Saturday, June 28, 2008

At the Galleries: Bloor/Lansdowne

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NOTE: Post updated Monday @ 9:20am to correct info on Dyan Marie's banners. See strikethrough below.

This week my galleries tour for the National Post took me to the Bloor/Landsdowne neighbourhood (apologies though about the map that ended up in the paper... it's not accurate in terms of Toronto Free Gallery's location, but the one I've put above is).

Writing about the area is a bit tricky for me, because while I'm glad to see affordable spaces for artists and galleries there, one wonders (as with any area realtors call "up and coming") really how long it will last. There's also real concerns I have about the area becoming unaffordable not just for artists, but for everyday residents as well.

I was impressed with the range of work I saw there, however.

I've been an admirer of Toronto Free Gallery for some time and think the new storefront space they have on Bloor is really is a great spot for everyone in the neighbourhood. Innovative programming like the current show Toronto Free Library (part one of which is pictured above), curated by two recent OCAD grads, Sarah Todd and Maiko Tanaka, is also a feature of the gallery that I bet will continue. (We're losing Todd to UBC soon but Tanaka will continue in town as a curator-in-residence at the Barnicke gallery; watch for what she does there.) It's also good to see the Ontario Arts Council and others finally funding the space after years of director Heather Haynes really continuing it as a labour of love.

Georgia Scherman's space further north off the beaten track offers a great contrast to Toronto Free. The space is hard to find but beautiful and huge, suited to types of contemporary art that often get a cramped treatment in the small spaces of most Toronto galleries. I also hope they can pull off more of those international collaborations like the ones they did for their recent "Lifting: Theft in Art" show--looking beyond the borders of Canada is rare in the local scene so I've got my fingers crossed for her. Right now John Massey's strange-but-I-think-good images of luxury cars set against "luxury landscapes" are worth a look (example above).

While there aren't many other spaces with regular programming open right now in the area, there is an increasing amount of public art. While it's made by various people, the push towards it originates, I think, amidst the activities of local artist Dyan Marie. Marie seems to have an incredible amount of energy for creating new area initiatives, from stencil graffiti based on local plant species to walkways decorated with scribblings from local elementary school students. Now new banners resembling the format of vinyl copies of her recent digital work "Un-still lives with traffic" (seen above) line both sides of Bloor, and a Richard Mongiat mural she recommended for the Bloor underpass nearby has come to fruition (I really like that mural, it's a very different tenor from the usual).

I think basically it's hard to place a focus on the area in some ways because it can seem all part of lining up the area for the g-word: Gentrification. I have to say even I was surprised to see more ads already for condos and hoardings for same going up near Mongiat's mural. And I know I'm not the only one who feels ambivalence about this in the arts community.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Interview: MACM director Marc Mayer on the Quebec Triennial, Festivalism & more

There are a lot of great shows opening in Montreal next week (including Sophie Calle at the DHC!) but the biggest draw this summer is likely the Quebec Triennial which opened in May at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art. For it, 4 curators spent one intensive year of studio visits to various Quebec artists, whittling an initial list of more than 300 artists down to 39.

Almost as good, though, are comments MACM director Marc Mayer (ex of the Brooklyn Museum, the Albright Knox, and the Power Plant) let fly through my recent interview with him on the Triennial and related matters of urban rivalries and Richard Florida-influenced festival funding. You can read on here for the condensed version published in today's National Post or check out the full transcript after the jump.

(If you want to see more images from the show, check out this post I helped put together for the show's opening at Canadian Art Online)

The following is a transcript of a phone conversation between Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art director Marc Mayer and art writer Leah Sandals on the topic of the Quebec Triennial. The conversation took place on Monday, June 23, 2008.

LS: You worked in other major art centres like New York and Toronto before moving to Montreal/Quebec. What is different or special about the scene there?

MM: It’s a very mature scene, I mean it’s been encouraged since the 1920s. I think encouragement is an important factor then and now. There’s a high density of talent here and there has been for a long time so it’s inevitable someone was going to do it [a show just on Montreal/QC]. And the Montreal biennial is an international biennial, and generally has not enough local art for my taste. Surprisingly, someone who did include a lot of Quebec artists in the biennial was Peggy Gale. And a lot of the Quebec artists that I know now are the ones Peggy Gale did. So I think Montreal has needed a show like this [triennial] for a long time and it’s huge success here, it has been very popular with the public at large.

LS: How is this sense of Quebec/Montreal reflected in the Triennial?

MM: Just I think it’s the density of talent, you know. It’s not a couple of brilliant artists; it’s a whole bunch of really brilliant artists. This is a strong generation; there’s not bandwagons, there’s lots of diversity, there’s no real similarity between the works of any two artists. When you think these are all people who know each other, that’s pretty amazing, especially when they went to the same 2 schools, largely. And it’s a lot like the international scene in general… people don’t need each other to prop up their projects and I think that’s a sign of a mature scene.

LS: Yes, the work does vary…. from performance and conceptual projects based in art history to traditional painting. What links do you see among these? Or themes that might come up in common?

MM: That’s an interesting point… there’s definitely an academic bent to this show, stuff, as we called it in the 80s, that’s “smart art”. These artists are advanced conceptually. And yet they’re eager to reach out to a larger audience than the tiny microscopic Canadian art world. And what’s fun is when you do a show like this in a major museum—we have 2 million visitors a year, which is great for any contemporary museum—they can address the larger audience, people who aren’t artists, in this context. Some of these installations are really quite extraordinary. There’s several wow moments in the exhibition.

