Monday, August 30, 2010

Enjoyed: David K. Ross' Art for Museum Nerds @ the MACM

On a recent trip to Montreal, I really enjoyed a couple of things, artwise: 1) the Jenny Holzer show at the DHC (which is amazing as per her oeuvre, and also really interesting in terms of viewing a shift from her general statements on the vagaries human nature to a focus on a very particular instance of same--declassified, censored documents related to the Gulf War) and 2) David K. Ross' exhibition at the MACM, which provided an excellent museum-geek moment.

What Ross does in the latter exhibition, "Attaché," is introduce viewers to a little known phenomenon: that since the 1960s, public art galleries in Canada have colour-coded their shipping crates, such that the CCA's crates are painted cobalt blue, the MACM's crates (pre-1989) were rose pink, the MBAM's crates are painted yellow-orange, the National Gallery's crates are painted red, and so on. Ross (who's taken pictures of art-storage facilities in the past) explores this phenomenon in his show by providing large-scale photographic blowups of small sections of these crates. (Each print is sized to just fit the crate it depicts.) Ross also provides my favourite work in the show, a video where you watch MACM technicians and installation workers use drywalling techniques to seal off 8 of these colour-coded crates into their own hidden compartment within the museum. (I think the video is projected onto said compartment.)

In the text for the show, Ross and the curator reach towards the idea that this colour-coding system evolved around the same time as colour field painting--an interpretation that's actually not so interesting to me, personally. But I really enjoyed learning about this behind-the-scenes colour-coding system, as well as considering the museum-as-crate: a thing that both protects a work and seals it off from the world.

Ross' show wraps up September 6--worth a look if you can make it. (Also FYI Holzer's show continues at the DHC to November 14.)

Image of David K. Ross' video projection 396 x 534 x 762 from his website

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Reviews: Morley Shayuk, Gilbert Garcin, Winnie Truong, My Geographical Screwups

A few weeks ago, I heard from Paul Petro that his Special Projects Space at 962 Queen Street West was closing because the landlord had sold the building. As Petro pointed out in an email release, the space has been home to notable independent art endeavours since 1996:

1996-98 "In/Attendant" (Shannon Cochrane, Myfanwy Ashmore, Keith Manship)
1998-2005 "Zsa Zsa Gallery" (Andrew Harwood)
2005-2007 "Paul Petro Multiples + Small Works"
2007-2010 "Paul Petro Special Projects Space"

In today's National Post, I review the final show of the PPSPS--Morley Shayuk--except, of course, like a total ass, I got the address wrong, listing the address of Petro's main space (which is definitely remaining open!) instead. I regret the error, and will send a correction notice in. I'm very sorry about that. Anyway, here's my review:

Morley Shayuk at Paul Petro Special Projects Space
982 962 Queen St. W. To Aug. 31.
William Blake sought "the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower," but Morley Shayuk has been looking for transcendence at the mall and Tim Hortons. Scarborough Town Centre and the Dufferin Mall are just a couple of places where Shayuk videotaped design elements -- think food court porticos and fake-rock wall treatments -- that reminded him of the spirituality-symbolizing shapes and colours often used in 20th-century abstract art. The resulting short film isn't as good as its premise, but it's luckily just one part of this show. The exhibition's true highlight (and tone-setter) is a massive, rectangular beige-stucco monolith that dominates the small gallery space. Etched with more of those (once high-minded) abstract shapes, this monolith would be at home next to a Boston Cream or Brancusi's Kiss. It's both grand and silly, sincere and sarcastic--impressively so. A small abstract painting with a similarly neutral palette completes the show. Together, these works reminded me of the power of context -- that what's penetrating in one time and space can be pedestrian in another. This is a common contemporary-art theme, but it's freshened by Shayuk's quirks, like his crush on Group of Seven misfit Lionel Lemoine Fitzgerald. Overall, a good closing exhibition for 982 962 Queen West, which has been home to left-field art shows since 1996.

The article also reviews a few other Queen West shows (Gilbert Garcin at Stephen Bulger, Winnie Truong at Katharine Mulherin) too, both worth seeing in my view.

