Thursday, March 31, 2011

Wanda Koop article out in today's Post

Going to the Wanda Koop survey at the National Gallery last month--an experience I recommend--the relative brevity of my time in the art world, and my limitation to certain art centres during that time, came to the fore. I had only ever seen Koop's paintings in Toronto dealer shows, really, and they were all fairly small--four feet at the widest, I'd say. So it was a shock for me to go into the galleries in Ottawa and see what Koop's main production has been over the past 30 years: massive, eight-foot-wide-and-wider canvases.

I talk about that experience of surprise today in the National Post. The article also covers some of the wonderful childhood artifacts Koop has in the exhibition, like a mod dollhouse she made for herself as a young teenager.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

Asked about this size surprise, Koop explains that those smaller works are "almost like residue" left over from her central, three-decade-long practice of making gigantic canvases and installations.

"For me, it's about intimacy," she says. "I think that the paintings [here] are to my scale. I start with really tiny notes and work up to something that I feel will involve the viewer -that the viewer looks at as an actual physical experience."

And yet, Koop is also eager to show off some of the more humble origins of her oeuvre, like a tiny cardboard dollhouse outfitted with miniscule orange shag carpets and inch-long Jackson Pollock- style paintings.

"This is a little house I made when I was 13 years old," says Koop, now 59. "It was called Roundhouse for One. It was my dream home. I grew up in a large family, and I'd just keep it under my bed and slide it out when I needed to go somewhere else."

That tiny teenage fantasia is one of hundreds of sketches, books, maquettes and photographs that cluster in what the gallery calls the survey's "studio room" -though Koop says, "I think of it more as my brain." In it are piles of split-second Post-it note drawings and tomes such as The Eye: A Natural History by Simon Ings.

Read on at the Post for more peeks at the show.

I'm sorry I didn't see the premiere of this show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery--Koop told me some kids from Art City, the youth-arts nonprofit that she founded, made a great mural for the show as well, unreproduced in the Ottawa exhibition.

(Image of Wanda Koop from Site Media Inc, which has recently released a beautifully shot documentary on the artist, KOOP)

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

AES+F Interview out in Today's Post

Earlier this year, the Richmond Art Gallery held the Canadian premiere of Last Riot by Russian art collective AES+F. A hit of the 2007 Venice Biennale, the piece has been shown widely but not, until now, in Canada. A couple of AES+F members were nice enough to chat with me on the phone during a BC visit for the Vancouver Biennale earlier this month about the next film they are making, and other things. The resulting condensed Q&A is out in today's Post. An excerpt:

Q It's important not to be able to tell the "good guys" from the "bad guys" in Last Riot. Why?

A Because we are not making this a Hollywood production. For us, it is very important to destroy this cliché of "good guys" and "bad guys," which we see in media. Also, growing up in the Soviet Union, it was a very clear situation: you could tell who is the good guy, the bad guy, the repressor, the victim. I think what we describe is some kind of new situation in which all this is absolutely unclear. It's a problem of liberal global capitalism, and we try to describe it.

Q A recent [November] Artforum article said the Moscow art scene has been lethargic since all the oil money arrived, and that it was livelier when people were poor. What's your view?

A I cannot agree with this position. Art, in a way, needs money like a body needs blood, because to produce something you have to spend money, and to install something you have to invest money. I think that Moscow needs much more presentation of international art of good quality, which also takes money. And not enough investment goes into execution: in Moscow, there's no system of grants for artists.

Q One of Last Riot's scenes reminds me of something that happened after you made the piece -the Icelandic volcano eruption that grounded airplanes last year. Why do viewers experience so much déjà vu with your work?

A It's difficult to say. Maybe that was our original idea -to make some kind of déjà vu for ourselves. Because the feeling was that we live now not only in the real but also in the virtual universe, which leads to a permanent feeling of déjà vu -we have all this visual information stored in our minds from films, from TV, from youth. So maybe this is the right term for our art: déjà vu style.

Read on for the rest of their answers at the National Post. And you can see the show until April 3 at the Richmond Art Gallery.

