Saturday, November 29, 2008

Recommended: James Carl, Janet Werner, Ed Pien, Iain Baxter, John Marriott

Recommended Toronto shows based on my recent flitting and flotting about town:

  • James Carl at Diaz Contemporary - Incredible digitalesque sculptures made out of venetian blinds, of all things. Wow.
  • Janet Werner at Birch Libralato - This Montreal painter really won me over when I got to see her solo show at her hometown's Parisian Laundry in the spring. Though Birch Libralato's space is a little more humble (as are most TO galleries, bound to storefronts as they be) Werner's talent for depicting the constricted-yet-compelling cuteness of media females is still very visible.
  • Ed Pien at Birch Libralato - I've discovered of late that I have an affection for installation. One by Ed Pien that I saw at the SMU Art Gallery some time ago is at the apex of this affection. It was incredible. Pien's flat, framed works in cut paper are still pretty amazing, though nowhere near as immersive. Still, if you like these, don't miss a similar, bigger piece by Pien at the new AGO, where it is strongly juxtaposed with a Jonathan Meese, a Kori Newkirk and a Rachel Harrison. Fab.
  • Iain Baxter at Corkin Gallery - Iain Baxter... I can never figure out if his name legally is Iain Baxter&, as printed on his exhibition invites, or Iain Baxter, as printed in the society pages for the AGO reeopening. In any case, I appreciate Baxter being willing, over the decades, to stick his neck out. There were a few non-publicized works in this show that were just great, like the large sign spelling "GR$$D" and the stuffed animal tower, with toys skewered on a massive spindle. It's garish and unsightly and environmentally concerned and cheap, like Mike Kelley meets the World Wildlife Fund. Bring it, Baxter!
  • John Marriott at YYZ Artists Outlet - I actually went to YYZ to see emerging artist Atom Deguire's show, which was less than impressive here. Intentionally so, perhaps, but less than impressive nonetheless. Deguire could learn a thing or two at this juncture from John Marriott, a mid-career TO artist who shamelessly takes this exhibition op to plow a sword through a urinal, line the walls with crumpled paper, add a food bank donation box to the space, and install a desk with a completely blank calendar, as if to say, "what next for art? for me? for me and art?" Really great and funny in the best way.

Image of James Carl's Jalousie (baluster) from Diaz Contemporary

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Curating e-Class: A New Web Resource

In my ever expanding quest to understand just what it is curators do, or how they think they do it, I'm happy to have stumbled upon Curators in Context, a new site that archives video talks from 31 curators on their practice. Though the talks seem to be from '05, there's likely many recurring issues here to be addressed. I haven't dug into it yet, but I will be.

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The National Gallery: If it ain't Baroque... oh, never mind

Okay, second full disclosure of the week--I've never really liked the Baroque period all that much. However, I'm feeling swayed by the rave NYT and LAT reviews that "Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture" has had during its run at the Getty. With that show hitting its sole Canuck stop, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, this week, I took the chance to ring up curator David Franklin and ask him how exciting this stuff can actually be to a new millennium. The results are in today's National Post. To read that (including Franklin's comment on his current status at the Gallery) click here and go to page L4 of the digital edition, or read on after the jump.

Lights! Plaster! Action!
A new exhibition on sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini tries to imbue the Baroque artist with a little Hollywood razzle-dazzle
National Post, Nov 27 2008, pg L4

There’s a new must-see that’s gotten rave reviews in the New York Times—but you won’t be seeing it at your local multiplex. Why? Because “Bernini,” rather than being a film offering killer chase scenes, is an exhibition offering incredible (if wrapped in stone) characters. This week, the show opens at the National Gallery of Canada, its sole Canadian stop following a successful run at Los Angeles’s Getty Museum. Still, as exhibition co-curator David Franklin explains, there is something strangely cinematic about these centuries-old works. Here, Franklin tells Leah Sandals what turns Baroque into blockbuster.

Q The portrait bust can be a pretty dull, dusty art form—particularly in a digital effects era. What makes Bernini’s exciting?

A There’s many aspects. I think the human face is perennially of interest. There’s also, for me, the virtuosity of these works, which make its subjects come to life in stone. And I think ironically, in the digital age, the authenticity of these objects when seen in person generates a kind of wonder; we’re so little used to anything authentic anymore.

Q There’s something almost snapshot-like about these sculptures, with Bernini capturing split-second moments of his disarmed lover Costanza Bonarelli, or of a cerebral cardinal or powerful pope. Do you think Bernini foresaw the need for more immediate art forms like photography?

A He definitely revolutionized a previously dusty art form. Before, these sculptures had to do with permanence and stasis. But he pushed this public art form into the private realm.

And the real revolution Bernini pushed was treating each work almost like a cinematographer. Each bust becomes like a story. There’s a sense of each being different and alive that’s very new. To me, it’s almost like there’s a novel behind each sculpture. That’s what’s so original about him.

Q Bernini was also a painter and an architect, creating famous Rome sights like Fontana Trevi and St Peters Square. Were he alive today, what do you think he’d be working on?

A Oh, I think he would definitely be a filmmaker. In his own time he also designed stage sets. So I think he would be designing operas and theatre sets too. But overall working in theatre and film, no question.

Q Some of Bernini’s artworks figure heavily in Dan Brown’s bestselling book Angels and Demons. What do you think of Brown’s use of these artworks?

A I’m very relaxed about it. Some academic types get very agitated. But you just have to realize it’s entertainment and it’s to be enjoyed on that level. And frankly, in our business with all its budget cuts, anything that brings attention to Bernini or Caravaggio or Leonardo da Vinci is wonderful—especially if it inspires people to learn the truth and see the originals.

Q Earlier this year, the Ottawa Citizen reported that this Bernini show almost didn’t happen at the Getty Museum, your key partner on the project. What was the problem?

A There were disputes between the Getty and the Italian government for several years over works that were allegedly illegally excavated from Italy and smuggled out of the country. In May 2007 about 40 artworks were returned to Italy from the Getty’s collection, which resolved the dispute and made Italy open to lending artworks like Bernini’s to them again. So this exhibition is really the first major collaboration between Italy and the Getty, and we’re the happy benefactors.

Q On another political front, there’s been a lot of drama at the National Gallery this year, with rumors that you might leave. What’s your status there now?

A I don’t know how much I can say, but I’m back at the gallery and everything is fine. The way I put it is that families fight but it’s doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. I’m back and we’re moving forward—and we always just want to focus on the art.

Q Getting back to art, Bernini’s son Domenico said that his father saw all the arts as equal. Do you agree?

A That’s a difficult question. What’s exciting about an artist like Bernini is that he was very eclectic, like Leonardo. Artists today tend to make their work for themselves and sell afterwards. But artists of the Baroque thought of themselves as designers and worked on anything that came their way. They had to be really good at multitasking and being open-minded.

“Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture” opens Friday (November 28) and runs to March 8 at Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada (

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

VanCity: Keeping the "Is" in Feminism

How great IS this? It's part of a new vitrine project at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver. The project, coordinated by CAG curator Jenifer Papararo, will feature feminism-inspired slogans from various artists including curator/psychoanalyst/critic Jeanne Randolph, Kate Davis, FASTWURMS, Martha Wilson, Myfanwy Macleod, Dave Dyment, Kelly Mark, Kristina Podesva and others.

