Thursday, October 30, 2008

Out today: Q&A with Horror-Humour Artiste Diana Thorneycroft

Diana Thorneycroft is well known in Canada and abroad for her early, darkly themed works about the infliction of harm on the body. Her recent series featuring cartoon characters killing each other was on this theme, but also had an interesting copyright spin. Today, the National Post published my interview with her on her most recent--and possibly most lighthearted--body of work to date, a spoof on classic paintings called "A Group of Seven Awkward Moments." Click here or read on after the jump for Thorneycroft's take on everything from the G7 to Bob and Doug McKenzie.

Image of Group of Seven Awkward Moments (Jack Pine) courtesy of Diana Thorneycroft

If it doesn't kill you...
Leah Sandals, National Post
Published: Thursday, October 30, 2008

Tomorrow night, millions of Canadians will don costumes and live out the horror and humour that Halloween evokes. But Winnipeg artist Diana Thorneycroft works year-round to integrate both masquerade and morbid joking into art. In her most recent series, The Group of Seven Awkward Moments, currently on view at Montreal's Art Mur, Thorneycroft both imitates and pokes fun at iconic Canuck creations. Here, Thorneycroft tells Leah Sandals how she crafts her artistic tricks and treats.

Q What do you like and dislike about the Group of Seven?

A The one thing I'm critical of is the claim that they represent Canadian art. Writer David Silcox says that their paintings are the visual equivalent of a national anthem, that represent the spirit of our whole country. But they exclude so much. Most of the paintings were done in Ontario and Quebec. And they're all by white guys. I'm not the first person to challenge their legacy, but I challenge it using dark humour.

Having said that, I look at the group's paintings a lot, and I really like them, especially Tom Thomson's. They're fantastic, considering Thomson did these outside when he was freezing or dealing with swarming blackflies. So overall I've really come to admire their work.

Q How did you start making this series, The Group of Seven Awkward Moments?

A I was doing a series called Canadiana Martyrdom, using paintings of Christian martyrdoms as a template. Instead of John the Baptist, I martyred Celine Dion or Wayne Gretzky or Don Cherry. So I was already working with Canadiana.

Then Winnipeg's Plug In gallery invited artists to do pieces for a fund-raiser called Group of Seven with a Twist. Right around that time, the Winnipeg Art Gallery had obtained Tom Thomson's Early Snow. So I bought a poster of it at their gift shop and put it in the background of a scene. Also, I'd recently purchased a toy Bob and Doug Mackenzie set, so I put them in the foreground. Then I surrounded them with wolves, and called the piece Early Snow with Bob and Doug. The response was really great and I thought, "OK, I know what my next project is."

Q Can you describe a couple of those awkward moments from your perspective?

A One of the first ones that I did is called Group of Seven Awkward Moments in Algonquin Park. I shop at Michael's craft store all the time, and I saw a figurine of two kids about to the lick this flagpole with a Canadian flag. It seemed so perfect, because pretty well everyone in Canada remembers when they first stuck their tongue to cold metal. So I played with that, and pushed it.

Another image, Jack Pine, is based on a theory about Tom Thomson's death, that a jealous boyfriend caught Thomson with his girlfriend and murdered him. So in this image the jealous boyfriend sees Tom making out with his girl in a tent, with little paintings Tom might have made also in the tent.

Q In your career, you've moved from portraying the body in rather dark ways to creating these art historical jokes. How do you make sense of that shift?

A What's common with all of the work I've done is the body in harm's way. In my early black-and-white work it was about my own body, and now I'm using all these GI Joes as surrogates. Though it's humorous, it's still about the body in harm's way, like Thomson's body floating in a lake.

Q What are you working on next?

A Well, the next body of work is going to be tough, not funny. The working title is A Group of Seven Atrocities. I started researching things like residential schools, Mount Cashel orphanage and the destruction of Africville, things that have happened in Canadian history that are much more than awkward. Later, I might expand these works to the G7 or G8, which means including atrocities that took place in the States and France and Germany. Basically, I see this going down a road that's a lot less humorous but still appropriate.

But before I do that I still have a couple of awkward moments I want to make! I had a friend build me an Avro Arrow replica, because when [former prime minister John] Diefenbaker cancelled that, it was a pretty awkward moment in Canadian history. I also want do to Santa Claus in a sled accident. Then I will start the harder stuff.

Diana Thorneycroft: The Group of Seven Awkward Moments continues to Nov. 8 at Montreal's Art Mur. Visit for more information.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

News from the West: Or, Things I Love (or Hate) But Forgot About Until I Was Reminded Of Same

There's always notable things happening out West in Alberta and BC and Saskatchewan and Manitoba. But here are a few items that have come to my attention lately from the great Conservative land of AB.

A Sad History of Grave Mismanagement at the Art Gallery of Calgary
In an excellent article in this week's FFWD, Anthea Black and Drew Simpson Anderson investigate ongoing complaints about the troubled Art Gallery of Calgary. As they note, artist complaints about the 8-year-old AGC have involved one or all of the following: work being damaged; work being soiled; work being misused (eg. a text piece being rearranged to spell the name of a corporate sponsor!); not being paid promised exhibition fees; being given the runaround on said exhibition fees, etc. Further, the gallery has gone through three head curators in as many years, with two of these currently entrenched in legal battles against the AGC. What's more, the AGC can't seem to keep an artist on its board for more than a few months. For me the biggest shocker is that when current CEO Valerie Cooper arrived in 2004, "the key challenge...was simply paying employees on time. She arrived to find 11 bank accounts with about $50 between them and two weeks to make payroll." [emphasis mine]

Insane. And sad. Why? Because as Black and Simpson Anderson take pains to point out, the AGC was a grassroots endeavour at first, coming into existence because of the participation of 14 arts organizations.