An interesting thing that I cut from the Q&A along the way: AES+F does not storyboard or write scripts for their films, which are multi-screen and quite complex. They begin with an idea and improvise with actors during shooting. The actual sequences and whatever narrative emerges is decided upon only in post-production, in the editing suite. For an example of the visual complexity in their films (and how hard they would be to storyboard), you can check out a clip of their 2009 film "Feast of Trimalchio," which the group considers second in a trilogy with Last Riot being the first (they're now working on the third):

(Still from Last Riot from

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Comic-Book Canadiana: Clark McDougall at the McIntosh Gallery

One show I'd like to see if I can get to London (Ontario) this spring is Clark McDougall's Destination Places at the McIntosh Gallery. I'd like to see this show for a few reasons:

(1) In the painting above, I love how the grotty sidewalk contrasted with the pinball palace sign is very pop but very palpable
(2) I like paintings of mid-sized Canadian cities, in part because there are so few of them and in part because I grew up in them
(3) I also like what spins into a comic-book approach in some of the McDougall works I see online--thick black outlines, bright colour, pulp feel
(4) I know nothing about the guy--another one of those classic instances of "if only there was more contemporary Canadian art history resources out there"

Here's some more information about the artist and the show, from the McIntosh Gallery website:

With his signature style of vibrant colours outlined in black enamel, Clark McDougall (1921-1980) was equally comfortable painting urban and rural subjects to describe the effect of light in everyday life.

After years of painting in relative obscurity in St. Thomas, Ontario, McDougall garnered national acclaim in the late sixties and seventies when regionalism preoccupied much of Canadian culture.

Admired by London artist Greg Curnoe and curators Pierre Théberge and Alvin Balkind, McDougall increasingly attained critical and commercial success. Mira Godard Gallery represented him.

The Vancouver Art Gallery mounted a retrospective exhibition in 1977. Another, organized by the London Regional Art Gallery in 1987, toured nationally. Avid collectors included Canada Council Art Bank, Art Gallery of Ontario, Art Gallery of Hamilton and, surprisingly, Henry Luce III, publisher of Time and Life magazines.

Curated by Anna Hudson and Catherine Elliot Shaw, Fugitive Light has been organized by McIntosh Gallery, which recently acquired a major collection of the artist's drawings, photographs and archival materials. A forthcoming publication will situate McDougall's oeuvre in relation to the history of Canadian art while examining the psychogeography of his regional subject matter.

The show is up to May 14. More details (like about McDougall being self taught) are at Michael Gibson Gallery and at the London Free Press.

(Detail of Clark McDougall's Pinball Palace 1978 via the McIntosh Gallery)

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Good News: Web Features Planned for Canada's next Venice Biennale Outing

There's always plenty to debate about the Venice Biennale and Canada's representation there--Did they manage to cram it all into the tiny pavilion effectively? Was the artist a suitable pick? And, this year, for some: Was the process of artist selection equitable, having been reclaimed by the National Gallery as a task after decades of regional-insto rotation? (For a recap of some of these debates regarding this year, you can check out VoCA's stream of comments on the matter.)

Point being: always lots to be concerned about re Canada and Venice. But what rose to the uppermost of my mind as National Gallery director Marc Mayer and contemporary-art curator Josee Drouin Brisebois came through town to talk about their pick, Steven Shearer, a few weeks back was the following: Will there actually be some decent microsite or web features created so that the many Canadians who won't be able to visit Venice might get a glimpse of this exhibition? An exhibition that, erm, they themselves are sponsoring? And which presents an artist that is is purportedly crucial to present to the rest of the world at this point? Afer all, it tends to bother me when curators or institutions rail on about the need for a decent physical infrastructure for presenting an artist when the virtual infrastructure is left at nil.

Thankfully, a couple of days ago, I got some positive words from the gallery on this. According to the gallery, a Venice microsite of some kind is planned to accompany the in situ exhibition. Tentatively, it will include short videos, excerpts from the catalogue, and images. They're also considering a webcam recording of the opening event.

The microsite is part of the gallery's overall web redesign, due to launch after mid-April, from what they were able to tell me.

In any case, I'm very relieved to hear there is a web component planned for Venice.... and that it's not just a Facebook page. Helpful as those things can be, it scares me when they're treated as the last word in web exhibitions.

(Image of the Canada Pavilion in Venice from 2009 presenter the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery)

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Images Festival Preview up at the Post

The Images Festival rolls out its 24th edition next Thursday, March 31. I'll admit that some part of me is still confused about the focus of this festival, given that it shows art, film and live performance, but on the flipside the programming can provide a lot to surprise one. I have a few picks for the Fest up now at Posted Toronto, to be published in print in tomorrow's National Post Toronto section. An excerpt:

