Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Oldie but a Goodie: Critic on Call

Even before Facebook, Twitter et al. it was hard for artists to figure out how to relate to critics, and vice versa.

It doesn't help, of course, that some critics are quite chummy in style, others more distant. For my part, I prefer to have professional, not personal, relationships with artists and gallerists. What does this mean in the real world? Liz Wylie summarized it well in her 2003 essay "An Open Letter to Artists: Confessions from a Recovering "Critic-on-Call"." (scroll down to item 2 for the piece).

As Wylie describes: "We writers on art are not so different from artists. Like artists, we have often spent years learning our craft and developing our practice. Like artists, we are dedicated professionals, often crazy about the visual arts, and have had to work at all kinds of day jobs in order to support our habit. We love to look at art and to write about the art that excites us. But, we need to see and consider an artist¹s work before we know if we want to write on it at all. A piece of critical writing is not a personal favour, neither should one be viewed as promotion. The writing may end actually up being negative, of course, so be braced for this possibility no matter what your relationship with the critic."

Thanks to Andrew Wright for the link.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Le plus ca change...

A still-relevant snippet from the 1970s:

“The culture of this country is a fragile thing, worth far more than the few dollars saved by the removal of the meager support funding that keeps it alive."

Sound cogent to today's circumstances? It was written by CARFAC representative Dale Amundson in a letter to the federal government in the late 70s. The cause: federal cuts to the Art Bank program and department of public works art program. The letter is part of the current Governor General's Award exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, honouring, among others, Tony Urquhart and Kim Ondaatje, two co-founders of CARFAC.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Update: Our Nat'l Photo Museum Confirmed to Close

Yesterday, there was a very good article in the Ottawa Citizen on the fate of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, which I posted on earlier this week. The article gives full coverage to the question of whether the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, opened to great fanfare in 1992, is about to lose its building.

The answer: Most definitely. And the main culprit would seem to be the Harper government, which is taking over the site as meeting rooms and offices.

As the article makes clear, other factors did come into play such as water seepage. And it does note that the collection and programs of the CMCP will continue to exist at the National Gallery of Canada at 380 Sussex Drive. But the museum will no longer have its own standalone building.

My opinion on this-- shared by Ottawa photographer Jennifer Dickson and founding CMCP director Martha Langford, both of whom were interviewed in the article--is anger and disappointment.

As the article makes clear, the creation of the CMCP took many years, and million of dollars. In many ways was a triumph of the Mulroney Conservatives--Mulroney being a right-wing leader who, in retrospect, seems very arts-friendly compared to our current conservative PM Stephen Harper.

Given the Harper government's cancellation of the construction of our National Portrait Gallery, and the fact that he are taking over the CMCP site for the government's own purposes, this seems like just another instance of the current government's "eff you" stance towards arts and culture, both in Ottawa and elsewhere. (Remember Calgary and Edmonton submitted extensive proposals for the Portrait Gallery as well... this is not about east-west patronage tensions, just arts stuff.)

This decision to shut the gallery is also not about more theoretical questions around the validity of photography as its own medium in this multidisciplinary day and age. Were the museum to continue in its current site, I'm sure they'd continue to manage the analog-digital transitions of the medium just fine. (The exhibition they've got coming up at the NGC focuses on Scott McFarland, who uses digital techniques quite extensively.)

Relevant questions that still remain, however, might be the budgetary constraints imposed by former liberal PM Chretien's decision to build an outpost of the NGC in his home riding of Shawinigan. As well as, of course, Harper's desire to control messaging and media at all costs. (As the CBC recently reports, Harper's currently doing his second interviews with CNN and Fox in less than a month--but has refused to give national news service the Canadian Press an interview since December 2007. Pathetic.)

Image of outraged Ottawa photographer Jennifer Dickson from the Ottawa Citizen

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Last and First Chances: Mitchell, Boyle, Fafard & more

A couple of last chances that close today and that I highly recommend: Allyson Mitchell at the McMaster Museum of Art (this one will tour a bit, so if you're willing to travel you may still catch it) and Shary Boyle at Jessica Bradley Art & Projects. I've seen em both and they're both fantastic. (Update: Nick from Jessica Bradley says the Boyle show has been extended to April 4... lucky ya'll...)

In other recommendations—I wrote a little gallery hop for today's National Post. It's focused on the old-guard Yorkville area. Read on here.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Out today: NeoHooDoo review and Chris Cran Q&A

A couple of my pieces out today: the first a review of NeoHooDoo at the Miami Art Museum on www.canadianart.ca, the other a Q&A with Calgary artist Chris Cran in the National Post. It occurs to me I need to start posting interview transcripts again. In the meantime, take a gander at Cran's website for his great images.

