Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Storied Objects: Q&A with Jason McLean

Artist Jason McLean, who recently moved to Toronto after 18 years in Vancouver, has a pretty interesting practice. As I've mentioned here before, he works in drawing as well as sculpture and multiples. Particularly striking are his reworkings of sports equipment, such as those seen above.

Since McLean is having a show at Jessica Bradley in Toronto right now, it seemed an opportune time to sit down and have a chat. Today, a condensed version of same was published in the National Post. Here's an excerpt:

Q Often you paint on old photographs or used sports equipment. Why?

A Sometimes I enjoy the awkwardness between sports and art. I'ma closet sports fan, and I like the way a recognizable object opens up to a larger audience.

The photos partly started when I worked for Adbusters. They wanted me to work over 40or 50 pharmaceutical photos. Book art by people like Marc Bell influenced me, too.

But sometimes, there's so much age in an object you can't go wrong working with it! It's kind of like an older person who has all sorts of stories. It's so much more interesting than someone new, in a way.
Q In addition to making art, you collect it. Why?

A It's like an addiction, I guess. In my early years, I liked to collect sporting cards, trading them and getting deals.

Art collecting is sometimes about remembering people when you leave a city. Sometimes it's about wanting to make a home feel different. Sometimes people inspire you, so if you can acquire something of theirs, it seems magical.

I'm really into trading art, too. We've traded art for wholesale fruit, birthing doulas, house tiling and law work. It's like, what can't you trade? I've never traded for a car, but then again, I don't drive.

Image of one of McLean's works (not in the Bradley show) from StyleServer

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Arts Journalism Panel (Slash Prairie Dog Meetup?) April 20

Over the past few days, many art bloggers have been giving the New Museum's Richard Flood a lot of rightful flack for his comments on bloggers being prairie dogs. (To be clear, he hoped for a negative association on this comparison, though I must say I kind of like prairie dogs--that's what you get for spending developmental years in the same province as the Torrington Gopher Hole Museum.)

It seems that some related themes might be raised--albeit more subtly--in the Canadian Journalism Foundation's upcoming panel, "Arts Journalism: Staying Critical in the Digital Age," which takes place April 20 at Innis Town Hall in Toronto.

According to the event's press info,

From the cultural giants of the past to the celebrity culture of today, how arts criticism and literary journalism have changed. Mainstream media cutbacks and the proliferation of blogging means everyone is a critic. Can the web save arts journalism? A CJF Forum moderated by Bronwyn Drainie, Editor of the Literary Review of Canada, and featuring Kamal Al-Solaylee, Assistant Professor at Ryerson and former theatre critic at the Globe and Mail, Seamus O'Regan, co-host of CTV's Canada AM and host of Arts & Minds and The O'Regan Files on Bravo!, and Globe and Mail columnist and feature writer Kate Taylor, currently on leave as the Atkinson Fellow for 2009-2010.

Though I'm looking forward to attending this event--panels on arts journalism (not just art criticism) are few and far between in these parts--I must note that despite the setup's reference to blogging, no one on this panel is a blogger, nor seems to work heavily on the interwebs. Ah well. At least Kate Taylor has been studying "Canadian cultural sovereignty in the digital age" for her Atkinson Fellowship, and Seamus O'Regan seems to have a Twitter account. It will be interesting to see what discussion is generated.

Image of "The Train to Gopherville is Coming" from

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Out today: Queen West Reviews of Rasmussen, Building Storeys & Micah Adams

While posters for Art Condominiums plaster Queen West these days, actual art can seem harder to find. (Greener Pastures Gallery is now a hair salon, for instance.) But there's still a few good shows out there, as I point out in today's National Post gallery column. Here's an excerpt:

Elise Rasmussen at Katharine Mulherin, 1082 Queen St. W.

Toronto-trained, Brooklyn-based artist Elise Rasmussen offers an alternately dreamy and dismal look at Newfoundland in this compact solo show. Revving up the romanticism are four large photos of windswept landscapes and lasses looking out to sea. Bringing the despair is a small-town mural of a bustling Main Street shown right next to the actual ultra-deserted strip. These extremes intertwine in other works, like After Shanawdithit, which photographs 30 Newfoundland women posing the same way the last known Beothuk did in a famed painting. A double-frame video, titled When the Sun Crosses the Line that Wind Will Rule the Weather, reinforces the effect, presenting shots of quaint fishermen and sunny forests alongside a voice-over on cultural extinction. First, Rasmussen seems to suggest, the Beothuk were driven to their deaths. Since then, the way of life that drove them out -- the colonial fishery -- has met dire straits, too. There's no resolution, and no masterpieces, but certainly evocative and considered stuff. Overall, Rasmussen's show represents a thoughtful attempt to get inside a place and its difficult complexities. To March 28.