Gallery greats
A lot of big international art names are doing gallery exhibitions for Images this year. Already opened at Prefix are three videos and an installation by renowned Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué, who questions the power (and weakness) of images in representing history, politics, families and even individuals. Originally trained in theatre and a recent recipient of the Spalding Gray Award, Mroué is an expert at playing the shifty and unreliable narrator — reflecting the unreliability, perhaps, of all art and all media. Thought-provoking stuff. Starting April 2, Gallery TPW borrows a work from the Tate Modern in London: much-buzzed U.K. artist Lindsay Seers’ Extramission 6, a semi-autobiographical work about a girl who grew up thinking she was a camera. Biennale babes are bound to gather at Mercer Union as of this weekend; it’s where Swiss art star Roman Signer is showing outtakes of his slapstick-esque films. (They’ll also want to check Venice must-know Chen Chieh-jen of Taiwan, showing at A Space as of April 2.) Local heroes (or semi-heroes) are on tap, too: Toronto-born, London-based smartie Melanie Gilligan shows a recent work, Self-Capital, at Interaccess from April 1 while ever-wry west-ender Jon Sasaki riffs on the Group of Seven at the AGO starting April 6.

Read on at Posted Toronto for my picks for screenings and live performance. Though it's always hard to know how performances will pan out, I can say this for certain from looking at some preview screeners this week: James MacSwain's short animated film from 1998, Nova Scotia Tourist Industries, is one of the funniest things I have seen in an art context for some time.

Also, looking at MacSwain's work, I had a real proto-Daniel Barrow experience. Though I generally prefer Barrow's work to MacSwain's, the quality of the voiceover and the wackiness of the animation, and the fact that MacSwain was working first, gave me this feeling.

(Still from James MacSwain's Nova Scotia Tourist Industries from the Images Festival)

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Japan Earthquake Fundraiser by Toronto Artists Slated for March 29

Back in town! Missed a lot! But glad to see this charity oriented art event upcoming on March 29--a fundraiser for earthquake victims in Japan. It's co-organized by Japan-born, Toronto-based artist Daisuke Takeya. More info from the press release below:

Ashita: Artists for Japan
Tuesday March 29, 7pm to 2am
The Great Hall, 1087 Queen Street West, Toronto
Cover: minimum donation $10 (students $5 with ID)
All funds raised through admission fee and sale of donated artworks will go to Red Cross through the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre’s Disaster Relief Fund
Tax receipts available for over $50 donations and art purchases

Participating galleries include O'Born Contemporary, Le Gallery, Show and Tell Gallery, Art Metropole, Koyama Press, Narwhal/Magic Pony; participating artists include Howard Podeswa, Laura Horne, Max Johnston, Fiona Smyth, Winnie Truong, Nicholas Di Genova, Martin de la Rue, Patrick DeCoste and more.

More info at and the event's Facebook page.

That earthquake, and the related nuclear concerns, are so heartbreaking. While I often, in my more cynical moments, doubt the ability of art to provide much aid, I'm also inspired to see events like this organized. And dude, if the good deeds aren't enough to get you out, the possibility of catering by Guu Izakaya should darn well do it.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On Hiatus to March 22

I'm on hiatus until March 22, ya'll! Sad to be missing the TAAC Nuit Blanche and Biennial debates on Thursday, but I look forward to hearing how it goes. Happy March Breakin'!

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Friday, March 11, 2011

New Power Plant Reviews: Hirschhorn, Manglano-Ovalle & More

The Power Plant reopened yesterday with a new lobby, new logo and--perhaps most importantly--new website. Oh yeah, it's got some new shows too! My reviews of same are now up at Posted Toronto, and will be out in the Toronto section of tomorrow's National Post. An excerpt:

Thomas Hirschhorn at the Power Plant
231 Queens Quay W., to May 29
Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation is both painful and powerful. At first glance, his array of lo-fi sculptural materials — lawn chairs, plush toys, papier mâché, styrofoam, packing tape, mannequins, etc. — overwhelms. But it’s the small photographs Hirschhorn affixes to these sculptures that stand out. They document instances of man’s inhumanity to man: people beating each other with sticks; grotesquely severed limbs and heads; and the bodies of innumerable babies, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers lying dead and violated. Above it all, a massive eye — which provides the installation’s title, Das Auge (The Eye) — watches, with dozens of smaller ocular models scattered throughout. Two questions rise to the surface: What’s the good of being able to see if we block out everything that’s disturbing? Do we choose to look rather than participate because of spectatorship’s seeming safety? Granted, Hirschhorn throws much into the mix that complicates these questions and his perspective on them. His treatment of the seal hunt and fur trade makes it unclear whether he’s trying to critique these industries or the people who protest them. It’s also uncertain whether Hirschhorn’s in situ righteousness is matched by any non-art actions on his part. Ultimately, however, I felt grateful to the artist for making me aware of some of many atrocities I shut out daily. Though this exhibition is ostensibly about the opening of the eye, it is also, quite palpably, about the opening of the heart as well.

