Friday, April 30, 2010

Out now: Review of Natural History @ Barnicke

This week's a big one for art grad shows in Toronto. OCAD has its massive, college-wide grad show May 6 to 9, while students in its newish grad program are showing at 205 Richmond. Ryerson U image arts students are taking advantage of Contact by doing a related multi venue show that started yesterday. The Sheridan open house is this Saturday, May 1, and York University grads have been doing ongoing shows in a variety of locations. The University of Toronto has been doing ongoing shows too, including shows curated by students in its newish masters of visual studies program.

This this week's NOW, I review one of the latter shows, Natural History at the Barnicke.

Though I didn't get to talk about it much in the article, I enjoyed the Barnicke's spiffy new reno. Looks good! Also enjoyed the works that master's student Jennifer Rudder brought together for this show, though I felt a little more work was needed to bring in the human-treated-as-animal themes. For some reason I was just (naively, maybe?) struck by the beauty of the animals—Trevor Gould's giraffe, and Mircea Cantor's wolf and deer.

To read the review, click here. And if you know of any other grad shows that need noting, please advise me in the comments.

Image of Trevor Gould's Model of Nubian Giraffe with Landscape (After Jacques-Laurent Agasse, 1827), 1997-98 from NOW, courtesy of the MBNAQ

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Barbara Kruger Q&A Out Today

Barbara Kruger has taken over the AGO facade for the Contact Festival. My interview with her about the work--and her longer 30 year legacy of incisive artmaking--is out today in the National Post. Here's an excerpt:

Q: How else has the power of images changed?

A: Well, I've been interested for a long time in the way pictures tell us who we are and who we want to be -- and who we can never be, too. But time online has changed people in incredible ways. I really see a difference in the attention spans that people have, particularly young people, who I teach at a university. Just look who goes to movies - a lot of people go to "event movies," but other kinds of narrative don't hold them. I think sustained narrative is in a real crisis. Sometimes I ask my students, "Do you ever think you'd be interested in going to a movie that's not about you?" They'd rather go on Twitter and talk about what they're doing. I don't say that judgmentally. It's just a way cultures have changed.

Q: Speaking of cultures, do you find working in Canada different than the States?

A: There's a phrase I've used before: "Belief plus doubt equals sanity." One without the other is sort of strange. For a while, doubt seemed like it was grounds for arrest in America. I'm sure Canadian politics has some of the same baggage. But maybe I'm wrong. I feel like Canada and the States share a particular situation, a geographical adjacency that spills over into various cultural and linguistic forms -- and now medical forms! And of course, where would American comedy, which is so important to me, be without Canada?

Image of Kruger's classic I Shop Therefore I Am 1987 from the National Post, Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Shocking News! Some Newspapers Actually Expanding Art Coverage!

The issue of how, exactly journalism should cover art in (a) the digital age and (b) the traditional-media-outlet-profit-plunge age has been a topic of some discussion recently in Toronto. Last week, I attended a panel on this topic sponsored by the Canadian Journalism Foundation that I'd posted on here previously.

In the wake of the panel, various reports have been posted. JSource posted a fairly cut and dried summary that reminded me of how questions of box office-vs-critic value had gotten caught up in the digital discussion. View on Canadian Art also posted some notes that reflected, again, the fairly wide ranging nature of the dicussion, all the way from "do critics matter?" to "does anybody make money blogging?" Mondoville brought the pointed (and at times deserved) megasnark, while Socialite (who pointed out to the panel in person that Ebert is a great example of a mainstreamer gone respectedly digital) found the panel basically old-folks/non-networkedy.

For my part, I did find it regrettable that most of the panel members didn't seem to have much substantive experience online, and it showed in their questions and comments. Of course, they all brought many years of experience in print and traditional broadcast TV, which is great--that's what a lot of younger online writers can't bring to such a panel, and perhaps it reflects the experience of many members of old-guard (or as they called it, "legacy") journalism.

In any case, one thing I had hoped the panel might touch on (but didn't) are some of the few initiatives where newspapers are (against all logic, some might say) expanding their arts coverage online and elsewhere. The New York Observer's expansion online looks like this and does have a bit of a bloggy feel, linking out to other media stories as well as providing original reviews and reportage (most old-school media tend to hit a wall with the aggregation thing).

Also of interest on this front (albeit not, perhaps, as critical as writers like myself might like) is the Washington Post's Real Art DC project. In this project, artists are invited to upload their work to the Post's Real Art DC site. Then, from May to October, the Post's critics will choose ten artists to receive a studio visit writeup online. Readers will then vote for best artist, who will receive a profile in print and online.

In a way, the Post's contest reinforces the old "print is best" value dynamic, but uses some of the free content of artists to achieve its ends (and inch up pageviews). I don't think this initiative is necessarily the answer to arts journalism's woes online--as did come out at the panel, much of those woes are financial, whether in print or elsewhere--but it would have been nice if the panel had sought examples like it out.

On related fronts, could you convince a newspaper to expand its art coverage online or in print? If so, how?