Besides my other picks in the paper at the Gladstone and Queenspecific, I recommend Dorian Fitzgerald's show at Clint Roenisch--though I admit I'm a bit biased, having known Fitzgerald socially for a couple of years. Will Munro's show at Paul Petro, which closes this weekend, is also worth a stop by.

Image of Elise Rasmussen's Zephyr of the Bay from her website

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Mailbag: Was my Sullivan Review Justified?

At the Bring It panel in December, I urged people who had concerns about art coverage in any publication to write a letter to the editor. Without reader feedback, editors, publishers and writers have little indication that art coverage is being read, let alone engaged with.

So I'm appreciative of the following letter that appeared in this week's NOW, referring to my March 4 Francoise Sullivan review:

Sullivan overlooked

Leah Sandals’s research on the Françoise Sullivan exhibition at the AGO (NOW, March 4-10) somehow managed to completely overlook the dance performance of Sullivan’s work at Walker Court.

This performance was well advertised and put on in partnership with Women’s Art Resource Centre, where there is currently an exhibition of Sullivan’s most recent paintings.

I curated this show. NOW had a listing in the must-see shows for the opening. So this begs me to ask: do your art critics look at their own magazine while doing research for their reviews?

Natalie Olanick

I'm heartened by this letter because Olanick clearly cares about Francoise Sullivan's art and how it is represented--something I care about too. She's also willing to put her point of view out there, and I appreciate the time and effort it took to do that.

Looking over my review for how I might have contributed to Olanick's dismay, I see I could've summarized my main point more clearly, rather than just implying it. That point would be: while Sullivan's legacy is indeed long and admirable, the AGO failed to do it justice in this show.

However, that poor writing decision aside, I still stand by my original 2-N review. Here's why:

First, I was genuinely disappointed by this AGO show.

When I first learned the gallery was planning a Sullivan exhibition, I was excited. Sullivan is an influential, prolific and longstanding Canadian artist, so I was anticipating that a museum show pitched as a celebration of her career would demonstrate that legacy to the public by (a) being of significant/appropriate installation size, (b) including work from a variety of eras, particularly historical ones and (c) perhaps even including work by a few of the many artists she had influenced.

As a result, I was crestfallen to visit the show and see just one smallish room allotted, exhibiting works from just two points in Sullivan's long and varied career. Sullivan deserves much better than this as a major-museum celebration of her successes, as do visitors.

Second, in a brief, current-show review, the writer's main obligation is to assess a months-long exhibition as most members of the public might actually see it (ie. sans one-night performance) and let them know whether the exhibition is worth their time and money (which in this case would involve forking over an $18 admission fee).

In this type of short article, it is not the reviewer's job to include information about related events (particularly long-past ones, like the single February 10 performance) and thematically akin shows which the exhibition itself doesn't bother to reference. In an interview, feature or long, post-show review, sure, these other types of events or shows might be up for inclusion. But they're far from compulsory in a briefer, more user-oriented context.

Third, it is crucial for a vital criticism that writers review not just artists but exhibitions. Again, we can all agree that Sullivan is a terrific artist. But did this show deliver on what it promised? A museum-level celebration of a career? Hell, no. It was like paying for a Springsteen tribute concert and getting just two or three songs performed. Or ordering a hardcover Atwood biography only to discover, when the order is delivered, that it's a 16-page leaflet.

This said, Olanick's letter did prompt a few questions that were new and relevant to me: why didn't the AGO make footage from the February 10 Sullivan performance available to exhibition visitors? In the age of digital video, it seems like this is would be somewhat doable, and extend the benefit of these types of one-night events over a run of several months.

Also, why didn't the AGO refer visitors to the concurrent WARC exhibition? Or at least provide a couple of perfunctory reference texts in the exhibition space for people who wanted to find out more? If Olanick is concerned about how the public is going to experience Sullivan through this exhibition, I urge her to craft another cogent letter—this one addressed to 317 Dundas Street West.

Image from Cartoonists with Attitude

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Critical Canvas: Q&A with Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun

When I was visiting the National Gallery last year, I really enjoyed a few works I saw by Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun--they seemed at once to be abstract and politically pointed. (I'm thinking here of Tweaker, a beautiful abstract-seeming painting that also refers to drug addiction and First Nations issues.) Looking at his work later online, I also really enjoyed how he took First-Nations symbols and turned them, kind of conversely, into "real-world" figures. (The image above, New Chiefs on the Land, is a good example of this stream of his work.)

So when I heard Yuxweluptun was having two concurrent shows in Vancouver--one at dealer Buschlen Mowatt and one at the nonprofit Contemporary Art Gallery--I thought it would be a great chance to chat with him. The resulting Q&A is out in today's National Post. Here's an excerpt:

Q Other paintings of yours can seem quite abstract. How do those relate to your concerns?