There's also a comments function on the gallery's site to invite feedback. No one has written in it yet... so everyone must agree. Or web commenting's not the best way to solicit reaction for a public art piece, mebbe. Or it's only been a few days since the vitrine was installed (Nov 21). In any case, the sign makes me smile.

Now if we could only figure out how to keep the "Emin" in feminism. That might be harder. Depending on who you ask, of course.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Canadian Pop Music: It does really matter, actually

Today it hit the news that the Kenny MacLean, bassist for Platinum Blonde--or as some call them "Canada's Duran Duran"--passed away suddenly this weekend.

I was 8 years old when Platinum Blonde's "It Doesn't Really Matter" hit the airwaves, and I heard it many times, particularly being an avid listener to Winnipeg station CFRW's Top 6 at 6 and Top 10 at 10. That was even before Canada's first music video program Video Hits hit the publicly sponsored TV in 1984. I also heard it repeatedly at the roller rink, where it animated many a careening crash.

I'd like to say that it changed my life, because that would make the loss of a creative person more meaningful, and give me a really very good reason for posting it on my art blog. Or even, perhaps, that it learned me some nihilism, and that I started reading Sartre in grade 3 as a result. That would be good too.

I don't think it did have such a dramatic effect, really. However, I do think that this song is still really great, as are other Platinum Blonde hits like Cryin and (to a lesser extent) Situation Critical. Of course, I'm biased as is anyone when it comes to the songs of their youth. But at moments like this it becomes every more clear how pop music lyrics and styles can be ingrained deeply in one's brain. Now that I have many more "brain is full" moments and the old neurons are on the decline, songs just don't get remembered the same way.

Reviewing the video today, I grin at the hairstyles, wince at the misogyny (my, how times have changed... not) and wonder how much current teens and preteens would pay to get their hands on these now-retro clothes and shoes.

I won't be "Cryin" over MacLean; but I am grateful for what he produced. A chance to dance, which, as I indicated on Monday, also makes for some great art sometimes.

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99 cent dish towels! 5 dollar shoes! And art, art, art!

Well, this sounds interesting. Toronto artist Iris Haussler caused a stir a couple of years back with her project The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach, which transformed a Toronto house into a repository of sorts for a fictitious artist resident. (The project garnered lost of media attention, summarized here.)

Now Haussler's looking to reconstruct the experience of another Toronto house--this one our metropolis's house of deals and lights, Honest Ed's.

For those who aren't in the know--or who've never had to track down a cheap shower curtain while living in Maggie Atwood's Annex nabe--Honest Ed's, named for its founder, the late Ed Mirvish, is a massive mazelike discount store at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor streets in Toronto. Its signage is a Toronto psychogeography icon, while its deals attract students, new immigrants and generally rent-poor Torontonians alike.

Haussler's upcoming project at the store, called "Honest Threads", promises the following:

"Honest Threads will display garments and the memories they carry. Lent by Torontonians, each item holds a personal story revealing a glimpse of the many threads that weave our identity over time. Visitors will be able to borrow the garments and wear them for a few days, experiencing both literally and psychologically what it is like to “walk in someone else’s shoes.” At the same time, they will add new layers to the clothes’ history. Trading experiences on both tactile and narrative levels will enrich our collective perception of the place we call home. As pieces of a vast puzzle, these individual stories will render a fragmentary portrait of the city, attesting to its complex history."

This project is facilitated through the Koffler Centre of the Arts, and information about how to lend clothes to the project can be found here. The Koffler, which focuses on Jewish culture, says that "Honest Ed’s is no ordinary store but a museum in itself, blurring the boundaries between commercial, public and exhibition spaces. The place equally attests to the inspiring story of its founder, Ed Mirvish, the son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Austria..."

A few other notes on Honest Ed's and art: Ed's son, David Mirvish, owns Canada's largest art bookstore--or at least the only one to sport a massive Frank Stella painting above its shelves. The bookstore itself was created in 1974 as an outgrowth of David Mirvish's gallery, which exhibited abstract artists and colour field painters and sculptors including Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Jack Bush and others. Though the gallery has since folded, David continues to hold a large collection at his warehouse, where a show is currently taking place for British sculptor Tim Scott. This year David also commissioned Ed Burtynsky to photograph the Royal Alexandra Theatre, which he and his father helped revive.

On a different tack, I discovered a contrasting, and very relevant, view of Honest Ed's via the short stories of prizewinning Toronto author Austin Clarke. In his tales of Caribbean immigrants, Clarke draws a picture of Honest Ed's that I read as a desolate place, a kind of flourescent beacon of false hope for those from abroad. The collection Choosing His Coffin is worth a look if you're interested in exploring this theme.

Also, I've noted elsewhere about Barr Gilmore's appropriation of the Honest Ed sign for this year's Nuit Blanche. And when Ed Mirvish died last year, I took a look at his wacky window displays as a strange kind of art in themselves.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Lessons on Lassitude from the New York Times

Well, goldarnit it sure hurts to be scooped by the New York Times on something happening just down the street in your own hometown. Worse hurtage occurrs when one had been thinking about writing of said thing, but just never got around to it.

Such is the case with artist Margaux Williamson's video "Dance Dance Revolutions Co", which I enjoyed at Harbourfront a couple of weeks back, and which talented Montreal writer Heather O'Neill singled out to the NYT Magazine this weekend as her favourite screen moment of the year.

What I liked about the video was: 1) It was easy to enjoy, brought a smile to my face; 2) The music was familiar to me, as it was made in part by a friend of mine, Marlena Zuber, who is part of the band Tomboyfriend; 3) It reminded me of being crazy dancing, and of all the people worldwide who find pleasure in that same harmless, joyous thing even though the world is filled with much darker things much of the time as well; 4) I had enjoyed Williamson's feature-length film Teenager Hamlet (and posted on it) earlier this year, and wondered if this often-pegged painter was finding new, more appealing (for me) strength in narrative, and in handing a starring role off to others.

In any case, it teaches a lesson to me if no one else--when you want to write about something, write about it! Slow Blogging and the rest be damned.

Oh, and another lesson -- dance, or enjoy others dancing, more often.

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WACK widsom

I've realized, looking at travel costs, cash flow, and the like, that it turns out I will not make it to see WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution before it closes at the Vancouver Art Gallery on January 11. This makes me sad.

However, I am heartened by this wise interpretation, which artist Nicole Cherubini offers in her Top 10 in the Nov edition of Artforum:

"This exhibition was a gift. All my thanks to its curator, Connie Butler. It made me realize that the most progressive ideas have already been articulated, and that artists are still searching for people to listen."

Image of Magdalena Abakanowicz's Red Abakan, 1969 from the Vancouver Art Gallery

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Relational Aesthetics in Review at Home and Away

Relational aesthetics--or audience-participation riffs thereof--are receiving much attention at home and away right now.

Though it's been poorly received by critics like Jerry Saltz, the Guggenheim New York's theanyspacewhatever exhibition is generating plenty of exhibition lineups with its promises of "activated spectatorship."

And in Ottawa at the National Gallery of Canada, "Caught in the Act: The Viewer as Performer" has been called "the most fun you will likely ever have in an art gallery."