Image of Chris Cran's the Physics of Admiration from chriscran.com

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Remedial Reading: The End of the Jews by Adam Mansbach

As was likely indicated by my previous shout out to Believing is Seeing, I've been trying to bone up on art-related reading. And though I didn't expect a fiction paperback to illuminate on this topic, one recently has. It's The End of the Jews by Adam Mansbach. What the book does is follow interactions between a few artists/writers and their families. And though Mansbach summons a lot of issues--Jewish history, white-boy hip-hop, and the fall of the Iron Curtain being just a few--what rises to the surface are questions and observations about the ways writers and artists appropriate from other individuals and other cultures.

To be truthful, part of what drew me to read this book was a smirking attitude, as in "Yay, it's not just art critics who are parasitic! It's artists themselves!" But ultimately Mansbach's book is much more complex than that, with well-drawn characters who I wanted to keep reading about in spite of (or perhaps because of) all their terrible, awkward, inappropriate impulses.

Now that I'm on the topic of fiction on artists, I should say that I also recommend The Great Man by Kate Christensen, a less epic novel than Mansbach's but just as sharp. The Great Man follows two biographers as they compete to write the definitive biography of a supposedly great artist. Along the way, truths come to light about who really painted or inspired some of the "Great Man's" defining works.

If anyone else has suggestions for fiction that can tell the truth about art, I'm all ears.

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Noticed: The Art of Glamour and Vogue

In my recent browses across airport magazine racks (to me, such browsing is one of the the top benefits of air travel), I noticed that some serious art is making its way into classic beach reads like Glamour and Vogue.

In its April issue, Vogue runs an article on the Francis Bacon exhibition that is soon coming to New York. (I was wondering, as a sidenote, when these sorts of preview pieces would start appearing, given the exhibition's monthslong run in London and Madrid. Guess it's now.) But rather than just look at Bacon, writer Dodie Kazanjian does short profiles in a few different artists, asking them what they think of Bacon's work. Kazanjian also did a good profile of new Met Museum director Thomas Campbell a couple of months back for the mag, and, to be fair, has been covering art for the magazine for some time. Still, it's hard to think of Bacon's work perhaps being picked for its relevance to the "Shape Issue" -- where the focus is dressing "curves" and "petites", not shopping for "melting chunks of gnarly scary Bacon-flesh"? I don't mean to be snooty, quite the opposite. I guess I'm just wondering how Vogue decides which art to cover, what they think is appropriate to their market.

Perhaps more of a surprise, even, was opening the more mass-market mag Glamour and seeing work from Marilyn Minter, Kara Walker, Tracy Emin and other strong contemporaries. It's the mag's 70th anniversary and they asked these artists to each present one of their works on the theme of "glamour." Cheesy concept, but great to see works by these women reaching into the supermarket checkout rack audience. Also super is Walker's quote on how beauty acts as a veil over meaning, which runs alongside her sort of overtly ugly pencil sketch of a woman kissing skeletons. Must be seen and savoured in that ladymag context, for sure.

Image of Marilyn Minter's Chewing Pink 2008--which I think is the piece that ended up in Glamour--from artnet.com

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Rumour: Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography to Close?

Just got an email about a potential closure of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, one of the few national museums of photography in the world. It's a forward originally written by Winnipeg artist Diana Thorneycroft. Writes Thorneycroft:

Dear photographers and friends of photography:
I have just learned that the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography has lost the building that was specifically designed for them. As reported in the Monday edition of the National Post (16.03.09) the museum will be gutted and turned into offices for politicians....
For the past two years CMCP has been occupying temporary space at the National Gallery.It is imperative that we show our support for this institution, its programming and collecting, or we may very well lose it.

According to the National Post story, "The federal government will convert the former Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography in downtown Ottawa into committee rooms for MPs as part of its plan to vacate the crumbling West Block next year" for a Parliament renovation that will take 10 years.

For its part, the CMCP website posts two conflicting pieces of information. A February 23 press release says: "Due to an ongoing renovation program of its premises at 1 Rideau Street, the CMCP is currently staging its exhibitions at the National Gallery of Canada." But on the museum's "Hours and Location" tab, it says "New Location: Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, 380 Sussex Drive" -- the same as the address of the National Gallery of Canada.

I don't think it would be beyond the government's anti-arts, cost-saving ethos to roll the location of the CMCP and the National Gallery of Canada into one and use the old building for itself. But it's unclear if this is a permanent move. More info hopefully to follow.