Still from Morley Shayuk's video from Shayuk's blog

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Q&A: Paul Bernhardt Teaches me About the Touchdown Jesus, and Other Things

One thing I really enjoy about getting to do regular artist interviews for the National Post is I learn about things both great and small that I never knew before. Paul Bernhardt, for instance, taught me about the "Touchdown Jesus" while we were discussing his paintings, which are closing at Harcourt House and the Alberta Biennial in Edmonton this weekend. More artistically speaking, I was surprised to learn most of the work on view was actually based on in-situ sketches. Here's an excerpt from our chat, published yesterday in the National Post:

Q You sketched some of your new paintings in Alberta oil fields. Have you shifted from painting with raw oil to looking more at oil's origins?

A At first, having just moved to Alberta, I was kind of interested in the oil industry. For instance, jack pumps -- those pumps that look like dippy-bird toys -- are fascinating to me. They're essentially robots. Not only do they pump autonomously, but they stop by themselves, too. They have a quota for the year, and the minute that amount is out, a pump freezes until the following year. So I spent a couple of days sketching those near Lloydminster.

But those aren't the only kinds of sites I'm interested in. There's also things in my paintings like satellite dishes and power stations and airports--places that are more part of our everyday experience. So a bunch of things coalesce in the sites I choose. There's usually some kind of mechanical structure I find visually intriguing, but also something that speaks about the way we live right now, when using machines is such a large part of our lives.

Q Usually artists set up easels in front of beautiful scenery. Do you really sketch for hours in these grimier places, or do you just take quick photos for future reference?

A I sketch onsite; I seldom take photos. I just set up a little camping chair and bring water and a sketchbook. So these paintings are all based on places that I'm able to visit and experience. I may spend three or four hours in the city somewhere, or two days elsewhere. Other aspects of that experience can also end up in the painting, like the conversations I had with the guy who managed the site in Lloydminster, or songs that were in my head.

Read on here for the Touchdown Jesus connection--kinda has to do with Bernhardt's interest in machine-like figures, I think, or machines as figures.

Image of Bernhardt's Knockdown 2008 from the Alberta Biennial

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Worth a Look & Closing this Weekend

A couple of shows I'd recommend dropping by before they close this weekend:

Kunstkammer/Wunderkammer at Interaccess has already had some good reviews from David Balzer and RM Vaughan, but I'll put my two cents in as well and say that there are a couple of standout works that make this worth a drop-by. The first is Philippe Blanchard's Cave Rave, which projects that common Apple-computer "starburst" screensaver onto a painted scene of celebrating cavemen. The genius of this piece was that at first I didn't recognize the screensaver, and saw it anew as a kind of mystic, dancing flame. (Having seen Blanchard's other works recently at Angell Gallery and 47, I'd say he's one to watch.) Jo SiMalaya Alcampo's installation Singing Plants Reconstruct Memory is also neat. In it, houseplants niftily become a kind of technological interface or touchscreen--touch a leaf, and sound is projected into the space; same with a particular plant and video. Also cool, if not actually in the gallery: Torontron, a vintage 1982 arcade game cabinet that has been "retrofitted to play six indie video games by local developers." You can find it at the bottom of the Interaccess stairwell.

The Storyteller at the AGO. I didn't sit through all the videos in this show that's loosely structured around narrative strategies, but I'm very glad I saw Montrealer Emanuel Licha's War Tourist in the Suburbs of Paris and Michael Rakowitz's Return. Both address complex political issues and armed conflict in ways that bring you closer to the people who are going through same. Really remarkable personal tales that help us see wider phenomena more keenly. I had actually hoped to mention this show when I reviewed Drama & Desire, because it's my understanding that many of the paintings in Drama & Desire had also originally hoped to use storytelling (often more mythic than particular, granted) to point to (or take a stance on) key political issues of the day. Anyway, those two works are highly recommended—I can't believe no Canadian museum (or even mid-scale "contemporary art centre") has offered Licha a solo show yet given the incredible reach and ambition of his War Tourist series. But that's what his online CV still indicates.

Still of Philippe Blanchard's Cave Rave from 47

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cottage Culture and Queer Culture: Larry Glawson Q&A out in today's Post

A few weeks ago, the prop 8 ruling in California got both sides of the gay marriage debate ready for more courtroom theatrics down the road. While I'm very happy that gay marriage and gay rights are gaining ground in California (and hopefully elsewhere!) I also found it interesting around that time to talk on the phone with Larry Glawson, a Winnipeg artist who takes a more personal approach to queer culture and politics.