A Well, we can look at land claims in an abstract way. How much money do you want to settle this land? OK, well, then, what price do I put on a rainbow that touches my land? Maybe I have to look at every raindrop that created the rainbow. And then I have to look at every cloud that creates the raindrop. And so on.

Basically, I'm working to look at all these things, and to create a style that translates one culture into another culture so others can see it. I'm an artist, so I think that's in my job description--I'm responsible for looking at life, whether it's a tree in the forest or the fact that Frank Paul was dragged out to die in the rain.

Q What else do you make paintings for?

A Well, for all these heavy things I've talked about, I do enjoy creating them. Art can be a lot of fun, a way of helping others. I've worked for over 30 years to develop my style. In the past, I made a lot of black and white drawings because I wasn't sure I was skilled enough to paint those same images. Sometimes it's taken 20 years between the initial drawing and the final painting.

The hardest artwork I ever did was about two Indian heroin addicts. I sat there and drank my beer while they shot up. And there was no totem pole. There was no framework that would allow me to deal with that cultural context. I had to look at it in a different form--instead of a physical, humanoid image, I took it to a symbolic level.

Overall, I think what comes out in my work is the lived experience instead of the gaze, or the lived experience instead of somebody else's gaze.

The artist also has work in the Vancouver Art Gallery's group show Landscape Manual, and the group show on abstraction in First Nations art at the National Gallery continues to April 2010.

Image of Yuxweluptun's New Chiefs on the Land from

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Enjoyed: Graham Gillmore at Clark & Faria

I really enjoyed Graham Gillmore's show at Clark & Faria, which closed on the weekend. Though the above work wasn't in the show, it's a good example of the way Gillmore is really able to deal interestingly with text and colour. Kind of a shoe-in for a word person who likes art, but whatever.

On a somewhat related note, I noticed while I was visiting the Distillery that Gibsone Jessop is gone—windows papered over, sign removed. This makes it the fourth gallery to depart the Distillery in less than a year. (Though their site mentions in small print that it's moving elsewhere, no other address is listed. I'll believe it when I see it--Sandra Ainsley and Artcore's new spaces having gone MIA.)

While some might say the galleries that left were basically "leaving since they opened," and would have failed anywhere in town, I marvel at the Distillery's ability to shed these art venues while at the same time retain some of their cultural branding cachet. It's kind of like Gentrification Classic (TM), with the art businesses coming in to raise property values until Fresh & Wild arrives. Now I know Fresh & Wild has its benefits—particularly because there's no grocery store nearby to feed local condo dwellers—but it's sad to see the area lose a bit of its art-critical mass. I don't shed a tear for these galleries that have left, but that kind of planning strategy is saddening.

Then again, who knows? Maybe all these guys skipped rent. Anyone with details is welcome to share.

Image of Graham Gillmore's Rejection Letter 2009 from

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Comic Relief

Sometimes, when you're an editor-type/word nerd having a tough day, you can happen upon a typo that will bring a little levity. Thank you, Piccolo Ristorante. Thank you, rack of lamp!

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Get Yo Face on Brookfield Place - Contact Style

From what I hear, this year's Contact festival, which starts May 1, will have some pretty interesting installations. One will be a stained-glass style mural, created by Quebec duo Doyon Rivest, that plays up the cathedral-like style of Brookfield Place's Calatrava-designed atrium. And next week, downtowners have a chance to perhaps become a part of the final installation--Doyon Rivest are conducting a public photo shoot on Tuesday March 30 at Brookfield Place from 10 - 5 pm. As described in the Contact release that went out today,

Sitters will be photographed in the dark with their faces illuminated by their electronic portable devices: cell phone, iPod etc. Each photo will take approximately two minutes. The captured portraits will be digitally compiled to make one image that will be displayed as a large-scale installation.

About the Installation:
Doyon-Rivest will make spectacular use of the cathedral-like qualities of the Galleria. The artists will transform the Bay St entrance's 18-meter-high window into a giant stained glass-like artwork.

About the Project:
Le siècle des lumières, an encompassing image will reveal a series of portraits lighted by the small screens of portable electronic devices. These sources of light only reveal faces, which seem to float in an undetermined space, creating an atmosphere that makes us think of the beauty of the night sky.

Image of Doyon Rivest's Le siècle des lumières, 2008 from Contact

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Advice from Vino Critics: You Can't Taste It All

Yesterday, I gave a presentation at a conference organized by York U's graduate art history students. I set out to learn something from all the talks, and I most certainly did—folks are studying some pretty interesting stuff these days.

I myself gave at talk titled "On Being a Journalistic Parasite: Writing and Thinking about Art as a Form of Appropriation," (The conference was themed on appropriation, so this was the best way I could think to connect my experience in arts journalism to the conference theme.)

The talk touched on that idea from a few angles, but one point I enjoyed conveying was that the idea of critic in particular as parasite has come up in the area of wine criticism, among other areas.