One of the subthemes we found was the mirror, or the idea of the mirror, which surprised us and the curators who set the show up. They didn’t expect it because they were only choosing works, not artists. They made a list of 300 artists and went out and sought works by those artists and they had a solemn pact that they would only be interested in strong work and not include them [an artist] by virtue of what they did in the past… It’s not a show of themes or stars, although there are some stars.

So the mirror image you see from the very beginning because there’s these Siamese twin mascots from Doyon-Rivest. And if you turn to the right from that you see Gwenael Bélanger’s broken mirror photographs and video with a camera twirling the in a room with the mirror breaking. And then you see Altmejd’s mirror sculpture and then you see Hannah’s piece with Las Meninas and then the mirroring in Bettina Hoffman’s video. And then there’s an odd mirroring in a conceptual piece by Raphaelle de Groot where she asks someone to describe someone that they really love and she draws them but that she can’t see the drawing. Then there’s the giant mirror installation of Nicholas Baier, it just sort of goes on to the mirrored dance floor with a white liquid bubbling up in the David Armstrong Six piece. So that’s a light motif in the show that we weren’t expecting.

But one of the curators said she found there was an ironic darkness to these, how where a lot of works feel wow and light but the more you look at it there’s a subtle dread through the show—which isn’t unusual given there’s so many questions about our immediate future.

But yes, the mirrors… even the Cooke Sasseville piece involves walking through two mirrored apartments.

LS What do you think that’s about?

MM I have no idea what’s that about, and the curators weren’t looking for it. Everyone has mentioned is title we took “Nothing is lost, Nothing is created, Everything is transformed.” People said our title could fit any art show anywhere. But that in itself is interesting because the Quebec scene is very much of a piece with the larger international scene, with that artist independence. I find this encouraging…I’ve been looking at art for my entire life and what I find encouraging is this abandonment of the ism, of artists imitating scientists, of cohorts that discover the secret of abstraction and such. Now it’s each artist for itself in every personal project, and we see that in Montreal as well as the international art scene. And it’s very encouraging to me politically about individual rights… we live in very optimistic times for art and this show proves it.

LS: What was the biggest surprise for you in seeing the final exhibition?

MM: Well, it’s so good. But this I had a kind of intuition it would be. I’ve been here for 4 years and we’ve done a lot of solo shows of local artists because I felt the artists here deserved a lot more encouragement on part of the museum, more big shows and reviews, things they can use to further their careers. I think the museums can serve that purpose…

Two things that I wouldn’t say surprised me but pleased me to no end. One is there’s no peaks and valleys in the show. Despite what some reviewers say is I feel there’s a consistent quality to the show that’s really surprising, there’s something interesting about every work in the show. And another is the number of positive comments we got from Americans. There’s been such bad reviews of these kinds of shows in the States, people are getting fed up with “festivalism,” as [New York Times art critic] Roberta Smith called it, where people don’t know if it is possible to do a show every 2 or 3 years and do it properly. [But they came here and told us it showed this was still possible.]

We had a lot of Europeans here for their first convention outside of Europe the day after the opening—and that was done deliberately so we could promote our artists to them. And their response was similarly positive in that you could see it’s possible to do it well; they say “We’ve done these kinds of shows for years in Europe, but it’s not as exciting.” And for this I give full credit to Paulette Gagnon and her curatorial team. They know how to do it well.

So I was surprised at the success of the show in a way. I knew it would be good to do this and that I didn’t think that the show itself would be as successful as it has been and all that credit goes to the curators. I had nothing to do with the selection. I take credit for the idea of the triennial but I am just so thrilled that the curators took it very seriously.

LS: Some major Quebec artists who are quite popular did not make it in. What do you say to fans of their work who are upset about that?

Oh you know, rub salt on it! It’s not as if these artists are invisible. They’ve showed in Toronto, they’ve shown here and elsewere. This was a choice and it wasn’t an exclusion [of them] it was an inclusion [of others]. BGL we like and we’ve given them big shows in the past and they weren’t just right for this show. And some other artists we just showed or we are planning shows of. So it’s either “We’re ever only showing the same artists” or “We’re not showing all your favourite artists” And we were willing to live with “We didn’t show your favourite artists”

So I have zero remorse whatsoever. Think of someone like Jean-Pierre Gauthier. He’s a big star, we did a show for him last fall that is going to Akron, Ohio. But since we did something so recently we can’t include him again. Commercial galleries show the same people over and over again, but museums really shouldn’t.

Q Media like myself like to play up the idea of an ongoing rivalry in Canada for creative supremacy between Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Do you think you could do a rating, or do you think that’s stupid?

A I think it’s a stupid debate. Canada’s too big to have a centre of anything We have competing cities, but they’re so different. Montréal and Toronto do not have a lot in common. Montreal is bilingual, Toronto is polyglot but mostly anglo, and Vancouver is something else yet again, a very different culture, different attitudes. So it’s something that frankly bores me and Montreal is the worst offender in this. I’m passionate about Montreal but it does get on my nerves when they go on about Toronto as the centre of the universe when we used to be. No one use was the centre of the universe! We have to find our own fate, And Montréal’s’ fate is a cultural one in any case, I think.

I think Montreal is like Berlin and Toronto is a cross between New York and Chicago but a much smaller city. But the country is so vast that I’m not programming for Toronto. [AGO Director] Matthew Teitelbaum is programming for Toronto. So we can’t be rivals when we’re not talking to each other. There’s so few people coming up from other parts of Canada to see the Triennial; I think 100 to 200 people will come from Toronto to see the show, the diehards, and that will be a significant group will come.

