life within a relatively loving family environment. He also underlines his interest in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, another narrative—this one with a truly sweeping mythical landscape—in which good meets evil with alternately peaceable and perilous results.

In Painter’s most recent commercial show these themes took flight in two series of ink paintings. One features busts of imaginary figures that might be kings and queens of some supernatural narrative—women with swirling, snakey hair and men with ornate, shield-like collars. The other focuses on forest landscapes truncated by some unseen axe. In some, chopped-down clearings reveal decrepit Victorian mansions; in others, tree stumps grow up through a forest floor of peeling hardwood. It’s ambiguous whether these trees have been killed, or are growing like zombies—forever dead-alive, sustained by cannibalization.

In Painter’s Open Studio exhibition, enabled through the Donald O’Born Family Scholarship, the artist attempts to conjure his printed and drawn worlds in a three-dimensional realm. Instead of encountering Painter’s elaborate scenarios with eyeballs only, this exhibit allows both artist and viewer to step inside.

Painter’s transference of his eerie scenarios into installation is executed with a witty awareness of his flip-flop between 2-D and 3-D (or imaginary and actual) space. Most of the elements are flat, constructed from bendable plywood sheets. Sometimes this flatness is convincing, as when the sheets are carved to resemble wood panelling that both adheres to and peels away from the walls. And sometimes it’s concertedly unconvincing, as when used to represent streams of blood spurting through those wood-panelled walls and into “puddles” on the floor.

As with all of Painter’s work—which at Open Studio also included a series of etchings of young women in cemeteries—there’s a sense of both the real and the unreal taking place at once. Though there’s little doubt Painter will continue powerful painting work on these themes, it’s a rare and special thing to step into his world with him, to share its real space.


Marc Small is a talented emerging artist based in Toronto. Recently graduated from York University with a BFA, Small uses printmaking as a means of expressing himself, his identity and his personal history. As he writes in an email, “As a child, I believe I’d encountered more than my fair share of traumatic episodes which have scarred me both mentally and emotionally. [To protect myself] I soon entered a world populated only by me, myself and I.” As a result, Small says of his artwork, “This is me trying to renegotiate my way back into the world by exploring truths about myself and relations I have with the people around me.”

What’s compelling about Small’s nascent work is not just his willingness to delve into vulnerable emotional territory; he’s also clearly enamoured of printmaking in general and screenprinting in particular. This affection, he says, derives in part from being unable to part with single-edition artworks. He therefore gravitates to the medium in which he can part with some copies as well as keep a copy for himself. (When Small was a child collecting sports cards, he would, similarly, collect two sets—one for himself, and one to trade.) Further, he explains, “I like the immediacy of the screening,” he says. “In 4 hours I can have 200 prints if I want. I can just make these massive amounts of work.”

Indeed, it’s easy to see, looking at Small’s Open Studio exhibition, that he has taken very productive advantage of the time and space granted to him via the Don Phillips Scholarship. Over 200 prints line the gallery, generating a potential sense of overload. Once that passes, there’s much material to plumb; Small bases each of these prints on the “Hello, I Am…” nametags provided at conferences and wedding receptions, altering them to state “Hello, I Think…” or “Hello, You Are…” He’s also provided a variety of unconventional (if not uncommonly felt) responses to the format, including “Hello… I’m afraid of being alone. Hello… I’m tired. Hello… I think that I’m not human. Hello… I think you misunderstand my silence.”

In a way, Small’s work is particularly appropriate to its context. The Don Phillips scholarship is designed especially to provide a transition for grads from the ample resources and structure of a school environment to the scarcer provisions of the independent artist. Further, its exhibition provides an opportunity for the recent student to declare their identity as an artist and printmaker to the wider community. By creating a work that takes a complex view of personal identity and human relationships, Small demonstrates that he is consciously navigating those shifting waters of creative development. He also shows that there is much we can anticipate from him in the future—a future he will work through with support, but on his own terms.


Cybele Young, Luke Painter, and Marc Small are different artists with their own priorities, careers and practices. This Open Studio exhibit—in addition to standing as a testament to their strengths and skills at this point—demonstrates the strengths and skills of the organization that hosts them. Even when the door closes on this show at the end of November, both the artists and the viewers can take heart that the studio and the artists it has nurtured will, indeed, stay Open.

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