A couple of years ago at a wine conference in Spain, Financial Times wine correspondent Jancis Robinson caused a bit of stir when she said, flat out "We [critics] must always remember that we are parasites on the business of winemaking."

She also had a line I thought was absolutely terrific relating to the subjectivity of every critic: "We must realise we only have one palate."

I take Robinson's statement to mean something like "Don't think you can understand or sense it all--the nuances in every bottle of wine, the themes and histories in every artwork. You have a set sensibility or set of receptors, which might be refined or expanded through training and other experiences--but people, let's deal with the truth that no one person can taste it all!"

I think it's a relief to hear a critic make an assertion like this--while a related article notes Robinson may have simply been attempting to promote a little humility among wine critics (maybe arrogance reigns in that realm? dunno) I really think her statement is also just a nice human thing to acknowledge.

You can't taste it all, people. You can't taste it all! New motto.

On a somewhat related note, it recently came to my attention (via an article by David Lawrason in Toronto Life) that a group of American wine critics revolutionized reviewing in their area of criticism three decades ago by implementing a 100-point scoring system that has become the industry standard. Lawrason believes that the ratings should also be arrived at through a consistent ingestion regimen--tastings must be controlled for time of day, number of wines tasted and the type of glass being used. Can you imagine if this standard was applied to art critics? ("You can only see four shows maximum in a day, and always from 2-5pm after you've had a coffee. Dressed for the weather as well, so not to be too hot/cold when viewing. Oh yeah, and you must score numerically on form, content, presentation, and so on.")

Interesting diversions and similarities to the art realm--Lawrason does note that that "purists argue that you can't put a number on a piece of art (assuming wine is an art—an unwinnable debate for another day)".

Image of Jancis Robinson from Taste In

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Of Culture and Cups: Q&A with Brendan Tang

Ever since Brendan Tang's intriguingly mashed up ceramics were included in How Soon is Now at the Vancouver Art Gallery last year, I've been trying to keep an eye on his practice. His objects are really interesting and unusual, combining various cultural influences (the most often cited ones are Manga comics and Ormolu ceramics).

Today the National Post published my Q&A with him as he has two shows on at the moment - one at the SAAG in Lethbridge and another at the Mendel in Saskatoon. (More are on the way this year at the Gardiner in Toronto, Option Art in Chicago and the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington State. Here's an excerpt from our chat:

Q Your parents are Trinidadian, you were born in Ireland and you grew up in Canada, with further links in China and India. How does that influence your art?

A It's funny. I felt similar to the Ormolu when I first saw them because I look Chinese, but I feel very Westernized. Those objects felt like they no longer belonged to one specific culture -- they were destined to be "forever foreign," and I feel I understand that to some degree.

For example, I went to Japan recently and everyone talked to me in Japanese. All I could do was nod and smile. At the same time, it was really interesting to be embraced into a culture immediately because of the way I looked.

When my brothers and I get together, we'll sometimes chat about what we've been mistaken for. I've gotten Filipino and First Nations, while my brother says he passed for Hispanic and Hawaiian. It's always funny negotiating those things, and at the same time feeling and thinking like any other Canadian.

Q What do you like about working in ceramics, rather than drawing or painting?

A I like that ceramics has a kind of backdoor entry into people's lives. We're all familiar with these objects -- we've all used a coffee mug or a plate or whatever. But no one ever brings a painting up to their mouth. No one even holds a painting -- let alone a bronze sculpture -- in their hands that way. So there's an intimacy about it.

Image of one of Brendan Tang's works from One Inch Punch; more on Tang's website

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Snake Eyes: Could our Vision and Art Be Shaped by Serpents?

OK, so the above headline may be one of my most ridonkulous ever. But hear me out...

I've really been enjoying some of the criticism in the Atlantic lately. A couple of articles of note from the recent issue -- a look back at Walker Evans' work in the south and an analysis of Nurse Jackie-type dramas -- are up online for the reading.

But what really got me this issue was a short, glowing review of The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent: Why We See So Well , a book by California anthropologist Lynne Isbell. In what sounds like a fascinating train of thought, Isbell attempts to prove that primate (and therefore human) ways of seeing developed in response to the survival threat posed specifically by snakes. Even some vital basics of our communication skills, Isbell argues, were designed to give us an edge over cobras, rattlesnakes and the like.

Isbell doesn't, I think, extend her theory to include art—admittedly, it's a stretch. But it's interesting to ponder how snakes may have affected, by extension, the kind of art we see and how we see it. Could Bridget Riley's career, for existence, have existed sans boa constrictors? It's worth a think.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Art for a Good Cause: C Magazine Fundraiser March 23

When I first came to Toronto in 2004, the folks at C Magazine were nice enough to give me an opportunity to try my hand at ad sales (at which I sucked, but by which I became extremely educated about how awesome and golden good ad sales people are) and magazine proofreading (at which I did a bit better, but which somehow doesn't seem as awesome). I also got to write some articles for C that I really enjoyed, like interviews with Noam Gonick, Ken Lum and Jerry Saltz, and reviews of interesting shows like the ICP's White.