I do get kind of tired of it. Montreal needs to assume its fate and stop looking over its shoulder and Toronto needs to start taking art seriously. Although they’ve contributed half a billion to museums, new art is the locomotive of this cultural train and there’s not a high enough profile for new art in Toronto. And there’s always been one in Montreal, a very sophisticated network of artist-run centres and two major sophisticated university galleries and another museum that does lots of art, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and a commercial gallery scene that is getting bigger and growth in private museum scene. There is the DHC and there are other local people thinking of contributing to that.

And so even if the city [Montreal] is not consciously invested in the visual arts, it can’t help to grow now, it’s got so much talent. So if we stop looking over our shoulders and stop thinking just about festivals—this festival mentality really gets on my nerves, I’m not someone who would encourage that kind of thinking. We’re not in Germany where the cities are an hour away from, each other so other cities are not really places that I think about when I’m programming here. Of course, I’m completely mercenary and if it serves my purposes I will bring I up. But frankly I think it’s beside the point… I think it’s too boring to mention.

LS: There is much to-do right now with how investing in creative industries can improve the overall economy. What do you think of this approach particularly with recession looming?

MM: Well, I’m against festivals, I think they’re the crack cocaine of culture. I think we put way to much emphasis on them and they’re short-lived and they don’t have a long-term effect on a city and its people that constant programming can have. For example being able to go the opera several times a year is a beginning; to see great live theatre and see great films and have access to culture is not the same thing as having a festival that celebrates a particular niche of culture two weeks a year.

And we need to be cultivating our own scene and our own thing; we have lots to offer the world, we have a lot to offer ourselves. I’m not a Canada-firster; I just think we naturally need to encourage our own cultural activities because they’re about people thinking about who we are. And art is something that Canadians need to do more to encourage. In Canada importation of it is a problem; we have very complicated art law in which it is treated as a commercial product, like Lexuses. And we have an anti-intellectual frame of mind in many aspects of our public life.

So no, I’m not a fan of investing in festivals. If they bring in a bit of tourism and people from the suburbs--and the gas prices are going to bring them in for good soon—that’s fine, but I think that my opinion is widely held, of creating renewable resources in culture as opposed to tent cities.

LS: What are you working on next?

MM: The next show will be Sympathy for the Devil: Art in rock n’ roll. It’s not Elvis’s slippers and pipe; it’s art that refers to the culture of rock and roll. So it’s not an homage, but it’s an expression of rock and roll culture. And it’s a highly regarded exhibition that the Museum of Art in Chicago did. We think it will draw crowds, in particularly in Montreal, which is a savvy scene. That will be an interesting exhibition that will be useful in terms of expanding what contemporary art is about; it’s a lot broader than what a lot of contemporary art buffs think it is.

After that we’re doing a survey of Claude Tousignant, a monochorme painter, the best. And we’re excited about that. Here’s a Canadian artist who’s hot and gets much less attention than he deserves. He was a favorite of mine since I was in school.

LS: This is plenty of great information you’ve given me. Is there anyting else you’d like potential Triennial visitors to know about?

MM: Just that it’s a wonderful exhibition. I have yet to hear a single negative remark about the show in general since the show opened. We had 10,000 people in our first week.

I’ve been promoting Canadian art for the larger part of my career and I’ve often said that for the promotion of Canadian art the biggest job is to promote it at home. And that is one of the basic reasons for having done the exhibition… the more enthused we are about our own art the more interested others will be. We can’t hope to export Canadian ingenuity unless people are consuming it locally. So I encourage everyone to see as much contemporary Canadian art as they can. It will be very useful in their travels abroad.

The Quebec Triennial continues at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art ( to September 7, 2008.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Don't-miss shows closing this weekend

I've been tardy in posting on a couple of shows that I think are quite great but which I (and others) do recommend.

Over at Digital Media Tree, Sally McKay reminded us that Bill Burns's show at MKG127 comes down this weekend. This is a completely hilarious show that you really should make an effort to see if you haven't already. How can an artist make such consistently dry and funny work? And involve Purina and the Ontario Provincial Police and watercolour painting in the process? It's beyond me... Just see it.

Akimbo's Terence Dick also struck a chord when he mentioned his enjoyment of the current Interaccess show, which also comes down on the 21st. Marcia Huyer and Tomasz Smereka's work there with inflatables both hi-tech and lo is simply delightful.

And for myself, I'd like to add to these another nearby show: the Ontario Crafts Council's Award show. Craft still gets a maligned rap in the higher-end art world, but I'd urge anyone harbouring those biases to go and see this show. Julie Moon's ceramic work (like the arms, pictured above) is just stunning both technically and psychologically--her self-portrait as an urn really being a stop-and-stare item in their window right now. It's just around the corner from MKG and Interaccess at 990 Queen West, so do go see it.

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Interview: Helena Reckitt on the Power Plant's summer show

It frightens me sometimes that even in my early thirties I fail to remember things that were on the tip of my tongue five years (or five days) ago. So even though the memory/reenactment theme is getting a bit overdone in the art world, I was interested to see what curator Helena Reckitt did at the Power Plant for its summer show "Not Quite How I Remember It." (BTW I loved some of the pieces, esp. Sharon Hayes, above.) Read on here for the condensed National Post interview published today, or continue after the jump for the full interview transcript.

This transcript is from an interview of Helena Reckitt conducted by Leah Sandals on Monday, June 16 at the Power Plant, Toronto.