Image of the CMCP building at 1 Rideau Street from its website

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Q&A: Polaroids and Porny Trees with Attila Richard Lukacs

Attila Richard Lukacs is one of the best known Canadian artists of the 1980s and 90s. I remember seeing his huge canvases of sexy skinheads for the first time back then, and being a little shocked myself. The man knows how to make an impression on a high school girl's mind! In any case, Lukacs's work, which dealt openly with sexuality, fetish and arousal, made a big impression on the Group of Seven lovin' Canadian art scene. So I was pleased to be able to chat with him about a rather different set of work currently on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta: arrangements of small Polaroid pics that Lukacs used as figure studies for his paintings over the years. The National Post published the condensed interview today; click here to read on.
Image of one of Lukacs's Polaroid grids from Exposure, Edmonton's queer arts & culture fest

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Canada Surprises at NeoHooDoo

So I did drop by NeoHooDoo at the Miami Art Museum yesterday, and was pleasantly surprised to have a few "O Canada" moments. Rebecca Belmore and especially Brian Jungen have some works featured very prominently in the show, which seems to riff on a new take on spiritual traditions in art. Belmore's striking "Fringe", exhibited in Montreal and Vancouver recently, made the cut and is striking. Jungen's beer cooler and golf-bag totems also make the grade.

The show overall includes many artists from Cuba and the states, and is organized by the Menil Collection in Houston with PS1 in New York. (BTW the works from Radcliffe Bailey Storm and Jose Bedia were awesome.) It's really great to see strong Canadian artists recognized in this way. I wondered if Jen Budney at the Mendel Art Gallery might have had anything to do with it--she worked with show curator Franklin Sirmans back in the day at Flash Art, and has an essay in the catalogue.

Image of Rebecca Belmore's Fringe from canadianart.ca; image of Brian Jungen's work from Catriona Jeffries website

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Recommended: Jarod Charzewski, Stephane LaRue, Jenny LeBlanc & more

I'm off to Florida till Friday, where I'm looking forward to going to the Miami Art Museum and perhaps a couple of other spots. But the weather's finally warming in Toronto and I'm actually kind of sad to be missing that. Anyway, here are some shows to duck into that I've seen and recommend:

  • Jeremy Bailey & Jarod Charzewski at Pari Nadimi Gallery - Pari is often on the lookout for up-and-coming work, and here she offers a couple of rather different views. Charzewski, a Winnipeg-born, US-based artist, creates carefully organized piles of folded clothes that end up being quite like geologic strata. I swear I saw a "Mountain Gear" forest green fleece that was once mine in junior high. Whether it's the fleece that gets ya or not, though, there is something resonant about these minimalist-meets-maximimalist clothes cubes. I just wish they were bigger, as in accompanying install shots from another work. Bailey, for his part, goes in a rather different direction, playing with digital video quite skilfully. His dance sequence for New Order takes the Gillian Wearing dancing-in-Peckham-initated genre to a whole new digipainted level, disembodying bodily pleasure in more, well, clickable kinds of pleasures, perhaps.
  • Stéphane LaRue at Diaz Contemporary - Goddammit Stephane LaRue loves edges. He loves them so much he makes you love them too, staring at his mini squares with tiny bits of edge shaved off, folding them into elegant graph-paper pieces, masking-taping them lovingly, like a dull yellow hug. Lovely.
  • Kyle Bravo, Jenny LeBlanc and Claire Rau at Open Studio - In what seems like the product of an elaborate dare, New Orleans artists Bravo and LeBlanc have screenprinted themselves a kind of snowball fight in 3-D at open studio. The ideas their installation and video of the installation process raise about the transformative powers of art are serious, though -- screenprinted snow acting as snow? art acting as life? this is big stuff. And so what if an abominadable snowman somehow makes an appearance too? Levity is always appreciated, at least by me.

Image from Jarod Charzewski's website

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

At the Galleries: Shelley Adler, David Mabb, Aleesa Cohene

Gallery column out today in the Post with views on Shelley Adler, David Mabb, Aleesa Cohene and more.... plus it's sunny out, perfect for a gallery hop today.

Image of Shelley Adler's Problem Girl from Nicholas Metivier website

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Q&A: Getting Corporate with Carey Young

Brit artist Carey Young is known for mixing up corporate costumes with art critique. So it was a pleasure to chat with her earlier in the week in advance of her exhibition at the Power Plant, which opens tonight. She had lots to say, so only a bit of it made it into this condensed Q&A in the Post today. Still, I'd recommend checking out her Toastmasters collaboration on Sunday if you love a good speech or two. Also her website provides tons of images. (Text is also after the jump.)
Image of Young's Body Techniques (after Sculpture II, Kirsten Justesen, 1969) 2007 from her website.

