June 21, 2022

So many of the people I encountered in New York last week had an edge of resentment and anxiety. The desperate days of the pandemic barely receding, the present dominated by spiraling inflation and violence at home and abroad, and the future — the future — looming as a terrifying mix of extremist, political mayhem and climate meltdown.

It made sense to visit the dark, deathy 911 Memorial, with its relentless flow of tumbling water into the black pit of eternity. What did that terrible event — now so distant — foreshadow?

View of the 911 Memorial

Quiet As It’s Kept – The Whitney Biennial

(I don’t quite get the title? “Quiet As It’s Kept” is referred to, in the materials about the show, as an expression, but it’s one I had not heard before.)

At the 2022 Whitney Biennial — the eightieth edition — that same feeling of future dread that was conjured by the 911 Memorial was in evidence. A mix of trauma, fear and pain was defnitely one of the thematic strands running through the massive exhibition.

The work of Daniel Joseph Martinez, for instance, made me think of the Flagellants of the middle ages, who “demonstrated their religious fervor and sought atonement for their sins by vigorously whipping themselves in public displays of penance.” 

Below is the Post-Human Manifesto presented by Daniel Joseph Martinez:

Artwork by Daniel Joseph Martinez

Daniel Joseph Martinez is an artist who works in many different media, including modifying his own body in monstrous ways. So much loathing, rage and frustration seems to be contained in this work. He describes his piece at the Whitney as a:

“radical performative experiment of becoming post-human and the evolution of a new species.”

Daniel Jospeh Martinez

Photographs by Daniel Joseph Martinez
Detail of Photograph by Daniel Joseph Martinez

Similarly, a video installation by Andrew Roberts called The Horde, displays creatures that are him, but not him. They are horrible — undead things — that he identifies with “as a Latino and queer person confronted by a crossfire geopolitical war where bodies and identities similar to mine are treated as disposable.”

The Horde by Andrew Roberts

A sculpture by Canada’s own Rebecca Belmore, of a human figure or maybe a sort of grim reaper wrapped in a sleeping bag, fleeing or hiding or in mourning, had a powerful feeling of despair. It was surrounded by a glittering array of gold coloured bullet casings and stood in the murky light of a gallery with walls painted black.

ishkode (fire) by Rebecca Belmore

“I’m hoping that the work contains some positive aspects of this idea that we need to try to deal with violence,” is a quote from Belmore in the Biennial notes.

Photographs by Buck Ellison confront violence from a circuitous distance. For me, the result was a lurid fascination.

“Rain in Rifle Season, Distributions from Split-Interest Trusts, Price Includes Uniform, Never Hit Soft, 2003” by Buck Ellison

Buck Ellison hires models and builds sets for his photographs, attempting to recreate particular moments in the lives of the very rich and priviledged. Here, Eric Prince is depicted, at his ranch in 2003, just before he received notoriety and billions of dollars for his role as the founder of Blackwater, the military contractor which figured so prominently in the war in Iraq.

Buck Ellison has stated that he tries to change the predictable narrative and force the viewer to confront their own emphathy or curiousity. (It kind of works … and then there is the fact that the model bears an uncanny resemblance to a close relative of mine.)

Photographs by Buck Ellison

This show has many moments of emotional power but one of the most dramatic was by artist Coco Fusco. It was a riveting experience, watching her 12 minute video essay, recorded in the waters around Hart Island, home to the largest mass grave in the United States, where New York’s unclaimed victims of COVID-19 have been buried.

Still from “Your Eyes will be an Empty Word” by Coco Fusco

Yes, there was painting.

In fact, it seemed like there is a resurgence of abstract painting. It is definitely great to look. The huge, somehow claustrophic paintings by Denyse Thomasos, another Canadian woman, are hectic, compulsive, bristling with energy.

Detail of “Displaced Burial” by Denyse Thomasos

Denyse Thomasos, who died in 2012, stated that her paintings “refer to the violent systems and structures that shape our world,” and that “…the paintings are deeply personal.”

The painting below is by Awilda Sterling-Duprey and it’s called “…blindfolded” because … well … watch the video.

“…blindfolded” by Awilda Sterling-Duprey

video of Awilda Sterling-Duprey performing at the Whitney Biennale 2022

I was really happy to see the paintings by Jane Dickson, one of the artists I remember from the East Village Art Scene of the early eighties. Her canvases looked so lush and rich in form and content.