These types of shows seem a fitting backdrop to a recent article by Toronto critic Carl Wilson on Darren O'Donnell, one of the T-dot's prime purveyors of relational aesthetics--or, as O'Donnell likes to posit it, "social acupuncture." The article appears in the December 2008 issue of Toronto Life magazine. (full text of the mag article here)

Full disclosure: Earlier this year I participated in a worm-can-opening blog-comment fest about O'Donnell's work, including a statement of my personal dislike for him, as well as an explanation that I don't even attempt to write about his work professionally because of that bias. 

That said (and lessons learned) I'm impressed with the balanced, complex perspective Wilson takes in writing about O'Donnell, and the work of his production company Mammalian Diving Reflex. Here's an excerpt:

"In the past year, Mammalian Diving Reflex's primary project was as company-in-residence at Parkdale Public School. This culminated in the spring with a faux competition called "Parkdale Public School vs. Queen West", in which the children squared off in culinary, visual art music and other projects again the adult "artsters" (as O'Donnell teasingly calls his own tribe) who've recently been accused of gentrifying their low-income neighbourhood. The outcome struck me as at once socially worthy and artistically undercooked...

As much as I endorse O'Donnell's belief that children are complex individuals with their own perspectives and stories, his work is more intriguing when it involves adults, who are less accustomed to group activities. Bridging the profound gulf that exists between people already burdened with preconceptions, not to mention jobs and families, seems a more ambitious undertaking."

On a more vitriolic, outspoken, and anonymously authored note,'s latest e-cahier rips into O'Donnell's attempts at political action during this last Canadian election via the artist-org Department of Culture:

"Instead of spending time convincing voters why exactly they should be funding, for instance, artist’s travels abroad (which, to our mind, is not a hard case to make) Darren O’Donnell & Co. accuse Stephen Harper of not liking other people’s children (because he opposes the Kyoto Protocols).... Each of these videos ends with the ever-so-pithy phrase “Not Him. Not Now. Not Ever Again” juxtaposed over a photo of Mr. Harper wearing a cowboy hat. Did no one think that, should one want to sway Conservative voters, mocking their leader by showing him in a silly hat is counterproductive, as it only underscores one’s condescension to him, and by extension, them?"

That's, er, not so balanced. But probably not uncommon.

If anyone's read either Wilson (which I recommend) or Artfag (which I generally love but am a little iffy on this instalment), I'm interested in your thoughts.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Recommended: Carte Blanche, Seth Scriver, Ivan & Heather Morrison

A few quick recommendations on Queen West:

Carte Blanche 2.0 & Art Metropole: The Top 100 at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art - The Carte Blanche show, which pulls select painters from a "best-of" coffee table tome of the same name, has been hated by the Globe's Sarah Milroy, loved by the Star's Peter Goddard, and so-so'd by EYE's David Balzer.

For my part, while I heartily agree with Milroy that having dealer and show co-curator Clint Roenisch fill 5 slots in the approximately 30-slot show with his own artists is unethical and gauche [CORRECTION: Milroy got the numbers wrong; please read my correction post here.] I have to disagree with her overall dismissal of the show. For me--a non-painter, and non-painting lover--the show is an excellent introduction to some of the best in Canadian painting. It's also a large space in which to show large works, which because of the usual small-TO-space circumstance just dosn't happen enough. I also think Liss and Roenisch, large ethical qualms aside, did a good job picking prime works--I've actually never liked the work of Shelley Adler or Kim Dorland much until I saw their works here, in context of the painter-exclusive training, history and dialogue that continues to exist whether or not we art critics would rather see painters (and curators) rise to the challenge of positioning painting effectively speaking with other media.

Also, what I think is great about the show at MOCCA is the Art Metropole Top 100 in its smaller gallery. Here you have two traditions: big, exclusive, one-off, luxury, glossy painting show in one space and the small, multiple, mechanically reproductive, mail art, video, photo, performance goddam downright anti-painting show in the other. And it really really works well, I think, both separately and side by side. Should we have instead argued that Art Met archives show painting in their collection or in this show? No. There is a value to media- (or in this case tradition-) oriented shows that, again, will continue to exist whether we generalists (that is to say, journalists) like it or not.

Seth Scriver at Katharine Mulherin/Board of Directors: How does Seth Scriver make such goddam funny art? And how does he keep on doing it? I know I shouldn't ask, I should just be glad that he does, because it makes me happy to be out and about on a cold November day. His digital animations are really terrific, as a projection of past and new works shows. (Love the manual redo of the THX Dolby screen especially! Though the animations based on stories by his Northern Ontario relatives are also hilarious--with the exception of the poodle one... that was a little creepy.) Also an unexpected delight is are the Canuck in-jokes: the spelling in fake-gold corporateese of "Hoseheads, LLP" at the entrance to the show, and a canoe made out of those glued-together layers of posters that build up on big-city construction hoardings. This latter work reads to me both as a great statement on the new urban Canadian reality and as a slight fuck-you to the Canada Council, an agency that defines Canadian content as stuff generally a little more "dignified" (read dry and humor free) than Scriver's work.

Heather & Ivan Morison @ Clint Roenisch: Roenisch really should get a pass after that stunt with Carte Blanche, but the current show is too interesting to miss. For it Wales artists Heather & Ivan Morison present a show "How to Survive (The Bad Days)" "The Bad Years (How to Survive)" that includes a tree like sculpture made out of mud from Roenisch's basement; a hole in the hardwood floor so one can see artist-dug pit in said basement; a wood-burning stove in full operation; prints of isolationist-feeling desert RV's with a threatening golden rock floating in the sky; a large mylar kite reminiscent of both Edison Alexander Graham Bell and Buckminster Fuller, and a film in the basement that riffs on that Desert RV/floating fool's gold theme with psychedelic guitar. It's ascetic and it's good. Get thee to the woodlot!

Also: Michael Merrill's show at Paul Petro Special Projects, presented by collector Steven Smart, has great little paintings that riff on museology and exhibition-making. Never saw Documenta? This show's for you (and me too).

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The Alaska Pipeline, Artforum, and a case for spending less time on Youtube

So I knew I should have been reading Artforum at the airport, and not W Magazine. After posting on petroleum related art the other day, I finally got my hands on a copy of the November issue, where lo and behold I see a great project by the Center for Land Use Interpretation documenting "prime territories fo the American oil industry: Alaska, California, and Texas." Apparently the Alaska portion is on show this month at the center's HQ in Los Angeles, with shows to follow at the Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston and a show next year about the California portion at the CLUI center. The Blaffer Gallery show is called "Texas Oil: Landscape of an industry", and will include public events that are related. I'm excited for them.

Also in the Nov Artforum that's related (if, er, less polished) an ad for a show by Italian-born artist Mattia Biagi called "Black tar" taking place in the artist's Los Angeles studio (?) to Dec 7.

Finally, on my inaugural trip to the "finished" (though really, if the extruded electric plugs and humidity fogged windows be any indication, still unfinished) Art Gallery of Ontario the other night, I was reminded that Mark Dion also has some salient works on this theme. The AGO's got a good one of a stuffed polar bear sitting in a washtub of tar with amazon sounds playing on a bear-embraced boom box. Similar works showed Goodwater gallery earlier this year... I had just forgotten about them. Probably because I've been spending too much time on Youtube. Which I now know is wrong.