We're all corporate now
Leah Sandals, National Post
Published: Friday, March 13, 2009

Many critics have started suggesting that the current economic downturn will be good for art, prompting both artists and gallerists to get back to aesthetic essentials. But what about artists such as Britain's Carey Young, whose creative work is intertwined with corporate culture? Whether it's suits spouting revolution or call centre reps divulging intimacies, Young's done it as art. Now, with her first Canadian solo show opening in Toronto tomorrow, Young tells Leah Sandals more about her brainy take on conceptual-art bailouts.

Q You originally studied photography. How did you shift to performing corporate roles instead?

A I unexpectedly ended up with a corporate part-time job, which caused the shift. But I do still orbit through photography. I've just done a big project called Body Techniques, a series of photographs set in Dubai that's just been sold to the Tate [Gallery in London]. And when I was in the corporate sector I happened on a huge photographic archive that they were throwing out, and I managed to take it home for a project.

Q How did your corporate job come about?

A A few weeks after I finished my master's [degree], I ended up in a course for digital media. On this course, there was a woman working for a management consultancy part-time. She happened to be leaving her job, so I ended up with an interview only a few weeks after graduating. At first I wondered what I was doing, because I had an ideological issue with corporations. But it ended up being really fascinating. I became very interested in that idea of being an insider and making artwork that seems to engage that.

Q Body Techniques shows you staging classic performance art in a suit in Dubai. Why?

A As soon as I went to Dubai I knew that I wanted to do a project there because it's corporate HQ land, it really is. Essentially it's the most globalized place I could imagine, coming straight out of some corporate imagination. And performance art is a genre where the desire to escape the marketplace has been particularly active. By re-enacting it in Dubai, I kind of wanted to play one against the other, using a suit as a costume to show I'm complicit, not an outsider.

Q How are corporations and artists alike?

A [Laughs] Well, that's a complex question. In some ways they don't understand each other. In other ways it's the most immense flirtation. From a business perspective, the interest has been in trying to seem creative, because that's a differentiator to shareholders -- seeming innovative. And then the art world is obviously interested in money and philanthropy.

Q Has the recession affected your art? Many people in your pieces look like they could've worked at Bear Stearns or Merrill Lynch.

A Well, some of them have worked in those places. I try to collaborate with real businesspeople. The trainer in the video I'ma Revolutionary is a real corporate trainer. I've also worked with a venture capitalist. And several artworks are legal instruments, so having lawyers involved is very important. I want authenticity.

Q About the legal piece you're showing in Toronto, Donorcard: How does it work?

A It's based on the organ donor card you likely have in your wallet. For a start, I think the wallet is a really interesting place for artwork. It's underused; it's so personal and it's also about the financial dimension. Everyone can pick up a Donorcard for free. The card has a contract on the back I've already signed and when you sign it [the card] becomes an artwork only as long as we're both alive. So it's like a very loose marriage contract between me and 2,000 people.

Q You also make art with call centres. How will that function in Toronto?

A In the gallery there's a red phone on a table, and a photograph of a telephone agent. As soon as you pick up the phone, you're connected straight through to that agent. And the agent answers with a script that I've written. It's a mix of personal and commercial.

Q Finally, you're performing with Toastmasters on Sunday. How did you get into that? It's hardly the hip, young thing.

A [Laughs] No, it's not the hip, young thing. Whenever I bring people, I say: "It's so untrendy!" But everyone loves it. I found it by accident. I just heard the word "toastmaster" somewhere and eventually joined a chapter in London.

One of the things I like about Toastmasters is that everyone's a student and everyone's a teacher. You're just working through the manual, and the people who are further along give you generous, constructive feedback. It's almost nicer than the art world!

Carey Young: Counter Offer opens tonight at the Power Plant in Toronto. For details, visit thepowerplant.org.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kickass Valerie Blass

Valerie Blass is a very right-now sculptor out of Montreal. NOW ran my review of her first TO exhibition today. Summation: Kickass. Co-exhibitor Nicholas Baier ain't so shabby neither.
Image of Blass's Presque ca 2005 from Parisian Laundry

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Up with Canada Prize Rant-izzle

You know that Canada Prize rant/critique I posted last week? Today NOW ran a version of it. Many thanks to Sally McKay, Michael Wheeler and Todd Harrison for providing background info, and to Simpleposie for her comprehensive posting of government debate links.