For the past 30 years, Glawson has focused on taking pictures of friends and family, which includes his partner, Doug Melnyk. While he has done some queer-focused projects, in particular the Anonymous Gay and Lesbian Portrait Project, his work tends to revolve a lot around photography and the everyday.

Currently, Gallery One One One in Winnipeg has an unusual retrospective up of Glawson's work; it focuses exclusively on Glawson's portraits of Melnyk through the years, several of which have never been exhibited before. My related Q&A with him is out in today's National Post. An excerpt:

Q: This exhibit features photos that you’ve taken of your partner, Doug, over 30 years. What was it like for you two to see this exhibition develop?

A: It was an interesting process. The curator, J.J. Kegan McFadden, came up with the idea. He knew about a 1993 exhibition in Winnipeg that showed portraits Walter Gramatte did of his wife over a similar time period. So he proposed doing a retrospective of my work that way. Getting to work with someone on a retrospective was a positive thing for me, and the idea of using Doug as the spine of the show was also interesting. He basically has been there since the beginning and has been involved with every body of work I’ve produced. For Doug, I think it was both flattering and daunting to have to see 30 years of photos of himself all in one space. I was a bit nervous about it, too.


Q: Some people think of your work as being about gay culture. But looking at this show, it also seems a lot about cottage culture! Why are so many of these photos from the cottage?

A: I guess that speaks to the larger position of my work as being about the personal and about my everyday world. I didn’t go out to seek subject matter; my subject matter was what was around me. The cottage in these photographs is Doug’s family’s cottage, and my introduction to cottage life came through them.
Also, I do think the cottage, for me, was an exotic location; it wasn’t part of my family growing up. I was fascinated with the way people behave at the cottage; there’s this strange kind of leisure and work combination in the way that people are often in bathing suits and sitting around but always doing maintenance and building at the same time. And of course there’s partying, too! Throughout, a large part of my overall interest is in what things end up being when they are turned into a photograph, no matter what they are.

I urge everyone to take a look at the online version of the exhibition at There's some really nice pics in there.

(Image of Larry Glawson's Off-Dock 1985 from the National Post)

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Collegial Criticism, White-Cube Whine? Both!

This weekend, the Toronto Star "New in Homes and Condos" section (a must read for any self-respecting critic!) noted that OCAD has been promised 8,000 square feet of new, ground level gallery space in a forthcoming downtown condo project.

Now, while I'm all for increasing Toronto gallery space, especially for students, I have to say this news touched on a point that's peeved me for some time: OCAD's rather poor use of its existing gallery space. In particular, its designated "student gallery" at 285 Dundas Street West seems catatonic for an institution of OCAD's size and activity, hosting just seven exhibitions per year. The OCAD Graduate Gallery at 205 Richmond seems like a similarly sleepy cipher--it doesn't even have a webpage on the school's site, let alone its own website.

To be fair, I'm aware the school also has a couple of more active gallery spaces, like the recently rebranded (if also somewhat slow-moving) Onsite [at] OCAD, which often focuses on international professional artists, and the student-union funded Xpace, which seems to be the school's best-used venue, if its most distant (located on the trendy Ossington strip, Xpace has a mandate to "bridge students with their established counterparts through experimental programming that cultivates public dialogue" -- the meaning of which I've never really quite figured out).

These stronger points aside, I don't think OCAD's promised megaspace at Richmond and Duncan will be of any use unless the school can get its collective act together and get students (or truly student-focused curators) actually putting new shows up every week or two.

I welcome anyone to call "golden light of nostalgia" on this little diatribe, but a one-to-two week turnover is the basis of the student gallery program at my alma mater of NSCAD, and I think it benefits both individual students (in terms of learning how to individually prep a show, meet deadlines, etc.) and the college (in terms of the openings providing a regular social venue and gathering point).

Like I said, it's always great to see new gallery spaces, particularly ones in the name of education. But you have to know how to use the space to get the most educational mileage of out of it, and I don't always see that happening at OCAD--or, for that matter, other downtown Toronto art programs.

Suggested solutions? Related gripes (I'm sure some will take exception to the condo's marketing scheme, including free lithos from OCAD students)? Feel free to post.