Image of old-timey papers from Bernar McFadden

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Saturday, April 24, 2010

401 Richmond Reviews: Monica Tap, Stephanie Cormier, Wendelien van Oldenborg

Today in my National Post At the Galleries column, I focus on three shows at 401 Richmond (the rooftop garden is such a nice escape there at this time of year...) Here's an excerpt:

Monica Tap at Wynick/Tuck Gallery, Suite 128

Monica Tap is known for paintings that translate blurred, split-second, speeding-train-window scenes into large, carefully produced canvases. Her new paintings continue to work on fleeting glimpses, but use vibrant colours and longer timespans. Polka is particularly eye-catching, using bright yellows, oranges and whites to depict a landscape that Tap might previously have rendered in brown, green and grey. Between Summer and Winter uses seasons, rather than seconds, as a frame; its pinks recall sunsets cast on snowbanks, while yellows conjure sunrises on leafy branches. While the complexity of these canvases is often pleasing, there are awkward bits -- boundaries that seem sharper than they should be, for instance. Nonetheless, Tap's delight in colour and paint shines through, as well as her desire to record time's speeding nature. This latter sense is heightened by the showing, in an adjoining room, of monochromatic works by the late painter Gerald Ferguson. (Tap studied under Ferguson.) This side-by-side presence evokes creative lineages and generational eras, while also reminding us of the sometimes bright, sometimes dark remnants that mark our rapid passage through this world. To May 1.

On a related note, I really enjoyed Monica Tap's remembrance of Ferguson that she wrote for the Winter issue of C Magazine. Also, after I sent the review in, I got notice from the gallery that there will be a panel on Gerald Ferguson at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa on Saturday May 29. Tap will present along with Kelly Mark, Peter Dykhuis and Sue Gibson Garvey.

Image of Monica Tap's Polka from Wynick/Tuck Gallery

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tiny happy people: Q&A with Toni Hafkenscheid

Toni Hafkenscheid is a well-known Toronto photographer, one of those people whose images I've seen a lot but of whom I often wondered "how do they interpret or think about their own work?"

With shows currently on in Vancouver and Toronto, Hafkenscheid indulged my questions about his practice, which uses a lot of tilt-shift technique. The results are in today's National Post Q&A. An excerpt:

Q Does it bother you that a lot of people these days do tilt-shift on a computer, rather than in a camera?

A Not really. Sure, tilt-shift's pretty easy to do in Photoshop. But to me, it's all about driving the whole day and getting excited about sunlight hitting a scene at a certain angle. It's all about following the light. The tilt-shift is just my comfort level now. Granted, two months ago I threw out my home darkroom. You just can't get the chemicals for it anymore. But I still shoot analog, then scan to digital.

Q A lot of artists hire you to photograph their artwork. Do you ever think you'd like to work in another art form?

A No. I really just want to be a photographer. Realizing I was good at photography when I was 24 was, like, my saviour. I enjoy looking at other kinds of art, but the only time I feel I can say anything about art is when it's photography. One of the other jobs I sometimes get is shooting high-end interiors. Like a fancy model suite at Bay and Cumberland-- there's all this gorgeous furniture and a beautiful view. It's still kind of in a dream world, like my other work.

Image of Toni Hafkenscheid's Hell's Gate from Gallery Jones

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Panel Pétanque: Toronto Knocks Itself Out Discussing Idea of Hogtown Biennial

Seeing as how I posted about the April 17 Toronto Biennial forum a few weeks back, I thought I’d follow up with some of my thoughts on the event—y’know, now that it’s actually happened and all.

I attended the full day of presentations and took notes throughout, which adds up to a sore writing hand and too much material for a quickly produced blog post. Also, the entire proceedings were videotaped, hopefully to be posted online at some future date along with a summary by Peggy Gale. So what follows instead are five of the spectrums (spectri?) of discussion that were most interesting to me overall.

1. Town Hall vs. Nothing at All

OK, so the main thing I got out of this whole event was that museums and other public art institutions should do “town hall” style public meetings more often.

During the course of the day, it was incredibly evident that people from many different parts of the arts community really wanted to provide feedback the big kahunae and to each other, that people wanted a forum to express their loves and loathes about the Toronto scene, as well as suggestions or critiques for making it better. The feedback didn’t just address the idea of a biennial, though that was the ostensible jumping off point. It also touched on wider issues in arts funding, local history, and current institutional choices—things that people do want to talk about in a setting that’s a bit wider than beers with friends from time to time.

Of course, I understand that many public museums and galleries feel like they already stretched to the limit just trying to meet programming and budgetary goals. Extra events and associated logistics? No thank you. But honestly, if the president of the United States can make time for public town halls, maybe our museum directors can too. Just sayin’. I really believe it would be to everyone’s benefit in the long run. (And to be fair, if you don't want to wait for this next town hall to be organized, Matthew Teitelbaum said during the forum that he's welcomes feedback at

2. Nasty vs. Nice

One of the most engaging moments of the forum’s morning session came when panelist Philip Monk, speaking on a panel titled “Histories and Opportunities,” held up two pieces of paper to the audience. “Would you like Nasty or Nice?” he asked. The audience’s energetic response, to my relief, was “Nasty!” And so Monk went on to provide a helpful counterpoint to the typical (though often practical) tradition of Canadian niceness.

One question Monk raised (from what I understood… Monk and others are very welcome to correct me in the comments section) was whether the forum was truly collaborative or whether there was an agenda (ie. a biennial plan) already at hand. He also took issue with the format of the sessions, with morning being “histories/past,” the afternoon being “supposed visionaries” of the future and “the big boys” stepping up at finish the day.

Monk also noted that the press release for the event said it was about “bringing” a biennial to Toronto, and that he wanted to critique a persistent idea that Toronto needed to have stuff “brought to it” rather than “building on what’s here.”

He also pointed out the latecomer nature of this Hogtown biennial discussion. “Why is Toronto always belated? What does that say about our city and its elite?”

Referring to an Olympics model of the way big events force cities and countries to prove they can “get it together” for the world, Monk asked “Can Toronto get it together? Does Toronto have a history of getting it together?” Riffing on this question, he stated, “Toronto is a sick scene, a dysfunctional scene. Will a biennial be a part of this sickness or will it be a way to health?”