In related news, the Globe reports that the Heritage ministry refuses to explain the $40-mil-plus in arts funding cuts last year, and the Canadian Press says the Art Gallery of Ontario may slash up to 100 employees.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Baby Boomers, Meet Your Match

Yeah yeah yeah. Enough about NYC and the fairs. If I had some travel cash, I would go to Fredericton and see writer RM Vaughan give a talk called "The Decline of the Baby Boomers: A Case for Cultural Renewal" on March 26. Why would I go see it? Because Mr. Vaughan is a kickass writer at most things I've seen him tackle, which occassionally includes art. I stumbled on one of his past National Post clippings in an exhibition binder this weekend and it was zingers galore. I think this baby boomers thing actually has a related article in the current issue of This Magazine as well. So east coasters don't let me down... it happens at 703 Queen St at 7pm.

Actually, there's a gaggle of fresh art talks happening in the next week or two. On Thursday, Lawrence Weiner is at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre, Rafael Lozano Hemmer is talks in Waterloo, and Geoffrey James is lecturing at Ryerson U. Further, Brit Carey Young is down with Toastmasters on Sunday back at Harbourfront. And if all that sounds too unwieldy, there's a more low-key art chat on failures and never-been projects led by emerging curator Nicholas Brown at the Drake, also on Thursday.

Still, nothing compares to a good analysis of the baby boomers... always love that stuff.

Image of RM Vaughan performing Gayga--the gay version of yoga--at the Pride Toronto art fair from his website

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Nuit Blanche 2009 Curators Announced for TO; Nocturne Date up for HFX

Well, the days are finally getting longer north of the 49th but it seems art curators in Canada are focusing in on the night.

Today, Nuit Blanche Toronto announced the curators for its fourth incarnation taking place October 3 from 7pm to 7am.

One of the biggest surprises about the announcement was the revelation that a Vancouver curator, Makiko Hara, will be curating the Liberty Village area (Zone C). Though there have been some travelling curators involved in the past (like last year's Calgary-based Wayne Baerwaldt), Hara is the farthest-flung to date, and has had few Toronto projects in the past. She's planning on showing Columbian sound artist Oswaldo Macia, Toronto's Maria Legault, Japanese artist Kyohei Sakaguchi and others to be announced. Centre A, where Hara works in Vancouver, does a lot of strong programming, which I'd say makes me excited about what she could do here. Her experience with the International Triennale of Contemporary Art in Yokohama ain't nothin to sniff at either.

Also interesting to my eyes is the selection of Toronto artist/curator Thom Sokoloski as co-curator of the Yonge-Dundas area (Zone A). Sokoloski had a hit in the first Nuit Blanche with a series of illuminated tents in a local park. The tents were later installed on New York's Roosevelt Island, and was covered in the NYT here. Sokoloski says he will be featuring works by New York's Shaun El C. Leonardo, Canadian sound artist Gord Monahan and Austrian light artist Erwin Redl.

Also curating Zone A is Gregory Elgstrand, who left YYZ Artists' Outlet last year for a more freelance-style curatorial career. Elgstrand is one of several artists and curators who formed Department of Culture, a protest group after government arts cuts last year. He also says he is trying to get a project together with Paul Butler for Venice 2009. Elgstrand's current picks for around City Hall will feature work by Toronto artist Anitra Hamilton (always worth a gander) and dance by Susie Burpee.

Finally, art/life duo Jim Drobnick and Jennifer Fisher are taking on the Bay Street finance district (Zone B) with works from Fastwurms, Rebecca Belmore, and Iain Baxter& and others TBA. I really look forward to what Fastwurms do... hoping for a witchy performance of some kind, that would be great. Belmore made a stunning ice sculpture for the first Nuit Blanche in 2006, so I'll also be interested to see what she does here.

On an overall note, Nuit Blanche is not coinciding with the Toronto International Art Fair this year, which is bad news for the tourist trade but good news for last year's exhausted gallerists and local press.

Further east (in an area we can call "Zone M" for Maritimes?) Nocturne, a Halifax version of the Nuit Blanche event, has announced the date for its second-ever fest: October 17. No word on programming yet, but we'll keep an ear out.

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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Bathhouse meets Arthouse in Halifax this June

Hey, here's a truly hot-looking art opportunity: Eyelevel Gallery and the Halifax Audio Club has just put out a call for submissions to "Audio Bathhouse", where Sea Dog's, the "largest private men's club east of Quebec City" is given over for an evening to audio and video installations.

According to the call:

Sea Dog’s is an active 2-level bathhouse. The space consists of several rooms (including 23 private rooms, a dark bondage room, a sauna, a whirlpool, etc). The whole space is dimly lit and has a nautical theme.