Though I don't do much workwise with C anymore (unfortunately, they ain't the snappiest on the payment side—last time I checked in, 12 months post-publication was the cheque-receiving rule; hopefully it's improved?) I'm grateful for the opportunities they provide to developing writers and artists, as well as overlooked perspectives. I also think the somewhat recent redesign is pretty classy, and I'm encouraged to see the board undertaking more educational initiatives, like cschool, which I look forward to hearing more about. It seems like they're on an upward track. (Funny how that upward swing coincided with my total lack of involvement... hmmmm.... I think we're on to something here.)

It's all to say that it's worth taking note of C's upcoming fundraiser, a benefit auction taking place Tuesday, March 23 at Red Bull 381 Projects in Toronto. Works by Eve K. Tremblay, Maura Doyle, Kelly Jazvac, Charmaine Wheatley, Onya Hogan-Finlay, Melanie Authier and other interesting artists do make this one tempting. The online preview is up now, and a public preview happens March 20 from 1-4pm, if you're interested in seeing more so than buying.

More information on tickets ($40/$50) and other good stuff can be found at

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Recommended: Renny Pritikin's Prescription for a Healthy Art Scene

This week is a bit nutty with deadlines, so I just thought I'd post something that I thought was really interesting. It's "Prescription for a Healthy Art Scene" by Renny Pritikin and I came across it via a link Art Fag City had posted to the SF MOMA's blog.

The type might be too small to read on this one -- if so do look here instead. Lots of good recommendations for any city, or country for that matter.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Luminato Announces Vis-Arts Picks for 2010

Today, crazy interdisciplinary arts fest Luminato released its visual art highlights for 2010. Here's what I will be looking forward to come June:

1. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. The famed duo is bringing a salvaged Chinese junk boat titled Ship O’ Fools to Trinity Bellwoods Park. Cardiff and Bures Miller impress more often than not -- and I've never seen their work in a public space, so I really look forward to this.

2. Mark Fast. Okay, this one's more fashion than art, but I'm darn intrigued. Canadian-born, London-based designer Fast has become known for his spiderweb-like knitwear, which I damn well appreciate him showing on models who are not totally stick-thin. According to Luminato's release, Fast will create a knitted sculpture/installation at Brookfield Place.

3. FriendswithYou. Another art/design mashup, the Miami-based FriendswithYou will create a colourful installation at Queen's Park. (Apparently they've done similar stuff at Art Basel Miami and in Berlin.)

Image of Cardiff and Bures Miller's Ghost Machine from their website; image of Mark Fast's fall 2010 fashion show from his website; and image of FriendsWithYou's contribution to the Art Basel Miami 2006 parade from Aesthetic Grounds

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Out today: Reviews of Romano, Pien & Cho on Tecumseth St

Yesterday, watching the livestream of a critics panel in NYC, I was struck by the comment (which I think may have been from Martha Schwendener, but I can't be sure) that when you're on a deadline and writing a review quickly, you're aware that you might feel differently about the work if you'd more time to revisit it. I guess that's how I feel a little bit about my reviews on Tecumseth Street out in today's National Post. Ah well, here's an excerpt:

Tony Romano at Diaz Contemporary
100 Niagara St.

Irony and sincerity seem to be battling it out for supremacy in Tony Romano's latest show at Diaz. Granted, tension between these two tendencies marks a lot of current art. Still, Romano ramps it up in Beautiful Monster, his documentary/mockumentary on Toronto painter Jay Isaac. Combining self-consciously solemn black-and-white shots with cheesy, synth-soundtracked colour passages, Beautiful Monster comes off as part student film and part art-doc satire. But even as it undermines its own credibility, the flick presents a few serious thoughts and images on the importance of art. A similar feeling comes across in The Imagine Band, a project where Romano had the lyrics to John Lennon's Imagine translated into 10 languages and then back into English. The song's original sentiments remain, even if the names have (somewhat humorously) been changed. Pinocchio, an aluminum sculpture cast from a clunky wooden figure, also seems to put Jeff Koons-ian polish (and related po-mo distance) on earnest rural tinkering. Overall, the show is enjoyable, but also maddening. The most immediately engaging works are absurd movie-poster collages that mash up dolphin dramedies with Apocalypse Now, while the rest keep you guessing about the artist's intentions. Is that really enough to sustain an art practice over the long term? We'll have to wait for Romano's next show to find out. To March 20.