Image of Antony Gormley's Blind Light installation at Hayward Gallery via Metapedia

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Friday, August 20, 2010

The Art of Mental Health

Just a quick post on a couple of art-and-mental-health items I've noticed lately. One is London, Ontario artist Kirtley Jarvis' textile reproductions of panhandler's signs. I haven't seen them in person (they're on display at the MSVU Art Gallery in Halifax as part of a three-artist show on mental states) but the photos of them look really intriguing to me. Part of me wonders about the potentially thorny ethics of this practice--Jarvis does buy the signs from panhandlers before reproducing them as artworks--but in any case they have been sticking in my mind of late as a way of representing the difficulties, illnesses and precarities that many Canadians struggle with. For more information on the show (and an install shot) check out this Coast item by Sean Flinn.

Another event that's come to my attention (more in the performative arts) is Stand Up for Mental Health, a national endeavour that's been holding Toronto workshops of late through Workman Arts, an arts-and-health nonprofit. Though I can't find it online, the Toronto Star has a nice article on the project in today's paper, and notes that a related performance is due to happen tonight at CAMH. More info is available at CAMH's page on Facebook.

Image of Kirtley Jarvis' Menu (Inside View) 2008 from

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Links Roundup: Mayer's blog, Shearer's fame and more

It's been a while since I've done a links roundup, and there's some interesting commentary going on out there so... roundup it is!

Art Fag City beats north-of-the-49th blogs to the punch in noting National Gallery of Canada director Marc Mayer's new "blog". I put blog in quotation marks there because while it's set up like a blog—ie. for instantaneous, and possibly unreviewed-by-others writings—there's only two posts so far: "Art is Controversy," dated August 6, and "Diversity in the Arts" from March 15. (The latter is basically a reprint of an op-ed piece Mayer wrote for the Ottawa Citizen.) Overall, I share Art Fag City's sense of concern about this endeavour. While I'm all for museums being more innovative, direct and transparent with the public, and while I'm among the few (it seems) who appreciate Mayer's general tendency towards personal, off-the-cuff candour (chalk it up to some great quotes it generated for me in the pre-"excellence"-controversy era) I do think that in the case of a national museum head I'd prefer to a little more sober second thought integrated into communications, and potentially other areas. The Walrus profile that Chris Jones wrote on Mayer earlier this year made it clear that Mayer is willing to cede to advice of his on-staff experts in curating; I suggest that Mayer also cede to the advice of any on-staff experts that may exist in public relations and communications (and if none exist, hire one). Putting communications for the museum back in the hands of pros (or at least benefiting from their expertise in editing, media prep, etc.) would hopefully allow Mayer to get back to the job he was truly hired to do--and for which, at the MACM, he did seem to demonstrate some success--running a major museum! Somebody actually doing their job? That would be awesome.

There's quite a stream of comments (some invective-riffic) following View on Canadian Art's post about Steven Shearer representing Canada at next year's Venice Biennale. I'm pretty middle of the road about Shearer's work myself—sometimes it has an overwhelmingly cool-youngerish-dudish-art feel to me—but it's interesting to see the speculation people have thrown out there about the ethics of Canada's Venice-pick process. You can accuse the committee of biases, but what Venice pick isn't somewhat curatorially biased? To my (admittedly uninformed) mind, there can't be a whole lotta objectivity to this process. It's seems like the proof always has to be in the pavilion/pudding.

The annual Caribana-related show at the ROM continued to generate conflicting feelings among art writers this summer . Terence Dick at Akimbo and Fran Schechter at NOW (both critics I greatly respect) panned it, albeit with some guilty feelings, while RM Vaughan in the Globe (another critic I greatly respect) praised it as " a stationary, but certainly no less moving, parade." Of course, all this was of great interest to me seeing as how last August, I posted my critiques and concerns about this annual exhibition. This year, I was pleased to see some slight attempts to integrate music and costume in the exhibition (as I had suggested) but overall I still found the show to be a troubling disappointment, much as Dick and Schechter did. Do we need more artists of colour in our major museums? In our art schools? In our art publications? Hell to the yes! Is this exhibition the solution? I have to say, in terms of a major-museum context, it sure doesn't feel like it. In this context, the show still feels a lot like cheaply generated content that the museum can point to to say, "look, we're interested in the wider community"—without doing any substantive research on that community, and still creating major barriers to the wider community by charging $24 at the door. On a more specific note, I do think that Schechter's suggestions regarding integration of photography and other forms like street art are also worth heeding, and I have to say I admire independent curator Joan Butterfield's tenacity in attempting to counteract the whiteness-bias of the art world—to make this show happen, even if I personally don't like it, required huge amounts of effort and conviction on her part, I'm sure.