We seek works for the following locations:

* Audio for Dark room (no lights, includes couch and wall handcuffs)
* Audio for Sling room and Maze (darkened area with leather slings and metal maze)
* Audio for the dry sauna (functioning wooden sauna room with two wooden benches, approx. 6 feet by 6 feet, seats approx 8 people comfortably at a time)
* Audio for the revolving door (metal revolving capsule, big enough for one person)
* Video for private rooms (Many private rooms with beds receive the same video feed to monitors. Rooms are very small, there are mirrors on the walls and ceilings. the rooms are dimly lit.)
* Video for Group room (large flat-screen monitor with nearby couch/bed, dimly lit area with space for approximately 15 people to view the work)
* Video only for Hot Tub – (there is a video screen beside the whirlpool. We want video to go with sounds generated live by the functioning hot tub!)

Sounds fun! Submissions due April 10 for screening in June. For more information contact Eryn Foster, director@eyelevelgallery.ca

Image of Seadog's hot tub -- where your very own video might screen -- from their website

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Taking Aim at Brooklyn Museum's "Click!"

I'm sad to say I missed many of the presenations at "Encounters in the Socialverse" last week at York University. But I did catch the end of a panel including LaTanya S. Autry, a master's candidate at the University of Delaware, who has been studying the Brooklyn Museum's "Click! A Crowd Curated Exhibition" with interesting results.

According to Autry's research, "Click!" initially promised to be an exciting collaboration with the public where visitors and online users would get to curate an open-call exhibition. But in the end, as Autry found, museum curators used a few different strategies to reassert their authority, like organizing a panel on the exhibit where museum curators were the only official speakers, and breaking the original curatorial "contract" by exhibiting only a small selection of the crowd-curated works, rather than all 300-plus. The show was also situated well away from the Museum's own contemporary art collection rooms.

I found Autry's research compelling, because it's clear she admires the museum's initiative, but has also pinpointed ways in which museum attitudes towards the public can still be closed and condescending. As Autry put it, "I'm part of the public too; I don't think the public is stupid."

Also, though the show was reviewed in the NY Times, the reviewer didn't seem to pick up on this angle. Some comments on the project blog, however, would seem to reveal a bit of dissenting opinion.

Image of the show being documented from the Brooklyn Museum blog

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Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Artist Project: A Few Highlights

Dropped by The Artist Project art fair last night and have to say there wasn't a lot that impressed me. Before I went, I thought "Why is there a fair here at the same time as the Armory Show? All the serious collectors will be in NYC." But as it turns out, there is not a lot of work here for serious collectors. The appeal is to art newbies who want to walk around looking at art with a glass of wine in hand--an experience I'm personally not against. But I would be concerned that new collectors, or simply the curious, going to this event would miss the best that's going on in the Toronto artists community.

Also, though I heard opening night (Thurs) was packed, last night was pretty slow. So I wonder how much the artists are getting back for their booth investment.

Still, I feel obliged to offer a few highlights to check out if you are going. (A few of these arecrossovers from organizer MMPI's One of a Kind Show, which I would say is a better deal for browsers, actually (better craft angle)). Anyway, here's the booths I recommend:
Also perhaps of interest:
  • Min Hyung had lots of critical acclaim for her premiere show at Angell in January; here she's showing in the emerging artists section
  • Heidi Leverty does digital photo parints of multiple "junk" objects that reminded me of Chris Jordan's work
  • Parts Gallery co-owner Ric Santon has a booth here; but I was sad to see none of his stormtrooper portraits, little paintings I always enjoy. 
There are some other kind of works I haven't seen before, like Nina Sampaleanu's wax works, which are pretty neat technically. Overall, though, I really wouldn't recommend it--even though I know the artists must have worked really hard to get ready.

Image of Wendy Walgate's ceramic work from her website

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Does Toronto need a New Art Gallery? A New Art Prize? Or Maybe Just... Old Art Funding?

Today in the Toronto Star, Christopher Hume—well known as an urban design commentator but also the Star's former art critic—recommended that an appropriate 175th birthday gift to Toronto would be a new contemporary art gallery. In his words, a "Gehry original," "preferably on the waterfront," would be just the thing to make our city a major player on the international art scene. He also writes that MOCCA and the Power Plant just aren't fitting the bill, and that "the banking sector's continued profitability" could be counted on the provide philanthropic input.
Hume's recommendation follows a different proposal also aimed at making Toronto—and by extension, Canada—a more serious player on the global art scene. That proposal, launched with a $25-mil endowment in late January's federal budget (and much-debated since) is the Canada Prizes. To recap, the Canada Prizes are the brainchild of Luminato co-founders David Pecault and Tony Gagliano. The details are still fuzzy on how the Prizes would work. (In fact, the Heritage minister has claimed of late that the government's internal proposal is nothing like the one being discussed in the press.) But according to early reports, the Prizes would use that $25-mil public endowment to issue annual six-figure prizes to international artists, writers, dancers, and performers. Though the prizes would be named after the nation, they would be issued in Toronto, possibly with a commission for winners to follow at a future Luminato fest.