I myself have talked with the new AGC head curator, Marianne Elder, and, as Black and Simpson Anderson assess, I too am tentatively optimistic that Elder, who's originally from Ontario and most recently worked in California, will do her best to turn this situation around. Still, it won't be easy. And as the Glenbow takes up the torch of contemporary art with former Art Gallery of Nova Scotia CEO Jeffrey Spalding at its helm, funders will likely be drawn to that museum's more established administrative track record, even if it's Spalding, newly arrived, who's bringing a strong contemporary arts focus to the traditionally history-oriented museum.

On a More Inspiring Note: Ronnie Burkett's New Show
It was not until I saw former Calgary Herald and FFWD staffer Martin Morrow's feature on Alberta-bred theatre artist Ronnie Burkett at the other day that I remembered just how much I love Burkett's work. Burkett is an amazing puppeteer and puppet maker who actually plays all the roles in his quite-sexy-and-grownup puppet plays himself. Now I know from this one-sentence summary that this actually sounds a bit like a creepy horror flick waiting to happen. But in real life experiencing a Burkett show is nothing short of wondrous. This man is seriously a Canadian cultural treasure. Here's how Morrow summarizes Billy Twinkle, Requiem for a Golden Boy, Burkett's new production just premiered at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre:

An affectionate spoof of the American variety puppet acts that flourished in the middle of the 20th century. ... In typical Burkett fashion, the new show has a cast of 24 wood-and-string characters, all manipulated by their nimble-fingered creator. They include the denizens of Billy’s splendidly louche act: drunken opera diva Biddy Bantam Brewster; naughty old man Murray Spiegelmann, with his balloon-in-the-pants shtick; burlesque babe Rusty Knockers; and the lovable, roller-skating Bumblebear.

Then there’s Billy’s late mentor, Sid Diamond, who appears to his despondent protege as a hand puppet. Sid comes back to rescue Billy when the middle-aged puppeteer, fired from his job with Happy Sea Fun Cruises, considers leaping overboard to his death. Refusing to leave Billy’s side, the insistent Sid makes him relive his life as a marionette play in the hope that the erstwhile “golden boy” will recapture his passion for puppetry.

Yes! Yes! Yes! Can't wait to see it if and when it makes it to TO (so far the closest web fer-sure is the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Or the Sydney Opera House, if you're really willing to spend those Aeroplan points.)

Finally: A Promising Glimpse Into a Not So Harper-Centric Alberta
Gillian Steward has been a journalist in Calgary for decades, spending some of that time as managing editor at the leading city daily, the Calgary Herald. So when her biweekly columns in the Toronto Star come out, I always make a point to read them for an informed first-person view from the west.

In her most recent column, published this Sunday, October 26, Steward tries to make the case that "beneath that apparently impenetrable shield [of conservative voting] there are a few signs of a yearning and a churning for change, especially in Alberta." She notes to this end that an NDP candidate was elected in central Edmonton and that the highest Green Party vote in the country came from downtown Calgary. She also points out that provincially, four Liberals--yes, you've got that right, Liberals--hold the seats for downtown Calgary.

As Steward predicts it, the economy might play a role in even larger left-leaning votes to come: "There's no question that a sharp drop in the price of oil can quickly shift the sands of support for the ruling party. And the price of oil has certainly dropped a lot in the past few weeks. This time around, Albertans won't have the National Energy Program to blame for their troubles. Instead, the blame will likely fall much closer to home." Really worth a read if this last election gave you a hangover, oil or otherwise.

Image of Ronnie Burkett with one of his puppets from

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Public Art Picks in Toronto

For this weekend's gallery hop, published in Saturday's National Post, I picked out three public art genres that are on view right now in Toronto. It was a great opportunity to give a shout-out to 24/7 window spaces like Convenience Gallery, whose opening for the tongue-in-cheek Parkdale International Art Fair is pictured above. Read on after the jump for more.

Photo courtesy of Flavio Trevisan, Convenience Gallery

The Great Outdoors
Leah Sandals, National Post
Published: Saturday, October 25, 2008

A chill wind passed through Toronto streets this week, sending pedestrians scurrying for forced-air cover. But the truth is that there is still plenty of hot public art out there to take the threat-of-winter edge off. Whether you mix up some toddies in a thermos or grab a mocha on the go, checking out these outdoor art sites provides a grown-up kind of trick or treat.


Everyone in Toronto has seen a decent chalk drawing or two in their trips around town. But U. K. chalk artist Julian Beever takes the technique to the next level, using anamorphic perspective to create works that, from certain angles, seem completely three-dimensional. (Google him for some appealing eye-popping evidence.) Admittedly, Beever's no Banksy -- though his technique is remarkable, his content is mundane and is often contracted out for corporate purposes. Such is the case this week, where Beever's first trip to Toronto has been-- rather unromantically --made in service of a new frozen pizza brand. Still, the skills of the self-dubbed "Pavement Picasso" are worth a drop-by as he creates some pics on the sidewalks around Yonge and Eglinton. If your tastes run more hip hop than Holbein, be sure to check out Graffiti Alley just south of Queen between Spadina and Portland for a more pointed painted-on-the-city view.


