Thursday, July 31, 2008

Update: Peg Public Art Dispute

Hmmm... As I mentioned in Tuesday's post about a couple examples of public art from Winnipeg, I, well, don't see as much public art as I should. I am doubly reminded of this after seeing Joe Friesen's article in the Globe today about a more controversial piece of public art in Winnipeg: a mural from which Marx has been censored for political reasons. This in the city of 1919 General Strike fame! Bizarre. This local (right-wing, anti-union it seems) blogger seems to have partly led the charge.

Update: I'm going to chime in on this one with Art Fag City and say that while I appreciate the info on this dispute, Friesen's reference to Diego Rivera's dispute over his mural at Rockefeller Centre in the 1930s is a bit of an overreach. This mural is made by a widely unknown youngster in a generally liberal nation and time period, not by an established artist in a right-leaning nation shortly after the Russian Revolution.

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Interview: Sara Knelman on "Great New Wave: Contemporary Art from Japan"

Located just an hour or so from Hogtown, the city of Hamilton often gets a bit of a raw deal in the Toronto-centric art media. Sometimes exceptions are granted for the fact that it is a place an artist can actually buy a house and studio and still stay in spitting distance of Toronto dealers—but by and large it's seen as too far away for frequent visits, while being too close to be exotic.

The Art Gallery of Hamilton does well to combat these indifferent associations. I must admit I'm not progressive enough to have gone out for myself and found this out of my own volition. But on an unexpected stopover last summer I was blown away by the AGH's permanent installation of Kim Adams's amazing Bruegel Bosch Bus (thumbnail above), as well as the Canadian premiere of the Kent Monkman "Triumph of Mischief" show. You know, the one that all of us TO residents basically wet ourselves over when it arrived at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art later that fall.

Right now, the AGH is hosting another group of compelling Canadian premieres—half of the artists in its exhibition "Great New Wave: Contemporary Art from Japan" have never shown north of the 49th before. So I was excited earlier this week to chat with show co-curator Sara Knelman about how it all came together. Click here to read the condensed version published today in the National Post, or read on after the jump for an extended transcript of the interview with some more images from the show.

The following is the transcript of a phone interview between Art Gallery of Hamilton curator Sara Knelman and freelance arts writer Leah Sandals. The conversation took place on the afternoon of Monday, July 28, on the occasion of the exhibition “Great New Wave: Contemporary Art from Japan” continuing at the AGH. Knelman co-curated the show with the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s Lisa Baldissera; “Great New Wave” will open there in 2010.

LS: Japan is also the focus of some recent exhibitions in New York and Boston—“Heavy Light” at the International Centre for Photography, and “Contemporary Outlook: Japan” at the MFA Boston. Why this sudden surge of interest in Japan, artistically speaking?

SK: Well, I can talk specifically to how the interest in Japan came up here. The gallery had decided to look specifically at arts and culture from East Asia for a year, culminating in a group of exhibitions in the summer time at the gallery. And part of this evolved as a collaboration with the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria; this is co-curated with Lisa Baldissera. They have a great historical collection of Japanese art and we were thinking of enriching that with a look at what is going on in Japan now. I think there’s also an ongoing interest from Louise Dompierre, the president here who curated a large exhibition of Japanese art called the Age of Anxiety at the Power Plant several years ago. So it was a way of continuing that.

But in terms of the global I think there’s been so much emphasis on China of late that that interest has just sort of spread across that whole region. I think there’s also been a lot of intersting exhibits of Thai art and Korean art lately I think it’s part of this whole opening up of the global contemporary art world, which is becoming less focused on western practice and western output.

LS: Japan is a long way from Hamilton – how did you even hear about these artists, let alone curate them?

SK: We went to Japan. I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on Japanese art, and the show itself does not claim to be an objective survey of what’s going on there. But we did as much research as we could from our perspectives of our respective stations in Canada.

And we made some interesting connections mainly through one of the curators at centre A in Vancouver, who has a lot of connections in Tokyo and in Japan. So we went for about 10 days in the late winter/early spring of 2007. It wasn’t a massive amount of time but it was an extraordinarily efficient use of time. We went during the Tokyo Art Fair so we could see work and meet dealers from across the country. And we made contact with an independent curator who we had contact with for the month preceding our trip. She told us what artists we might be interested in, what curators we might want to meet with, and she made us a quite rigorous schedule for our days there. So we just engaged from the moment of landing before; we did do our very best to immerse in the art world there.

LS: What themes did you see come out of this?

SK: Well, I think what we wanted to do is look at the generation after Murakami, after Superflat… to think about artists sort of in their 30s, let’s say, are doing right now. Not that age is necessarily a defining factor, but artists who weren’t part of that movement and were coming out of training in the wake of that movement.

And we really wanted to build a show that reflected the variety of media that we experienced while we were there, and the sort of sort of depth of issues that we saw while we were there. We didn’t go with a framework in mind; we went fairly open to ideas and we built a show that took six artists all working in different media that reflected the best of what we encountered there. The themes that we write about in the catalogue sort of emerged after that rather than before.

LS: As you indicated, one of the best-known Japanese artists today is Takashi Murakami, who brought a Louis Vuitton boutique to the Brooklyn Museum. There no work here that looks remotely like that. Why?

SK: Quite the opposite. It’s hard to say why. Certainly you can see influences of that in interesting ways, but on purely visual level, it’s not flat the way Superflat its. It’s supertextured; even the photographs and the video work has a real kind of depth to it.

I think it does still embrace a kind of connection between high and low art that is also part of Superflat. So I don’t think actually that it’s reactionary. My sense is not that these artists are just reacting. It’s just that they’re not immersed in it any longer as a movement; they’re doing their own thing as artists.

Murakami is still a superstar in Japan and will be for a long time, but I think the prevalence of it over a certain period of time internationally became a definition of what Japanese art is that isn’t really accurate at least any longer.

LS: Let’s talk about the way some of these artists use texture, then. Manabu Ikeda’s painting definitely comes to mind. Can you talk about that?

SK: The piece that we have here called Regeneration is not a painting; it’s a large-scale drawing in pen and acrylic ink. This one took him just under a year to make and there are others that have taken him over a year—so we felt very lucky to bring one here. He has smaller pieces as well, but the large-scale ones are just so sort of overwhelming when you come face to face with them.

So this piece has a kind of apocalyptic feel; I mean, this vessel that’s coming towards you looks like the relic of a sunken ship as well as a Noah’s ark in a way and there is something distressing about it but there’s also something really hopeful in that it has also this growth happening on the surface. There is this regernative surface happening on it, and as you examine the drawing there is incredible signs of life; there are people fishing and deep sea divers exploring all of this new growth.

All of his drawings are quite fantastical this way; he is really amazed by the power of nature, which comes from the place he grew up in which had a beautiful natural landscape. He spent a lot of time in nature and his pieces do explore this interface between the threatening issues in the contemporary world and the possibility of a return to a natural environment.

LS: Kohei Nawa’s marble-covered objects are quite striking. What are they meant to represent?

SK: There’s a really beautiful parallel between what these artists are doing in how they treat the surface of an object. The three works are from a series he made called PixCell, which he extends still. He made these three pieces specifically for this exhibition and so they’re all of quite different scales: It’s a toy apple, a toy tank, and deer head.

His project actually started from a very different place than Ikeda’s; not at all in nature, but from sitting in front of a computer and thinking about the way that objects look on a computer screen. So what he does for this project is find these mundane everyday objects and he buys them from internet auction sites. When he gets them he reworks sculpturally to try to regain the look of the object as it appeared when he first encountered it on a computer screen.