And lest anyone be left out of this enjoyable nastiness, there was also something for the critics! Monk said “When it comes to criticism, this discourse in Toronto is at a juvenile level—Toronto has no art critical understanding. It is confused and regressive, with no knowledge of what is at stake.” (I take no issue with this, really—I feel confused much of the time, art crit being a field with few standards or performance-measurement mechanisms.) (UPDATE - In an April 30 comment on this post, Monk writes that his comment wasn't directed at published criticism. He says his original panel comment was: "When it comes to criticism—and I mean not what is published but what purports to be a public discourse, that is, as what takes place in public—frankly, this critical discourse in Toronto today is at a juvenile level. Ju-ven-ile! It’s embarrassing." I suspect the panel documentation will bear him out on this, but I also doubt I'm the only one who took his comments as being directed to published criticism in the moment. For more details, please see the comments.)

To sum up, Monk said “I’m always distressed by a lack of generosity in this art community… I can imagine a biennial that might be a love-in for Toronto or public group therapy for the art community. But we can’t have an international biennial until we change our attitude to being here.”

Cue resounding applause, which is what Monk got.

I reproduce Monk’s comments, or my notes of them, at length because I feel there is a considerable and consistent tension in the art community (and during the daylong forum) with “how to couch this or that criticism so that it produces the change I want to see without being emotionally inflammatory?”

In a way, this is an advantageous approach to conflict, wanting to maintain relationships rather than burn bridges while making desired things happen. But it is also feels like a drawback in terms of vitality, honesty and robustness. There were many other people during the forum who had compelling feedback along the nice to nasty spectrum, and I actually have to say I was impressed with the way people spoke to longstanding, difficult or frustrating issues in mostly “positive” ways. In any case, I think the point now is to keep the conversation, whatever its nature, going. (Possibly peppered with a bit of nasty to keep people awake.)

3. Festivals vs. Institutions

Another point that became clear from the day of talks was that any future art festival in Toronto, biennial or not, will have a hella lot of pressure put on it to represent local or regional artists. To my mind, this is due to the fact that our institutions have not committed to consistent programming of Toronto or Ontario artists, have not committed to reflecting the strong creative production of our region back to the public. So when the idea of a biennial comes up, and associated questions of local vs. international focus comes up (as it must) the pressure is huge to finally do the local justice.

The problem, to my mind, is that we really need our institutions to step up and do some of that regional research and presentation. It really can’t all be shoved on a festival. It needs to be something more consistent, and more persistent, like regular solo shows of local artists, large ones at that for those with significant careers already under their belts. Matthew Teitelbaum of the AGO did say there was more Toronto-artist programming coming in the future, which is great to hear, but it must be evaluated as it is produced. (aka I sure as hell hope that not all the installations in the AGO’s new “Toronto Now” space will double as an extension of the gallery restaurant—I know it works for Dean Baldwin’s current show, but I confess I have my think-the-worst fears.)

4. Toronto vs. Vancouver/Rest of World

Holy man, I did not expect to hear as much about Vancouver during the morning of this forum than I actually did. Some panelists, though joking in tone, were actually saying things like “it’s sad for a lot of people in the arts community to see planes flying over Toronto; we so often picture an international curator in there, jetting direct from Europe to Vancouver.” Which was kind of funny but also kind of freaking-well sad.

Later, the anxiety around Vancouver widened, as it does, to basically include the rest of the world. “Why doesn’t the rest of the world recognize our scene?” the plea seems to go. “Why are we a second or third tier country at Venice?” (A consequence of this widening anxiety also sometimes conflates “Toronto” as “Canada,” another weird and unfortunate psychogeographical leap.)

Overall, though I think it was therapeutic for people to air some of these fears and frustrations about feeling overlooked, I do believe that you have to value your own scene before you can expect other people to value it. (Haema Sivanesan of SAVAC had a great anecdote about immigrating to Toronto from Australia and finding the scene difficult to perceive—great behind the scenes but not visible in public spaces, I think it what she was referring to. This is the kind of valuation that’s needed, and relates to that point on institutions I mentioned earlier.)

You also have to be realistic; Canada may be a wonderful country (I certainly like to think so) but it is also a rather small one in terms of population. I don’t think it’s very realistic to aim for more than (or lament being) “a second or third tier country” at Venice. Sometimes all you can do is do your best, be a pro, market the hell out of it, and appreciate the coverage you get—which I’d bet is actually a fairly high proportion relative to Canada’s population size.

Then again, maybe I’m missing some data. What is this other country that people think Canada should be “equal to” artistically? Or a city that people think Toronto should be thought of in the same league with (other than Vancouver, people!). If you have ideas beyond the usual unreachably-megalopolis suspects (NYC, London, Paris) please share in the comments. Is it that Sydney and Auckland are outshining TO? What’s a reasonable point of comparison?

5. Artist-run vs. Mega-org

The last, but certainly not least, thread of discussion that intrigued me had to do with tensions between artist-run centre approaches and priorities and mega-arts-organization approaches and priorities—or at least some of the perceived differences between these sectors’ priorities.

Panellist Heather Haynes of Toronto Free Gallery (and Fuse Magazine) actually put me on the spot a bit when she referred to my original post about this forum and my complaint that there wasn’t enough artist-run centre representation in the official proceedings. She said that had prompted her to consult informally with some artist run centre staff and compile a list of their recommendations for any proposed Toronto Biennial.