Another way to experience public art is through the many window galleries that have cropped up around Toronto. Convenience Gallery, so named for its former corner store incarnation at 58 Lansdowne Ave., is one that's worth a look right now with its show called the Parkdale International Art Fair. In a dozen 2 x 3 x 2 foot mini booths, PIAF highlights neighbourhood artists while poking fun at the convention-centre-centric art fair craze of recent years. There's a surprising diversity here for the size, with highlights including Diane Borsato's Arrangements of a Stolen Flowers (exactly what it sounds like),Orest Tataryn's Great Scott, It's Mini Flav, a neon installation that jokes about famed light artist Dan Flavin, Melissa Levin's Witness, a diorama of a winter scene and Shawn Skeir's Untitled -- a glossy, colourful lacquered work. Other window galleries of note include Side Space Gallery at 1080 St. Clair Ave. W., Fly Gallery at 1172 Queen St. W. and QueenSpecific at 787 Queen St. W.


Another major form of public art to seek out this week is performance, as the 7a*11d performance art festival brings its seventh incarnation to parks and sidewalks around the downtown core. Watch for Vancouverite Glenn Lewis's wittily titled A Sweeping Statement tomorrow afternoon as the artist collects rubbish for sculptural material along Queen and Dundas between Spadina and Church. Also keep an eye out for local artist Tonik Wojtyra's Hush My Dear, a humorous performance where an RCMP officer seemingly attempts to lull a Canada goose at Trinity Bellwoods Park. Regina artist Robin Poitras's The Oval, a temporary installation of 24 chairs and 60 rearview mirrors set up in random public spaces, will also provide a spot for reflection. Find out more at

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Out today: Interview & Review for Art Market Tome; Q&A on Karaoke Art; and a Review of Kruger at Art Met

Out today from me in various media:

An interview on art market issues for with Don Thompson (pictured above) author of The $12 Million Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art.

A review of the same book for NOW. The print version was chopped for space; read on after the jump for my full review.

An National Post Q&A with young TO curator Maiko Tanaka about the karaoke art show she recently co-curated for the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery.

A NOW review of Toronto artist Nestor Kruger's somewhat disappointing current show at Art Metropole. I love Art Met, but the work Kruger chose to show there just really doesn't seem to work in the space.

by Don Thompson. Doubleday. Cloth. 268 p. Rating: NNN

Review by Leah Sandals

As world markets crumbled last month, at least one man knew his net worth wasn’t falling: British artist Damien Hirst. On September 15, Hirst’s works earned their highest-ever auction prices, including $17 million for a stuffed shark piece.

In The $12 million Stuffed Shark (which refers to Hirst’s previous high-sale price) York U business professor Don Thompson tries to figure out why certain works of art bring in so much cash, while others molder away in cramped studios.

The best part of the book is that Thompson is an economist. His chapters focus on things like the branding of artists, collectors and dealers and competition between auction houses and gallerists. All of these do help explain why prices for some contemporary art is so high—even equal, at times, to the operating budgets of major museums like New York’s MoMA.

Similarly, the worst part of the book is that Thompson is an economist. He describes artworks in terms of materials, not meaning or sensation. One gets the sense that he might call Anna Karenina a pound of cheap paper containing a few words about a two-timing lady who kills herself. Or describe a great pizza as flour and water topped with old tomatoes and cheese, warmed over.

Still, there are locally relevant insights to be had. A chapter about museums and private interests is particularly timely given that the AGO’s huge reno gives collector Ken Thomson an exclusive display space. And a chapter on art fairs explains why Queen West gallerists spend so much time out of the country these days.

Toronto never have Hirst’s shark, but its lessons still linger.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Catch the Colour Excitement: 3 Bright 'n' Shiny TO Shows

So I've realized I really really do like bright and shiny objects. I know art writers shouldn't, really, because it can kind of make you blind to whether an artwork functions on many other levels. Still, here's 3 TO shows that I think fit the bill:

1) Elizabeth McIntosh & Elspeth Pratt at Diaz Contemporary to November 15
I will unabashedly say that I love Elizabeth McIntosh's work. Her abstract paintings, usually of technicolour triangle forms on canvas, just rock my world somehow. The one I saw at Blanket Gallery's TIAF booth was especially rockin, with lots of silver paint. The Diaz show is a bit more adult and grand, with larger canvases, a deeper palette, and a more greyed-down metal shade. But it's still quite lovely. Pratt's minimalist yet scruffy sculptures make a good complement with their piles of plywood parallelograms and corrugated cardboard made formally Flavian. A do-go-see.

2) Team Macho at Magic Pony to October 26
This show has already had a chunk of publicity, and strong sales, but it is good enough to merit more. Team Macho illustration collective indeed riffs on the much-trod Royal Art Lodge vein, but some of their work is plain old irresistible rather than just plain old. I loved the images with cats in sorcerer hats looming massive in classic English landscapes, the perfectly realist watercolour of a bicycle, the imaginary 1940s Women's Auxiliary Choir and Breast Exposition League. All gold. Even better: the "Perfect Day" painting showing a guy in a boat with two dolphins, it's implied, humping in the water. And even better than that: The "Worst Day" painting showing the same guy in a boat with a dolphin, it's implied, humping his girlfriend in the water. I do agree with my colleague Fran Schechter when she many of these faux-naive works make her "want to call the art therapist," stat. But I still like it.

3) Regine Schumann at Galerie Lausberg to November 4
Bright and shiny is pretty much the definition of German artist Regine Schumann's coloured plexiglas boxes. But they're not as shallow as they might seem. Sure, they could stand in for many a high-end-bar's lighting fixture. But they also have a really lovely colour-combination quality if you have the daylight available to really observe them in. Pretty, pretty stuff in that unadorned minimalist way.