I think something quite different happens in the intervention. There is a distance that these glass beads create between the viewer and the objects which is the same kind of distance that you get when you’re looking at a screen, be it a TV or a computer screen. But there’s also this kind of beauty that is at the exact and at the same time grotesque. There’s something sort of menacing as well as something incredibly beautiful that happens. The objects are identifiable but they’re kins of submerged as well, it’s like looking at them underwater. He also does running shoes and all sorts of mundane objects, a lot of them toys.

LS: Another artist I found intriguing was Sayaka Akiyama. Japan is known for its advanced technologies and gagetry. Yet Sayaka Akiyama shuns that technology, creating maps of her walks woven into fabrics with no aid from GPS. Why is that?

SK: Sayaka’s work was included in an important show in Japan called “Rappongi Crossing”. She doesn’t have a dealer, so we came across her work in a more organic way. She makes these large-scale mapping projects. We have a piece that was part of “Rappongi Crossing” suspended in our foyer right now.

Sayaka comes to an environment and she really lives in it for an extended period of time, and while she’s there she takes notes of every journey that she makes. She walks as much as possible and if it’s in car she notes that too.

She came and spent 5 weeks in Hamilton and did a mapping project here which was great. She chooses a slice of the geography in advance of tracking movements. So we looked at maps of where the gallery was and where she would be living. She then chose a map section and photocopied it a number of times so that the lines on the map became kind of blurry. Then she scans it and sends it do a printer, who and prints it on a polyester that’s a lot like burlap or canvas. The piece here is 2 meters by 1.5 metres.

Towards the end of her exploration of space and of the environment that she’s in, she starts to sew all of her movements that she has recorded onto this map. And the threads she sews in has to do with her visceral reactions to this place, to the different experiences she’s had while she’s here. So she’s quite emotionally driven.

She’s actually trained as painter, not as a textile artist and I think she keeps being put in that craft box, but it wasn’t until she took a drawing class where for one of her projects she started literally mapping all of her movement that I think she felt a real connection to what she was doing. These have grown into these larger scale mapping projects. I think she actually told me she “sews like a man!” She uses no machine to sew, so she spends hours and hours with this map.

And the other part of the exhibition for her are diary pieces. The map is more of a reflection which she finishes in the last days of her stay in a place. But she also makes diary pieces while she is in a place. She makes these diary pages out of objects that she finds and buys. They’re made out of newspaper, they’re made out of food projects. In Hamilton, she had an odd experience where she attempted to make pasta one day and there was a bottle she thought it was oil in it, but it was dish detergent. So one of her pieces incorporates these bits of this pasta that she couldn’t eat. There’s a beautiful piece titled 16th May; the purple dye that she uses that is evocative of a night sky was made entirely out of purple vegetables that she got at the Hamilton farmer’s market.

LS: Japan’s late 90s economic collapse is often as an influence on this generation of artists. Do you think it really did influence them?

SK: I think it did. I think it did in 2 ways, in 2 kinds of things that come out for me in a lot of these works. One is a kind of fear of the future which comes out in, for example, the work of Tabaimo and Miwa Yanagi. I think there’s a certain amount of hopefulness as well but there is, without question, this kind of ominous feeling in a lot of these pieces, a trepidation or mistrust of kind of modern reality. And the issues that it involves. I think there’s also a real interest in going back to tradition, which maybe is related to that. You see that in, for example, the references to Ukiyo-e in Yoshiaki Kaihatsu’s installation piece. It’s a reference to the traditional values of the tea ceremony, and what those kind of communal values meant, and trying kind of reinsert that into contemporary society again.

One of the things that I was stuck by in Japan, having not been there before myself, was the fact that artists really didn’t have studios because there is such a premium on space. It is very very difficult for artists to afford a reasonable space to work in. So in some cases artists will have a space outside of town. But the scale of things and the means of production changes as a result of that.

LS: How?

For example Sayaka Akiyama’s work is entirely driven by going to other spaces, really, as is Kaihatsu’s. And the work of the other artists is, in many cases, digital, like Tabaimo’s and like Yanagi. As well, Yanagi’s photos necessitate a lot of travel made in different parts of the world. And in the case of Manabu Ikeda and Kohei Nawa, the idea of magnifying these tiny tiny details of things seems to me to have something to do with the privileging of space. In the case of Ikeda his drawing is split right down the middle; and that has nothing to do with the material for reproduction. There is actually a divide because he could never work in a space that was large enough to hold the whole thing.

LS: Well this is a lot of great information. Thanks for talking with me.

SK: Thanks for your interest.

"Great New Wave: Contemporary Art from Japan" continues at the Art Gallery of Hamilton to September 7.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Chillin' Public Art in the Peg

Sitting at my computer typing away as I do, it's rare that I personally see as much nifty public art as I should. So I'm always happy to find out what people are doing--even if I never have a chance to see it in person.

Such is the case with a couple of public-arty projects in faraway Winnipeg that have recently come to my attention.

The first comes from Cam Forbes, a Saskatchewan-raised, NSCAD-trained, and now Winnipeg-based artist with a focus on painting. Cam has actually come to explore public space issues somewhat unintentionally—she initially (as a hardy ex-treeplanter) was comfortable doing outdoor landscape painting. But due to a desire to be in a more sheltered environment when painting the outdoors, she started working in indoor public spaces that had a view of outdoor public spaces. This started during a residency at Emma Lake, Saskatchewan, where she painted the forest through porch windows. Now these indoor public spaces range from elevated pedestrian walkways (as seen above) to, more recently, bus shelters. Here's one from a parkade:

At the recent Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, Cam described how on her studio days, she'll just step on a random bus and see where it goes, get out into a shelter, and set up her easel. Unfortunately, she didn't have any photos of herself working in the space, but the paintings were definitely interesting (website for same soon to follow, I'm promised). Part of the interest for me is that they provide a low-end perspective of a city using a high-end medium. Another part of my interest is that Cam has simply repurposed these spaces from ones of transience into ones of relative permanence—working in painting as she does, she ends up staying in each shelter for several hours at a time.

Of course, it being Winnipeg, it will be interesting to see if Forbes wants to continue this practice over the winter! But I look forward to seeing what she does next.

Also related a project from Winnipeg-raised, Toronto-based artist Robert Labossiere, whose day job involves being managing editor at YYZ BOOKS. Robert and his son have been collaborating on a "Free Signs" project, creating signs that read "free" and are free for the taking. Below are some photos of their recent installation in Winnipeg's Point Douglas neighbourhood:

It's not as hard-edged as Labossiere's awesome Payday project from earlier this spring. But it's nice. And people even took some.

Top images: Cam Forbes, View from the Walkway, and Cam Forbes, View from the Bay Parkade, from Ken Segal Gallery, Winnipeg
Bottom images: Free Signs from Robert Labossiere

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Monday, July 28, 2008

As the World at the National Gallery of Canada Turns... (Updated)

Over the weekend, it seems the plot at the National Gallery of Canada has thickened--at least in the eyes of the national and international press. (I was sorry to see the Ottawa city daily Citizen didn't follow up with a story, as they broke the thing in the first place and are closest to the ongoing gallery politics. Maybe they've got a weekend spread/TV deal in mind? Or decided the whole thing's ridonk?)