Q One of the first things that came to mind looking at this show and the theme is that there seems to be a kind of obsession that artists and art institutions have right now with revisiting memory. You know, or reenacting memory. Why do you think this is such a compelling theme in the art world right now?

A You’re right it’s a big one. I think there’s a few things happening. I think partly there’s enough in terms of the history of the avant garde and the history of conceptual art, whatever legacy we think we’re working within, there’s enough of it behind us that we’ve become very self-conscious about this legacy, about this sort of particular art history.

And so I think a lot of artists are finding their place in relation to this lineage is something they really have to figure out. They know that they are not doing something for the first time. I mean so many of the vanguard positions feel like they’ve already been staked out. So they’re not under any illusion of being this heroic, breaking the mold [figure]. It’s more well how do I work within a realm where I still want to be challenging and critiquing yet I know I’m not the first.

Very little is being done for the first time. We can look in a few areas like you know stuff with new technologies or whatever that there is pioneering work. But it’s done with a real consciousness of historical place.

And this isn’t particularly about the art world, this is about you know artists but also artists are very well educated these days. So many have MFAs and so they’re very conscious of their place within contemporary art history. So this is kind of a self-consciousness and perhaps a bit of anxiety as well about yeah what position.

Although one of the things I was interested in in this show… I quote this Harold Bloom, you know, this very famous text on the artists way? And his anxieties… where he talks about the modern poet who battles with his forebears even unto the death! This sort of 1960s idea of the artist as being a macho figure who takes on the past, whereas the artists that I was interested in have a totally different relationship to their precursors. They are kind of embracing their relationship to the past in sort of acknowledging that they are extremely subseptible to influence. And it’s a much more receptive and reciprocal relationship with the past.

So that’s the kind of art history bit. But you know a lot fo the work in this show some of it is concerned about art history but more of it is concerned with historical memory of the 20th century, particularly postwar but not exclusively.

And some of that may be generational as well. And a similar I think it’s a similar tendency to the one I was describing in relationship to avant-garde art. That we you know a similar sense that there were these kinds of moments May 68, anti-vietnam protests, the feminist movement, which hugely influential but by the time most of the artists in this show, many of them are in their thirties and forties, got going this stuff was already kind of behind them and to some extent had clearly failed to greater or lesser degree.

So but this still kind of longing for some sense of political radicalism or utonpinaism. So a sense of recesutating some of these moments and done in a way that’s very conscious that we can’t go back, we can’t be May 68 again. We can’t have that optimism, we can’t have that burn down the house revolutionary fervour, but we don’t want to be totally co-opted into market-based capitalism. The question is how do we kind of tap inot those countercultural political legacies and one of the things I thought was interesting about the artists I was drawn to is that they were doing in a rather embodied way. They weren’t just quoting the past or thinking abou the past, they actually wanted to put themselves through a kind of teim based or labour oriented process that would give them some kind of corporeal understanding of what that might mean.

Q I wanted to ask you more about this theme that you’re on about how artists in the show reflect these themes. So there are a few that kind of stuck out that I was wondering if you could speak about in that way. Like Sharon Hayes for example. Can you talk about how if someone saw her on the street with this sign “I’m a Man” they might know what she’s referring to and what she might not. Can you talk about that a bit?

A That’s something that’s exactly right. If you saw her on the street with “I am a Man” you wouldn’t exactly A) Know what the reference was, but you might, because that was an important protest. But even if you knew what the protest was you might be like why is this white woman holding up a sign that if I know the context I associate with black sanitation workers in Memphis Tennessee, what’s this chick doing with the sign? So and I think that’s what’s interesting about her work. It’s a question, it’s a question about a) what gets remembered and then how it gets represented. So with luck it would prompt some kind of question about historical memory and mediation.

One of the things that we don’t see when we see the piece in the gallery but that was important for the actual events is that she is being circled by photographers. So she invites friends to come out and document the event. So it’s pretty obvious that this woman is not actually demonstrating. She’s making a piece about the representation of physical demonstration and she’s being circled by these photographers an

I think what’ interesting about that is it was… I would say…. An early example of media manipulation, there have probably been other ones earlier. But it was quite early in terms of understanding how the press works and how imagery like that gets taken up and reproduced through the press so the kind of importance of a snappy slogan. It says “I am a Man” and “am” is underlined. So there’s a visual impact as well as a graphic role fo the political slogan.

Q There’s something in the exhibition text that that reminds me of where there’s a question of “if something isn’t recorded did it actually happen.” Can you talk about that a bit?

A Yeah some of the work in the show, it tends to divide between the iconic and the really ephermeral the really marginal. But the iconic stuff, you know the artworks that are being referenced or remade or the historical events that are being referenced and remade are the ones that have been reproduced through photography mainly.

So I think and I don’t know if this is where it crops up in the text but one of the pieces where this is very clear is there is a large silkscreen canvas downstairs and the base image is from the Birmingham Alabama race riots of 63 I think. And we know those images, we know them partly because they got a lot of press coverage and that was through Martin Luther King apparently introducing those images to the press. So he understood that if something happens down in Alabama but no one outside Birmingham knew about it, it may as well not have happened. So he manipulated the media in that.