There's also comments on Ed Pien's show @ Birch Libralato and Hyang Cho @ Georgia Scherman in the full review. (Will Gorlitz is also showing at Birch, but in my mind the show pales compared to his MoCCA survey on now -- like my NOW colleague David Jager, I really ended up loving Gorlitz's works from the 1990s.)

Installation image of Tony Romano's show at Diaz from Canadian Art

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Friday, March 12, 2010

True, that.

A pervasive idea and true phenomenon is well articulated here by David Hickey:

"Since there is no absolute authority in the art world, or in the economic world either, we may presume that for every opinion, there is a contrary one. Thus, the social value of a work of art, or an art critic, or a theory, or an institution must be distinguished from its social virtue, since bad reviews, stupid acquisitions, and theoretical attacks, even as they question the social virtue of an object or investment, must necessarily invest it with social value. The raw investment of attention, positive or negative, qualifies certain works of art as "players" in the discourse. So, even though it may appear to you that nearly everyone hates Jeff Koons' work, the critical point is that people take the time and effort to hate it, publicly and at length, and this investment of attention effectively endows Koons' work with more importance than the work of those artists whose work we like, but not enough to get excited about."

Of course, I could quibble with this idea a little bit, but that would just invest it with more value. Dang!

Quote is from Hickey's essay "Dealing" in Air Guitar; Image from Seen Reading

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

From Rice Bowl to Dust Bowl: Q&A with award-winning photog Benoit Aquin

In 2008, Montrealer Benoit Aquin--who had the unglamorous job of shooting for local alt-weeklies from 1989 to 2001--won the $75,000 international Prix Pictet in photography and sustainability for his documentation of Chinese dust storms. With that series of work now showing at Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto, I sat down for a brief chat with Aquin. Today, the National Post published our condensed Q&A. Here's an excerpt which actually kind of surprised me--on culture as a sustainability issue:

Q Is there anything else you'd want people to think about when looking at these pictures?

A Well, I wish our governments would invest more in cultural institutions and in art, because I think it creates strong bonds between people. And I think those bonds protect us from chaos. Think of Haiti, or Somalia -- these are places where cultural institutions were underestimated. I worked in Haiti recently. When I see our governments cutting into culture, I don't think it's very lucid.

Q So culture is a different kind of sustainability issue?

A Yes, it's very important. Chaos can appear very quickly, and things can change very fast. If there is creativity and bonds between people, it may take a better direction when something hard happens.

Image of one of Aquin's dust bowl pictures from

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Good to Hear: David R. Harper to show in Toronto

Just got my April issue of Toronto Life in the mail and I'm glad to discover (thanks to David Balzer's art picks) that David R. Harper will soon be showing at the Textile Museum of Canada. I've read a lot of rave reviews of Harper's work over the past few years, and seen a lot of related images. While his combination of taxidermy, embroidery and tattooing sounds a little stomach-churning in concept, it seems to produce really eye-catching results. Harper's show opens April 9 alongside other interesting-looking contemporary showcases featuring Stephen Schofield and Lia Cook.

Image of Harper's Guild 2007 from Akimblog

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Upcoming: Keynote-riffic Appropriation Conference March 19

What the frak is it with all the Sandals-riffic events this month? Here is the fourth and final one: a keynote talky thing at the York U Art History Grad Students Association's conference on appropriation, which happens Friday, March 19.

The good part of this news, for many, is that the conference is happening downtown at 1 Dundas West, meaning no slog to Downsview station and beyond. (!) And the very, very good part of this news is that other keynoters are Montreal art historian Johanne Sloan and Toronto artist/curator/critic Jen Hutton, who has a review up at Artforum right now. Also on the slate are interesting grad student presentations on Bigfoot, Louis Riel, video game demakes and more.

The fun starts at 10am and goes to 4:30pm at 1 Dundas St West, suite 2602. For more information, email

Image of Bart Simpson as Nirvana album cover, which comes up as second google image hit for "appropriation," from Flowtv

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Monday, March 8, 2010

Looking Forward to: Art, the Play, at Canstage Theatre

One thing I'm looking forward to in the next few weeks is going to the theatre—not usually my thing, but this time it's for a theatre piece about art. The play is called (what else?) "Art" and it is a 1995 piece by award-winning playwright Yasmina Reza.

Here's the description from Canstage, which is mounting the play from March 15 to April 10:

The play revolves around the purchase of a very expensive, white-on-white painting which pushes the boundaries of art and ignites a passionate debate among three friends. Gruff battleaxe Marc, highly-strung appeaser Yvan and burgeoning art aficionado Serge come to a head over artistic merit, modernism and the value of friendship, testing the men's relationship and ultimately offering reconciliation.