Image of CLUI's Texas oil project from the Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston

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Gallery picks @ Bloor & Lans: Marc Bell, Mercer Union, MIT's Fuel

This weekend's gallery picks for the National Post led me again to Bloor and Lansdowne, where cheap rent, subway access and west-end gallery district proximity have made for a triumverate of new-gallery opportunity. Granted, the rush on property has slowed since the market crash. But there's still creative fun to be had in the area at newbie Paul Bright Gallery, stalwart Mercer Union, and conscientious Toronto Free. To find out more, click here for the digital edition and go to page O7, or read on after the jump.

Image of Marc Bell's "Life is Life" from Paul Bright Gallery

At the Galleries: West End Pearls
National Post, Nov 22, Page O7
By Leah Sandals

Last time At the Galleries visited the Bloor/Lansdowne area, it seemed well on its way to becoming gallery central. Then the market, art and otherwise, crashed hard. Still, artists and art dealers are pluckish, cheap-rent-loving sorts, and this fall has seen two new venues open in the nabe. Fill up with a dollar-stretching lunch at local fave Dosa Mahal and see for yourself.

1. Paul Bright Gallery 1265 Bloor West
The newest art outlet to join Bloordale Village—opening just three weeks ago—is also the area’s first commercial gallery. Its youthful owner, Paul Bright, has run galleries of one type or another since 1998. Often working out of London, Ontario, Bright connected creative talent from the quiet Forest City to cash-rich collectors in larger metropolises. Now the part-time New Yorker has set up shop in Toronto, and is largely working the reverse dynamic: bringing a swath of savvy Brooklyn and Philly artists to Hogtown eyeballs. (Bushwick-meets-Bonsai artiste Misaki Kawai’s kooky sculptures and paintings, opening at the gallery December 18, are an ideal example.) Bright’s opening show, however, takes him back to his roots. It features another former Londoner, Marc Bell, doing essentially what Bell does best: psychedelic, R. Crumb-flavoured, comic-styled drawings that meld both cheese and cheek. Here, each drawing—originally published as a series in Vice Magazine—illustrates the lyrics for a pop song in a decidedly un-MTV-like way. Whether you’re gazing on Laibach’s “Life is Life” rendered as a series of square-headed portraits or on Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” acted out by a half a corndog, Bell’s flair for absurdity shines through. Definitely worth a look before the December 13 close, even if you only have cash to walk away with a $10 zine rather than a $1000 sketch.

2. Mercer Union, 1286 Bloor St W
Since 1979, the artist-run gallery Mercer Union has carved itself an honourable spot in the Canadian cultural landscape. Now, with a move away from its soon-to-be-condos Queen West digs, Mercer is showing it can carve out another type of honourable spot—this time by transforming a former dollar store at the corner of Bloor and St Clarens into a high-ceilinged art haven. It helps that the building has good bones—it was originally designed by Casa Loma and Old City Hall architect EJ Lennox as a theatre, and still has some of its pressed-tin lining intact. Until November 29, Mercer’s relaunch show is presenting some other riffs on redesign and relocation. In the back gallery, Christof Migone’s installation features a disco ball stripped of its mirrors and record covers revamped to emphasize the circular form of vinyl-trapped tracks. Minimalist versions of strobe lights and fog machines further enhance the uptight-yet-punk-rock feel. In the front gallery, Gwen MacGregor and Sandra Rechico bring different modes of mapping to walks in four different cities. Their goopy, stringy Montreal map is lovely, as are the ultradense drawings that contain some 150 km worth of lines—a reproduction of the distance the artists strode in Kassel, Germany.

3. Toronto Free Gallery, 1277 Bloor St W
Back in March, Toronto Free director Heather Haynes kicked off the Bloor West gallery trend with an opening show on Creative Activism. Now, following a successful show of Black Panther posters in September, the gallery continues its focus on conscientious creativity with Rig, an exhibition on alternative energy. It’s all part of a launch for Fuel, the latest think-piece tome from MIT-TO co-pro Alphabet City. Though the show doesn’t open until Thursday, the book’s now available at across the city. Get a copy and study up to hone some conservation-loving cocktail chatter for the opening, free to all starting 7pm on November 27.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Like, Design is Politics, eh?

Too good not to share--from the prolific arts community designer Lisa Kiss. Discovered via Simpleposie, Impolitical & Design For Obama.

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Vancouver: Burlesque, and not Ski-bum, Central?

Vancouver is often thought of (and marketed) as more Gore-Tex than glamour. But a new exhibit, "Juliette and Friends" at the city's Presentation House Gallery aims to show that Vancouver does have a history of outrageous nightlife that's just as significant as its reputation for outdoor activity.

In the process, the show digs up tons of campy retro pics--from two little known and one just-discovered collection--that entertain whether or not you lose sleep over things like Vancouver as Vegas of the north. (It happened!)

Today's National Post has my Q&A with exhibit co-curator Helga Pakasaar. Click here for the paper's digital edition (go to page M12) or read on after the jump to discover the louche in left-coast history. (If you like it, and live nearby, you might want to check out the opening--older burlesque stars will be in attendance.)

Dick Oulton image from

It was once Las Vancouver
National Post, November 21, 2008

British Columbia is often thought more granola than glamourpuss. But as a new exhibit about Vancouver in the 50s, 60s and 70s aims to show, the West has a longstanding urbane underbelly. Here, show co-curator Helga Pakasaar tells Leah Sandals how to find the luxe and the louche in Left Coast history.

Q This show is filled great, campy retro photographs. What ties them all together?

A The general theme is Vancouver history from the 50s through to the mid 70s, particularly looking at nightlife. These are not photographs of the streets of Vancouver, which is commonly the case with city-themed shows. Instead, we’re focusing on interiors, on people dressing up for the camera, on how people imagined glamour. The photos come from three collections: the CBC archives, the Penthouse nightclub’s collection, and the life work of commercial photographer Dick Oulton. Overall, it’s a view of how Vancouver society presented itself at the time.

Q Why the title “Juliette and Friends”?

A We titled the show after a TV program that everyone watched in those days. Its star, Juliette, kind of summarizes that era in terms of cultural memory--a strong, feisty personality who started working as an entertainer when she was 13.

Q So this presents a pretty different view of Vancouver than the nature-oriented “Super, Natural British Columbia” stuff, doesn’t it?

A Well, outdoor recreation is certainly a part of the image of this place. But I don’t think it has fully represented what the city is about. It’s also about people needing to be entertained, and being very insular and indoors.

The scenes in The Penthouse nightclub, the parties, the dining rooms, the very lively jazz scene, even scenes of nightlife on the local CBC station at the time—they’re not often thought of, but they’re very important to the city’s history.

In other words, I don’t think that every Vancouverite is a hiker. The great outdoors doesn’t always beckon. It’s like any other city in that sense. And overall this a portrait of the city with its ambitions to be cosmopolitan, at a time when the city was imagining itself as more than a small town.

Q Right now Vancouver is imagining itself again—this time around the Olympics. Did that influence this show?

A We absolutely do see the Olympics as a link; it’s prompted so much discussion about what the city is. Is it global, or is it Canadian? What kind of growth is needed? Do we need this rapid transit line? Where is the Olympic money being invested?

The 50s to 70s were another time the city imagined itself in a certain way. And this show explores just how societies do that. It’s not only in building monuments and grand structures, but also putting ourselves in environments—in the way we decorate a supper club, in what kind of fantasy we demonstrate to ourselves. Vancouver as an idea is very much on the table right now.