So the artist has taken some of this press imagery and it’s from a sort of bigger series and he’s taken them from the Black Star picture agency. And he’s scanned them and also scanned other things so it’s not just a Richard Prince style of appropriation. He’s also kind of using the image and then he displays them upside down or at 90 degrees because he’s quite skeptical about the kind of flattening out that happens in the media images of violent events and so on and how we can sort of look at this stuff fairly passively over our morning croissant. So he’s trying to make it harder to read those images. But there’s another thing on that because Andy Warhol of course appropriated those images for his works on the Birminham race fights, the one of the protestor and the police with the dogs. You know attacking the protestors. So I think the artist sees himself as an heir to Andy Warhol but these days he can’t just do what Andy Warhol did. It’s a different time.

Q Yeah that’s quite a striking work that uh comes up. I was wondering if this could lead to Gerard Byrne’s work where eh constructs conversations of sci-fi authors of the past talking about what life would be like in the 80s and 90s. And part of this that comes up is how will we be remembered, what will they think of our ideas of the future? Do you think that these artists are hinting at that? Do you think that we could be as ridiculous as these guys talking about “the robot will be getting my breakfast” and all these kinds of things.

A Yeah, I think …. I do think Gerard Byrne’s work often has a kind of satirical view on a kind of confident contemporaryism. You know these men hypothesizing—I find what they wear very amusing, their cardigans and their ties and their pipes and they’re all smoking and they’re like a stereotype of a certain type of intellectual so I think he’s very conscious of gender. You know there’s a very particular kind of male pontification that they embody. So um, yeah, I think he’s definitely I think a few things about him. On the one hand he is amused by our confidence about our ability to even understand our own historical moment. I mean, we’re right in the middle of it. How can we be so sure of what’s going on? But I also think he’s also thinking about our own clichéd ideas of the 60s. You know the original Playboy magazine discussion was 63 or 65, so we have this sort of quite wooden ideas of a 60s man or the 60s. So I think it’s also kind of thinking about our sort of banal ideas of generations, our banal ideas of an era. But by exaggerating it, it’s funny because it’s so close to the original, but the original discussion was edited for publication. So it’s polished up and there’s no ummmms or uhhhhs and it’s very poised… so where was I going with that? Sorry…..

Q No I think you said a lot. But also that leads to another thing I wanted to talk about. Is part of the attraction of talking about the past and memories of the past have to do with the fact that our present era is so unwieldy to deal with the present.

A I think that could be true. I think it’s sort of daunting to um, yeah socially sort of incisive work about the present is a pretty daunting task. And I think we’re very skeptical about documentary, anything that professes to be transparent or accurate or even anything that professes to be political is quite difficult. So a most of the work in the show is political, but it’s done at one remove. Which makes it perhaps more um less overwhelming as a project. But I also think and this may not be specifically this show… but the world has changed so much in the past 20 years. I mean since the Berlin Wall came down that it’s like the histories are being made and remade all the time.

And then particularly in relation to sort of what’s happened in the former totalitarian regimes where there was only one version, there was only one political version, one story and of course there were a multitude of stories that were not aviallble, that were not allowed. I think the whole idea of an official version when there are all these grassroots stories have become such a huge issue. And there’s no one in the show I can think of….

Q So the Berlin Wall being evidence that ther’es not just one story. Yeah it’s interesting I think it comes across. Now I know that a lot of the people in this show are in their 30s, so they may not be affected by something that’s in the media a lot these days in regard to memory, which is baby boomer like memory loss, that kind of anxiety about memory, like can I remember that person’s name, stuff like that? How would the show be related to that at all, if at all?

A It is really interesting. Because I’ve been I think some of it might be personal for me. Because I’ve moved around, not a lot but this is the third country for me that I’ve lived in. And I kind of think for me that I have a sense that some of my history has got lost because I don’t see the people that are part of my own personal history. And I’m sure that’s not why I decided to do this show. I don’t know how relevant this might be. But I know when I moved here, I literally knew one person in Toronto. And it felt kind of spooky to be presenting myself as a blank slate to people here without any sense of being part of a bigger memory bank.

And so I do think there’s a kind of collective history and wanting to tap into my own lineages that were important to me but that maybe were not visible to people who would meet me. It sort of became on a personal level very important. And it’s not like I’m worried about Alzheimer’s disease just yet. But it’s losing people who hold large parts of your memory. You know as you get older, we all experience that not just people of our parents generation we experience people of our own generation dying. And taking chunks of our lives with them. We don’t see friends from certain parts of our lives anymore. I think that’s a poignant thing for me.

So yeah. But I also think like maybe less of the Alzheimer’s thing. But for me it did start to become important… I wanted sort of my own to honor my own intellectual foundations in some way and you know this is the first big show I’ve done here. So this is a way of saying, we may have never met, but here’s some stuff that especially that the Sharon Hays and Mary Kelley, that is really very personal, it really speaks to some of my own [Q your own memories?] yeah and desire to keep a sort of activist flame going. It’s probably not what you asked but…

Q No it’s interesting. Everybody has their motivations, intellectual and otherwise. Also I did notice the BBC documentary [laughter] I was thinking this is interesting but I guess this really speaks to British intellectuals

A or middle class, we were raised on that stuff

Q Yes, just like the CBC here. Definitely it resonates in a certain way with emotion. So I thought that was kind of funny.

Um you’ve told me a lot about some of the things I was interested in. Um let’s see, I just want to check here.

I was wondering a little bit about…. This connects what you were saying to people holding memories… or holding memory for other people. Dario Pobleto constructs a room that resembles his mother’s bedroom from when she was a teenager. And that raises the question of how much can we keep the memories of others going. Do you think there’s a burden that way? Even if you could just talk about that work that would be great.