According to my notes, these artist-run centre feedback points—which were well received and referred to again in the rest of the proceedings—were:

  • Financial concerns and desire to participate in the planning process
  • Wondering whether this is a good time for starting a project like this with provincial funding commitments already being cut to large infrastructure projects in Toronto like Transit City
  • Worry about top-down Olympic effect, of funding orgs going over festival budget and of long-term operational budgets for centres and galleries being cut as a result
  • Concern over whether a biennial type event would result in overworked and underpaid labor
  • A desire for something other than “high-profile prosecco parties,” for something that lasts longer than a day or a week
  • Looking for a strong balance between international and Canadian programmers
  • Noting a need for strong representation of aboriginal communities in the planning stages and racialized communities as well
  • Interest in seeing a biennial that will go beyond the international art stars and that will present emerging artists along with established ones
  • Documenta was often used as a frame of reference, for example in the way it creates a website and publications that live on beyond the event
  • There was also a feeling the biennial should not appear in one location and should be held throughout the city
  • A lot of people were interested in events that are not just VIP oriented, that go morning to evening
  • Also interested in a biennial that challenges what happens in traditional art centres
  • Questions of how to make this a non-Toronto initiative, to bring in other Canadian centres
While these points were generally well received, there were some weird aftercomments. I’m thinking of the final panel of the day when OCAD head Sara Diamond was adamant that any future biennial/event “can’t be marginal.” She also said something to the effect that criticality can be present in big events and institutions, and doesn’t have to be “at the margins.” I could be totally wrong (again, commenters, feel free to correct me) but it seemed like Diamond on this point was trying to defend what mega-orgs had to offer and also (maybe just a little bit) demean the impact of those “tiny” “self-conciously critical” ARCs.

In a way, that’s a false battle (one I admittedly might have constructed in my own mind through misinterpretation) because most ARCs realize that they don’t have the public reach of an OCAD or an AGO. Yet the fact remains, as SAVAC’s Haema Sivanesan noted, that many smaller galleries in Toronto do “biennial-quality” exhibitions, which is to say show strong art—some of it stronger and more internationally robust than what the big guys show.

So… this concludes my main threads of interest from the panel pétanque on Saturday. Apparently, the AGO has agreed to host any followup panel in association with one of my freelance clients, the Canadian Art Foundation. Will it happen for reals though? I certainly hope so. There’s a lot of people, I think, who still want to step up to the mic.

And in that spirit, what did you think of the event? Would you go to the next one? Why or why not? How would you make it better? And most importantly, what did I get wrong?

Image of petanque players from

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Janson & Janson–Loving Kids Save Art History: Slides at 11

Well, I'm happy to report that the Janson & Janson loving kids I blogged about earlier this year have won their impassioned battle to save McMaster's Art History program.

As reported April 18 in the Hamilton Spectator, the decision to cut the art history program was reversed by the university senate after clearing three levels of bureaucratic approval:

Art history is the smallest freestanding program in the faculty of humanities, with just 37.5 full-time equivalent students in all years of their degrees, giving it about one-tenth the population of larger humanities programs such as history and English.

The possibility of closure had raised broader concerns about the university's commitment to the liberal arts, and specific concerns about the program, since an art history degree is considered a prerequisite for a career in art curation.

The proposal to end the program gave birth to considerable protest from inside and outside the faculty and even from beyond the university. The spectators' seats at the senate meeting were filled with supporters of the program, who clapped after the vote.

Of particular note is this letter a former McMaster professor wrote, which points out that the McMaster Museum of Art may have the art history department to thank for the strength of its collections:

Because of the excellence of its [art history] instructors in the past, and the stimulating quality of courses which he attended, Dr. Herman Levy wished to give to the then-department a bequest which would enrich the art history and art students' experience by allowing them the privilege of having artworks of outstandingly high quality from which to learn.

His bequest of $16 million, an extraordinarily generous gesture of confidence toward the historical and practical study of art at McMaster, incidentally raised the stature of the McMaster Museum of Art, making it recognizably one of the finest university art collections in Canada.

That reputation, also, has encouraged other benefactors to donate private collections to the museum.

The university has benefitted hugely from this generosity, which would not have occurred had it not been for the excellence, and commitment, of the art history faculty in the past.

The artistic reputation of McMaster University has grown in proportion to the financial support given to the art history and art programs which generated that reputation.

Levy's bequest was given on the assumption that his generosity would advance the study of art into the future. As respect to his memory and wishes, and the wishes of others in the future, it is imperative that the Honours Art History Degree Program at McMaster continue, and be given enhanced support.

The university does not seem to appreciate the extraordinary benefit, relative to its modest cost, which art and art history have brought to McMaster, and the wider Hamilton community.

While the challenge at some American universities has been hanging onto art historical collections, it's interesting here that the challenge was hanging onto the art history program. In any case, congrats to the students and supporters for their passionate stand. Let the reading (and rereading) begin!

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Monday, April 19, 2010

Now & Zen: Earth Day Interview with Iain Baxter&

Earth Day is happening this Thursday, and boy, could the planet use it. Maybe even more than one day per year, dontcha think?

Anyway, Toronto org No 9 Contemporary Art and the Environment does spend more than one day a year thinking about the planet. Their latest project is Iain Baxter&'s Ecoartvan, a biodiesel-fuelled exhibition of sorts that's also a jumping off point for a variety of Grade 4 eco workshops developed by Pearl van Geest. (I think the schools aspect of this project is pretty great.)

In a Baxter& solo show last year at Corkin Gallery, I really enjoyed the boldness and overtness with which Baxter& addressed environmental destruction. (Spearing stuffed animals on a tall pole is one example, attaching taxidermied animals to car mufflers another.) I got to ask Baxter& a little more about that in a Q&A that appears in today's National Post. To wit:

Q A lot of your art for this project and others is built out of toy animals. Why use something so artificial to talk about what's natural?