Q You’re having a lecture during this exhibit about the history of burlesque in Vancouver. Were there really many burlesque clubs around town in 60s?

A Quite a few, all in different parts of town with different kinds of clientele. There are certain clues we’ve gotten from these photographs. For example, we have a 1950s image of someone called The Great Pretender who was an early transsexual entertainer. And Vancouver had very strong links with Las Vegas. Often the same entertainers came here as performed there. It was a pretty lively, interesting place.

Q Is it true that many of these photographs have just been discovered?

A Yes. The CBC material has just been sitting in their basement; they’ve occasionally put them up in the hallways, but there has never been an exhibition of this scope. Some negatives have never come out of their envelopes before. The Penthouse collection was discovered just when the club was renovating recently; they were stuck in boxes behind a wall. And commercial photographer Dick Oulton’s material was donated to us in a large archive. It’s really just the tip of the iceberg.

“Juliette and Friends” has a free public launch today at 8pm and continues to January 11 at Vancouver’s Presentation House Gallery (

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Trade Secrets Report & Extras

Today posted my report from the Trade Secrets curating conference at the Banff Centre.

Like any report of such an information-swappin' event, there was a lot I left out. That's partly because I'm still processing it, I think.

Yet there was a whole sector of discussion at Trade Secrets around building museum collections that seems particularly relevant right now; I'm sorry I left it out. What makes this oft-dry topic particularly topical is that although the Art Gallery of Ontario's new reno has been generally well received architecturally there have been complaints of the gallery showing/acquiring weak works, particularly in its contemporary sections.

At the conference, New Museum chief curator Richard Flood, for one, encouraged the type of approach that won him and his colleagues raves at the Walker Art Center--to paraphrase, when you can't afford the works everyone wants, or of works in the central art historical narrative, look to the left or the right of that.

The Walker followed this dictum. So instead of chasing after lower-priced, lower-quality works from MoMA-collection, MoMA-endowment-level modernists like Picasso, Mondrian, Matisse, and Pollock, the Minneapolis-based institution focused on a quality collection of "alternative modernisms" in the form of "Japanese Gutai, Viennese Actionism, Italian Arte Povera, the international Fluxus movement" with artists including "Alighiero Boetti, Bruce Conner, David Hammons, Yves Klein, Marisa Merz, Hermann Nitsch, Nam June Paik, Hannah Wilke" and many others.

Also informative was an emphasis by some at the conference on successful regionalist collecting approaches. Sabine Breitwieser, for instance, built the hugely respected reputation of Vienna's Generali Foundation by showing and collecting Austrian artists like Valie Export, Rainer Ganahl, Peter Friedl, Ernst Caramelle, Peter Weibel, Dorit Margreiter and many others.

Breitwieser did note at one point the downside of popularizing regional art--namely, that auction prices start to rise to the extent that museums can no longer acquire the work!

Nonetheless, artist Ken Lum, responding to the discussion, observed wistfully that in Vienna, the curators "stuck up for their local artists" whereas in Canada there was almost a feeling of apologizing for them. Lum didn't extend this attitude solely to curators, far from it, noting that many north-of-the-49th artists seem resistant to the idea of being placed in a "Canadian collection" at a museum. The implication, he said, is that if work is designated to the "Canadian collection", it is of lower calibre than if it is deemed to be able to stand in the narrative of "the international collection." Subtle differences, to be sure, but ones that affect our perceptions of what should and shouldn't be collected using public funds.

Western Front exhibition director Candice Hopkins also touched on the positive power of regionalism during her closing remarks, when she summarized her learning that curating is best viewed as a function rather than a profession, and functions best, at times, in a context of the "ultralocal."

Worth thinking about, for certain, even as Gehry's building, and others across the country, dazzle.

Photo of White Columns director Matthew Higgs and Musee d'art contemporain de Montreal director Marc Mayer courtesy of the Banff Centre

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The Big Three Killed my $25-Billion Baby

Ever since I read about the auto industry's bailout request, I'm having problems getting this tune out of my mind:

You gotta hand it to the White Stripes for rhyming "my baby's my common sense" and "so don't give me planned obsolescence", dontcha now?

In terms of other artists addressing the auto industry and related topics, I must say that for some time I've wished--and wished hard--that someone in pipeline-rich Alberta would do a show on the oil industry.

Admittedly, this would be in the vein of potential insanity for any Alberta-based curator. The bulk of the people in Alberta are employed one way or another by the oil industry, and while gas prices are dropping at the pumps, there's still a major labour shortage there as a result. (Every shop and restaurant I went into during my past weekend there was hiring.) Though the show I'm thinking of would include criticism-free historical pics and paintings of the industry, it's likely any such show might be perceived as too critical of the business that keeps cash in Albertans' pockets.

Also, I realize from my time at the Trade Secrets conference that such an exhibition would likely be considered too didactic and "cur-auteur"-ial. Yet if the oil industry is something many are connected to and concerned with, and there are artists making relevant work (Ed Burtynsky, Rita McKeough and Terence Koh just to name a few), where's the harm in doing topical exhibitions?

Granted, some of the reluctance to do such a show in Alberta, is, as I noted, politically and funding oriented. In the east, we've already seen "1973: Sorry Out of Gas" at Montreal's Canadian Centre for Architecture, and next week will see a show called "Rig: Designs for the Fuel Transition" open at Toronto Free Gallery. (It's related to the launch of the latest Alphabet City book bridging art, design and politics--this time around the topic of "Fuel".) Interestingly, artists working around the oil-rich area of Aberdeen, Scotland, have exhibited works on the oil industry that fall along the length of the political spectrum. (See here, here and here for a few examples.)

One day, whether it's considered "good curating" or not, I would hope for a similar exhibition in Calgary or Edmonton to spur public conversations on this "invisible hand" of Alberta life. With many museums being encouraged to reposition themselves as "community hubs" what could be more relevant?

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough get Guarino

A thought to keep one going when one's going is almost done gone:

Even though many insiders love to loathe the art world, I have to agree with Artforum publisher Charles Guarino: "It's the place where I found the most kindred spirits—enough oddball, overeducated, anachronistic, anarchic people to make me happy."

—from sociologist Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Family Guy: Part of a Curator's Top Ten

As a follow up to my post about top ten lists shared at the Trading Secrets conference, here's the Family Guy clip that Barbican curator Francesco Manacorda showed as his number 4. To paraphrase, he's impressed with the way the show inserts varied existing cultural forms into a new text, and hopes that good curation somehow manages to do the same.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Lists without Listlessness in Banff

Well, the Trading Secrets conference at Banff is officially over. There's much I'm sure that will happen tonight unofficially that will be significant to its participants, but I will not be party to it, which is fine and good.

Immediate impressions of the conference are hard to parse. But one thing is clear: People, even art people, love a good top ten list. I write this knowing that it is also a guilty pleasure of many, whether posted in Artforum or on Q107.

Basically, there were two whole sessions at the conference--two of the most anticipated and enjoyed, I should say--that hinged on this premise. Top ten lists were offered by everyone from Mexican curator and Tate advisor Cuauhtémoc Medina to Vancouver artist run centre director and Bard grad Candice Hopkins, from yet-unbuilt Warsaw Museum of Modern Art rep Joanna Mytkowska to new Barbican curator and Family Guy aficionado Francesco Manacorda.