I've been thinking about the Canada Prizes and their problems for a while, as have many in the arts community. But this recommendation (however casual) about a new art gallery prompts me to outline why old art funding—and not new institutions and prizes—is what Toronto's arts sector needs right now.

Part of the issue is context. As independent critic and curator Sally McKay has of the prizes, “In and of itself it’s not a terrible idea. But after cuts to shipping subsidies and travel grants, it’s offensive to Canadian artists to suggest we should be importing artists rather than supporting what we have here.”

McKay has a point. Since being elected in 2006, the feds have cut $4.6 million from a Museum Assistance Program that helped with shipping costs for all Canadian museums; cancelled a National Portrait Gallery, wasting at least $6.5-million in investments made since 2001; cut the $11.7-million Memory Fund, which helped put Canadian museum collections online for worldwide access; eliminated the $9-million Trade Routes program, which helped groups like Hot Docs do international promotion; and axed the $4.7-million PromArt program, a travel grant administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

It seems highly unlikely that an untested $25-million “international arts prize”, or a $500-million new museum, for that matter, is going to prove more cost-effective in promoting Canadian culture or Toronto. (Cost-effectiveness, of course, being the prime gov argument for cutting these programs in the first place.) I also disagree with Hume that our "banking sector's continued profitability" can be counted on for building a new centre. Arts fests and institutions in TO are already struggling to keep the corporate sponsorships they have in this haven't-yet-hit-bottom recessiontime '09.

What would be preferable in the current context is better promoting and supporting the resources we have—like, hey, the newly reopened AGO (hell, how'd the shine go off that one so fast?) as well as the Power Plant, MOCCA, ROM, Nuit Blanche, TIAF, rafts of festivals, artist-run centres, collectors and commercial galleries, and, last but not least, artists themselves.

How would this enhanced promotion of existing resources work? Well, there are some basic things Toronto institutions and fests could partner on, like international press junkets. I've been informed that such junkets did happen last fall around the Nuit Blanche, TIAF and the City of Toronto—but it was mainly for US press, and there is whole world of art reporters and art outlets out there who know nothing about Toronto, and therefore never write about it or notice news releases from it. It is simply not on the radar. While many media outlets refuse junkets due to ethical reasons—which I can totally understand—a number of them, particularly in international art media, depend on junkets to make reporting on art fairs possible. This is a small idea, but one example, I hope, of how more international awareness of Toronto's art strengths could be developed without a new prize or new buildings.

More important than promotion, though, is to support the institutions we do have that have already given Canada multiple international breakthroughs. These institutions—by which I mean artist grants, festival grants and program grants—are far less glamourous than the opening of a new building or the buzz of an awards ceremony. But they have consistently, in their slow, trickle-up way, provided the international-profile work that people beyond our borders know about.

For instance, The Drowsy Chaperone, Canada’s most recent Broadway hit, was developed in part at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Cannes-Prizewinning director Denys Arcand honed his chops making docs for the now-anemically-funded National Film Board. Artist Jana Sterbak, whose work is in the collection of the Centre Pompidou, among other international museums, had her first exhibitions at artist-run centres like YYZ. And I'll speculate that FACTOR money helped Feist pay the rent long before Steve Jobs et al. started signing her rights cheques.

Bottom line: When creative production and promotion of creative production are already well supported, then it's appropriate to fund and talk up new prizes and new buildings—that visible top tip of the arts industry iceberg. But given the evisceration this industry, and others, have recently experienced in terms of funding supports and market shrinkage, attention must be paid to that less-glamourous infrastructure. Or, as playwright Michael Wheeler argued on the Praxis Theatre blog last month, “What would happen if … the government set up a prize to see what really cool cars auto companies from other countries could show off here at the auto show once a year? Would that make us a hotbed of automotive genius?”

What do you think?

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Enjoyed: Anna Pantchev & James Gavreau

Finally dropped by Keep Six Contemporary last week and wanted to flag that I really enjoyed the Anna Pantchev & James Gavreau work in the basement space. Neon+pattern="I want to go to there." Here's a detail:

Pantchev and Gavreau also had a really nice doorway work at Le Gallery's 5th anniversary show, which closed last weekend. Kind of like a math-rock windmill. No picture of that, though.