A Hm. I think uh, you know I think for him he actually believes that there’s some kind of he’s very attached to objects and materials. He’s almost kind of sort of obsessed with them. And he actually believes that on some kind of molecular level there’s some kind of level of meaning that you can pass from one kind of generation to the next. And I do think he sees it as a responsibility to tell people’s stories not in a literal way but it’s almost an animist belief in materials. So and in the case of Dario he’s really interested in funeral rites. And I’m not sure if I’m making the connection exactly right here. But you know there’s that work in the middle, the reconstructed skeleton of the Lucy who was supposedly link between monkeys and humans. And just chatting to Dario is he said one of the things he’s really interested in is the theory that the human race began when we started to bury the dead. That the culture of memorial is intrinsically linked to the culture of being human vs any other species. So that really interests me.

Do I think it’s a burden? Um to me it’s more like yeah honouring the dead, honouring the spirits of the dead, not getting fooled into thinking that it’s all about the now, it’s more that we are living repositories of everything that has gotten us to where we are and finding ways to express that.

So I think that for me it’s a lot about homage and feeling that we are somehow carrying you know there’s a sort of educational theme in some fo the works and I think I’ve always felt very indebted to certain teachers not necessarily in academic situations … be it a book that I read that was incredibly significant or a person I knew who was very inspiring, I feel like I wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t had those encounters. And so it’s a way of kind of living that carries forward some of those gifts that you were given by people who helped to shape you. And Dario really believes that that you’re given these gifts of be it things like music that he’s listened to that he somehow wants to carry the spirit on or you know like with Felix Gonzales Torres, Dario takes the candy wrappers and he makes this mobile, it’s a way of um passing the gift on you know.

Q That’s great! I just want to ask you one more thing about the Nancy Davidson..

A That’s Davenport.

Q Oh god my memory is going! Nancy Davenport’s pictures of universities where protest occurred. Why do you think those are important to include?

A Well I think it’s some of the same stuff that I was discussing earlier with a longing for an earlier, more radical time. And so you know the late 60s campus was such a hotbed and there’s no place like that now and the university now, important as it is, is sort of corporate and it’s about training people to enter the workplace rather than you know become rabble rousing intellectuals. So there was kind of a nostalgia for that period. But I also think on a less serious note Nancy did have undergrad at York. So we went to York and I think it represented it was very radical you know when it was established and it represented so much that was contemporary and exciting about education. And the campus for itself was derived from sort of Brutalist architecture from California which was all about the landscape, the interaction with the architecture and it clearly failed dismally in York, it’s a very alienating environment. So I’m interested in each one of those sites relates to a specific not just a protest it wasn’t just the universities were sites of protests but those buildings were protested against. In fact one fo them was the A & E building at Yale, which the students burnt down. And I have an email from Nancy if you’re interested where she talks about what happened on each site and this building became a flashpoint. There were pamphlets being passed around weeks before it was burned saying “Come and see the fire” and it became this sort of flashpoint for protests about access and elitism so I think that’s just kind of interesting that an idea a theoretical concept that sounds so good can just fail dismally if you’re not really joining the dots.

Or actually you can’t predict how these experiments will go down. I mean, we think about public housing, and skyscrapers being modeled on what were the most radical and admired ideas within modernism. This coupled with the poverty when then ghastly roads going up all around it was a failure. You can’t take a pure idea of progress out of context. You can’t just drop it into a place and expect it to work. So I think that’s what interests me about those pictures.

But then she has this light, this lovely sort of otherworldly light which says we can still hope, we can still aspire to having the radical campus, I don’t know.

Q Hm… we can try! Well, we’ve reached the end of our time. Thanks again for talking with me.

A Thank you.

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Review: Nathan Jurevicius @ Magic Pony

Yesterday NOW published my review of Nathan Jurevicius at the gallery space of that wacky novelty shop Magic Pony. Read on here for more.

Type rest of the post here

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Commentary: When Arts + Statistics = Gong Show

With the Luminato fest, Toronto's new arts catchall event, finally wrapped, I thought I would take a look at the dire lack of any (let alone accurate, but that would help) arts access and quality measures for publicly funded fests like this one. Tip for next year: Maybe hold off on the $150-per-ticket magazine fundraisers. Read on here at Spacing Wire for more.

Image of the Luminato lesson in a nutshell from Jessica Hagy's great blog Indexed

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

At the Galleries: Morrow Ave

This week my At the Galleries hop for the National Post took me to the Morrow Ave complex, which showcases so much great art in a concentrated jolt of location. I particularly enjoyed new works from Quebecer Dan Brault, one of which is pictured above. Read on here for more picks and pans.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Interview: Rebecca Belmore

Rebecca Belmore is an artist I very much admire for taking a pointed, courageous approach--both to artmaking in general and to using art to express her own experiences as a First Nations woman. So I really wish I could get to the west coast and see the survey on her work recently opened (June 7) at the Vancouver Art Gallery. As I can't do that, I did take time to look at her past work and chat with her on the phone about it. The National Post ran a condensed version of the interview online yesterday and in print today. There were so many more questions I wanted to ask her: What was it like to represent Canada in Venice in 2005? What do you think of the current "redevelopment" of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in the run up to the Olympics? Guess I'll just have to save that for another time.

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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Review: I_WANNA_SEE_YOU_[Y.Y.Z.CA_DE_OVERSLAG.NL] @ YYZ Artists Outlet

Though it may seem like my post title has turned into an errant piece of code, I assure readers it is simply the title of the current group exhibit at YYZ Artists' Outlet. The show is a collaboration between artists from Toronto and artists from the Netherlands, where the show will travel this fall. Today NOW ran my review of their exhibition.