White Columns director Matthew Higgs delivered the coup de grace on the procedure when today he asked each of the 90 or so people in attendance to state one thing that inspired them this year. Answers included "mountains" and "skiing" as well as "my brother returning from Iraq" and "Obama's acceptance speech". If only there had been more time to talk about such things (well, I suppose some more of these preferences could be shared this evening!). Hopefully I will try to transcribe the list at some point.

In any case, in this spirit of the list, Printed Matter No Input Books has published a bootleg edition of all of Artforum's Top 10 Lists, with the book available at Printed Matter. Only 200 copies have been printed, said AA Bronson, and I'd be surprised if any are still available, but if you're as big a top 10 junkie as the rest of us seem to be, do try to get yourself a copy.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Return to the Spiritual: Tim Whiten at the new Art Gallery of Ontario

Back in the spring, I saw a show of Toronto artist Tim Whiten at Olga Korper Gallery. Much as I loved the ethereal quality of Whiten's work, I had concerns about whether its fragility would be treated with respect by collectors. It just has such a personally spiritual quality that is both impressive and at the same time highly dependent on a delicate web of associations within different pieces.

With that experience in mind, I approached the commission of Whiten's work for the newly renovated Art Gallery of Ontario with some trepidation. Would the gallery give Whiten the space and freedom he needs? For the final evaluation, I'll have to return to see the completed install; but for the time being I'm very glad they asked him to contribute his work Elysium, which I saw in a partial version last Friday.

Well before Damien Hirst began his skull-riffage, Whiten was working (back in the 80s) with actual skulls, adorning them with various treatments to striking effect. Here the skulls reappear with some long wooden staffs. My Q&A in today's National Post with Whiten offers his perspective on the deeper meaning of this work, as well as its connection to the new AGO in general. Click here to find page AL12 of the digital edition, or read on after the jump for the text.

Detail shot of Tim Whiten's Elysium courtesy of the artist; photo by Artin Aryai

National Post, Nov 13 2008 Page AL12

There are thousands of artworks to take in at the newly renovated AGO. But as a whole, what do they mean? Senior Toronto artist Tim Whiten, who installed a new work specifically for the relaunch, sees it as community — and by extension, perhaps, a kind of communion. Here, he tells Leah Sandals about the delicate art of spiritual reconstruction.

Q In your own words, how would you describe this art piece?

A This installation is called Elysium, and it’s a combination of elements that create a relationship of energies from past to present, from historic to modern understandings, from the mythic to contemporary notions of life.

Q You have a long tradition of addressing spirituality in your work, and that comes across strongly here. Why do you have this interest?

A Well, as a human race we’ve lost our contact with the spiritual concerns of life. The churches are less full than before. People aren’t committed to something that’s beyond themselves, and they’re treating each other horribly.

I think ultimately the nature of spirituality is to recognize the human community as one. And the reminder of that is part of what I’m dealing with — to say, “Hey, let’s not leave this behind; let’s get this together and keep this moving as a species.” I’m trying to give people that understanding in a way they can experience rather than as something theoretical.

Q How did you create what seem to be walking sticks?

A Those are staffs. There’s a grove of lilac bushes next to my studio that have been there for years. I’ve always had a connection to those lilacs; I like to see them flower in the spring. In many ways, they mark the seasons for me. So they seemed a good fit as a marker of moving through the cycle of life. And I used them here as that. They’re hand-whittled, very simply done.

Q And how did you create the skulls?

A Basically, we take a human skull and apply chewing gum, which is like a skin, as well as glass eyes. We proceed in layers of development mimicking the way the body is built up.

Q Are they real skulls?

A I never use plastic. I always use real materials; these were obtained in an honest way.

Q On a different note, you have, in the past, made glass versions of construction tools. Do you see everyday hardware, which has proliferated around the AGO of late, as spiritual, too?

A Tools are the way in which we can materialize things; they become the means by which we can take things from an idea into a physical reality. They’re almost a means of transcendence that way. The tools also come from a connection to my father, who was a carpenter.

Q So do you think there’s a spiritual aspect into the renovation of this building?

A Yes. One of the things that’s really important about the spiritual aspect of this building being renewed is it reconnects community. For the first time in the history of this area, the nature of this community is particularly related to the artist and the participation of art in the larger realm. That’s why I’m honoured to be a part of this; it’s a first for bringing the community together in this way.

Q Does that mean, by extension, that art galleries are like alternative churches?

A No. But galleries and museums have always been repositories for the history of culture. They bring together all the things that we are. I think there’s a real aspect of manifesting how a culture can talk to itself, relate to itself and see visions materialized. And I think that process is spiritual, even if it’s not religious per se.

Q What are you working on next?

A I’m just finishing a piece for the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery, which consists of two prayer wheels done in glass with brass fittings. People can spin them, because the notion of the prayer wheel is that every time the wheel turns there’s a prayer that’s being said. It goes from a gesture of the body into mental and other levels.

Q Your work at the AGO will live alongside many other artworks. What heartens you most about seeing art today?

A The idea that it can relate directly to people’s lives, that it can really touch people. I think that’s what it’s all about. If you can’t transform someone’s life by touching them, why do it?

Tim Whiten’s work at the Art Gallery of Ontario opens to the public tomorrow. Visit for details.

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Loving the Lushness: Katie Pretti at Le Gallery

Katie Pretti is a young Toronto artist who treats drawing, whether on canvas or paper, in a lush, sensual way. Markmaking would seem to be her bliss. And never has this been so clear as in her current show at Le Gallery. NOW Toronto's got my review.

Image of Pretti's Caligula 2 from NOW Toronto

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Trading Magazines and Secrets in Banff

My posts will be especially intermittent for the next few days as I'll be at the Banff International Curatorial Institute's Trade Secrets Conference. I couldn't find Artforum at the airport to study up, but I did locate W's Art Issue... with some interesting profiles of Mary Boone and Peter Doig, as well as artwork by Mika Rottenberg. I'm also looking forward to impressing with indepth knowledge of their cover artist Brad Pitt. Or maybe I'll just keep that to myself... 

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Monday, November 10, 2008

George Webber: Portrait Poet of the Canadian Prairies

You know, if we did have the government will to continue with plans for a National Portrait Gallery, it would be a great place to see George Webber's artworks. This Calgary photographer has spent the past 25 years beautifully documenting the people and places of the prairie region. Being a Manitoba/Alberta gal myself, I can definitely say his images quite capture the feeling of that area. So I was pleased to be able to chat with him last week in relation to a show at the Art Gallery of Calgary. The National Post published our Q&A today. Click on to page L8 of the digital edition or read on after the jump to find out how Webber frames his life and his art.

George Webber's Hutterite Girl with Pigeon, 1992, from

Keeping up with the pace of change
National Post, Nov 10 2008, Page L8
By Leah Sandals

Though prices of commodities might be dropping, the oil-rich Prairies remain an economic — and increasingly, political — powerhouse of the country. But there are also many lesserknown stories of personal and spiritual power from that region that are waiting to be told. Award-winning Calgary photographer George Webber has spent 25 years documenting these less conspicuous tales. Now, with an exhibit of his portraits on display at the Art Gallery of Calgary, Webber tells Leah Sandals how he puts the art into heartland.

Q You’ve been photographing Alberta and Saskatchewan for more than 20 years. What intrigues you?