“Save Time” by Jane Dickson

63 artists and collectives are participating in the eightieth Whitney Biennial. This is just a handful of the items that caught my eye on that sultry afternoon.


Often, there is some sort of controversey roiling the bi-annual exhibition at this particular museum, but this year there was none, that I could discern … yet.

  • 2019 – boycotted by a group of artists, in protest of the museum’s vice chairman, Warren Kanders. Warrren Kanders’ companies sell military supplies (teargas and bullets) via Safariland.
  • 2017 – In response to the exhibition a painting by Dana Schutz, depicting Emmet Till in an open casket, African-American artist Parker Bright began to silently protest it by standing in front of the painting wearing a T-shirt with “Black Death Spectacle” on the back.
  • 2014 – The YAMS Collective, or HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, a collective of 38 mostly black and queer artists, writers, composers, academics, filmmakers and performers participated and withdrew from the 2014 Biennial as a protest of the Whitney Museum’s policies including a lack of diversity.
  • 1987 – the show was protested by the Guerrilla Girls for its alleged sexism and racism.
  • 1976 – artists protested what was viewed as blatant economic pandering because the Biennial’s 1976 theme revolved around bodybuilding as art and featured California’s future governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

March 4, 2022

Shary Boyle at The Gardiner Museum

Shary Boyle is an exceptionally accomplished artist. Her show at the Gardiner Museum, called Outside the Palace of Me, is a tour de force of skill and imagination. And the subject of the show — the idea of identity and how we create our “selves” — is an utterly timely and fertile one.

“Cephalophoric Saint” by Shary Boyle

The image above, by Shary Boyle, is titled “Cephalorphoric Saint.” The word cephalophoric means a saint who is carrying their own severed head. In Christian art, this generally means that a saint has been martyred by beheading. I’m not sure if Shary Boyle sees the artist as a matyr, or a saint, but it is an interesting idea about how the artist functions in contemporary society. In some of her images of artists, the subjects are devoid of any legitimate head, instead, blindly and thoughtlessly — without any conciousness at all — they are engaged in self-representation, groping to create an outward, public manifestation of their limited identity.

“The Sculptor” by Shary Boyle
Detail of “The Sculptor” by Shary Boyle
“The Potter” by Shary Boyle

Ours is society consumed with self-image. The decorated visage is everywhere and each seemingly innocent Instagram post a plea for validation. Do we even exist if we aren’t “liked?” Shary Boyle explores that contemporary affliction with an absorbing collection of objects and images.

Fame, status, and our hunger for validation drive cultures of excess. Tweeted Tik Tok Selfie influencers. Fate, addiction, glamour, celebrity, greed, the Fool. We are all the centre of the universe.

Shary Boyle, handout at exhibition “Outside the Palace of Me”

Julia Fox Deletes All Kanye West Photos From Instagram – XXL

The arrangement of the show references theatre. The visitor gingerly enters from a darkened hallway to pass three muses (“Focus,” “Lens” and “Pupils”), which are visible in a two-way mirror. Emerging onto a bright proscenium lined with ten, glass-encased, ceramic sculptures — each exqusitely rendered and fascinating to look at — the visitor is then obliged to consider their own participation in the show.

“Oasis” by Shary Boyle
“Peacock Spider” by Shary Boyle
“The Sybarites” by Shary Boyle

At center stage is the coin-operated star!:

“Centering” by Shary Boyle

Shary Boyle weaves an old timey sense of performance into her up-to-the-minute observations: traditional hucksters, wax museums, vanity cases, Punch and Judy performers, ventriloquists, vaudeville, carny folk, puppet masters and manipulators of all stripes are represented in the exhibition. She creates a slightly seamy, corrupt, down-market vibe, like a stroll around Clifton Hill after checking out Niagara Falls.

“Judy” by Shary Boyle
“Ventriloquist” by Shary Boyle

Walking to the Gardiner Museum along Bloor street I encountered a protest march. About a dozen people took part. One held a sign that read “Fuck Trudeau!,” while the leader shouted “Jesus Loves You” through a bullhorn. The Bloor Street shoppers, still masked and tentative, glanced with mild irritation at the noisy interlopers. I could really relate to Shary Boyle’s piece called “The Procession” and her quote:

One person’s parade is another’s riot.