Read on here for some more pain and power--and a little (welcome) preciousness.

On an access front, I also noticed something interesting. The Power Plant has had free Wednesday-evening hours for a while, but those hours are now branded "BMO Free Wednesday Evenings." While the invasion of corporatespeak into daily life can be troubling, I'm glad for a continuation of the free hours, and I hope other institutions in town no longer use the excuse that "donors don't want to support free hours or access" when explaining lack of same.

And on the online access front, it's great to see the gallery putting videos of some of its lectures online, at last! scroll down to the "Switch On" section on the homepage to find them, or check out their Vimeo channel.

(Image of Thomas Hirschhorn's Das Auge (The Eye) at the Power Plant courtesy the Power Plant. Photo Steve Payne. Via the National Post)

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ken Lum Q&A: Signs of Change

For 30 years, Vancouver's Ken Lum has plumbed relationships between the individual and the whole to create a singularly successful international art career. With his first large solo survey opened last month at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Lum chatted with me on the phone about his practice. The condensed and edited results are out in today's National Post. Some excerpts:

Q The way you've used signs in your art -from replacing yourself with a highway sign in 1978 to copying strip-mall signs today -often evokes how individuals are viewed by society. Why?

A What I'm interested in is the flattening of identity in the contemporary context. Advertising is largely premised on that, especially beer ads -there's a directive to young men to behave a certain way. There's also all these ideal domestic couples. You have these prescriptions laid out like templates and everyone is supposed to sacrifice their individuality, to be slotted into moulds. I'm interested in raising that problem through a kind of contradiction. On the one hand, you have this social economy, which flattens identity, and on the other hand there's the glimmer or residue or yearning of the individual to try and break out of that. We transcend signs, but how do we do it? of your artworks is titled Mirror Maze with 12 Signs of Depression. How has depression affected your life?

A I have all kinds of subjects to my work and it doesn't mean I experience all of them. But I am interested in the theme of malaise, especially on a societal level, because I think the incapacity to express a full-throttled identity without some kind of compromise . well, I think that causes a lot of tension and a lot of anxiety and a lot of sadness. So I never suffered from depression. My brother did. My mother did. I never did. But I know about it.

Q You have a reputation for being quite critical. What are you most critical about in your own artwork? What's its greatest weakness?

A I don't think I have a reputation of being overly critical of other people. I would never try to hurt someone. If there's a weakness . because of the way I grew up and what I was exposed to, some might say, "That's a limitation, because so much of your work doesn't show your hand." Other people would say, "Your work is so dry." Others might say, "It's so deadly serious." And others might say, "There's no joy" or, "It's so alienating" and so on. They'd all be right, right? But that's me. There's all kinds of limits in my work. If I'd learnt how to paint better, I'm sure my work would be quite different.

You can read the rest of the interview here.

Many thanks again to Lum--who besides being incredibly busy workwise, has a new baby!--for taking time to speak with me.

(Image of one of my favourite Lum works--1990's We Are Sacred Blade--via Collection of the artist)

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Nowruz Art Show Celebrates Community and Fresh Starts

Lots of the time when I look at or write about exhibitions, I'm looking at that exhibition like a kind of object, something that exists apart from other cultural experiences a reader might have.

But I'm also often interested in how art interacts with community building. This is what sparked my interest in an exhibition related to Nowruz, the Persian New Year, which happens March 21 and is celebrated by 300 million people worldwide. The exhibition is currently on at Queen Gallery in Toronto's Moss Park neighbourhood to March 26.

Here's an excerpt from my article on the Nowruz show, out in today's Toronto Star:

On March 21, 300 million people worldwide will celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Some members of Toronto’s Iranian community started gearing up last week with an artistic spin on the holiday — an exhibition at Moss Park’s Queen Gallery.

Organized by Queen Gallery director (and former Tehran architect) Mahrokh Ahankhah, the show features five Iranian artists who live in Toronto — Afsaneh Safari, Davood Mategh, Firoozeh Tangestanian, Sayeh Irankhah and Touka Neyestani. Although the exhibition’s works range widely, Nowruz’s theme of rebirth is mirrored in these artists’ lives as many try to make a fresh creative start in Canada.

Back in Tehran, Afsaneh Safari operated her own gallery and an underground life-drawing club.