Okay, I'll admit, the story is one with many strange twists and turns indicating major mismanagement on the part of the gallery board and executives--having an HR person command you to delete emails? That's a strange and inappropriate turn of events whether you're working for IBM, PetroCanada, the Department of the Environment, or any smaller-scale operation, non-profit arts or otherwise.

Then firing someone for following orders like that? Not kosher either. So it's basically a big soap-opera-style mess, internally speaking, both on Franklin's part and the gallery's.

I'm still left a little befuddled, however, about what all this really means. Here are some ventures:

a) The Richard Florida-ite interpretation: Canada's national gallery has finally reached "world class" status thanks to "world class" headaches and internal mishaps like this one. See the esteemed Smithsonian Institution's own significant record of staff and HR strife. It seems--hurrah!--that our own creative class economy must be alive and well!

(b) The conservative-gov interpretation: The Gallery is being mismanaged--just as anything that is not the oil industry is being "mismanaged"--and therefore deserves a big budget slash. A great rationale for bringing in Ralph Klein as the new culture commish. It seems--hurrah!--that at last those lilywhite Eastern creeps and bums will have to work the oilpatch like everyone else. (Actually, this may not be such a bad performance piece idea.)

(c) The art insider interpretation: Ooooh, nice to see a little dirt come out on the big guys. But what's the big deal? The art world is rife with these kinds of power struggles and management gaffes--a degree in art history is no guarantee of leadership ability, dontcha know. But we wouldn't have it any other way. So it seems--hurrah!--that all is "normal" by art standards at the NGC after all.

My concern, in the end, is how mismanagement affects public use of and benefit from the gallery. And I'll admit that, even to sound like Stephen Harper himself, squabbles like this do make a waste of public funds. But really, I'm more interested in what they're programming, whether it's meeting the needs of the public, whether it's economically and socially accessible, and so on.

On that latter count, the gallery has been a mixed bag for the past number of years. The admission used to be free, and is now $9 for the permanent collection, extra for special exhibits. Not bad compared to some museums in Canada, but still could use improving. The acquisition of the Louise Bourgeois spider sculpture for the outdoor plaza was a terrific move in terms of collections... but also wouldn't the collections benefit from fixing the roof properly too?

I'd like to see more address of these issues in the press--or at least more consistent coverage of the "toxic" environments in arts orgs across the country. But are there enough column-inches to fit it all in...?

Update: This afternoon (Tuesday July 29th) the National Gallery sent out a press release proclaiming, effectively, that all is well. Text reproduced below.

Statement from Donald Sobey, Chair of the Board of Trustees
of the National Gallery of Canada

Ottawa, July 29, 2008 – In light of recent media reports, the Board of Trustees of the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) wishes to speak to the continuing exceptional standing of a great national institution that continues to be an icon of the visual arts in Canada, as well as to comment on certain recent events. This year’s exhibition program is being well received.

The Board of Trustees has been aware of the issue and acted as facilitators to resolve this matter. This has resulted in a mutual agreement between the Director, Pierre Théberge and the Deputy Director and Chief Curator David Franklin to all parties’ satisfaction.

Pierre Théberge has been an outstanding leader of the Gallery for 11 years and his reputation in Canada and abroad is unassailable. Under his direction, the institution has blossomed through magnificent acquisitions with thousands of generous gifts made by Canadians. The collection remains one of the most prestigious in the world. The outreach program, which sends exhibitions to public galleries across the country, has been a phenomenal success and has made the institution truly national. All of this has been achieved within balanced budgets certified by the Auditor General.

Similarly, Dr. David Franklin has been involved in directing the curatorial achievements of the Gallery over the past seven years. His knowledge of art and art history is well-recognized nationally and internationally. He is a great asset, not just to the National Gallery but to Canada, and we look forward to his continued work on the Gallery’s Collections and the many important exhibitions planned for the future.

As Chairman, I have spoken with Dr. Franklin following resolution of this issue. He deeply regrets the recent events and is pleased that he and Mr. Théberge, whom he regards as his supporter, are now moving forward.

Mr. Théberge’s term expires in five months. Last fall, the Board began the process of selecting a new director. A Committee of the Board, along with external advisors, will be interviewing candidates within the next three weeks, and the Board anticipates announcing the new director, in due course.

The only operational change brought about by management agreement is that Mr. Franklin is currently concentrating his efforts on the Gallery’s 2009 summer exhibition “From Raphael to the Carracci: The Art of Papal Rome” exclusively. This exhibition is an area of deep expertise for Dr. Franklin and he is a key part of its successful execution.

The Board considers this matter resolved and it our sincere hope that the collective focus of all can once again be directed to showcasing the excellence of the National Gallery of Canada.

I suspect the statement was issued to quell muttering from MPs on the issue, such as was reported in the National Post today.

Don't know if I buy it, but it would be good if they indeed did get on with their jobs. I've realized since blogging on these issues that part of my laissez-faire around this particular drama derives from the fact that Franklin's specialty in historical art doesn't really float my boat. Maybe if he was into more contemporary stuff I'd be more shaken. "Art Critic's Bias Results in Tragic Case of Near Indifference"... I can see the headlines already.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Royal Ontario Museum quietly raises admission prices... again

Crossposted to Spacing Wire

I was at the Royal Ontario Museum earlier today for a media view and was shocked to see that the admission price has quietly risen 10% or more across the board. Now admission fees are $22 for adults, $19 for students and seniors, and $15 for children aged 4 to 14. (They were previously the still-expensive $20 for adults, $17 for seniors and students, and $12 for children 4 to 14—those all being part of a 30% rise that came into effect June 2007.)

This means that ticket prices on “cheap” half-price Fridays have also risen—to recap, it’s now $11 for adults, $9 for students and seniors, and $7.50 for children aged 4 to 14. Frankly, this is the maximum such ticket prices should be all the time, not just 4 hours for TGIFers.

This new price rise (which quietly came into effect July 1) has arrived soon after the ROM kindly received a $12.1-mil one-time grant from the Government of Ontario to offset its building costs. And just after the Government pumped another, much ballyhooed $1.3 mil into the ROM to give 1,200 free passes a month to the United Way and new citizens. (This deal, if renewed next year, gets the ROM gets an extra $60 for every free pass that walks through the door. How, you ask? The actual at-the-door cost of 14,400 tickets a year is just $288,800 or so. That leaves, oh, $1 mil for the ROM to shovel into its money pit.)

So…. where’s another press conference with McGuinty when you need one? This fee increase was one aspect of ROM access strategy conveniently not addressed (either by the ROM, or by McG) when the premier gave his talk about making the museum more accessible to all Ontarians back in April.

To be fair, as I walked around the museum today I could see that there were visitors present despite my doomsaying; many were tourists in vacation-spending mode, others clearly daycamp kids who had benefited from some of that press-conference-related ticket donation programming. There was even enough people that I started to think maybe I’ve been too rash about all this admission fee harping; maybe it’s only me who feels like it’s not affordable.

Interestingly, the 5pm “half-price Fridays” lineup outside the museum proved my ambivalent musings wrong. The lineup stretched around the Bloor/University corner to the old sandstone entrance, and was growing. People looked like they would be standing in line for a good while before even getting in—and they were willing to do this just for the chance to pay a reasonable fee to enter their own museum.

Some say the rain is getting them down—but to me, it’s institutional mismanagement like this that really makes for a gloomy summer.

If you do want to visit, remember Wednesdays from 4:30 to 5:30 is the only hour during which admission to the ROM is free to all comers. This is now thankfully posted in between the front glass entrance doors, but strangely not at the ticket counter. “Enjoy!”