A When I was younger, I spent many years in zoology museums, where there are drawers filled with birds, or jars filled with all kinds of specimens. My idea was to use stuffed animals because they're very much about how we revere nature. By putting them in jars in artworks like Animal Preserve, I could suggest that if we're not careful with our environment, we'll be looking at animals only that way in the future.

Q Where do you find the stuffed animals you use in your art?

A Well, you wouldn't want to come to my house! I have thousands of them. I know people in all the local stores and sometimes they say, "Come and fill up a garbage bag for $2." It's interesting; some types of animals are very difficult to find, like a beaver, or a hippopotamus. Bears though, there's, like, a million.

One thing that's nice about this project is World Wildlife Fund is giving the Grade 4 workshop kids little stuffed animals of endangered species. I think that gives kids a different consciousness about environmental issues. If they hang onto it, it's almost become a little sacred thing.

He also talks about zen, and how universities are the Medicis of the present day. Page B12 of today's Post if you're interested in reading more.

Image of Iain Baxter&'s Ecoartvan at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto by No 9 Contemporary Art and the Environment

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Prize-a-mania: Brian Jungen & Sobey Longlist

It seems sometimes like fall has become art awards season in Canada. It's when the $70,000 Sobey for under-40 artists gets announced, as well as BMO 1st Art for students and the RBC Canadian Painting Competition.

But prize season starts early in a lot of ways. Yesterday the AGO announced Brian Jungen as the winner of the $25,000 Gershon Iskowitz Prize. (Best part of this news, so far--besides Jungen obviously deserving recognition--is that the artist will be giving a lecture at the AGO May 6 at 7pm. I just hope that the exhibition promised to Jungen on this award does better than the Francoise Sullivan prize show that irked me so earlier this year.)

The Sobey prize longlist also came out this week. It is:

West Coast and Yukon
Mark Soo
Kevin Schmidt
Isabelle Pauwels
Jeremy Shaw
Brendan Lee Satish Tang

Praries and the North
Daniel Barrow
Wally Dion
Heather Benning
The Cedar Tavern Singers
Robyn Moody

Diane Borsato
Aleesa Cohene
Brendan Fernandes
Will Munro
Jon Sasaki

Pascal Grandmaison
Patrick Bernatchez
Adad Hannah
Karen Tam

Lucie Chan
Graeme Patterson
Mario Doucette
Vanessa Paschakarnis
Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby

The shortlist will be announced June 15, with the final winner announced November 18 in Montreal.

I think one thing that comes up about the Sobey, now that it's a few years old, is how many times we see nominee names repeated on this annual longlist. Daniel Barrow, Graham Patterson, Mark Soo, Kevin Schmidt, BGL, Adad Hannah, Mario Doucette, and others are repeat nominees. And for me that begs the question, a bit, of how static the Canadian art scene is. Alternatively, repeat appearances as a nominee would seem to indicate consistently high production -- but perhaps also, frustration?

Some absences are also notable. Shary Boyle, favoured by many for last year, is not on the longlist, nor is Luanne Martineau, who was on last year's shortlist and does produce very good work, I think.

In any case, if you have favourites for this year's Sobey, feel free to post. I'm interested in Barrow (a longtime crowd favourite), but also Borsato, Tang and (other longtime favouriets) BGL.

Image of Brian Jungen's Carapace from - the National Museum of the American Indian has a great site running right now in association with their wider Jungen exhibition, which runs to August 8

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

More Art Crit Lessons from Non-Art Fields... Sports Edition!

As I mentioned in a past post, I've really been enjoying some of the criticism in the Atlantic lately. One recent review that I thought had a surprising amount to say about the practice of criticism in general looks at ... sports reporting! Fun!

In his article "The Enthusiast," Isaac Chotiner analyzes the different journalistic/opinion-style approaches of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann’s now-defunct ESPN show SportsCenter with the columns of Bill Simmons, a popular, Boston-bred writer.

What Chotiner makes clear through his reviews of books by these three commentators are their different approaches to reportage -- Patrick and Olbermann attempt to preserve semi-objective distance, while Simmons revels in amping up his own subjective loves and hates.

For example, in Patrick and Olbermann's book on SportsCenter and how to emulate it, they write,

Do not take sports seriously. Take your work seriously: Be dedicated to it, know everything you need to know about it, enjoy it, remember that the viewer or listener may be fanatical about it—but maintain a healthy distance from it. The moment you think that a sports team or league or player is actually important, you become a servant of the “sports media complex” whose only purpose in being is to separate people from their money. Your dedication has to be to your viewer or listener, to the truth, and, lastly, and only to the degree that it does not conflict with your ethics, to the success of your employer.

Chotiner sums up this ethos as "artfully remain above the fray."

In contrast, Chotiner describes Simmons' approach as follows:

It is written in (usually excellent) conversational prose and sprinkled with digressions, in-jokes, and bawdiness. It is the work of a true fan—an emotional, biased observer who seems to relish his subjectivity. Simmons might be walking the same line that Olbermann and Patrick once trod—the line that separates mathematical formulas from beer jokes (and believe me, the book contains plenty of both). But [Simmons' book on] Basketball is not ironic or dispassionate. And it might just represent the next phase of sports commentary.

This approach could be summed up as "delve into the fray, and own your own place in it."

However, as Chotiner notes, Simmons sometimes becomes irritating, rather than charming, with this approach in his book Now I can Die in Peace.