Often when I complain about rising museum admission fees in Canada (and declining free-access hours) people say, "Well what about the opera companies and the symphony? They charge hundreds of dollars a ticket." I want to do more research on this, but in the meanwhile I have to thank John Terauds at the Toronto Star for requesting that Canadian Opera Company resume its free outdoor concerts, which he says were ended four years ago due to a lost sponsorship. Ditto on his suggestion to get the TSO doing free concerts outdoors. I know arts access is a wider issue than galleries and museums; this reminds me, though, that we are losing access on many fronts, not just on one. And that, of course, we would all be better off if that access was restored.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Best. Editing. Quote. Ever. (At Least for Print Publications)

On the first day of my first real job in journalism—on the copy desk at the Royal Oak Daily Tribune in Royal Oak, Michigan—the chief copy editor said,“Remember, every word you cut saves the publisher money.”

This words=money equation is from Michael Kinsley's "Cut This Story!", originally published in the January issue of the Atlantic. Recommended.

(Image from Self-Publishing Review)

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Friday, August 13, 2010

A Last-Minute Three to See: Blue Republic, Site Exercises, Flavio Trevisan

As I've noted here before, Tecumseth Street is usually good for a quick art hit, with four fairly solid galleries just a few blocks away from one another. It's also a good place to catch the last gasp of art-summer this weekend, with Blue Republic closing at Georgia Scherman and Flavio Trevisan closing at Diaz, and Site Exercises at Susan Hobbs also getting near the end of its run. I review all three at Posted Toronto (to run in print tomorrow in the Post). Here's an excerpt:

Blue Republic at Georgia Scherman
133 Tecumseth St., to Aug. 14
Blue Republic (a.k.a. Anna Passakas and Radoslaw Kudlinski) always seems to be trying to make you aware of how much you don’t know — not necessarily in a bad way, but not in a way that’s always conventionally enjoyable, either. At this show (which marks the duo’s departure from long-time dealer Peak in favour of Georgia Scherman), one senses more than ever that the artists want to jolt viewers out of their complacencies, particularly around expectations of art and artists. One way Blue Republic achieves this effect is by refusing adherence to any one media or aesthetic; their current exhibition ranges from jokey one-offs (images of peeled oranges surrounded by potato skins) and po-mo Canadiana (lake-water drawings on shield granite) to globally minded gravitas (blueprint-like map sketches), art-historical geekery (pie-chart paintings of The Last Supper) and solemn alchemical gestures (a landscape built of Beuysian clay and cardboard). Furthermore, Blue Republic usually keeps things cryptic, making viewers feel that reference points are always slightly beyond their ken. Overall, the show well evokes gaps and misunderstandings that exist in our complex, cross-cultural world, and it seems to insist that human beings, society and art are all infinitely complicated entities. Still, for all the eccentric, vanguard qualities, this exhibition is surprisingly reminiscent
of another wide-ranging Scherman-shown duo, Daniel Borins and Jennifer Marman. What to do when expectation-upending becomes expected? We’ll have to stay tuned to find out.

Here's the Twitter version: "Blue Republic's show is fun, but baffles. Good 2 recog. complexity, unpredictability of life, art, etc. but kinda like Borins & Marman, no?"

I should also note that the group show at Birch Libralato has a few surprises - a massive felt-letter installation by Michelle Gay, older paintings (yes, paintings!) by Luis Jacob, and some new works that I like by Cathy Daley (they depart from her popular ladies-legs theme, which didn't really appeal to me besides the charcoaliness of them, and go more abstract, which I think works well).

Image from Blue Republic's Water Drawings series from via the Post, courtesy Georgia Scherman Projects

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Patriotic Patterns: Review of Bent out of Shape at the Design Exchange

I'm not really a regular visitor to the Design Exchange, the old stock exchange building cum museum dedicated to promoting "the value of design." Part of the issue is that, for good or ill, I fall more to the art side of the visual-creativity equation in my work. Another is that programming seems to have been up and down at the museum over the past few years; my past visits have mainly been due to the museum's frequent use as a special-events venue. I understand that a lot of museums have to rely on this kind of rental income stream these days, but for some reason the DX seems dominated in my mind by that activity.