Photo from the Office of the Premier of Ontario.

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At the Galleries: Art Fair Reversal

There's plenty of gab in the art world about whether art fairs are the bane or the savior of the creative class.

For a few private Toronto galleries, at least, they have opened up markets to international collectors, making it possible for them to actually survive and maintain a space in our city.

For others, many critics and public gallery curators included, art fairs cheapen the art experience by emphasizing commercially salable works over ones that are (potentially) aesthetically and conceptually more apt. And the spectacle-like, mall-type feel at many of these fairs is also offputting to same.

For my part, I wouldn't want to see all art in the context of a fair, but I have enjoyed the few I have been to. After all, as a freelance critic with a travel budget of, oh, roughly zero dollars, it's a great opportunity to see what galleries across the country and beyond are showing.

Interestingly, there's a show on right now at Susan Hobbs Gallery that reverses the popular rush to the art fair—even if unintentionally. It consists of works that were destined for the Dusseldorf fair but were left hanging when the fair was cancelled. NOW published my review of the show last week. Read on after the jump for some more images and thoughts.

Top Image: Patrick Howlett, a discreet minimum, 2006

One thing that relates to this show, I guess, is the question of whether art fairs will be able to survive given (a) the current glut of them and (b) the coming/present (depending on where you live) recession. If a European fair like Dusseldorf tanks, what does that bode for events with less geographic draw like our own Toronto International Art Fair? Or even, as Modern Art Obsession recently pointed out, Scope Hamptons? Will artists have any place left to hang their work, their jackets, or their jackets-as-work, as Didier Courbet suggests below?

On another level, while established galleries like Susan Hobbs will remain firm, I think, with or without art fairs, it could be difficult for galleries that have built their practices this way to make a go of it. I actually won't name names here, but it is a concern. And on that point it's a concern largely unaddressed by the government of Canada's strategies on art funding. With the public inter-provincial art transport service cut, there's little way to squeeze cargo fees out of the feds unless you're going to an international art fair (these kinds of activities are sponsored through the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, because they're more "trade-oriented" than "culturally oriented").

None of this is going to keep me up at night, but I'll be interested to see how things unfold.

Image credits:
Didier Courbot, needs, St. Jean Port Joli, 2001
Axel Lieber, release, 2003

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Interview: New Yorker critic Vince Aletti on curating Male at Presentation House Gallery

Note: corrections have been made to this post; strikethroughs and italics indicate same. Apologies to the gallery and the curator for any misunderstanding.

Walk into almost any artists' studio and you'll see a wall of images torn from magazines and books relating to the work they most identify with at the moment. In writers' houses, the practice less common, but certainly not unheard of. This is especially the case with New Yorker photo critic Vince Aletti, whose collection of hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of images line the walls, shelves and desktops of his home. But now Canadians (at least those on the West Coast) are being granted a peek; Aletti recently curated an exhibition of some of his collection for the venerable photo-oriented Presentation House Gallery, which runs to August 3.

Though part of Aletti's collection was also shown in NY's White Columns earlier this year in the late 90s, this is the first time it's travelled to Canada. Aletti took some time on Monday to chat with me about his collection and the related show. The National Post ran a condensed interview today. Read on after the jump for more images and an extended transcript.

Image: Installation view of "Male: Work from the Collection of Vince Aletti" at Presentation House Gallery

The following is the edited transcript of a phone interview between New Yorker photo critic Vince Aletti and National Post arts freelancer Leah Sandals that took place Monday, July 21, 2008. The occasion for the interview was “Male: Work from the collection of Vince Aletti” which is at Presentation House Gallery in Vancouver until August 3, 2008.

LS: All of these photos are excerpted from your collection. How did that begin?

VA: I feel I’ve always been a collector and I think many kids start with little collections of stamps and other objects. That was one of my hobbies. But I’ve always leaned towards images rather than objects, possibly because my father was a committed amateur photographer and because he left behind a lot of photo books I grew up looking at and thinking a lot about. And when I came to New York in the 60s a number of my good friends were photographers. So photography became one way for me to focus my interest in images; mostly images of people and then very specifically images of men.

LS: Why men only?

VA: That’s kind of a bigger question than it sounds. It’s partly because I’m gay and men interest me and fascinate me in a way. And I can’t pretend as a guy to really understand other guys. I’ve always been interested in the way men are portrayed in the media and photography in general, and the way masculinity is dealt with and the varieties of masculinity. So it’s partly a fascination with what masculinity means these days and how it’s been constructed over the history of representation from art to photography, and trying to figure out kind of what it means to me, what I value in masculinity and what I question in it.

LS: Have you come to any conclusions about that?

VA: There’s a variety of things. I value male strength and reliability. But then, you know, that often, in one on one connections, becomes sort of a mess myth. And I think the same way any representation of women over the years have been hung up in various myths in terms of what feminine, the same is true of masculinity. So there’s certain things that I’m drawn to and yet I know some of that is more symbolic than real, or more mythologized than actual, and partly that’s why images work. I don’t think anyone takes a photograph at total face value any longer but I think there are lots of layers to be found in photography and that’s hopefully what I’m suggesting to [viewers].

LS: Can collecting be an art form in itself? How?

VA: You know a number of people talked to me about that at the opening in Vancouver. I have to say I haven’t really thought about that. I think an active and thoughtful collector is in a way a curator, someone who thinks about the collection as a whole, you know, piece by piece and also how things fit together. I don’t know that it’s an art form but I think it definitely is a talent. What I liked about putting together the show in Vancouver was the ability to layer the work in very literally in the show by having them build shelving that I could rest the work on and put things sort of one on top of the other as well as side by side. [It’s done] in a way that I think suggests more natural connections than might be obvious when things are just hung on the wall.

I’d shown images from my collection before in New York [at White Columns in 1998] but the Vancouver hanging was very different in some ways, just responding to the space and making the images relate to each other in a conversational way.

LS: Some of these photos are sexual… at least depending on the viewer! How would you handle a gallery goer who might be offended by them?

VA: I haven’t had that problem. I’m not sure… I think I would my first reaction would probably be to say I’m not forcing anyone to look at anything. And also if people are offended by the naked human body, I really find it beyond comprehension.

LS: Of course, women are nude in art all the time.

VA: Yes, it’s still the case that male nudity is treated very differently than female nudity over all these years. And I’m kind of determined to ignore that prohibition. I think it’s foolish and in any case the idea that you can’t see a full frontal male nude without it having to be covered it seems really archaic. I think these prohibitions only really apply to photography, not fine art or painting or sculpture or any other way. And I just can’t account for people’s prejudices or sensitivies.

LS: Some pragmatic questions: Where do you find photos? How many do you have? How many more do you buy every year?

VA: Well, I started buying photos very casually when they were much more inexpensive. I still buy a lot of photos at flea markets and tag sales and all sorts of fairs that sell snapshots and photo postcards and things like that. I by a lot of work on eBay now but the large part of established photographers in the show I bought at galleries or benefit auctions and from places that were trying to raise money for one cause or another.

I bought a lot of work in this show in particular at student shows in New York. I’ve been a mentor at School of the Visual Arts here in New York and a number of times I’ve bought work out of their graduating seniors’ show and a lot of that is among my favourite pictures. So there’s a broad range of materials from very well known and very established artists to young photographers just starting out and it’s important for me to have them all together and not make big distinctions among them.

LS: Why?