The play won Reza a Moliere Award in 1995, but it wasn't without controversy, as Independent critic David Benedict noted:

Not everyone has hollered [the play's] praises in so unequivocal a fashion. The Guardian asserted that Reza's anti-art arguments pandered to popular prejudice. "The real test is whether the play encourages audiences to embrace modern art or reject it." Perhaps Michael Billington was unnerved, as I was, by the braying first night crowd. Finney's implacable response to the canvas - "It's shit" - was met with delight by an audience giving vent to their closet philistinism. The play's discussions are funny and fascinating but there were times when I began to sense what it was like being at Nuremburg, as Courtenay's attempts to justify "art" were met with belly laughs.

Sounds interesting!

Image of playwright Yasmina Reza with a poster from a previous production of the play from Persian Mirror

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Friday, March 5, 2010

What's in the new Federal Budget for the Arts?

The federal budget was the focus of Canadian news addicts yesterday. What's in it for the arts? There's a few different takes.


Visual artists are encouraged to see that the 2010 federal budget will maintain support for the Canada Council for the Arts but are concerned about cuts to the Department of Canadian Heritage. Given the ability of the cultural sector to attract talent and investment at a low cost, the cultural industries should be an important part of the federal government’s plan to foster innovation and economic growth going forward.

From the Canadian Museums Association,

The budget does not contain any significant new developments for the museum sector. The good news is there are no cuts to support programs for museums. However, we are clearly headed into an era of significant cuts in government spending. The CMA attended budget lockup and has digested the 450-page document.


"Virtually no one got what they wanted from this budget. It contains very little new spending for any sector, and is one of the leanest budgets on record," says John McAvity, executive director of the CMA. "The CMA will continue pushing for additional funding for our sector."

From the CBC,

Over the past 18 months, Heritage Minister James Moore has made a series of announcements of stable funding to the Canada Council for the Arts, Canada Arts Training, magazines and other cultural funding streams.

It also boosted spending on cultural spaces, such as museums and concert halls, to $30 million annually in 2010 and 2011.

It was "wise" to maintain funding for the Canada Council and these other funding streams, said Shannon Litzenberger, a member of the Canadian Arts Coalition.

She also welcomed $25 million committed in 2010-11 for creation of the Canada Prizes for the Arts and Creativity. The prize, conceived by the late David Pecaut, is a new performing arts prize designed to foster excellence.

But Litzenberger said there was nothing substantive in the budget to boost the economic activity that comes from the cultural sector

"One of the things that is really coming to the fore is that there is a growing consensus that arts investment is a very cost-effective catalyst for high economic return and so we assume the government was looking for cost-effective measures to help the economy recover," Litzenberger said.

She said the government could have helped competitiveness by creating a new fund for touring by cultural groups and activities, which would replace a fund cut in August 2008.

The government could have gone a long way toward creating new jobs if it had invested more in the film and television production sector, said Stephen Waddell, executive director of the actors' union ACTRA.

From the Globe,

Others, though pleased to see no cuts, were less charitable.

“We're of course disappointed there's nothing new. But it is very clear that we are facing an avalanche of cuts to come and nobody is going to escape it,” said John McAvity, executive director of the Canadian Museums Association.

From the Toronto Star,

There are only passing references to cultural and heritage institutions in the budget. The government announced $540 million of arts, culture and heritage funding last year, spread over two years.

I'm still trying to figure it all out myself. To my mind, it's the kind of budget designed to expressly not generate enough disgruntlement for public outcry. Still surprised to see the Canada Prizes in there, though. The money could be better spent elsewhere, like at the National Portrait Gallery.

Image from Lifehack

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Out Today: Q&A with Denyse Thomasos in the National Post

In December, well-known abstract painter Denyse Thomasos opened her first New York solo show in 10 years at Lennon, Weinberg. Now, a Toronto solo is also featuring her work at Olga Korper Gallery. Today, the National Post published my interview with the Trinidad-born, Mississauga-raised, New York–based artist. Here's an excerpt:

Q Where did this show of paintings come from?

A I've always worked with structures that have been used to confine people of colour. Slave boats, prisons and burial sites are three structures I've expanded on for a long time.

My last show was based on superjails, including a superjail I'd visited in Maryland. To me, the paintings were a way to bring the invisibility of these prisons, which are often in rural areas, into urban settings for people to see.

My intention with this show was to continue on prisons, but they kind of turned into bird machines or winged objects. There's freedom to them, but if you look closely, they're still made of small prison forms and containers.

Q What was it like visiting a superjail?

A A lot of the cage forms in my work are based on what I saw there. The courtyard was a heavily wired box on all sides. The prisoners are mandated to go to school, and the classroom is a phone booth-sized cage that four or five people are tied to.

All these people are considered the worst of the worst. They'll never get out. The best they can do is get to a better prison.

What was very moving was when we were up in the surveillance tower and guides said "OK, a new batch of prisoners is coming in." We were expecting these horrendous creatures to come out ...and they were just kids. They were young, black kids.