This was a hard show to review. Why? Because the intentions of the show were trying to make a difference, to place the power for the exhibit's final product and look into the hands of its artists rather than those of its curator or administrator.

I can understand this desire, because the art we see in museums and galleries of any kind is highly moderated and shaped by the views of the institution or business in which it rests. This doesn't mean it's better or worse than art seen in a studio environment—just that it's true the setting can be impactful, something many art viewers don't always appreciate.

My problem with this show was that while the discourse and essay for the show posited radicality, the product was, well, pretty standard. The most radical exhibition/installation twist was a series of wall drawings that permeated the space and all its artworks.

On the other hand, I can also see that radical process needn't always beget radical art. For example, programs in making art with marginalized populations, which I think are very important, don't always create work that is foundation-shaking in an art historical sense. But the process still has great value in terms of personal storytelling and understanding. And I'm fine with that.

Still, when I see a power-to-the-artists discourse trumpeted so avidly, and the results are so, well, standard, one wonders how much artists tend to internalize the typical strictures and aesthetic tastes of the institutional system.

There is one exhibit which comes to mind as capturing this radical spirit in installation and process more fully than this show did, and that's the recent Collage Party show at the Justina Barnicke Gallery. Stepping into that space really was like stepping into a collaborative studio, materials and interventions everywhere.

Or maybe my views are overly influenced by a projection of my own personal expectations for artists and curators... after all, why should artists provide all the radicality in a mass culture? So if you've seen the show and you have different views, I'm interested in hearing them.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Full Transcript: Jean Clair Interview on "The New Man"

Sorry to be a bit delayed on this, but I'm now posting the full transcript of my conversation with Jean Clair, former director of the Picasso Museum and the Centre Georges Pompidou, and current curatorial lead for the exhibition "The 1930s: The Making of the New Man", which opens this Friday at the National Gallery of Canada. In this fuller interview, Clair discusses in greater depth his perspectives on themes in 1930s artmaking—from propaganda to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (He also points out why you shouldn't beleive everything you read in a gallery media kit.) Read on after the jump for the full conversation.

Photo from Le Figaro

This interview with French curator Jean Clair took place by phone on Monday, June 2, 2008 on the occasion of “The 1930s: The Making of the New Man,” an exhibit for which Clair led curation, opening at the National Gallery of Canada.

Leah Sandals: Thanks for taking time to speak with me. I know you must be busy. My first question is relates to the fact that there are many works in this show which take very different approaches to the human body. How are they connected? Why are they all here together?

Jean Clair: Well, they are connected together in relationship with the main ideologies which emerged in the 30s and which were supposed to give man a new form under the name of “The new man.” All these ideologies were dreaming of creating a new man free from machination, free from poverty, and so on and so on and so on. And of course these ideologies were very inflential on the ways these artist represented this new body. This is the main stream of the exhibition.

To say more precisely: On one side you have artists like the surrealists, who were dreaming of a man totally free to enjoy pleasures of flesh and love, and who were dreaming of a body, according to Breton, which had a “convulsive beauty,” which means a body in a state of, so to speak, permanent orgasm.

On the other side you had the political man, who were rather thinking of the new man as a kind of very strong very severe looking and very disciplinized type of humanity practicing sport or practicing sort of a very rather severe life up to the point of creating a new body by social regeneration. This was a type of the essentially the Soviet ideologies, to make a new man out of education, social education and chastisement and purification or whatever you want.

And on the other side, much more dangerous and criminal, was the Nazi ideologies thinking of creating a racially pure man. And it gave way to a series of points of view, of iconography on one side of the sports man, the strong man, the pure race and [on the other side] a position to representations of man which were considered to be degenerate. The term of degenerate art flourished in this decade.

So it’s important to see both sides. Of course the side of the pure man is very attractive because you are dealing with beautiful specimens, but it led to the war and the concentration camps. And on the other side you have the struggle of individuals.

LS: The 1930s were also a time of great economic upheaval. How do we see this in the works… or not?

JC: In a way it is reflected but the point of view, the general point of view, is not really economic, it is biologic. The idea of creating a new man and how these very very ideals led to the worst things ever in Europe, the mass murders of the Second World War. And of course the economic is evoked in for instance [the works of of the so-called war Farm Services Administration journalists in the 1930s, in the term of the dust bowl representing the way the earth is no longer a mother.

LS: On that note, this exhibition argues that biology was key to many of these artists. How?

JC: Because if you want to create a new man you have to apply the laws of biology as they were discovered at the time. You wanted men to grow like corn in the fields at time of harvest. And of course there were many theoreticians in the Soviet Union and in Germany who were interested in breeding the human race. And of course it’s also led to new forms of representation of the body, and this way of looking at art is a bit more involving than looking at art like a pure aesthetic pleasure.

LS: Speaking of the kind of involvement evoked, some people might find the more surrealistic images of the body grotesque. How would you respond to that?

JC: If you are using the term grotesque, it applies to the whole production of modern art and contemporary art. All presentations of the body from Picasso on are grotesque; think of Jeff Koons. So what I try to do for the 30s is to show the ideological and biological basis of these grotesque appearances.

[Also,] it’s not all grotesque… the core of the exhibition are two large rooms filled with portraitures of individuals and these portraitures are very deeply moving because they represent individuals. So there is confronting what is happened at the time. And they are to me the most beautiful portraits that were made the art of painting. I’m thinking of Stanley Spencer and Balthus in France and Otto Dix in Germany and the creations of portraiture.