VA: Because I do think that some of the best pictures I have are by unknown people or very little known people. And one of the things that interests me about photography is the sense—which I think that more and more people are getting into—that the author is not always the key thing, it’s the image. And so I do think I’m as excicted by an anonymous photo that is terrific as I am by something by Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, and I do think it’s important for people to appreciate the image before they look at the author. And so that’s part of my interest.

LS: And how many do you think you have?

VA: I haven’t kept count because a lot of what I have are very small snapshot size pictures and I probably have hundreds of those in addition to the maybe 200 or 300 pieces by authors with names. So I don’t know, I’d hesitate to come up with a figure because it’s bound to be way off. But I am constantly collecting pictures. I’m sitting at my desk right now with pictures I got over the last two months that are almost 100 just small snapshot things from all different periods. None of which cost me more than $40. So those are the pictures that I in a way find most interesting. I’m always happy to be able to afford something by a more established artist, but I’m not unhappy if I can keep my small anonymous things.

LS: Which is your favourite photograph? Does it change?

VA: I have a group of favourites, in a way, in that one photographer, Peter Hujar, was a very close friend of mine. He died in 1987 and his self portrait is one of my favourite pictures. He also took a number of pictures of good friends of mine, many of whom have also died, and all those pictures are especially important to me. They’re the ones I gave prime places in the show and key places in my house. They are more personal than many of the images in my collection, and very important to me.

LS: What challenges have you encountered spending decades as a critic and recently getting into the activity of creating exhibitions yourself?

VA: I’m not sure exactly what you mean. But I have over the years curated a number of shows. This is the first time I’ve curated a show from my own collection. To me the act of curating seems a logical extension of being a critic, of wanting to show the work that I’m excited about or create a context for a work that I’m excited about.

I really feel that it’s a logical extension for a critic to curate work. This is the first time that I’ve done it from my own collection. But I think it’s always been a way for me to juxtapose images and create a conversation for photographers.

LS: What comes after this?

VA: After the show leaves Vancouver it comes back to my house. I have no other plans for it. This is really the first time it’s been away from my house. I’d love to continue travelling it if other places want it. But for now I’m working on another series of curated shows for the ICP [International Center for Photography], things not to do with my own collection. One show is a big Richard Avedon fashion retrospective that will open there next May 2009. And a number of other fashion photo related shows.

LS: Well, good luck with the show thanks for taking time to speak with me.

VA: You’re welcome. Thanks for your interest.

Image credits (top to bottom)

Weegee, Untitled [man sleeping on bench], c. 1940
Installation shot, "Male" 2008 Presentation House Gallery, Vancouver
Jim Hamilton, [Coney Island gang member], 1977
Don Whitman (Western Photography Guild), c. 1955

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Interview: Ted Tucker on his NC-17 painting practice


You know when you see something that is ugly and crass in a lot of ways, but you feel inextricably drawn to it? My current handbag meets this description, as does, to a certain extent, the paintings of Toronto artist Ted Tucker. Tucker works in the A/V department at the Ontario College of Art and Design by day, parties heartily by night and paints it all... well I don't know when he finds time to paint it all, but when he does the results are a cross between Ridgemont High and Rossetti.

It's macho, adolescent, Porky's style frat fantasy—and for some reason I really, really like it. Partly it's the cheese factor—his graphic style speaks, as so few painters do, to a generation raised on crappy movies and crappier movie posters. Partly it's the technical skill—Tucker's a dab hand with the brush, to be sure. And partly it's just downright funny, which always gets me in art admiration.

So I was glad to talk with Tucker more about his practice this week; the condensed version of our chat is published in today's National Post. Click here to read the Post, or continue on after the jump to read a slightly expanded version with more of Tucker's images.

The following is an edited version of an interview that took place over the phone July 14, 2008 between artist Ted Tucker and critic Leah Sandals. The interview was held on the occasion of a show of Tucker's work at Christopher Cutts Gallery, Toronto.

Q Why is your show called NC-17?

A I'm into exploring this film genre I wasn't allowed to watch as a child: incredibly taboo movies rated NC-17. But during adolescence you start living the NC-17 lifestyle. So as a way to tell a story about that period of my life, I adopted themes or aesthetics from movies in that genre. Artist Rory Dean, who's also showing work in the gallery, deals with related ideas.

Q Could you name some of these films?

A Even though I couldn't watch them at home, every sleepover would have crass teen comedies and slasher movies like Child's Play, Porky's, Animal House, Friday the 13th. Admittedly not all fell under the NC-17 rating. But they were all still taboo to me.

Q The content is Ridgemont High, then, but the style is Rosetti. Why use such a classical realist form?

A When I was a kid I loved the covers of Hardy Boys books. I didn't want to read them, I just loved the way they were painted. Older, pre-digital movie posters, too. At six or seven I wasn't in an atelier but I was into the Goonies poster, you know? I also paint because I'm a big fan of classical painting. And if I paint well, these might get a bit more legitimacy.

Q These are also part of a bigger series called Hippocampus after a brain part that organizes memory. How did that series develop?

A For years I was just painting things, like, "Oh what's in the media, I' ll paint about war or beauty pageants or whatever's in the news." Then I wanted to illustrate more personal stories, but they just looked like boring snapshots. So I looked back to the days when a walnut on a table could be a symbol of a crucifix, where you had to solve symbols to get to a bigger thing. I started laying out all these memories that were really selective. No one remembers exactly what happened at summer camp, but you've got a story you've been telling your friends for years, that kind of thing. And I just started putting it together. I thought of the Hippocampus as a university campus and I put all my teenage memories there. The symbols are everything from beer kegs to chalices.

Q You went to art school and you work in an art college A/V department, yet your mythical life takes place in a populist setting of jocks and frats. How much of this is about fantasy fulfilment?

A I grew up in Ottawa across the street fromHillcrest High School, and I went to a performing arts school around the corner called Canterbury. I played sports with all the athletes in the neighbourhood, and I went to school with artists. I walked through it all. And honestly, my friends are burly jock painters. In art history there is this crazy machismo, like Ab Ex painters getting hammered all the time. So we're hard-partying goodtime guys, but we're also all into this Pre-Raphaelite genre. You're right though, if you brought us to a football game we'd probably get beaten up.

Q So what's the story behind, say, Hillcrest III? If it was a real movie, who would direct it?

A In the real story, Hillcrest High School left the door of the tech shop open all summer and my friend stole its motorbike, and we rode it around … until the paperboy took it. As for directing, I would hope for John Landis.

Q What's next for you?

A Well, it's all turning into a kind of illuminated manuscript. I'm trying to find a way to articulate this story digitally, too. With painting, I don't get my point across fast enough. It's like, I've got a great idea, come talk to me in three months. One of these paintings took me 500 hours tomake. By the end I hope I will be making big, incredible images that are comparable to someone making a movie. I hope to make one second of Lord of the Rings; that would be as exciting as making a Rubens.

Q One last question: what have your parents had to say, considering that their childhood restrictions partly shaped the work?

A My mother looked at that painting Road Rockets and said, " I don’t know how you managed to created your best friends’ house from childhood." She said, "You really are painting your nieghbourhood and your summer camp."

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Art Gossip Update: Franklin to sue? Says who? (new info added)

An update regarding my recent post on the gossip, somewhat mishandled in the press, of the National Gallery's David Franklin going "on leave":

The Ottawa Citizen was again in the lead yesterday in breaking the story that Franklin might be taking the Gallery to court. CultureGrrl followed today. The Ceeb and the Globe haven't yet bitten for this part II.