Bonus: Instant Coffee's "Say Nothing in Bright Colours" at MKG127 to November 15
I haven't had a close look at this show, just a quick drop in, hence the bonus status. Still, from what I saw--folding signs with the eponymous "Say Nothing in Bright Colours" saying and similars, cellophane-covered flourescent light sculptures and neon-pink wallpaper, it seems to fit the bill. And hey, even though the economy's tanking and the weather's getting frostbitey, Instant Coffee has proclaimed it "The Year of Bright Days." And if you can't tell already, I'll take all of those I can get, irony coated and otherwise, thank you very much.

Artwork from top: Elizabeth McIntosh's Untitled (sectioned composition- triangles and parallel lines) 2008; Elspeth Pratt Facing Out 2008; Team Macho artwork; Regine Schumann's colourful plexi boxes.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

The Schlock of the New: A Writing Workshop at U of Toronto Art Centre this Wednesday

This Wednesday, October 22, I'm giving a student workshop at the University of Toronto Art Centre on arts journalism. The talk is called "The Schlock of the New: Separating Good Art from Bad in 300 Words or Less," and it starts runs from 11 am to 12 noon. Tips for both writing on art and undertaking freelance writing in general will be offered, and the pros and cons of the arts journalism genre discussed. If you're a student at all interested in the behind the scenes of art magazines and mainstream newspapers, come on out--and learn from my many mistakes!

Image of stilled, writer's-blocked hands from

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Fun video: Adrian Searle at Frieze Art Fair

Though sales are slower at the Frieze Art Fair this year, it seems there's a lot of fun stuff to look at. Since I can't be there myself, I enjoyed this video following Guardian art critic Adrian Searle around the fair--in it, Canuck Rodney Graham has a cool bicycle-photokinetoscope that earns him a shout-out. Searle's colleague Jonathan Jones's top 10, the Guardian's photo galleries and Roberta Smith's reports in the New York Times are also helpful.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Out today: Interview with Connie Butler on WACK! in Vancouver, Review of Carol Wainio's Prescient Paintings in TO

Politicians grapple, but art goes on. A couple of pieces of mine out today:

A National Post interview with MoMA curator Connie Butler on her blockbuster touring show WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, which recently opened at the Vancouver Art Gallery. One neat thing about having this show in Vancouver is that there's a bunch of other feminist-related shows happening in town at the same time, like Western Front's The F Word. Hope I can make it out there before it all closes.

A NOW review of Carol Wainio's prescient and pensive paintings at Wynick/Tuck in Toronto.

Image of Martha Rosler's Nature Girls (Jumping Janes) 1966-72 from

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Le Sad, Le Sadder, Le Saddest: Canadian Democracy in Action, or Inaction

You don't have to reading your friends' status updates on Facebook to know that many artists in Canada are sad about today's election results, which show arts-fund-cutter, Kyoto-hater, surplus-spender Stephen Harper back in the Prime Minister's seat. But it helps. "In shock," "moving to another country, maybe Malta," "disgusted with the Canadian electorate," "upset by the election results," "disappointed in Canadian politics" and "questioning the strategy of not voting strategically" were all up there today on the Interweb.

In short, the artsy left in Canada today is feeling morose. But it's not the worst that could have happened:

Le Sad: Harper wins the west as usual, but another party wins the election. Tenuous party bonds continue to exist between urban and rural areas, and between east and west. Nation goes into recession, tries to get back into Kyoto, left still continues to struggle, etc.

Le Sadder: Harper wins in a minority government. Political bonds between urban and rural Canada, east and west, nearly evaporate. Nation goes into recession, avoids Kyoto (even though climate change has been an election issue for scientists for well over a decade), haggles over a good many other things from daycare to taxation to centralization of government power. Left still continues to struggle, etc.

Le Saddest: Harper wins a majority. Social conservatism wins along with economic conservatism. Reversals or steps towards reversals on abortion, gay marriage, immigration, etc. Spending cuts to many needed social programs including health care, employment insurance, welfare and pensions. Left still continues to struggle, etc.

So we're basically in middle-melancholy, Le Sadder territory here. I agree it's still pretty sad. Here are a few things that make me Le Happier:

1) A graphic showing how little of the vote the Tories actually got:

2) The hope that the dissonance between this graphic and current Tory control will spur the gears of electoral reform in Canada - to join the cause see FAIR VOTE CANADA (thanks again to David Meslin for the image and the link)

3) This Onion article, "Report: 60 Million People You'd Never Talk To Voting for The Other Guy" which manages to make light of the fact that our society seems to be ever more divided. Just as many artists are wondering why people voted Tory, there are many Tories wondering why so many people voted Liberal/NDP/Green/Bloc, right? Ok, that's veering further into Le Sad, not Le Happy.

4) Thinking of ways to try and bridge that idological divide that don't involve joining the Conservative Party. Could it be time for an Albertan-Ontarian alliance? Urban-rural? 416-905? We might need to get real creative here.

5) Thinking "At least it's not a majority!" And repeating.

6) Thinking "Thank god for Quebec and Newfoundland" (which both dropped their vote for the Tories)

Things are much more complex, of course, than this simple list, but offering it makes me Less Le Sad. Merci.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Must-read: Haroon Siddiqi on Harper's frightened diplomats

I don't want to go off the deep end with Canadian election coverage, but political commentator Haroon Siddiqi's op-ed on Stephen Harper in today's Toronto Star is really a must-read. In it, he discusses how scared diplomats and commissioners have become to even speak off the record about their areas of expertise--after all, Harper's gov has fired and harrassed even arm's length agency heads for speaking truths that bother him. Here's a few choice excerpts:

Harper shares several traits with Bush. He can be excessively partisan: you're either with him or against him. If you don't back his disastrous and costly Afghan policy, you are unpatriotic, unfaithful to Canadian troops and an apologist for the Taliban.