And of course if you’re doing this you’re also showing the plight of the individual against the growing power of the masses: masses of sportsmen, masses of soldiers and so on and so on.

LS: What about the person who comes to see this exhibit, and finds it really interesting, but goes home and says to themselves, how is this relevant to my life in 2008?

JC: Maybe two things [come to mind]… This is the first time that we are able to put on the walls paintings side by side of, for instance, Nazi totalitarianism on one side and Soviet totalitarianism on the other. Up to the late 80s that was impossible, and now it is possible to do the comparison. So it’s not only the 30s here, it’s the history of the Western world from 1917 up to the 90s… it’s very close.

The other thing which I think should interest people today again is the biological undertone. I mean, we are living in a society where eugenics is very, very powerful and the problems of eugenics are very, very present. We are dreaming again now to create a new man, beautiful, pure and immortal. Immortal would be perfection. And of course it’s not so easy. It’s not easy and it’s very dangerous. I mean, if you are dealing with illness, with death and with birth they are very burning questions again because of the progress of medicine, which is excellent. But on the other side we are turning to a new society of eugenics as in the 30s.

LS: Yes, there’s a lot of desire for perfection through plastic surgery too.

JC: Yes, altering one’s face… I’m not preaching, but just [looking at] an idea of a little closer and asking, where does it come from?

LS: This show promises to show how governments of the 30s used art styles to make their propaganda more appealing. Do you see that happening today?

JC: Well, it is very difficult to say. But the 1930s were the first time cinema, for instance, was used as a most powerful tool for propaganda. The reason why Italian artists became so famous in the 30s was Mussolini decided cinema was the art to be developed and it was the start of a school that began in propaganda films. The most striking [example] is the films of Leni Riefenstahl, which shows the very strong power of images through technology. And today of course we may think about the power of technology. It’s TV TV TV all the time.

But the exhibition is an exhibition of art; it does not have to have sociological overtones. The importance of the exhibition is made with masterpieces and we got loans of masterpieces by Picasso, by Dali by so many artists, by Pollock, by Spencer.

It’s a beautiful ensemble of masterworks.

LS: And this is what those people in the portraits were having to deal with.

JC: Yes, because it was really the time when individuals were confronted by the growing power of masses, masses being the army, being the political involvement, the political action. The 30s are filled with images of masses parading in the streets or in the stadiums, thousands and tens of hundreds of thousands of people, where they all look the same, like clones, very frightening images. So the individuals themselves become even more presences than ever and keep that even if they feel more lonely than others. So it was an explosion of an art of portraiture that had no precedent… for me the 20th century was not an age of abstraction, it was an age of portraiture—Lucian Freud, and so on, not abstractions.

LS: In the 1930s, Tarzan, Snow White and Superman all debuted in movies and comic books. How might we see that reflected in these artworks?

JC: Did you get that from the gallery? It’s totally stupid, I got furious when I read it. But of course there are a series of films that are very important, and these films which do relate to the theme very concretely. Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. A Portrait of Dorian Gray. They are all about the same years and they make sense compared to what we are dealing with in the show.

LS: You’ve given me a lot of useful information here. But I wonder if there’s anything else you’d want the average Canadian to be aware of when looking at this exhibition.

JC: I don’t know. I guess it means something that the exhibition takes place in Canada, not elsewhere. Because maybe elsewhere it would be impossible. In Germany it is too touchy. In Russia it would be impossible, because the story’s still too hot. In Canada you can look at that at a certain distance without false passions. Because you are farther from it, Canada is a very good belvedere to look at that.

And well… I think it’s a good thing of the National Gallery to have undertaken.
It’s very difficult because when you are dealing with 200 masterpieces; it’s almost impossible to get the loans for more than four months.

LS: Will the show travel?

JC: It’s almost impossible to keep them traveling. But on the other side, I’m very struck by the fact that all the great museums in the world have agreed to lend works for something that is not an aesthetic project but that is a much more serious project. I think that is very important.

LS: Interesting. Outside of this project, are there any contemporary artists you really enjoy?

JC: I discovered Lucian Freud in the early 70s and at the time he was not considered, and now he is considered the very great painting artist. I am very proud I discovered him 40 years ago. But the youngest ones… I am looking at production today and it is corrupt with mercantilisms. So I’m not interested anymore.

LS: No art fairs for you.

JC: No, certainly not.

LS: And what’s on the agenda for you after this?

JC: I’m opening a Balthus exhibition in a few weeks for the centennial of Balthus. That’s in a few days. And then I have other projects but later I won’t go on about them before it’s written down.

LS: Well, thanks for your time, I know you must be very busy. And good luck with the show.


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Interview: Jean Clair on "The New Man" in Ottawa

Often I tend to get swept up in contemporary work and forget about masterpieces of the past. I'll try to take a closer look after talking with Jean Clair, former director of Paris's Picasso Museum, who recently headed up a one-of-a-kind exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada called "The 1930s: The Making of the New Man." Clair has a lot of experience with the modern masters like Picasso, Balthus, and Miro and he quite rightly continues to advocate for their importance today. I'll post a full transcript tonight, but until then take a look at the condensed interview published in today's National Post.

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Monday, June 2, 2008

News: Yves St Laurent dead

As reported by many media outlets today, Yves St Laurent died last night at the age of 71. I don't usually have my eye on the world of fashion, but given that I recently did an interview on the 40-year YSL retrospective just opened in Montreal, it certainly makes me wonder how this might impact the show there.

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