This is Simmons at his best, but his tics are occasionally irritating. The Sox’ victory “wasn’t just a lucky chain of events,” he writes. "This was like winning the lottery three different times, or better yet, like Justin Timberlake banging Britney Spears, Jessica Biel, Scarlett Johansson, and Cameron Diaz in their primes, only if he had added Lindsay Lohan, Angelina Jolie, and Katie Holmes." These jokes, sprinkled over 700 pages, become wearying. Simmons, at times, would benefit from taking at least a half step backward and sticking to his subject matter.

Um, yeah. Loving that starlet-banging reference! (Wince.)

In terms of my own critical practice, I have to say I strive more towards the (now passé, I guess) attempt-at-maintaining-distance ideals that Patrick and Olbermann suggest.

At the same time, I appreciate that, like Simmons, I have very subjective likes and dislikes that are rooted in where and how I grew up, where and how I studied, etc. I don't have any illusions that my judgments of art are objective. But unlike Simmons, I don't believe that just because I love something others should think that that thing (whether it's the Boston Celtics or a Basquiat canvas) is also the greatest.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the way Chotiner's article teased apart different approaches to a field of reportage and criticism. I think most writers in the art realm to tend to Simmons'"fan-first" approach... even if it's hard for many of us, in art and elsewhere, to match the zest and entertainment with which he delivers that angle.

If you have any preference about critical approach (distance vs. delving into, something that can change whether you're reading or writing too, I think) please feel free to comment.

Image of Sportscenter from 35-hour workweek

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Monday, April 12, 2010

McLuhanesque Monday: The Artist as Adjustment-Preventer

Lately I've been doing some research on Number 9 Art and the Environment's latest project involving Iain Baxter. In their educational materials, they pulled a favourite Marshall McLuhan quote of Baxter's, which I thought worth reproducing:

"One of the functions of the artist that is understood in recent decades is that it is, above all, to prevent us from becoming adjusted to our environments. The job of the artist is to upset all the senses and thus provide new vision and new powers of adjusting to and relating to new situations."

While this isn't a new idea, McLuhan articulates it very well. It made me think of the recent discussions in Toronto about Ryan Trecartin's work, for one, as Trecartin would seem to be an artist who falls into this sense-upsetting and new-situation-adjusting category.

It also made me think of an upcoming CONTACT project by Lewis Kaye and David Rokeby that will reconstruct McLuhan's presence in some of the classrooms he used to teach in at the University of Toronto. I'm curious to see how that effort does (or doesn't) work out. How do you reproduce the presence of someone whose influence is so wide-ranging already?

Image of McLuhan at the University of Toronto from CONTACT

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Reviews out today: Tacita Dean's After-Images

Screenings for the Images Festival officially end today, but some related gallery shows continue for a few weeks. Today the National Post published my reviews of three of these shows. Here's an excerpt:

Tacita Dean at Gallery TPW
56 Ossington Ave.

British artist Tacita Dean creates a beautiful, light-soaked homage to the late Merce Cunningham in her film Craneway Event. Yet Craneway isn't just for dance fans. Though it documents three days of Cunningham putting his company through rehearsal paces, it evokes broader human themes, among them the breathtakingly rapid passage of time, the ever-present edge of mortality and the unfair physical overhauls of aging. The film opens with a lone pelican practicing takeoff before flying out of the frame. Dean's camera then takes us into Craneway Pavilion, a massive Ford plant turned arts venue in Richmond, Calif. This building, perched at harbour's edge with soaring glass walls on three sides, is a key part of the film, providing a fragile, translucent shell for small, ephemeral human actions and a strong, rectilinear frame for massive cargo ships and cliffs outside. The Craneway's floor is lined with reflective material so that, by movie's end, it seems dancers are suspended between earth and sky. Granted, reaching this vision with Dean takes patience--the film runs 108 minutes -- but it's well rewarded in meditative, reverent moods and gorgeous, glowing imagery. Cunningham, a 90-year-old wheelchair-bound Methuselah when surrounded by youthful, flexible dancers, adds a Zen koan or two-- "It doesn't matter," he directs a young plie-er, "You need to get where you're going." Shortly after Craneway was filmed, Cunningham's own pelican soul "got going" to the great beyond. Accordingly, one leaves this film acutely aware of how one's own body might be moving, whether on the physical plane, the spiritual plane or both. (To April 24; screenings Tuesdays through Saturdays 12:30 and 3 p.m., Thursdays 7 p.m.)

Image from Craneway Event from

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Friday, April 9, 2010

TTC Tiara: Another one for the Torontonians!

I smiled when I saw this TTC-themed tiara at Harbourfront last month. It's by goldsmith and designer Adriana McNeely, and is titled "Super Commuter". McNeely also provided crowns on a variety of other subjects, like Starbucks and video games. Here's some of her commentary on them, provided by the Harbourfront Centre blog:

I was inspired to make this work after realizing that there’s not enough celebrations in our lives. We make big celebrations and parties for things like birthdays, holidays, graduations, but these are not an everyday occurrence. Everyday we wake up and perform a series of tasks, big or small. Some of us go to our jobs, make our art, choose outfits and accessories to present ourselves to the world in, see our friends, go out for coffee etc. I thought it would be nice to create a series of work that focuses on congratulating and making a big deal of usually overlooked activities. The Everyday Pageant Crowns are awarded for these little everyday things. There’s a crown for beating a nintendo game, going for a coffee, owning a modest home, caring about fashion, taking the subway, and going to an office job. It’s important to take some time everyday and remember that no matter how insignificant you think the activity you are doing, or the task you are completing is, right now is currently your life, and it’s important to celebrate and feel special.

Nice thought.