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Notice: Woman with poor web skills at work

Just a note... as you can probably tell, I'm experimenting with the layout of the blog, and I apologize in advance for the "under construction" feel. Hopefully it won't last too long.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Q&A: Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen is a South African photo-artist who found some notoreity in the mid-90s with his pictures of poorer whites in South Africa. Since then, he's collaborated with these types of folks on more Joel-Peter Witkinesque/Ralph Eugene Meatyard–like scenes. This week, OCAD's Professional Gallery opens a 25-year survey of his work, which should be useful for charting the transition from Avedonesque portraiture to dreamlike doom. Today the National Post published my Q&A with him online; tomorrow's print edition should run same with more images. (There's no "esques" in the article, which I'm glad of. Must be a later-ing-the-day suffix infection.) Text is also after the jump.

Questions & Artists: Roger Ballen's South Africa
Leah Sandals, National Post
Published: Wednesday, March 04, 2009

A few years ago, Condé Nast Traveller readers voted South Africa as having the most beautiful scenery in the world. But for renowned New York-born, South Africa-based photographer Roger Ballen, it's the less picturesque side of life there that appeals. Now, as a show of his psychologically gripping images opens at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, Ballen tells Leah Sandals about animals, archetypes, boarding houses and more.

Q Over the years, you've shifted from traditional documentary work to a more experimental staging of fantastical images. Why?

A Well, it didn't happen overnight. I'm 58 years old, and I've been doing photography at least 40 years now. So it's hard to say. The gradual shifting began about 1996 when I started to interact more with subjects and take things into my hands more. Somewhere in that period I started to think of myself more as an artist-photographer and wanted to go beyond just documenting something. I wanted the images to carry more of my personal style, to extend the meaning of the image.

Q Your most recent book, launching in Canada on April 8, is called Boarding House. What's it about?

A I think I've integrated new, personal imagery that brings a new set of meanings to the boarding house. What defines a boarding house more than anything else is its transience, it being a place where people come and go. But it can also, in these photographs, be a place in the human psyche, a Jungian concept, an archetype.

Q Your mother was a photo editor at Magnum, and you've been taking photographs since the 1970s. Yet you've worked in geology all your life. Why?

A I don't work in geology much any more. But for 30 years I did. I've worked all over Africa looking for different mineral deposits: gold, copper and so on. It was an interesting job and took me to strange places. I also found working in nature is an inspiration, something to emulate on all levels.

The photography market has changed a lot, too. Up to about 1995 there was hardly any market for photographic prints, and then the market exploded. When I did the book Platteland in 1994, it was very controversial and became known in more places in the world. The book depicted poorer whites in South Africa in a way that the media picked up on. That made me start to think I should take photography more seriously as a profession.

Q I wanted to ask you about that controversy. What do you say to those who think Platteland and later images are exploitative of the poor?

A I've been accused of that. But if I look at everyday images in the paper and on TV, I just scratch my head sometimes and think what I did was minor.

Firstly, I don't know one human being that isn't exploited and exploiter. So I think people have to look at their own actions before they criticize others. Secondly, the people in the book were overjoyed to be in it. It gave them a boost, a sense of importance. What's exploitative and not exploitative is a fine line; both parties here have gained from a rapport. The media created the issue.

Q In your more recent images, there are just as many animals as humans. What do animals mean to you?

A Animals are more complex in some ways; you can't put your finger on the animal, what he thinks or what he means. Even if you have a dog for 15 years, you can't quite understand how dogs think.

Q You lived in South Africa through the end of apartheid. Do you think your images reflect that major historical shift in some way?

A I don't. I'm a person more interested in aesthetics, and I have a psychological view of the world rather than a sociocultural view of the world. Granted, I've lived [in South Africa] permanently since '82 and obviously the experiences I've had have rubbed off on my in all sorts of ways.

Q What do you find most compelling about life in South Africa?

A I think that one of the more interesting things is it's a first and a third world country. I'm sitting now in a first world office, but one kilometre away there are people sleeping on the street, cooking on the street, 10 to a room. There's a line here that you can't get away from, and there's a constant tension between these elements.

-Roger Ballen: Boarding House continues to May 31 at the OCAD Professional Gallery. Visit ocad.ca for details.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Oldie but a Goodie: Believing is Seeing

Something totally non-newsworthy but still well worth noting: Believing is Seeing: Creating the Culture of Art, published way back in 1995, remains an impressive read. I've heard and read lots of explanations of the importance of Andy Warhol's work, but CUNY prof Mary Anne Staniszewski really nails it in just a few paragraphs. I also really appreciate the abundance of visuals, so important when making points about art to a wide audience. And I know she wrote this as a text for her intro art history course, so it's meant to be simple language, but I really really appreciate it. It's so rare to find something written simply on art. Art history without all the high-falutinness--or deadly footnotes. If you haven't yet read it (as I hadn't till just a few days ago) please do.

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