In any case, I'm glad I broke out of my usual DX mindset/stereotypes and went to visit Bent Out of Shape: Canadian Design 1945 to the Present, which is on at the museum to October 10. My review of the show is out in today's NOW. Here's an excerpt:

Who are Canada’s design superheroes? Bent Out of Shape: Canadian Design 1945-Present doesn’t quite aim to answer that question. Nonetheless, after visiting the show – which tells our industrial design history quickly in punchy, pop art style – design newbies will probably feel they’ve discovered at least a few blueprint-wielding Supermen and Wonder Women.

One of the great delights of the show is finding out about the talented Canuck individuals behind ultra-familiar objects. Fred Moffatt, for instance, won international design medals for his humble portable heaters and is revered for “revolutionizing the electric kettle.” Thor Hansen is the self-taught Scandinavian immigrant behind iconic Group-of-Seven-like textiles. Even designers of ubiquitous plastic thermoses and one-in-every-garage Noma cord caddies (Julian Rowan and b&b Design Associates respectively) get acknowledged, lending warm fuzzies to super-utilitarian stuff.

It's likely a testament to how much nostalgia and Canadiana has a hold on me that I melted inwardly a bit at the sight of that cord caddy, as well as the Thermos. Double rainbow moment? Almost! Punctum probability? Fer sure. Still, I did have a couple of criticisms of the show--read the rest of the review for those.

Also, just 'cause I'm keeping track these days, I will note that the DX admission is $10 (more reasonable than our big museums) but there are zero free hours or related free-entry public-access initiatives. This is something I'd encourage the museum to think about as it attempts to promote the value of design to a wide audience.

(Installation view of Bent out of Shape via Now Toronto and the DX)

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Punking Disco, Discoing Punk and... um, Art Education: Q&A with John Kissick in today's National Post

In the Canadian art scene, Ontario's John Kissick is known for both splashy, super-intense paintings and a quite sharp critical writing practice. (His screeds on art education--informed in part by his position as director of the School of Fine Art and Music at the University of Guelph--are a particular favourite.) Recently, I got to talk with him about both in relation to a 10-year retrospective that's currently up at KWAG. Here's an excerpt from the condensed Q&A out in today's Post.

Q How is music also an influence?

A I was looking outside of art for something that might be used as a metaphor for my paintings, and I started reading a lot about popular music. I particularly liked the discourse around disco and punk in the 1970s. The argument about disco at the time was that it was plastic and ersatz; it was maligned by critics as the opposite of what music was supposed to be. But interestingly, disco was the only really political music that came out of that time because it was a backdrop for the urban gay and black experience in the 1970s. The critics loved punk because of its supposed originality, but the truth is punk was the most easily co-opted of all musics--it was so deskilled and could be packaged anywhere. What I really loved about this history was the inversion of expectation between genres. Reading about that was my eureka moment where I said, "So that's why my paintings are like that. I've been trying to punk my disco and disco my punk."

Q You're an artist, but you're also head of a university art department. How does academic learning get in the way of actual artmaking?

A Do you mean how does my job get in the way of my painting? I think that at the end of the day, these paintings are really about how f---ed up I can be sometimes. I'm constantly in this ongoing critique mode where I can make something and simultaneously deconstruct it. In academia, you're forced to deal with a variety of views that may not be anything close to your own. It's challenging, but it also results in some very smart artists.

Q You've critiqued art education in Canada. What would you like to see?

A I've got a few bones to pick. But one thing that would be really refreshing is truth in advertising. I mean, let's be honest with ourselves and our students about what we're doing. One of the easiest things to pick on is portfolio reviews. The correlation between portfolio quality and art school success is virtually nil -- drawing a bunch of grapes is relevant to what maybe 5% of contemporary artists do today. The only correlation that does exist between high school marks and art school marks is English grades; also, portfolio emphasis favours upper-middle-class and private-school kids. If you take a university administrator aside and ask why they're still using portfolios as entrance criteria, they say it's because the students expect it! So it becomes a self-perpetuating system, one that's not necessarily about getting and developing the best artists.

FYI Kissick is giving an artist talk at KWAG on August 19. If you can't make it, or you want a preview, check out these YouTube videos posted by the gallery (you just have to scroll down a bit). They're part of a longer DVD being released apart from the catalogue--something I've not often seen around these parts before. In future, the show will also travel to Kelowna, Grande Prairie and possibly other places.