He is secretive and authoritarian. He does not tolerate dissent.

As is well-known, he muzzled his caucus, including ministers, and the federal bureaucrats, including our diplomats. Never before in my 40 years of travelling abroad have I run into so many envoys at our embassies so fearful of giving even off-the-record briefings on the countries they are posted in. The John Manley commission on Afghanistan found this appalling, saying it has prevented our diplomats from representing our interests.

We also know what Harper did to the heads of three independent commissions who challenged him.

Linda Keen was fired as head of the Nuclear Safety Commission, hours before she was to appear before a parliamentary committee, over disagreements on the shutdown of the Chalk River reactor.

Chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand was berated and taken to court for prosecuting the Tories for accounting tricks to get around the Elections Act limits on spending.

Peter Tinsley, chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission, has been blocked at every turn from probing allegations of possible Canadian complicity in the torture of Afghan detainees.

"In each of these dust-ups," wrote professor Lorne Sossin of the faculty of law at the U of T, the Harper government looked "reckless, petty, arrogant, incompetent, paranoid, sinister and/or just plain vindictive."

Harper has also been accused of saying one thing and doing another. Almost all politicians are a bundle of contradictions but he seems more so than most.

As for Harper taking saying he'll do better on the economy than others, that also seems doubtful...

Finally, on the economy, Harper's shrill warnings that a Liberal government would spell doom for Canada ring hollow, given that he and Flaherty have blown a $12 billion surplus left by Paul Martin.

Harper and most conservative leaders talk of fiscal responsibility but end up emptying the treasury through massive tax cuts, mostly to corporations while resisting increases in minimum wages, and through high defence spending.

Brian Mulroney left a $42 billion deficit; Harris-Eves a $5 billion deficit and a record $111 billion debt; Ronald Reagan left a massive deficit and debt, while Bush turned a $230 billion surplus into a deficit of about $500 billion, and accumulated a debt of $10 trillion.

I hope that Canadians are able to remember some of this as they head to the polls on Tuesday. Calgary writer Gillian Steward's op-ed running on the same page contains a few choice reminders too: that Calgary Conservative MPs, namely, still tend to an anti-immigrant view of Canada. Being from Alberta, I hate the redneck label as much as anyone, but these guys have really stepped out of line.

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Gallery hoppin: Distillery & Queen West

I finally got some gallery hopping in last week! As I mentioned in the National Post yesterday, I enjoyed Harold Edgerton's science pix at Corkin Gallery and Ryan McGinness's op art at Artcore in the Distillery district. I was also surprised to see Anthony Goicolea's newer, dystopic works at Monte Clark--quite a switch from the sexy self-lovins the artist became known for.

Other shows I enjoyed around town were John Eisler at Diaz (the folded canvas layers on the wall and silver mylar on the floor was just too appealing), Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky at Pari Nadimi, and Jay Isaac at Paul Petro. Up at Bloor and Lansdowne, I was also glad to see the Black Panthers poster exhibit at Toronto Free Gallery before it came down.

Petro mentioned that he's expecting the recession to bring back a level of connaisseurship to the art market--that, in other words, those who are collecting art on a whim will drop out, while those who really love it will stay in and give up other extras to keep collecting. An interesting perspective, particularly given that he's been through a few market downturns. At TIAF, I also heard word from some galleries that they were selling more older "sure thing" works rather than newer, less tested stuff. It will be very interesting to see the impacts on small and large scales.

Photo of Jay Isaac's monument to failed paintings from Paul Petro Contemporary Art

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Friday, October 10, 2008

TGI-the-last-F Before the Election: Strategic Voting, Candidate Endorsements & More

So today we're quaffing more than the work week woes with our TGIF beers. After all, we're also nearing the end of the sprint that is a Canadian election campaign. The election was called on September 7, just 33 days ago, and we head to the polls on Tuesday October 14.

Since I last posted on election-related issues, there's been a ton of work done by arts groups across the country to bring out the vote against arts-fund-cutting PM Stephen Harper. Theatres coast to coast hosted an event called "The Wrecking Ball" on Monday night, while yesterday in Toronto (and other times elsewhere) artists joined in creating concerts titled "This is Not A Conservative Party". Both generated considerable media coverage for their cause.

Yet what will the election turnout actually be? It's still a bit of a nailbiter, particularly in light of the fact that the newspaper many artists consider their fave, the Globe and Mail, released an endorsement for Harper today.

Interestingly, over at the Toronto Star, there's an editorial from a former Conservative cabinet minister, Sinclair Stevens, that quite effectively argues why Canadians should vote against Harper. What Stevens reminds us is that while Harper strongly positions himself as a "law-and-order" candidate willing to send 14-year-olds to jail, he himself broke the law by calling this election. And it's not like Harper didn't know he was doing it; he's the one who introduced and pushed for the law, for crissake! All hypocrisy, arts and environment arguments aside, I'm not keen on having a prime minister who breaks the law when it suits his purposes--in this case, obtaining a majority government.

A variety of strategic voting (ie. how to make sure a conservative doesn't get elected in your riding) websites have sprung up in the past few weeks to prevent just such a majority from happening. A note, however: Longtime Toronto-area political activist David Meslin recently has been trying to get the word out that strategic voting, while it might be useful this election, is only a band-aid solution. What's needed, he says, in the long term, is a move to proportional representation. So here is a list, cribbed from an email from Meslin, of some strategic voting sites as well as sites on proportional representation and electoral reform.