“In my country, most university art students didn’t know how to draw the ear or the neck because the model usually had a scarf,” she explains. “I thought, we really need” a nude model. “But in the governmental art centres, they cannot do this. So one of my friends and I decided to have this privately.”

Soon, university professors were sending students over to Afsaneh’s gallery for the sessions. “It was quite a nice experience,” she says.

Safari and her husband now live in a Bayview Village apartment where she does freelance graphic design.

“It’s really hard to just live between canvases,” she says of her new, cramped, at-home studio space. But she also says she’s happy to be in Toronto, where “there’s lots of culture and lots of people live together peacefully.”

Researching this article was a real eye-opener for me, as I know (as readers can likely tell) very, very little about life in Iran. I appreciate Queen Gallery director Mahrokh Ahankhah taking time to chat with me, as well as artist Afsaneh Safari and art collector (who hopes soon to be a gallerist himself) Iraj Milanian.

Queen Gallery's upcoming Contact shows also look like a great opportunity to learn more about the politics of images in Iran, which I touch on at the end of the article.

(Painting by Sayeh Irankhah from Queen Gallery)

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Monday, March 7, 2011

Black Ice: Q&A with David Blackwood out in Today's Post

Last month, as his first major museum retrospective opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, I had the pleasure of chatting in person with David Blackwood. Blackwood is known, of course, for his dramatic prints of Newfoundland. Today, the National Post published my condensed Q&A with him. An excerpt:

Q: You're known for beautiful homages to Newfoundland--but you live in Ontario. Why?

A: Well, I was born in Newfoundland. I grew up there, went to school, graduated knowing that there was such a place as the Ontario College of Art. This was before the time of community colleges--no art school in Newfoundland.

So it seemed logical I would come to Toronto. When I was in my first year at college, it was impressed on students that it was important to have a subject, so that there'd be some purpose in what you're doing. Of course, even as a child I was very interested in drawing and painting. And with a subject: the local landscape. There's some of my teenage works in this exhibition--portraits of people in the community. This was disrupted at the college for a time because you were doing still life, things typical of an art school. But in my graduating year I was given a big one-man show. It was all mummers and sealers.

Q: Today, Newfoundland's tourism image is colourful and bright. Your images are just as stunning, but they're very dark. Why?

A: To begin with: Northeast coast of Newfoundland. Very pleasant in the summer--beautiful, sublime. In the winter . [makes fearful expression]. November, December, January, February, March, April, May, June: winter. Really severe. Then you have a pleasant period, July and August. But you can't count on it. You might wait until September, October where you have incredible sun every day. But never ever--summer or winter--without wind. We had one book in the house, the Family Bible, illustrated in black and white by Gustave Doré. Very dramatic images of very dramatic stories. So there was an influence there. It was only when my father passed away and I inherited this bible that I really became aware of it. I'd grown up looking at these images: Christ walking on the sea of Galilee, the fall of Babylon and Jericho, the ark on top of Mount Ararat.

Q: Your work often conjures biblical themes, especially your famous Fire Down on the Labrador. What inspired it?

A: You know, initially I was thinking of the idea of schooners and the fear of fire. The only thing they were afraid of was fire. The wind, the ice, the tide -all seemed to be manageable. But you would never go to sleep at night until you'd made sure that there were no glowing embers in the stove. Consequently, there were only short periods in the galley where the cook was working you'd have short periods of comfort. The rest of the time it would be tremendously damp and cold. That image is open to all sorts of interpretation. I got a phone call from a student at the University of Texas. He was taking a class and the professor was using this image to convey some philosophy of humanity and makeup of the universe, which had to do with man, bird, beast, fish, water, fire, ice. Everything, according to this particular person, was in that one image.

Blackwood also had some great stories I couldn't manage to include, like there being a guy who would show up once a month in his hometown of Wesleyville with a black and white projector and the engine to run it. He would show everything from newsreels to Laurel and Hardy. He also says having a very dramatic Shakespeare teacher in school had a big impact on him.

On a more political/procedural curatorial front, Blackwood says he believes this show wouldn't have happened without the longtime interest and support of AGO print curator Katharine Lochnan. Even when Lochnan was a student she had an interest in Blackwood's work, and pointed out the possible Doré connection to him. He also told me that since he lives in Ontario, Newfoundland institutions didn't seem, from his perspective, all that interested in collecting his work. Though this show will travel to the Rooms in St. John's this summer, and I'm sure be well loved there, it's worth noting that Blackwood gifted hundreds of his prints to the AGO in 1999--not to any other institution.

(Image of David Blackwood's Fire Down the Labrador from the AGO)

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