(Photo of Adriana McNeely's "Super Commuter" by Tom Bilenkey from Upfront)

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Thursday, April 8, 2010

UPDATED Hogtown Hoedown: Upcoming Panel on Toronto Biennial has Folks Intrigued

Seems like a number of the Hogtown colleagues I talk to these days are intrigued by an upcoming symposium that promises not only (a) Matthew Teitelbaum's first public appearance since the disclosure about his $1-million yearly pay (and related "King Glut" Sun cover) but also (b) simultaneous appearances by key stakeholders from Toronto's major art institutions, the AGO, the Power Plant and the Mocca, as well as the AGYU and the Barnicke--and not for a party! Nay, for panels!

I have to say I'm intrigued as well, as a number of the presenters have quite a history in the Toronto and Canadian art scene. (Peggy Gale seems a semi-legendary figure, for instance.)

Part of me, I'll admit--you know, that petty side--is interested mainly in what conflicts or historical psychodrama might flare up. But another part is truly wondering about what folks want to say on this whole biennial issue. The lack of a Toronto biennial personally doesn't keep me up at night; I really just wish existing institutions would, um, y'know, maybe organize, program and market themselves better overall. Still, it's an idea that does serve as an emotional departure point for some (see this Murray Whyte piece, for instance) so why not?

One thing that seems a bit strange to me, however, is the lack of representation from historical artist-run centres on the panels as presently listed on the Power Plant site, and reproduced below. I respect the innovative and relatively recent contributions of Toronto Free Gallery (and am doubly appreciative of same, having shown there back in my artmaking days), but it seems a bit strange to me that there's no other ARCs listed. Maybe this will change?

In any case, some details of the event, cribbed from the Power Plant site, are below. Maybe I'll see ya'll there? (UPDATE On Friday, April 9, the Power Plant sent out a revised and expanded list of panellists that includes more dealers, educators and independents - it can be found at

A biennial platform for international contemporary art in Toronto
Saturday, 17 April | 10:30 AM–5 PM, followed by a reception
Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, 952 Queen Street West

There has been much talk about the idea of a Toronto biennial or triennial in recent years, particularly as these events have proliferated both in Canada and around the globe. Presented by The Power Plant and MOCCA, this symposium is intended to focus the discussion and to reflect on why and how Toronto might host such an international platform for contemporary art practice and discourse.

We intend to address such questions as: Given the plethora of large scale contemporary art exhibitions across the world, why would such an event be relevant in Toronto? What would define such a project and how could it make a critical contribution? What would its relationship be to the art community as well as to the art market? How would such an exhibition address local, national and global concerns? Who would fund, curate, participate in, and attend such an event? And why should it happen in Toronto? What distinctive qualities could the city offer to the international art world?

10:30 AM David Liss, Artistic Director/Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art

10:35-11:00 AM Gregory Burke, Director of The Power Plant

11:00 AM-12:30 PM Histories and Opportunities
Moderated by Peggy Gale, Critic and Curator
Confirmed Speakers:
Barbara Fischer, Executive Director/Chief Curator of the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at the University of Toronto
Philip Monk, Director/ Curator of the Art Gallery at York University

12:30-1:30 PM Lunch Break

1:30-3:00 PM Propositions
Confirmed Speakers:
Heather Haynes, Founder and Executive Director of the Toronto Free Gallery
Jim Drobnick and Jennifer Fisher, Founders of DisplayCult curatorial collaborative and Associate Professors at the Ontario College of Art and Design and York University respectively

3:00-4:00 PM Open Forum
Moderated by Helena Reckitt, Senior Curator of Programs, The Power Plant

4:00-4:45 PM Where Do We Go from Here?
Moderated by Peggy Gale
Confirmed Speakers:
Gregory Burke, Director of The Power Plant
David Liss, Artistic Director/Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art
Matthew Teitelbaum, Michael and Sonja Koerner Director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Ontario

UPDATE On Friday, April 9, the Power Plant sent out a revised and expanded list of panellists that includes more dealers, educators and independents - it can be found at

Image from

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ultimate Fighting & Embroidery Thread: Q&A with David R Harper

As I noted here a few months back, David R Harper is a youngster whose artistic career already seems unusually distinctive. (That's what people say about you when you teach yourself taxidermy, embroidery and boat building before the age of 25.)

Anyway, Harper was nice enough to take a break from MFA studies in Chicago this week and chat with me on the phone about a few aspects of his work, some of which is showing starting this Friday at the Textile Museum of Canada. (He's also got shows on right now at MKG127 and the Acadia University Art Gallery.)

Our Q&A was published in today's National Post, as well as (in the print edition) some images of Harper's work. Here's an excerpt:

Q Your art stands out for its use of taxidermy and its elaborate embroidery. Which came first?

A They came around the same time. I did my first embroidery in 2006, after I graduated and travelled for a bit. Basically, embroidery was an awesome nomadic practice. I didn't need much to do it, just needle and thread.

And there was a long-standing fascination with taxidermy. When I was a kid I remember being awestruck by it and wondering why people had it, what it meant in the home or the museum. After reading about it, I realized part of the fascination is that it's both a man-made and nature-made object.

Since learning and doing real taxidermy, I've discovered taxidermy dollmaking, which was traditionally used to create toys and tchotchkes. It allows me to create any kind of animal I want from scraps.

Q I've heard that you watch Ultimate Fighting while embroidering. Is that true?

A Yes, though I don't do it now because I don't have cable anymore. I do embroider for hours each day and for a while I would watch Ultimate Fighting, as well as Law & Order-- whatever was on in the middle of the day in Nova Scotia, really. Now, while I'm doing grad school in Chicago, I watch reruns of bad shows. I just finished watching the first season of X-Files again, which was a great show but had really bad acting.