Strategic Voting & Vote Swapping:





PAIR VOTE - Strategic Voting for 2008 Canadian Federal Election


Electoral Reform:


Open letter from Fair Vote Canada to strategic voters and vote-swappers


I guess former Conservative cabinet ministers can be right sometimes, huh? Happy weekend!

Stencil of Stephen Harper from the Canadian Association of Income Trust Investors Weblog

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Out today: Q&A on Art Rocking in MTL; Review of Carla Zaccagnini in TO

Links to a couple of my articles published today:
  • A Q&A with Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art curator Francois LeTourneaux on his museum hosting the touring exhibition "Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll since 1967", from today's National Post

  • A review of Brazilian artist and curator Carla Zaccagnini's trippy exhibit at the Art Gallery of York University in NOW Toronto
Image of Jim Lambie's Pinball Wizard (2007), Courtesy of the artist, the Modern Institute Glasgow and Anton Kern Gallery New York, Copyright Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago 

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Monday, October 6, 2008

Weekend highlights: Nuit Blanche, TIAF & UpArt

Toronto's mayorally designated "Art Week" is almost over. There was really much to much for any one person to take in, but here's a few personal highlights.

For Nuit Blanche, I really enjoyed Yoko Ono's Imagine Peace billboard and Wish Trees, Barr Gilmore's Honest sign, Rita McKeough's oil pumps, Daniel Olson's spotlight tower, CARFAC's political campaigning, Jon Sasaki's bizzarro mascots and most important, the general mood of excitement and enthusiasm that pervaded the event.

Less enjoyable was a lack of signage, some long walking distances downtown, and long waits for streetcars. You can read more opinions--with pictures-- at, BlogTO, Torontoist, and Sally & LM. I also filed a news report on the event, published in today's National Post.

At the Toronto International Art Fair, which remains open today to 6pm, I really dug Other Editions, a collaboration between Paul Butler's roving Other Gallery and Winnipeg printmaking workshop Martha Street Studios. Other Editions works with various artists on some lovely folios. A recent edition with the Royal Art Lodge--"All the Books I have Ever read"--is great. I was less impressed by Other Gallery's actual display, which seems to hinge on collaborator Guy Maddin's fame and fortune.

Ron Tran at Vancouver's Lawrence Eng Gallery (formerly Tracy Lawrence Gallery) is also showing some fun  photo collages. It was great to learn more about his public installations, which include affixing rolls of tape to utility poles for people to use when putting up signs. 

Similarly, at Vancouver's Jeffrey Boone, I liked learning more about Matthew Brannon's Robertson's public works, which include rearranging piles of alley detritus and reworking empty billboards. 

Over at Montreal gallerist Donald Browne, I really liked Eve K. Tremblay's print "Facebook," a small photograph which shows someone's head literally planted in a book. This is part of a series of upcoming works based on books and book culture, with a special emphasis on Farenheit 451. After all, Browne says, books may soon disappear due to digital proliferation, if not to censorship. Don't know if I buy that, but I still love Tremblay's bookish plays on words and images I see so far.

On the nonprofit exhibitor side of things, the AGYU's outreach project displays are getting better, including a display of soundscape projects from Parkdale high-schoolers. The TIAF's not the best outlet for experiencing these particular works, but I'm glad they're there. Rashmi Varma's postcolonial embroidery studio from MOCCA's latest Dyed Roots show is more successful in the context I think. No. 9's installation of T&T's weird boat/car hybrid is also fun.

UpArt, the 2008 adaptation of the Toronto Alternative Art Fair International, offered a much smaller array of works than TIAF, but tellingly showed installation environments that would've been an impossible "sell" at TIAF. Highlights included:

Francois Morelli's beautiful installation including silkscreened wallpaper, stamp-printed plates and an ancient winged carriage, all presented by Montreal's Joyce Yahouda Gallery;

Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby's Reanimating the Universe through Basic Breathing Exercises, an installation of taxidermied animals and time-lapse videos contrasting nature and culture;

TH&B's convincing and to-scale hydro pole swarmed with thistles;

Noel Middleton's Platonic Material Plane, curated by Magic Pony, which created a kind of darkened ewok hut out of a bare studio space;

Hajra Waheed's installation and wall drawing;

and Bruno Billio's foyer sculpture featuring a rectangular yellow and black tower supported by toy rhinoceroses and only held together by pressure of the floor and ceiling.

Also interesting but a little less stunning was Greg Elgstrand's exhibition of prints from Jessica Eaton, Chris Faulkner, Jimmy Limit and Tony Romano, with the exhibition changing daily and a new poster created for each day.

I'm definitely interested in what others have to say about all these events!

Photo of Barr Gilmore's Benefit of the Doubt by Itdan from Spacing Wire

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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Nuit Blanche tips!

Tonight at 6:52pm, art takes over downtown Toronto for 12 hours with Nuit Blanche. For tips and starter schedules, check out me and Mark Medley's "Nuit x 3" published in the National Post Toronto section today. Also helpful could be the great Gabrielle Moser's summary of her Nuit Blanche tips over at

In an interesting turn, there are a few unofficial Nuit Blanche projects that will place a focus on political issues:
No matter what you do, have fun! And bring snacks!

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Friday, October 3, 2008

Election Debate Aftermath: Merci, Monsieur Duceppe, and thanks Kenny Doren too

Like many Canadians who watched the English-language electoral debates last night, my reactions veered from glee to horror and back again as our political party leaders tried to make themselves look good on television.