Just a few moments ago, the National Gallery issued a press release to the contrary, likely intended to combat the bad PR:

"The National Gallery is delighted to announce the exclusive presentation of the exhibition Raphael to Carracci: The Art of Papal Rome on view May 29 to September 6, 2009. Deputy Director and Chief Curator, David Franklin, continues to devote his efforts, with the collaboration of an international team of curators and scholars, to this unique exhibit of one of the most important periods in history of western art.

Dr. Franklin has been working hard and focussing his efforts on assembling what is expected to be the largest exhibit of major pieces of art from the Renaissance Rome period (1500 to 1600) ever held outside of Rome itself. The exhibit will feature approximately 150 loans from some of the world’s largest and most renowned private and public collections.

As the exhibition lead curator, Dr. David Franklin, was released from his institutional duties to support his writing of the main essay and numerous catalogue entries and he is also acting as editor of the exhibition catalogue. With more than 32 contributing authors from Canada and abroad, Franklin will ensure that the content reflects the exhibition theme."

I will be following the Citizen on this one; they seem to be closest to the tale. Yet I'm still surprised that no commentary has been sought from an "expert" source in the arts community about Franklin's value to the gallery; that still seems to be taken for granted, but it really shouldn't be to papers dealing with a general readership. Further, since there's been little confirmation from the Gallery, the court, or Franklin himself about any suit, the story still seems a bit thin. 

Update July 18: There was another media followup today—looks like the Globe tried to do some of their own digging but still, no one's talking. Even the elusive Franklin is simply quoted as emailing : "Hard at work on my Vatican exhibition for next summer at the NGC....Should be spectacular" It's still unclear why the court proceedings (if there are any) are closed to the public.

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Interview: Joan Stebbins on Southern Alberta's artistic advantages

(This post has been corrected to clarify Joan Stebbins' career development. Apologies to Stebbins and the SAAG for any misunderstanding.)

Every area of Canada has its own artistic advantages and disadvantages. I spent my teen years and part of my 20s in southern Alberta—and while I hated the conservative politics, I loved the consequent sense of tight-knitness and support in the arts community. It's also kind of nice to be away from the reputed centres of creativity, as it lightens the pressure on curating and artmaking efforts. And that intense, pure, high-altitude light shining on a big-sky landscape—I'll take it over a smoggy, hazy Toronto heatwave any day.

Joan Stebbins (pictured above with artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller) understands my yearnings, I think. For more than 25 years she headed up the Southern Alberta Art Gallery's very strong and inventive programming, even earning an Order of Canada for her efforts last year. Lethbridge, after all, is a wee arts powerhouse of a kind, breeding everything from the world-renowned sound walks and installations of Cardiff and Bures Miller to the less well known but just as powerful works of David Hoffos. Stebbins has been a key part of all that. But since her well-deserved retirement this summer winter, she's moving onto other things, which may soon include curating a young painters show and visiting the Sharjah Biennial. She told (or typed) me all about it in a recent email exchange published today at Canadian Art Online. Click here to read the exchange with some pics of Stebbins' last official project as director/head, or continue on after the jump for the full transcript.

The following is an email exchange between Joan Stebbins and Leah Sandals that took place between July 11 and July 14, 2008. The emails were exchanged on the occasion of a Marie-Josee Laframboise show at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery that had been curated by Stebbins, as well as the occasion of Stebbins retiring this past year from her longtime post as full-time curator of the SAAG.

LS: Why did you bring Marie-Josée Laframboise to the SAAG?

JS:I've been following her work for a number of years. I thought her sculpture would be an interesting adjunct to the architecturally-based exhibition (Common Ground, Yvonne Lammerich, Jean van Wijk, Nicholas Wade) that I was planning in the same time slot for our larger gallery space. I knew her net installation would look spectacular in the upper gallery with its clerestory windows and natural light..

LS: What do you think is so interesting about her work? When and how did you first encounter it?

JS: Marie-Josée is basically a landscape artist, but she works three-dimensionally. For her net installation, she studies topographical maps of the region in which she is showing, and then installs her netting to reflect some of that. But, of course, that is just one part of her practice. I first saw her sculpture in 2001 in Point de chute an exhibition Louise Déry curated for Galerie de l’UQAM. In retrospect, it was a brilliant curatorial stroke on her part: she presented five young Montreal artists who have since become rather well known; along with Marie-Josée, there was the work of David Altmejd, Jérôme Fortin, Raphaëlle de Groot and Manuela Lalic.

LS: What does the installation in the SAAG consist of?

JS: In 2003 Marie-Josée participated in a residency and exhibition, Within/Without at Kunstraum Dornbirn in Austria. She was struck by the pale green netting they used there to protect their trees, so she purchased a continuous 40 metre length of the fabric which is 6 metres wide. She completed her first net installation there and has done a number of them since; even one in the space of her then Montreal dealer Pierre-François Ouellette. SAAG’s exhibition is lit entirely by natural light, therefore light becomes part of the piece; the work changes by the hour. She is using the architecture of the gallery space to contain her net; the combination offers a rare opportunity to the viewer. I like to think of her “casting the net;” that’s very Canadian. She has used only 30 metres of her net for our installation; the remainder is coiled on the floor of the gallery space.

LS: Will the show travel?

JS: SAAG is partnering with the Musée de Joliette on a publication in which Marie-Josée’s installation will be documented, but I don’t think they are including that work in their exhibition next May; in any case, it is totally site-specific, so it wouldn’t be the same work. I’m sure anyone interested in hosting the net installation could contact Marie-Josée. It’s sort of “have net; will travel”.

LS: You recently did a show of Shary Boyle's work with a substantial catalogue. What convinced you it was time for a publication like that for Shary?

JS: SAAG is interested in documenting exhibitions with a publication. This is often achieved by partnering with another institution. In Shary’s case, it was Conundrum Press in Montreal. The publication was already in the works when we invited Shary to exhibit. Rather than strike out on our own, we were pleased to be able to contribute to a really superb publishing project. The book is amazing and we are proud to be part of it.

LS: Since when have you followed Boyle's practice? What drew you to it in the first place?

JS: I drop by all of the major commercial galleries when I am in Toronto. Aside from the work on display, there is a lot of stuff in the back areas that you can look at and I enjoy talking with the dealers. In an odd way, I think I’ve learned more from this process in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, than by going to institutional exhibitions (which of course I also do). When Jessica Bradley opened her gallery a few years ago, she let me know of a number of young artists that excited her; Shary was one of them; I did a studio visit and she just blew me away. Here’s somebody that spent three years learning to work with porcelain and mastered the art of lace-draping. Her subversive porcelain work is brilliant. But…she also does incredible paintings, drawings, zines, projections and performance. I can’t believe her national profile is so low; but that’s very Canadian too, isn’t it?

LS: You’ve just retired from full-time work at the SAAG. What were some of your favourite moments working as a curator at there or elsewhere? (I suspect this Laframboise show might be one of them, but I'm sure there were others…)

JS: I worked at SAAG for 28 years; for me there was value in staying with one institution. I’ve seen a lot of art and done hundreds of studio visits; by the time I invited artists to show, I was totally committed to them and their work. I didn’t really curate in the traditional sense, as I believe in the judgement of the artist and we worked it out together. So, for me, your question is like asking a mother which of her children she likes best. I will say that I am particularly attracted to artists who reflect something back to us about where we are and who we are. We are located in a spectacular part of the country. I have often invited artists to interpret that for us from their own point of view. Marie-Josée Laframboise is one of those.