It was a madhouse, the closest thing I've ever seen to an insane asylum. It really kind of breaks your heart. Just one visit left me deeply depressed for a week. But that's why these things are left invisible. We can't deal with the reality of what we're doing.

Image of Thomasos' Maiden Flight 2010 from Olga Korper Gallery

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Disappointing Decisions: Francoise Sullivan @ the AGO

The AGO has some interesting projects going on right now (like the Wangechi Mutu show, for which I did an associated National Post interview last week) but their Francoise Sullivan exhibition is a disappointment. As I explain in today's NOW,

Montreal artist Françoise Sullivan has had an influential career, producing important work in dance, sculpture, photography and painting since the 1940s.

Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know that from viewing Inner Force, billed by the AGO as “an exhibition celebrating the career of pioneering Canadian artist Françoise Sullivan.” This disappointingly small outing contains only five abstract paintings (all post-2000) and documentation of just one 1948 outdoor experimental dance piece.

Granted, the paintings are massive, and it’d be a challenge to squeeze any more work into the smallish room. But it’s clear that space itself is only part of the problem. None of the similarly sized rooms on the fourth floor (which feature Christian Marclay and Michael Snow) are billed as individual “exhibitions.” And there’s good reason for that – they’re simply not equal to the task, particularly for artists whose work is large or career long and varied.

You can

Documentation image of Sullivan's 1948 dance piece Danse dans la Neige from NOW Toronto

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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

On Being Un-With-It: Or, A Post in Which I Finally Come to Understand what the "Love the Artist" AE Billboards are Shilling

Using the image of the artist to shill stuffs is nothing new. However, I must admit I have been amused over the past number of months as American Eagle has mounted large billboards emblazoned "Love the Artist" (like this one in Yonge-Dundas Square.) But I hadn't until this point been sufficiently motivated to find out what more the ads "mean". Surprise! "The Artist" in this case is "The Artist Jean," which AE defines as "Sexy Skinny Flare Leg. Low Rise." (There's also an "Artist Crop.") In a related vein, there is also a pretty bad commercial you can watch on Youtube, which emphasizes the messy-haired-yet-perfect-skinned aspect of being a visual creative.

Could the next jeans instalment please be "The Critic"? ie. "Elastic Waistband, Ink Blots, Comfy Yet Concise"? A girl can dream.

Image from LA-Story

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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Few Good Shows: Dundas/Ossington/Queen

My gallery travels this weekend took me to a number of strong shows in the Dundas West/Ossington/Queen St area. I must admit I missed a lot of shows in the area too. Still, I just wanted to give these a shout-out--the area is certainly worth a stroll in the next few weeks for:

Katie Bethune Leamen at MKG127 - love the huge iridescent sytrofoam sculpture titled "Really It’s A Lot Bigger, A Lot Heavier, And A Lot Darker". Very smart. Also interesting OMD ephemera angle in paintings reproducing different copies of a single album cover (seen above)

Hadley & Maxwell at Jessica Bradley - typically eclectic work, but great to see their furniture cross-sections in particular. Also like the wallpaper swaths blocking the window, making the storefront look very very different. Nice.

Nicole De Brabandere at Alison Smith - I posted about this last month, wondering what it would be like. De Brabandere makes strange, weird little objects that you can spend a long time looking at. Like.

Michael Caines & Goody-B Wiseman at Katharine Mulherin - While it's kind of a downer to see the old Katharine Mulherin gallery transformed into an antiques-type shop, however fun, there is still one Mulherin space going and the drawings by Michael Caines, which reimagine bible passages in pop style, are really worth seeing. Goody-B Wiseman's bronzes are less impressive, but kinda cute and surprisingly raw for the format.

Image of Katie Bethune Leamen show at MKG127 from the gallery's website

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Upcoming: Sandals-riffic talk at the Artist Project, March 7

Last year around this time I visited to the Artist Project, an newish art fair in Toronto. There wasn't a lot that impressed me on that outing, though I did list a few highlights here on the blog. Overall, I found the offerings were quite uneven.

This weekend, as the project recurs, I'm again not sure what to expect. This fair is a bit of a strange bird for organizer MMPI—it seems like they're trying to find some hybrid between its home-designy-and-wide-appeal-oriented One of a Kind Show and its cognoscenti-laden and fine-arty Armory Show (which actually runs on the same weekend in New York).

Nonetheless, I will be going to see the show, and even talk at it a little bit about different ways of valuing art—personal, emotional, social, and financial, among other takes. My "Art Chat" will take place from 1 to 2pm on Sunday, March 7, at the fair, which is in the Queen Elizabeth Building at Exhibition Place. The talk is free with fair admission, which is $12 at the door, $10 if you buy online, including free readmission all weekend. For more details visit

Image of a work by one of my Artist Project/One of a Kind Show faves, Wendy Walgate, from

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