A Well, it’s my home, that’s the primary thing. Also, it’s rich in narrative and mythology. I often think of what Faulkner talked about in his novels, using a postage-sized piece of material and exploring that for a lifetime. So over the years I’ve done projects on the Prairies’ small towns, Hutterites, First Nations, landscapes and the whole look and texture of the place.

Q How did you become a photographer?

A I was born in Drumheller, a small town in Alberta, and came to Calgary when I was seven. I started photographing when I was 27, but I think an ongoing theme for me is trying to bring a child’s sense of magic to these places.

Also, I’m attracted to working in the tradition of black-and-white documentary inspired by Henri Cartier Bresson, Diane Arbus and Eugene Atget. Just the process of working the darkroom can be contemplative. There’s some kind of slow feedback you get working in that enclosed amber-lit space for hours. Having said that, I shoot digital now, too.

Q How did you access communities that are often closed to photographers, such as Hutterite colonies?

A There’s an attraction for me to enter into an intimate and unseen community, to photograph unphotographable things. Many Hutterites don’t permit photography at all. They see photography as a prideful sort of activity; the idea that someone would put their own photo up would be vanity. But some are more liberal in how they see those things.

For me, entering into those places where cameras are not common is part of the challenge of having someone open up to me. It often takes months of small steps. I spent four years with the Hutterites for a recent book, and the project on the Blood Reserve, the largest reserve in Canada, is now at year 16. There’s a lot of patience.

Q Many small, shrinking Prairie towns have been reinvigorated by recent oil and potash booms. What changes have you noticed over the years?

A Certainly change happens, but the rate of change or perceptions of the speed of change seem to be much slower in these communities that I photograph. In Calgary, by contrast, change is happening with breakneck speed.
Still, I think people photograph because things are always disappearing and changing. Whether someone’s photographing professionally, like I do, or just taking a photo of their child, that impulse to record and hold something that is disappearing is a really fundamental one.

The other reason people often photograph is because there’s a narrative element or story embedded in these changes. In my book on the Blood Reserve, there are photographs of a man who had alcohol problems and then reconnected with spiritual traditions. For me, such stories are frequently heroic. Sometimes, it’s dramatically so, other times it’s smaller in scale. So I sometimes photograph for the same reason people read novels; you’re looking for a little instruction manual on life.

Q Conservative politicians, who dominate the West, were accused of being anti-arts in our recent election. What’s your take on being an artist in Alberta?

A I think because Alberta’s been a bit off the art radar, I’ve had a great sense of personal freedom. I don’t think there are the same kinds of pressures that you might find in Toronto where there’s more history and more tradition. The fact that the politicians are conservative is in the background, and I realize the work I do is not the kind of work that will collide with those kinds of values. But there’s something about the space, the population and that mythic idea of the less constrained individual that rings on.

George Webber continues to Jan. 3 at the Art Gallery of Calgary. Visit for details.

Image of George Webber's Craigmyle, Alberta, 1987 from

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Cancelling the National Portrait Gallery: A Picture of Conservative Mismanagement

This weekend, web commenters went nuts over government's suspiciously timed late-Friday announcement to cancel plans for a National Portrait Gallery.

Their rationale? The gallery would cost too much money in these tough economic times.

Whether individual Canadians like art or not, there's no way they should buy this flimsy rationale.

First, the Conservative Government considerably increased the costs (both money and time-as-money) of the project as a whole when they halted building the gallery in Ottawa in '06 and began a process of asking for bids from other cities. If they hadn't done this, the gallery--originally slated as a reno of a former American embassy--would probably be complete by now.

Second, since 2006, the bids received on the project (from Calgary and Edmonton as well as Ottawa) have depended heavily, if not entirely, on private funds. Where's this taxpayer burden Harper's so concerned about?

Commentary online surrounding these events has, as usual, gone both pro-arts and anti-arts.

Some commenters have said "just put the dang collection online for all Canadians to enjoy." You know what? I think this collection should be online too. But to put a collection online still takes money. And a fair bit of it, especially if you are going to present information in a well-designed, accessible way. And if you're going to promote it for all Canadians to be aware of for their enjoyment--that takes money too.

Plus, seeing a painting online is nothing like seeing it in person; if that were the case, perhaps we could suggest the Louvre would save money by just putting the Mona Lisa and all its other famed treasures online and closing up its bricks and mortar shop. Everybody okay with that? Is that pretty much the same? I didn't think so.

Some commenters have also said that this really is saving money in tough economic times. But as has already been pointed out, much of the money was to come from private, rather than public, coffers. And if the conservatives really cared about overall cost of the project in the first place, they should have let it go ahead in Ottawa, where plans were already in place, as well as the collection and staff needed to care for it.

Further, an argument could be made that in these tough economic times, the project would provide much-needed construction jobs, as well as jobs in education, service and design. It would also provide, when it is complete, a low-cost-to-free form of recreation to hardworking Canadians.

Some commenters have also insinuated that the Harper gov is suppressing the collection to keep Canadians from being aware of their left-leaning history. I don't want to tag them with such divisive philistinism at this point in time--though the fact that Harper only hangs images of himself in the Conservative offices does much to support this thesis. (Thanks to Simpleposie for the link.)

Rather, I chalk up this sheepishly timed announcement as evidence that the government is continuing to use culture as a wedge issue. This is highly regrettable, because even if the Conservatives aren't trying to "keep Canadians from their history" that is the ultimate result.

I won't even get into the PM's own elitist double standard of being able to hang publicly owned works in his residence while keeping them from the public's own view. After all, I'm sure he'll be putting a stop to any repairs at 24 Sussex for financial reasons soon too... right?

Image of the former US embassy originally slated to be Canada's National Portrait Gallery from Canwest News Service/National Post

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Feminist Art: Rock n' Roll Fun, as Well as Symposium-tastic

Was reminded by Jezebel just now of how great Sleater-Kinney, the classic all-lady rock trio from the West Coast, is/was. As fun and head-boppin' as some of their music can be, these females are seriously feminist. As co-frontwoman Corinne Tucker once stated, "We just want to say that we're not here to fuck the band. We are the band." (Now there's an all-girl exhibition title up for grabs!) Though it's sad the band is no longer together, it is fun to still blast their music and read guitarist Carrie Brownstein's blog Monitor Mix. As well as, of course, shred some serious air guitar to their tunes.

Also feminist fun, albeit in a bit quieter way: Toronto artist, curator and teacher Carla Garnet has organized a symposium on "Art Institutions and the Feminist Dialectic" for December 3 and 4 via the Ontario Association of Art Galleries. Speakers include Emelie Chhangur, Suzy Lake, Allyson Mitchell and Camilla Singh, among others. For more information see And don't forget to BYO-Bass.

Just in case you need an extra nudge:

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Worth Repeating: Peter Schjeldahl on Criticism and Friendship, or Lack Thereof

"You're not going to get a good art critic in St. Louis. To be a good critic, you have to be able to make a new enemy every week and never run out of people to be your friend. In this country that's LA and New York. Otherwise you're going to be moving a lot."

-- New Yorker scribe Peter Schjeldahl, quoted in Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World, a not-so-bad-book currently on my reading roster

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Saturday, November 8, 2008

Three to See: Galleries in Toronto's Kensington Market

Kensington Market has long been a haven for Toronto's boho artists. But lately it's not just about impromptu street parties--there's been honest-to-goodness galleries springing up to house the works of same. In this weekend's National Post, I check out three of these newish venues: Pixel Gallery, Project 165, and Studio Gallery. Read on after the jump for the info.