LS: What's your take on the programs now springing up across the country to train curators of contemporary art? What was your own training like in comparison?

JS: These often emphasize theory; I think practice is the real teacher. I have a degree in studio art and was lucky to have a wonderful mentor at SAAG in Alf Bogusky; it was all very practical, but enormously inspiring. Somewhere in there, I learned that looking at work was of paramount importance; I have looked at work continually across Canada and abroad for many years. New York’s art museums provide a wonderful glimpse into beautifully curated exhibitions that really privilege the work of the artist; that’s always been a model for me.

LS: What are you looking forward to doing now that you are no longer committed full-time to a gallery? (Curating independently? Travelling? Enjoying life at home?)

JS: I would love to do a show of young painters; it seems to me that painting is rearing its head once again. I think teachers such as Eleanor Bond in Montreal and many others are turning out these really accomplished new artists. It reminds me of when I started curating in the ‘80s; wonderful installation artists were coming out of NSCAD, OCA, and ACA; I believe it was because of the teaching. Yes, travelling is on the agenda. The Sharjah Biennial is next on my list. My youngest son and family are presently living there. Life at home is a priority; I have a huge cookbook collection that requires curating and a partner that needs a bit of attention too. I also have my ongoing dinner table of visiting artists.

LS: What have you most enjoyed about working in Southern Alberta? And least?

JS: Well, this does seem to be a very isolated and weird place to work; however, it has its benefits. One is the fantastic natural environment that we encounter every day; the light quality here is amazing, I often sit for hours watching it play out on the landscape. Artists who come here to work tell others about that and soon everyone wants to come! Another benefit is the small but totally supportive arts community; the presence of the University of Lethbridge has played a large role in our success. SAAG has also been blessed with many committed board members who have a vision larger than location. Other than that; what can I say? We have a terrific airport that gets me out and gets me back. Where else in the world would they have your boarding pass ready before you’ve reached the check-in counter! Just one of the benefits of living in this great place. (Don’t tell anybody!) I can’t think of one single “least”.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Art Gossip: When Getting the Scoop is Jumping the Gun

A recent post by Michelle over at the excellent reminded me that I should get around to posting some of my thoughts about the mini-media-frenzy that erupted earlier this month over news that David Franklin, a curator at the National Gallery of Canada, had suddenly left his position. Once the story was broken by the Ottawa Citizen, summaries of same quickly appeared at,, (most notably for all us shy Canucks) American blogger Lee Rosenbaum's CultureGrrl.

This whole episode left me—even though I am an arts freelancer myself—feeling a little puzzled about the parsing of story priorities in the newsroom.

Why? There simply didn't seem to be enough in the story to get excited about; it was unclear what made it newsworthy. Someone going on leave can come about due to family tragedy, personal illness, stress or related (and understandably confidential) factors. The Ottawa Citizen did an okay job of making it seem like a relevant event in relationship to the Gallery's past labour-management trials, but the recaps that followed left me with a question mark not just about Franklin, but about the editors who ran the story in the first place without having something juicier on hand than standard office workplace dissatisfaction.

It's not that I don't love gossip, 'cause goddammit, I do. (And I've got the dogeared Us Weeklies and massive Artforum Diary internet history cache to prove it.) I just wish this had felt more like, well, gossip, and less of a case of editors going "Damn, we missed the scoop on that one... Well, we'd better run something on it too to make it look like we're on top of the art world news."

On a related note about "being on top of the art world news," it occurred to me that it's always easier to report on comings and goings of this sort (provided, er, you can get someone to actually talk about it!) than it is to investigate the more nebulous tensions between fundraising, donations, staff, renovations and the like that affect how museums and galleries deliver (or not) on their missions to the public.

When I was at the Art Gallery of Ontario earlier this year to preview their new exhibition design, I was struck by a sticker on a staffer's swipe badge. It was a parody of "Art matters," the AGO's one-inch-pin-popularized slogan for expanding and renovating their space. The sticker said, in bright green sans serif, just like the original, "STAFF matters." Knowing that the gallery had laid off a number of security guards, ticket sellers and related workers for the duration of its renovation, it certainly made me think twice. I'm almost more interested in that than the David Franklin stuff.

And for one final thought, I guess part of the surprise for me was that I didn't think the national mainstream media cared all the much, period, about goings on like this in the art world. After all, there's been nary a peep in the national press about what are to my mind bigger do's—like Kitty Scott leaving the Serpentine for the Banff Centre after just a year on the much-vaunted job, all this happening shortly after a tense time for Scott at the National Gallery, or the Power Plant's longstanding staff retention problem at all levels of responsibility.

Where be all those much-needed dirt-shovellers on these kerfuffles?

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Reviews Roundup: Le Gallery, Prefix, TPW & more

It's been a while since I've posted any reviews on current Toronto shows, and many are closing in a week or two for the real summer slowdown. So here's a few shows worth checking out:

Happy hopping!

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Frenemies: Not just for The Hills anymore

Ah, passive-aggression. It's the preferred conflict style of many an introverted arty type, myself admittedly included.

Despite being a fan of the technique, I'm a little perturbed to see it exemplified to a T (to taxpayer and public spacer expense) in the Art Gallery of Ontario's latest outdoor signage.

If you look at the photo of that signage above, you'll see the end of their large-print "We've closed up shop... for now" slogan followed by an overthunk admonition: "But feel free to visit the competition our friends: Bata Shoe Museum, Canadian Opera Company, Casa Loma, CN Tower, Gardiner Museum, National Ballet of Canada, Ontario Place, Ontario Science Centre, Royal Ontario Museum, Textile Museum of Canada, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and Toronto Zoo"

At first I actually thought that the strikethrough and "our friends" scrawl was a witty graffito on the part of a Sharpie-toting copy editor. But no, it's part of the original poster print. So apparently, this mixed message is what made it through the AGO's own bureaucratic review chain as the acceptable way to publicly express its relationship to other Toronto museums and cultural institutions.

The result is a mode of parlance that maddens in the same way as any snotty-ex email might.

First, there's the backhanded compliment. Is it a better thing to be off the list (and therefore off the AGO's frenemy roster) completely, or is exclusion from same a snub? Dunno, might want to ask the Power Plant or the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art or the Toronto Public Library or the University of Toronto or the Design Exchange next time you see them.

Second, there's the self-congratulatory wit. Ha, ha, ha, really darling, now really—are we or aren't we going to be civil when we bump into each other at Nuit Blanche or the Toronto International Art Fair this fall? Who knows, maybe I'll get a special preview and you won't, so it won't matter! Ah, I kill myself.

Third (and this, the least snotty-ex-like part, is really the most maddening) it's symbolic of how catty and uncooperative relationships can be between Toronto museums and institutions. I know I can well be accused of starry-eyed Montrealism from time to time, but here that town shows us up yet again. Why? Because despite whatever internal ill will surely exists on some level, they actually have a little something called the Board of Montreal Museum Directors, which unites institutions across the city in cross-promotional ventures like Montreal Museums Day. (FYI, Montreal Museums Day is an earth-shattering (by Toronto standards) event where all the museums in the city are free for one spring Sunday, with transit shuttle buses provided to ease travel.) Of late the BMMD has also launched a nifty all-museums pass that lets you visit 32 museums for 45 to 50 bucks.

I think this might be a good time to point out that while I've seen about a dozen "Visit the ROM" billboards in the past few days, I have yet, in 12 months of the Museums and Arts Pass program, to see a single billboard advertising that.

But... maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there really was a Sharpie-wielder somewhere out there who can prove my paranoia's unwarranted. But as far as I'm concerned for now, this "small" ad gaffe is symbolic of a larger set of TO probs. Here we have million-dollar institutions behaving with the demeanor of gossipy, text-messaging, Hills-watching high schoolers. Like OMG ppl, WTF?

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Interview: Amanda Cachia on "Pandora's Box"

Call me old-school, but I marvel at the many young women I went to art school with who vehemently resisted identifying with the term "feminist". So I was intrigued by a small yet might show on right now in Regina that features work from some young feminist heavyweights that we don't often see in Canada--people like Chitra Ganesh (who made Dazzle, above) Laylah Ali, Wangechi Mutu, Kara Walker and the like. I spoke recently with Dunlop curator Amanda Cachia who managed to pull the whole thing off--despite resistance from some of the artists in the show both geographically and politically. Click here to read the condensed interview published in the National Post, or continue after the jump for the interview with some more images from the show.

The original outside-the-box thinker
Online Wednesday, July 09, 2008 In print Thursday, July 10, 2008

On Monday, the Church of England decided to break the "stained-glass ceiling" and allow women to become bishops. Resulting controversy lit up manses and message boards worldwide, highlighting persistent debates around women's rights. Pandora's Box, a Regina art exhibition, is now broaching similar issues in the art world. Here, curator Amanda Cachia tells Leah Sandals how the fairer sex grapples with unfair biases.

Q Why did you organize this show?

A When I was living in New York in 2006 there was lots of discussion about the dearth of feminist content in exhibitions. There was huge outcry from The New York Times and others about the lack of equal representation - even MoMA didn't have it. Based on that discussion, there started to be exhibitions on feminist art across the States. I moved to Saskatchewan in 2007 and saw there hadn't been a group show of feminist work for 15 years. So I thought this was something I needed to address.

Q Why focus on feminism, and not simply women? And why the title Pandora's Box?

A I feel strongly about feminism myself, but the younger artists in the show didn't necessarily identify themselves as feminist artists. So I was a bit ambivalent about tagging my show as a feminist one. But exhibition essayist Joan Borsa indicates that, in many ways, feminism has been demonized in a similar way to how Pandora was demonized. Also, Pandora is a myth and I wanted to use this broad framework. These artists are drawing on social myths, political myths, fairy tales - all similar types of things.

Q There are some famous international artists in this show, like Kara Walker, Laylah Ali and Wangechi Mutu. How did you get them?

A Well, I think previously living in New York really helped, because I knew of some of them and just made appointments with their dealers. Lots of them had never heard of Regina, and I definitely had a number of rejections along the way. I approached two or three museums about Ghada Amer and they said no. It was only after I met with Amer herself that things were set up.

Q What drew you to particular artists?

A I felt really empowered when I came across all these artists for the first time; their work just resonated in my mind forever. All are reclaiming avenues of our lives that have been put in a box. For example, Ghada Amer tries to say, I was brought up in a Muslim culture and I'm trying to lift the veil of the hijab.

Leesa Streifler puts text on photos of her younger self. The text talks about internal psychological angst, thoughts she had when she was feeling insecure about herself and her body image. Some might be things her parents and peers would say. Her 15-year-old picture has this tenseness about it; she admitted she never wanted to smile showing her teeth because she was so self-conscious.

Chitra Ganesh is influenced by Indian mythology and Bollywood's exaggerated relationship with falling in love. She's also referring to some elements of life that are a little taboo, like love triangles and nudity. In Dazzle, when I look at the naked woman diving down into the lotus, I think of Botticelli's Birth of Venus.

Q A man complained last month that the show is too explicit. What's your response?

A Well, I think that's valid; this is what art does, it provokes and stimulates people in all kinds of ways. So I respect any opinion that comes out of the work. Sometimes when you see nudity in an exhibition it can push buttons. I wanted to be responsible about it; we painted the public windows black and announce on the door that this show has adult content. That's a professional standard, so we're following that standard. It certainly didn't stop me from putting the work up; with any show you can anticipate many kinds of reactions.

Q Feminism crops up often in the news - from Hillary Clinton's run for the Democratic nomination to this week's Anglican Church announcement. How do these artworks relate?

A When I heard Clinton was running for election I was really excited; also, these artists can make the works they want to, and I'm excited about that too. Overall, it's a really exciting moment in history and I'm glad to be around for it. I think that maybe it's a sign of the times: that we are making progress, even though sometimes it can feel like we're not.

Pandora's Box continues to July 20 at Regina's Dunlop Art Gallery

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Monday, July 7, 2008

Interview: Catherine Crowston on "Face the Nation"

I love Terrance Houle's Urban Indian series, a portion of which is pictured above. So I was excited last week when I got to speak with Art Gallery of Alberta curator Catherine Crowston about "Face the Nation," a survey of contemporary aboriginal art (Houle included) they've got going on there this summer. The National Post ran a condensed interview today; read on here for that. And for more images, check artist websites here, here and here.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Art vs. Sport: Best. Idea. Ever.

As an art writer who's mused of late on the similarities and differences between contemporary art and professional sport, I was greatly cheered to see the Guardian's recent experiment in having their arts writers swap teams with their sports writers for a week or two. Here's some of the sports writers taking on shows from Louise Bourgeois to Tosca. And here's some pics from the arts writers covering sports events.

Now some people might think this is simple slow-news-summer clowning on the part of the paper. But I really enjoyed it.

One thing that came across to me is that first and foremost these people are writers, no matter what part of the paper their bylines are in. They look for ways to tell the story of art—good or bad, awkward or apt—in a way that makes symbolic and narrative sense. It would be a very different thing to have artists cover art or sport, or to have athletes do the same. In the end, perhaps writers are more alike to each other than they are to the people they cover.

Another thing thought this prompted for me was those ways that professional art and sport are similar: Both involve a select few people doing things for great sums of money that most people would do for free.

Both involve (or have originally involved at the amateur level) seeking a state of transcendence or flow. Both involve highly specialized skills that require indoctrination and observation to appreciate. Both have their mavericks and their grunt workers, their MVPs and their black sheep, their detractors and their rabid fans—in a word, their scenes. (I've noticed that in both fields I tend to gravitate towards the underdogs, the Paul Pierces (as pictured above) rather than the Kobe Bryants, the Allyson Mitchells rather than the Frank Stellas.)

On the end of difference, there are also many: I'm fascinated by the team orientation of sport as opposed to the individual orientation of art, for one. In watching more sports of late, I've also been amazed by how positive so many coaches are (not all, but many) and by the spirit of can-do which pervades the commentary around sport. When the score in a game starts to fall overly to one team or another, I'm tempted to walk away, to call it a done deal. But sport teaches the truth of "It ain't over 'til it's over," to a spirit of resistance and optimism that tends to be easily dimissed as oversimplistic naivete in the art world. (So much so that even if believing same is necessary to an artist's perseverance, any trace of this belief detected in their art can spell instant critical death.)

So why am on the art side rather than the sport side? Part of it, obviously, is indoctrination; I simply trained in this area. And part of it is the art world's openness to diversion and critique--sports, after all, is all about the rules and the hierarchies, about captains and coaches and loyalty to the method chosen from on high. Or at least that's the usual story. I know art has its rules and hierarchies too, for certain, for certain. And lord knows some coloured jerseys could at least help us keep track of all the factions sometimes. ("Guggenheim Go-getters" V-neck, anyone? "Matthew Barney Bruisers" tank top? My god, maybe it can't be all that far off.)

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