(Image of John Kissick's Groovefucker 2 from KWAG, © the artist)

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Monday, August 9, 2010

Can't Get Enough of Those Wine-Criticism Crisps!

Past readers of this blog know I enjoy looking at how criticism operates in non-art fields, and that wine reviewing is one area where I've found some past analogies or lessons for art criticism. Reading Billy Munnelly's lastest book, "Billy's Best Bottles 2010," I've found a few more. It's not too hard to see how these excerpts from Munnelly's "20 wine things I've learned in 20 years" could also perhaps apply to the visual field:

1) There will always be more good wine than any of us can drink.

3) The more you know about wine the harder it is to be open to new experiences. We develop expectations and shun surprises. Don't be a knower.

7) There is too much shine and glitz in winemaking. Too many overworked, perfect wines. A little imperfection and individual expression can add interest and make a wine feel real.

15) Wine culture is closely aligned with cafe culture. Wine needs to be readily available, low-priced and down-styled. It needs to be inclusive. Magazines which celebrate exclusive, high-priced wines in high-end settings deliver the wrong message.

19) While some might wish that there were less variety in wine, it's the variety that makes it exciting. And allows us to connect to life's endless variety of times, situations and moods.

Myself, I find #3 a particular challenge. But a worthy one!

Granted, there's a lot about Munnelly's approach that does not fit in with art criticism, like his tendency to classify wines according to mood and utilitarian function. In any case, I appreciate his straightforward and friendly approach--he "never uses wine jargon or confusing gobbledygook--wines are described in everyday terms." He definitely walks the talk on inclusivity.

Image of the Wine Sugar Crisps Bear from Boing Boing

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Lessons from Brooklyn: What is a Museum For?

A lot of NY art folks have been tweeting of late about troubles (or perceived troubles) at the Brooklyn Museum. And as @cmonstah so aptly put it, today the Times published a selection of commentary on the topic "In which everyone and their mother offer the @brooklynmuseum some advice."

Though I'm no bit US or NYC museum-watcher, I thought the accompanying screeds—18 in all, from museum directors, artists and public administrators—had a lot of points to ponder for evaluating the success of any museum, including, ahem, Canadian ones.

Of course, because of my own views, I agreed with some of the comments more than others. Here's the ones that seemed to hit home for me, given my own, closer watching of access and measures-of-success issues at the AGO and the ROM, as well as getting a creeping feeling that a number of smaller local museums, like the Gardiner and the DX, are struggling with related problems:

MAXWELL L. ANDERSON, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art :With a national average of 2 percent to 4 percent of art museum revenue coming from admissions, the distracting glitter of crowds is not as material to institutional health as most people assume. Instead of being evaluated for their contributions to research, preservation and education, art museums like the Brooklyn Museum are increasingly expected to be commercial attractions and economic engines.

The museum's future, like that of libraries, universities and other art museums beyond tourist meccas, lies in making a case for government, foundation and individual patronage by being a hotbed of creativity. Not by making a case for the box office.

Maxwell, you rock.

ANN PHILBIN, director of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles :Attendance is simply one measure in a long list of priorities—some of which are very hard to quantify. For example, how does one measure the impact of showing a young artist for the first time and starting his or her career, or the ramifications of capturing the imaginations of young at-risk school groups?

Furthermore, how is attendance defined? At the Hammer we have begun to understand that our visitor numbers should not be limited to our own box office but might also include the hundreds of thousands of people aroun the world who log on to our Web site,, to view podcasts of our public programs, or the many thousands currently visiting the Charles Burchfield retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which the Hammer organized. Are these not all part of a measurable sphere of audience and influence?

Damn straight... I often feel like attendance is used as a measure of success just because it is easy to quantify.

ROCHELLE SLOVIN, director of the Museum of the Moving Image: What's bugging people about the Brooklyn Museum? Is there any good reason not to embrace First Saturdays? If international D.J.'s are O.K. for P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, and string quartets are judged suitable for late nights at the Metropolitan Museum, then what exactly is the objection to hip-hop and salsa at the Brooklyn Museum? My advice to the Brooklyn Museum: Continue to take excellent care of your treasured collections, hang tough, and pile it on — more great exhibitions, more performances, more joyful noise.

Really love that point about "event bias" between different institutions.