Image of a Jesse Harris artwork at Studio Gallery from

Ironic? Iconic? Try both.
National Post, November 9, 2008
By Leah Sandals

Kensington Market has long been a haven for Toronto’s boho artists. But recently some honest-to-goodness galleries have been springing up, too. Sneak in a latte and people-watching at Casa Acoreana, and you’ve got an nice alt afternoon out.

1. Pixel Gallery 156 Augusta Ave.
The zeitgeisty-named Pixel Gallery, nestled behind the funky Function 13 design shop, opened almost one year ago. Since then, it’s done a lot to promote innovative digital art, such as video-game guns that shoot graffiti, not bullets. In its current show, Pixel collaborates with 20-year-old big-bro Pleasuredome, a still very active video exhibition collective. The result is A Lower World, a seven-artist exhibition riffing on the horrific and extreme. Though this art can be hard to stomach, the show’s a prime place to catch rising international stars. Swede Nathalie Djurberg, profiled in this month’s Vogue thanks to a recent show at Italy’s Prada Foundation, shows Claymation vids of a violent battle between dogs and people. American Laurel Nakadate pushes the boundaries of ethics and sense with wince-worthy videos documenting her encounters with lonely men. And Los Angeles artist Julian Hoeber’s unsettling flick Killing Friends has fake blood and psychological spooks to spare. On a gentler note, New York Times darling Michael Bell-Smith presents excess as scrolling, unending video game landscapes. Recent Whitney Biennial pick Mungo Thomson presents the “extreme” desert landscapes of Warner Bros. cartoons minus Wile E. and the Roadrunner. Finally, Marcus Coates of Britain offers a Monty Python-meetsMerlin scenario, performing an ancient divination ritual in the staid setting of a Liverpool apartment block.

2. Project 165 165 Augusta Ave.
Across the street from Pixel, three new exhibition venues have opened on Augusta: cafĂ©-cum-event-zone Hotshot, Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts and Culture and studios-in-the-back, gallery-in-the-front affair Project 165. While these venues don’t show art continuously, they have upped the gallery quotient of the avenue. Right now, Project 165, the newest of these spaces, is hosting drawings by self-proclaimed “lost boys” Ryan Solski and Dan Rocca. Although Peter Pan conceits and naive drawing styles are starting to wear thin in the art world, Solski’s careful sketches of maps and faces still have a fairy-tale quality, while Rocca’s busier work bridges to psychedelic brands of fantasy. The latter’s smaller drawings of isolated objects with colourful auras seem especially sprinkled with fairy dust. Tinkerbell would approve, even if grumpy grown-ups don’t.

3. Studio Gallery 294 College St., 2nd floor
Created as an extension of founder Avery Hunsberger’s design office, which counts Calvin Klein among its clients, Studio Gallery is a raw, twentysomething-friendly art and music space fluent in the iconic/ironic Gen Y style of magazines such as Vice and Nylon. Keeping with the periodical theme, Studio’s current show features artists from the second issue of Bad Day Magazine, a new quarterly created by young Ossington Avenue photographer and filmmaker Eva Michon. Many works reflect a world-weary wonder: “At a dollar a letter, I could not afford to tell you how much I have to say,” proclaims Jesse Harris’s iron-on T-shirt. A cracked, flaking and, as it turns out, microwaved CD is commemorated in Paul Kneale’s massive colour photograph. And the poetic side of Crystal Castles-centric living is commemorated in Tim Barber’s sliceof-life pics. Next, watch for an exhibition by 18-year-old internet “It Girl” Cory Kennedy, fresh from having her portrait shown at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. To access the gallery by appointment, call 416-832-3933 or visit

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Spoiler Alert: James Elkins on the Art World

The comment from James Elkins is actually a bit of a spoiler for his article in the October '08 issue of Frieze, but it's still worth repeating:

"The art world is a productive mess, and that's fine if you are not interested in saying what the art means. Once you start considering the historical, philosophical and critical meaning of the work, then the art world is in a desperate mess, made even more desperate by the unblinking optimism created by markets and money. I am not calling for a return to principles, argument, rationality, effective political intervention or anything else. I am noting reasons why it does not make sense to be optimistic about the freedoms, possibilities, market values, historical position, expansion, significance or direction of current art, art history, visual studies, art crticism or art theory."

James Elkins, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," Frieze October 2008

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Mincing around Jonathan Meese

So I reviewed international art star Jonathan Meese's Toronto exhibit for this week's NOW. And it stands as one of the more difficult shows I've ever had to review. Why? Because much as much as I am excited to see an artist of such stature come to Toronto--and I definitely agree that it's a coup for Greener Pastures gallery owner Kineko Ivic--the content is really challenging to deal with.

In many ways, particularly the formal ones, I really like Meese's work--I just love the mix of messy, stapled-to-the-walls stuff hanging with the still-messy-but-higher-end expressionist painting. And in a similar vein, his bronze pseudo-busts are totally awesome--love the mix of mushy nonsensical content and supposedly dignified means. Really nice.

But I just can't be one of those art viewers who's like "yeah, swastika on the ceiling, awesome semiotic-play cool!" Nor can I be easily swayed by the stories of how Meese is such "a great, sweet, gentle, loving guy" in everyday interactions. I can, admittedly, be swayed by the international accolades and opportunities Meese has received, which confuses my reactions even further.

Fact: Meese uses swastikas and other Third Reich imagery in his work. This is part of why his work is popular--Meese deals openly with the horrific aspects of recent German history that many of his countrymen would rather move on from. And I do get the sense that Meese is attempting to use these symbols in some sort of therapeutic way. After all, his mother, who likely lived through the war, is also a big part of his performances and the imagery he uses. I suspect that rather than going the route of suppressing societal trauma, and having it fester and resurge, Meese would like to address it in some way.

But here's another fact: those swastikas and other forms of Third Reich imagery, while ubiquitous and considered acceptable in documentary biopic contexts (Valkyrie, anyone? Maybe some Schindler's List?) are very charged, upsetting, and triggering symbols when used in other contexts. So much of Meese's works' success (as with any artist, but especially here) depends on the special frame of the gallery and museum. Outside of that context, Meese's work just looks like the living room of some crazypants dude with a Hitler obsession and and itch to paint. Or, from another perspective, is Meese just exploiting his considerable visual acumen to gloss over (in his trademark messy, "raw" way) the difficulty such symbols present?

I know the work is more complex than this in terms of its art historical, political and social references, but it's a difficulty I really haven't seen addressed around his work, at least here. I'm probably not looking hard enough, and I'd appreciate any suggestions others have for related readings. But I just kept thinking of someone who had actually experienced the holocaust walking into such a gallery and being told it's the work of a great artist. And I kept thinking of them, quite reasonably, going into shock and feeling angry and upset. Is it okay for artwork to do that? Is it okay to tell someone like that that "the artist didn't mean it that way"? Is that the point? Should we all be able to shrug it off in a post-WWII, supposedly global-village-happy society?

I'm not sure, but I'm interested in discussing it further.

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Bucking Art Market Pressures at Printmaking Paradise Open Studio

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

Image of Luke Painter's Victorian Bust 2007 from

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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