For my money, Elizabeth May is the best speaker and most levelheaded in the bunch, at least in English. But francophone Gilles Duceppe didn't do so badly either. I was also mighty pleased to see him provoke from Harper into ice-stare mode on his $45-million summer arts cuts.

See, Harper, not a bad speaker himself, except for what appears to be an excess of lipliner and some bloodshot eyes, attempted to stay on message during the arts funding segment of the debate with his supposed rationale for the cuts: that they were cutting programs proven to be ineffective in promoting the arts.

While others like Dion and Layton pointed out (quite reasonably) that there was evidence the cuts were made for other, more ideological reasons, Harper tried to talk them down with "effectiveness" jargon.

Then Duceppe shot over, "Well, if the programs were so ineffective, why didn't your government provide the balance sheets or the report the outlined the details proving that? We had a parliamentary culture committee ask your government for documents proving the programs were ineffective, and none were provided. Where is your proof?" [I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist.]

Harper back: Ice stare. Good one, Duceppe!

Of course, there are a myriad of other reasons that were raised during the debate for voting against Harper: a couple were his reversal of promise on keeping income trusts tax free and the increasing bad reputation he's engendered for Canada abroad on environmental policy--since the Conservatives came to power, Canada has earned the shameful distinction of being the only country worldwide that signed Kyoto and has since pulled out. And there are others that didn't even make it onto the table, like his dismantling of the Prime Minister's scientific advisor program and the bizarre banning of the word innovation from government materials.

If you need to keep track of all the reasons not to vote for Harper, check out, a new site, developed in part by artist Kenny Doren, which provides 21 easily-downloadable-and-printable posters for everybody's use. I don't feel strongly about all of them, but there's something for everyone there. That abolishing of the Access to Information Database should do it for anybody in a media sector, really.

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Tim Lee wins Sobey Award, Proves Art Writers Can Eventually Produce Things of Societal Value

So.... I've been wondering of late what the value of art writing really is. Because... you know... sometimes trying to translate art for the public can be construed as "dumbing down" on the one hand and "highfalutin' n' irrelevant" on the other.

But luckily, Tim Lee's win last night of the $50,000 Sobey Award should give art writer like myself heart. Why? Because Lee himself was once an art writer, and his win suggests that maybe, just maybe, art writers could produce something of culturally recognized value. Yes! [insert repeated fist pump here]

In honour of Lee's win (which, to recap, designates him as 2008's best Canadian artist under 40), I am at long last running the transcript of my phone conversation with him which took place on the eve of the Sobey semifinalists exhibition opening at the Royal Ontario Museum back in August. The condensed version was published in the National Post around that time. Read on after the jump for more of that good stuff.

Image of Tim Lee's My, My, Hey, Hey from Canadian Art Online

Tim Lee interview August 2008 by phone with Leah Sandals

Q What prompted you to become an artist?

A That’s an interesting question. I guess like everything else I backed into it. I did a bachelor of design and while I was doing my undergrad I guess I was more interested in writing. So consequently I was more encouraged by my English professors and Art History professers to pursue writing. So I pursued art writing and then I got backed into being an artist through that. So it wasn’t like I had any eureka moment or epiphany. One idea led to the other. And while I backed into the idea of making art, which was tangentially related to my design practice, I suddenly backed into the weird notion I could be a performance artist.

Q Why performance?

It was a way for me to enter art production. Because I was interested in this historical moment bridging the 60s and 70s where you have this first wave of performance artists like Adrian Piper and Dan Graham, who inaugurate that tradition of amateurs performing. And I thought there was enough historical distance from that moment that I could use that as a dry template to inaugurate my own art practice.

2 When did you get more into works that were remakings of other people’s work? What do you find intriguing about that process? Why people like Steve Martin and Neil Young and Houdini, and not Picasso or Seurat or Pollock?

I guess my idea of that was… I think I was always interested more in other people‘s creativity and I think maybe other artists, if I didn’t have an art practice of my own. This is where this critical engagement came from in terms of writing about other artists. If I didn’t have an artistic persona of my own I could articulate mine through that of others. And maybe other artists are doing that too. So I’m interested in Dan Graham, but he was always interested in Ray Davies as well—I was interested in that trajectory.

Simultaneous with that trajectory is that it could be disproportionate through time and unpredictable. What if it came to me remaking Steve Martin or Glen Gould or the Beastie Boys, but they were doing remaking themselves? I guess in a weird way the first work I made was really about that. I guess one of the questions I always ask is when does someone become someone, when does someone’s name become itself? There are probably a million Steve Martins in the world but when you hear it you think of Steve Martin. But even in that we have the slapstick Steve Martin from the 70s. We have the collector, the novelist, the contributor to the New Yorker, the dramatic Steve Martin acting in Mamet films. So that was kind of my interest.

And then with that it started to become my prime line or trajectory. The idea that maybe we could learn aspects about Steve Martin if we looked at Neil Young. When you think about Glenn Gould you might think about the Beastie Boys. So in the end it became a weird field theory where I encapsulated all these artistic genres and names and points in history. One name led to another and gradually I started to realize what I would do with this. As a creative joke I wanted to make a new work every year for 20th century.

3 What will you be showing at the Sobey exhibit and where did it come from for you?

Well I guess it sort of made sense for me just to show work that I made about Canadians. So it’s work about Neil Young and Glenn Gould. You know the Glenn Gould monitors feature my remaking of Gould’s own remake of the Goldberg Variations. So this is my remake of a remake of a variation of an original. This is what I mean about things being a manifestation. From Bach in Vienna to Gould in New York to Gould in Toronto to myself in Vancouver in 2007. I used that idea of a remake of a remake of a remake.