Shary Boyle, handout at exhibition “Outside the Palace of Me”
“The Procession| by Shary Boyle
Detail of “The Procession” by Shary Boyler

Detail of “The Procession” by Shary Boyle

And then there is “The White Elephant.” I imagined this freakish creature striding around, blithly wrecking the place, leaving a path of misery and destruction wherever she goes, like a preppy white Godzilla in a twinset.

“White Elephant” by Shary Boyle

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No comment.

October 29, 2021

Plastic Heart: Surface All the Way Through

The Art Museum at the University of Toronto is hosting an experimental exhibition. This one has a twist. It questions the whole idea of exhibiting art at all.

The work of The Synthetic Collection, a collaboration between scientists and artists, comprises the basis for the exhibition, in particular their work studying the microplastics pollution of the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes: Accumulations by Kelly Wood, member of the Synthetic Collection

Whereas the exhibition does a great job of displaying numerous art works, it also posits an institutional critique, and it is hardcore. It’s not just a show, but a manifesto on responsibility in making and showing art, a series of public dialogues, and a call to action.

A Manifesto for Curating and Making Art in a
Time of Environmental Crisis

1. If you’re going to make it, make it count.

2. Lead by example.

3. Take steps to mitigate environmental damage of art making and exhibitions. Doing so reveals other economies of inequality and acknowledges the art world’s culpability in upholding systems of oppression. Projects should enhance initiatives aimed at preventing, reducing, and mitigating harm.

….

excerpted (first three steps of ten) from downloadable booklet: A DIY Fieldguide for Reducing the Environment Impact of Art Exhibitions

Unlike most other exhibitions, here the gallery space has not been made immaculate in preparation for a new exhibition. Nail holes, scuff marks, scratches are left as is.

Signage at Plastic Heart

Signs are handwritten and pinned to the wall. Nothing is hidden. There is no dumpster filled with incidental debris that is hauled off to a landfill. The “Plastic Heart” exhibition aims to be totally transparent.

Waste on display

It’s a big show, featuring numerous artists – contemporary and historical – and tackling a breadth of topics, some truly nightmarish. Particularly in the visual depictions of toxic pollution in the Great Lakes, one difficult upshot of the exhibition becomes clear, i.e. the overwhelming sense that there is no way out of this mess.

Watching one of the teaser videos for the show, the following phrase stood out as alarming, verging on terrifying: “All the plastic we have ever made is still with us.”

Visual depiction of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes region, by Synthetic Collective member Skye Morét

I was so impressed by Skye Moret’s website! She describes herself as a designer /scientist /adventurer and the site provides a glimpse of the many roles she inhabits.

Mermaid’s Tears
Description of Mermaid’s Tears by Synthetic Collective

Some of the artwork took the form of lists of plastic producers or plastic descriptors.

Research documents by Synthetic Collective

The names of the various plastic compounds have a particularly chilling, incantory quality. I randomly googled “crystal styrene” and learned the following:

The conventional method of producing styrene involves the alkylation of benzene with ethylene to produce ethylbenzene, followed by dehydrogenation of ethylbenzene to styrene. Styrene undergoes polymerization by all the common methods used in plastics technology to produce a wide variety of polymers and copolymers.

 

And voila! …”crystal” styrene is the fully transparent form of styrene, a rigid and rather brittle low cost thermoplastic. When you by a box of organic baby spinach, chances are you are buying crystal styrene. Is it recyclable? Maybe.

Some of the artists in the show decided to bite the bullet and work with the ubiquitous material.

Flexi-Shield (Eostra) by Amy Brener is made from Platinum silicone, pigment, larkspur and chrysanthemum flowers, fern leaves, miscellaneous objects.
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Detail of “Permeations of a Dataset’ by Tegan Moore

Tegan Moore has a very successful piece in the show, balanced beautifully on the edge of elegance and banality. The photo above depicts a very small section of the long, complex stream of material. The work is made from “Factory reject’mystery foam’ sheet with anti-static agent, haildamaged polycarbonate roofing, photodegraded corrugated plastic, plastic pellets, plastic fragments, salvaged phone, starch packing peanuts, mulberry paper.”