Ultimate Fighting was weirdly fascinating because I don't usually like sports, and the ones I do like are more like lawn bowling. Maybe there was a little Freudian thing in there about the work that I do, in that it's really brutal in a way. But maybe it's also like watching reruns over and over again, because it's a way of getting your brain as empty as possible. Recently, I realized how important it is for me to go into a very meditative state when I work. Embroidering a hide for hours is a very devotional act.

And here's a bonus question that didn't make it into the piece:

Q What is it devotional to?

A Sometimes it’s responding to the objects themselves. The relationship between me and my materials goes very deep, and I fall in love with everything I touch. I think just sitting and spending time with the work and making everything by hand is important. I’d never put my hides in an embroidery machine. That’s my spiritual muse: the work, the labour.

If you want to find out more about Harper--or at least his recent practice, as it sounds like his artmaking might shift in future a bit to include porcelain dollmaking--I recommend this award-winning feature by Sue Carter Flinn that appeared in The Coast last year.

Image of one of David Harper's hand-embroidered hides courtesy Textile Museum of Canada

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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Duly Noted: Museum Access Trends

I'm just catching up on a study released a couple of month back by the American Association of Museums. Overall, the study found that attendance at museums increased over the past few years. But it also notes the following:

One effect of the weak economy in 2009 was an increase in the number of museums that charge a general admission fee: 65.7% versus 59% in 2008 (according to AAM’s Museum Financial Information survey). Indeed, 14.2% of museums in the current survey reported an increase or implementation of general admission fees in 2009.

Museums that charge a general admission fee were less likely to experience increased attendance in 2009 than museums that did not charge a fee.

The median price for an adult admission was $7.00, unchanged since 2008 (and still cheaper than the average movie ticket).

To increase their accessibility, many of the museums that charged admission in 2009 also added free days (28.7%) or offered new discounts to local residents (17.5%).

Can I just say ahem, median price for admission $7???? This seems unheard of in Toronto, and increasingly against the grain in the rest of Canada. Even the National Gallery in Ottawa, which generally has more progressive access/possibly more federal funding than other major Canadian galleries, charges $9 a pop for the permanent collection.

Also, worth noting for our Toronto-area museums (ROM and Ontario Science Centre, I'm looking at you... as well as the Gardiner) many museums that charged admission in 2009 added free days or offered discounts to local residents. Would love to see this in Toronto, where we have the fee hike trend down pat. Dare to dream!

Image from Concert Commission

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Monday, April 5, 2010

Succumbing to Toronto-pism

This weekend, I went to see Bamiyan, an installation by Jayce Salloum and Khadim Ali at the Royal Ontario Museum. I had been looking forward to seeing this project partly due to seeing strong Salloum work in the past and partly because of the nature of the project, which involved on-the-ground research in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As a result, I included it in an Images Fest roundup for, and took note of related press interest as it emerged.

While I found the installation really interesting, I found the institutional aspect of the show interesting as well. A work related to Bamiyan showed at Kelowna's nonprofit Alternator Gallery in 2008, and there cost nothing to view. At the ROM, in contrast, it cost $22 to view as part of general museum admission.

On a more self-critical note, viewers may also likely find this situation interesting from a media angle. When the Kelowna show was on, there was little coverage by supposedly national-coverage Toronto-based media folks like myself. But upon arriving in Toronto, it got this coverage. And Bamiyan isn't the only work this has happened with--when I was talking to Jason McLean last week, he pointed out his surprise at how much media coverage the show "Pulp Fiction" got when it showed at the MOCCA in Toronto following a previous (and largely unnoted) run at Museum London.

In the end, I know that this media dynamic is part of the reason artists and curators aim to show in Toronto--it's a really good way to get "national" media coverage. And the implication on the receiving end is often "well, if the show/artwork any good, it will make its way to Toronto eventually."

Still, I have to say I'm struck by the way that location changes people's access to art, as well as press coverage of same. It's kind of par for the course in a sprawling nation like ours, but it's also kinda unfortunate at the same time.

Image from Lonely Planet

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Thursday, April 1, 2010

On Trecartin: Yes, I Drank the Kool-Aid, and Dang, was it Tasty! The Art Was Good Too.

The ever-quotable (if not ever-correct) Jerry Saltz has a good saying about buying into art world hype -- I've heard him call it "drinking the Kool-Aid."

Well, when I went to watch five hours of Ryan Trecartin videos at the Power Plant on Saturday -- roughly 7,200 2.5-second scenes, by my estimates -- I was pretty wary about drinking the Kool Aid. I mean Trecartin has received about a bazillion great reviews and awards, which can add up to (a) art world mega success and (b) art world mega suspicion.

In any case, I watched the those five hours of videos and by about a quarter of the way through I myself was a true believer. The Kool-Aid is tasty, and the art is darn good too. I explain a bit of the why in today's NOW:

In his frenetic, absurd videos, Trecartin takes Warhol’s strategies into the Web 3.0 age, using the methods and images of consumer culture to expose same.

Where Warhol used silkscreens and soup cans to prompt a closer look at commercial products (and people as commercial products), Trecartin uses Final Cut Pro and social-media-speak to reveal pressures to package oneself as “sexy” and “successful.”

He also echoes Sherman, using wild makeup, crazy costumes and multiple personas to critique subliminal standards. His CEOs spout nonsensical commercialese (“Go create your own market, you stupid, fucking bitch!”), sport cheap wigs and ride in RVs rather than Town Cars. Comparisons to John Waters, icon of transgressive camp, are also on the money.

Others beg to differ, but I'm staying solid on this one. My only regret is that I had to play the Warhol/Sherman card to make my point. Ah well.

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