KIKI SMITH, artist :Attendance is not necessarily a good measure of museum success. The quality of its collection, its administrative vision, the depth of its scholarly programming and its curatorial direction are. The nature of capitalism is dependent on growth, but it is not inherently in a museum's interest to expand.

Try telling that to the Vancouver Art Gallery, eh? Or if we could time-travel back, to the ROM and AGO and AGA, at least as a consideration.

Also, as an aside, Canada gets a shout out... though not in a good way!

GRAHAM W. J. BEAL, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts: Along with Brooklyn, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and, increasingly, others, the Detroit Institute of Arts has been accused of "dumbing down" and "Disneyfication." I am, from time to time, described as leading the United States' most challenged institution, and it is true that we labor under many adverse conditions. But at least I do not have an art museum that is a world exemplar sitting across the river in Windsor, Ontario. Arnold is in an invidious position, and has tried to create a very different type of museum on the proverbial shoestring.

Still, Windsor semi-diss aside, I really recommend reading all the comments in the article. They show how many different ways there are of looking at and evaluating museums, as well as being passionate about them.

Image of the Brooklyn Museum from Obey

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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

When a Review Doesn't Pass the Twitter Test: Drama & Desire at AGO, And Other Big-Insto Shows

On Friday, I realized that a review of mine that would be published in Saturday's National Post failed to pass the Twitter test. That is, a tweet-length summary of my feelings about the show doesn't quite match the published review that I wrote of it.

I realized this when @jgombita (Judy Gombita, a PR/networking gal on Twitter), asked me what I thought of the show on Friday. I tweeted (awful verb!) back, "Paintings = awesome (or at least "impt") Presentation = needs work." In a direct message, I also wrote "I think it needed a LOT more text or sound explanation to substantiate cheesier bits (wind machines, etc.)" and "Yeah the lit up painting was the most embarassing; the rest I could see as ok attempts at new-visitor engagement, but that was worst."

My review in the following day's paper was, I think, a bit gentler:

Promising to explore the ways that 1800s art mavericks were influenced by theatre, Drama & Desire contains many beautiful, internationally renowned paintings. (Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii and John Singer Sargent’s Lady Macbeth are just a couple of examples.) Campy props — such as crystal chandeliers and old-fashioned wind machines — also add period zing. But in a bizarre plot twist, Drama & Desire forsakes one of the great joys of both art history and the stage: straight-up, old-fashioned storytelling. Most of these paintings were created to crystallize sprawling narratives, yet only a few have any accompanying explanation. (Even stranger, it’s the well-known stories, such as Romeo and Juliet, that actually get explained.) This lack leaves most viewers mystified about the actual dramas at hand. On a related note, true stories of class and gender are also AWOL. Many scholars note that 19th-century theatres often served gritty, lower-income audiences, and that even high-toned playhouses were hotbeds for prostitution. Degas (included in the show) actually tried to expose the tawdriness beneath theatre’s surface glitz. But Drama & Desire’s strategies merely amp that glamorous façade, leaning on theatre’s current status as elite entertainment and distancing viewers from the vital, vicious reality of the era it purports to immerse us in. Unintentional comedy? Gentle tragedy? Drama & Desire is both — and thanks to the fame of its paintings, it’s still a must-see.

Lesson learned: When trying to carve a review down to word count, I should perhaps consider what my Twitter summary would be first. Sans snark (or even avec), it can be a helpful thesis-statement exercise.

And yes, while I appreciated the attempt on the AGO's part to "enliven" the gallery experience with dramatic set design and devices, that lit-up painting I tweeted about (a scene from Shakespeare's King Lear accompanied by audio of Stratford actors speaking the scene's lines, with each painted character spotlighted while speaking) really did make me a bit squeamish. The strobed lightning on a painting of a stormy night also seemed a bit excessive and non-19th-century. What I enjoyed best was the variety of wall colours and seating, as well as the (yes!) wind machines. (They generate just the sound of the wind, not the motion.) The audio interview with an orchestra musician was also interesting. But overall, as I noted, all this needed supplementing by good old fashioned storytelling about the plots represented in the paintings, as well as the contexts of theatre and class in their respective eras.

You can also read my reviews of the Gardiner Museum's Private Pleasures and the Barnicke Gallery's Scream at the National Post. I'm open to any sentiments on these, long or shortly stated, that you might have.

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