The Neil Young work is split between two different photos I’ve made about Neil Young. It’s two moments in his career, one in 1968 when they released his solo album, when Young went apart from Buffalo Springfield and charted his own solo course. And the other is about Neil Young when he recorded Rust Never Sleeps in San Francisco in 1979. They’re both photographs and this one kind of represents like myself trying to approximate Neil Young onstage playing both the acoustic and electric guitar. The other is a reversal of Hey, Hey, My My. It's My, My, Hey, Hey.

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Calgary Artist Rita McKeough on Love-Hate Oil Relationships and Harper's Extraordinary Arrogance

Nuit Blanche Nuit Blanche Nuit Blanche. It's everywhere in the media today. In preparation for the event, I had the pleasure of speaking with Calgary artist Rita McKeough, who is will be installing oil pumps in a downtown parking lot this weekend, as well as with German collective Blinkenlights and Pakistan-born artist Hamra Abbas.

Unfortunately, the National Post didn't have room to run my full interview with McKeough, who has some cogent things to say about the complex relationship we all have to the oil industry, as well as about Stephen Harper's comments last week on the cultural views of so-called ordinary people. Please read on after the jump for my full chat with her.

Image of Rita McKeough's oil pumps ready to ship from her studio, photo courtesy of the artist

Toronto's Nuit Blanche: Rita McKeough

Though market mayhem has lowered the price of crude this week, it’s unlikely that consumers will see a substantial drop at the pumps anytime soon. But could the drive to drive ever make free-oil foraging popular? Calgary artist Rita McKeough will find out this Saturday in a petroleum-centric performance at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche. Here, McKeough tells Leah Sandals what fuels her artmaking.

Q What exactly are you doing for Nuit Blanche?

A I’m doing a new piece called Alternator. It’s a12-hour performance in a parking lot with me operating a machine that seems to pump oil from the lot. I’ve made miniaturized oil pumps, smaller versions of the ones you see in the prairies, and I’m going to situate the pumps on each oil stain there. I’ve also, with the help of artist Robyn Moody, made a hand-cranked generator out of an old car body. As I turn the car’s steering wheel, it’ll generate electricity to run the pumps. On Saturday I’ll sit in the front seat and turn the steering wheel all night.

Q Will the mini-pumps actually be sucking oil out of the stains? Because that’s not a bad idea given current fill-up costs.

A The pumps won’t actually be pumping oil. It’s more an image about a state of mind, a tension between this desire I have to operate my car--because I’m a driver myself--and at the same time reflect concerns about scarce oil and a fragile environment. Also, in a way, it’s about an imaginary future where these tensions get so intense that people really would sneak into parking lots at night and get as much oil as they could.

Q That’s funny, because much of your past work has expressed worry about the environment--but you also really love driving, right?

A Yes, it’s funny. I‘ve done a few pieces about these feelings on cars—in one, I was dragged behind a car-like vehicle for several hours, again implicating my difficult relationship to the automobile.

Q So what do you like about your car?

A Well, it means freedom, especially as an artist. With one, I feel I can move materials, pick up lumber, get things done. But given the environmental consequences, it’s a model that we—myself included!—have to let go of. Instead we have to look at alternative ways of finding freedom and contributing to society, like vehicle sharing.

Q You recently moved from Halifax to Calgary. Did living in the thick of the oil boom inspire this piece?

A Oh definitely. Ever since I’ve been here I’ve seen so many oil pumps. They’re in the middle of nowhere as well on the edge of the city. It’s all I think about in Calgary; the problems with the oil sands and how it’s important for the economy here. Yet everyone is grappling with the fear of running out of oil too. It’s such a contradiction. Granted, there are huge fields of wind turbines around here too.

Q On a different note, many of your past artworks have involved pushing your body to the limit—whether it’s cranking a generator for 12 hours, as you will this week, or eating a whole gallery wall back in 1993. Why is using your own body so important?

A Well, these are my concerns, and I’m interested in putting them out there and having conversations with people. I also think that if I’m asking people to spend a moment with my concerns, a certain level of engagement has to be demonstrated on my part. It’s almost like my body being present is a way to indicate seriousness. Also, when I perform, I understand the work in a different way than when I devised it.

Q Your father worked as a fisherman for many years, as well as in construction. Given this, how do you respond to Stephen Harper’s recent comments that “ordinary Canadians” don’t like the arts?

A Well, I think those are very disrespectful and insulting comments, because they’re making assumptions about someone else’s perspective in life—a whole group, actually. And I don’t think Harper has the experience or the right to comment on that. Everybody is just so unique when it comes to their experience of art. Sweeping statements like that really don’t apply to anyone. And I’m not going to propose a sweeping statement in response! But I will say that art is a great part of our society and that many people appreciate its complexity and diversity.

“Rita McKeough: Alternator” runs all Saturday night as part of Toronto’s Nuit Blanche (

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Holy Late Catch-up: Review of Independent Spirit in weekend Globe & Mail

Holy late catch-up. I had a review of Independent Spirit: Early Canadian Women Artists in this weekend's Globe and Mail. And I'm only now just posting about it. Yikes. Here's some other books I'm looking forward to reading: Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton and Opening Gambits by Mark Kingwell. I've been also skimming Newsweek critic Peter Plagens's online novel The Art Critic. While I've enjoyed the somewhat solipsistic joy of seeing art criticism through a fictional characters's eyes, I must admit I found most of this type of content in section 1. The later chapters get a little wandery and angsty, hence the skimming.

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