Detail of “New Balance,” sculpture by Meghan Price is made from used sneakers

Detail of “Water Song” by Hannah Claus, made from acetate, thread, pva glue and plexiglass

In the notes about Hannah Claus‘s piece, “Water Song” the fact that it “packs small” is mentioned.

I couldn’t help thinking about some of the superstar global artists and the “bigger is better” sensibility that has existed for many decades.

For example, below is an installation shot of a 2020 show of the work of Anselm Kiefer. Clearly, this work does not “pack small.”

Installation view of 2020 exhibition of the work of Anselm Kiefer.

Anselm Kiefer — and he is only one example! — talks about his work in extravagant terms. He claims he is trying “to articulate the known fundamental interactions of the universe and forms of matter.” Could it be that this type of work, boundless in its ambition and scale, corporate in its fundamental self-absorption, might be slightly out of touch?

That is the really interesting thing about seeing the “Plastic Heart” exhibition: suddenly we are thinking about a different moral equation and a different motivation for making and exhibiting art.

Artwork by Christina Battle

For instance, Christina Battle‘s piece alerts us to those “plants helping us to remediate land and wonders how we might support them in return.” Part of this artwork is to invite her audience to receive a Natural Plant toolkit in the mail, and to plant and monitor seeds appropriate to the region. (I was too late. All the seeds were sent out.)

And then there is this video by Leticia Bernaus. What can I say?

Excerpt from video by Leticia Bernaus

Plastic Heart: Surface all the Way Through includes work by the following artist.

Christina Battle, IAIN BAXTER&, Sara Belontz, Leticia Bernaus, J Blackwell, Amy Brener, Hannah Claus, Sully Corth, Heather Davis and Kirsty Robertson, Aaronel deRoy Gruber, Fred Eversley, Naum Gabo, General Idea, Kelly Jazvac, Woomin Kim, Kiki Kogelnik, Les Levine, Mary Mattingly, Christopher Mendoza, Tegan Moore, Skye Morét, Meagan Musseau, Claes Oldenburg, Meghan Price, Françoise Sullivan, Catherine Telford-Keogh, Lan Tuazon, Marianne Vierø, Joyce Wieland, Nico Willliams, Kelly Wood

The featured image at the top is by Iain Baxter.

June 10, 2018

Toronto Sculpture Garden

Tucked into a petite, green space – which initially appears to be part of the neighboring bistro’s outdoor patio – and right across King Street from St. James Cathedral, is the Toronto Sculpture Garden.

I looked at the installation, titled Pins and Needles, by Karen Kraven.

Video of sculpture by Karen Kraven at Toronto Sculpture Garden

A giant clothing rack holds oversized garment pieces: a pant leg, a bodice fragment, a sort of apron adorned with long ties, a stiff belt, random pockets, gathers, plackets among other objects.  The items, arrayed as though waiting for the next step in a manufacturing process, are made of sturdy fabrics, workmanlike, serious, and in Mark’s type colours.

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Pins and Needles by Karen Kraven

The history of King Street, as a manufacturing hub, a place where workers – especially women – toiled to create valuable objects of utility is gracefully evoked.  Of course, now King Street is home to lofts, furniture boutiques and technically advanced service industries.  Clothing manufacturing from the past is now viewed as unsavoury, exploitative and generally noxious and it has been moved offshore for the most part, out of sight…somewhere.

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Pins and Needles by Karen Kraven

This artwork struck me as strangely nostalgic.  Intellectually we may be meant to reflect on the harsh, dark past of urban textiles factories with a shudder, but these things suspended before me are so appealing the opposite thought occurs: wouldn’t it be great if we made stuff to last, right here in Toronto.

The supple, handsome objects caught the afternoon sun and shifted slightly in a soft summer breeze, as I gazed at them.

 

March 11, 2018

“Take My Breath Away” 

Danh Vo at the Guggenheim Museum

A Dane, a gay man, a refugee from the Vietnam War, a child raised in the Catholic faith, an artist who lives in Mexico and Berlin: these are some of the unique qualifiers that can be applied to Danh Vo, whose current exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum is entirely original and beautifully expansive.   I mean “expansive” in a particular sense: Danh Vo has a way of offering a succinct starting point with his work and assigning nuanced speculation and circuitous trails of thought to the viewer.  It is such a lovely and uplifting intellectual exchange.

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Installation view “Take My Breath Away” by Danh Vo

The chandelier, depicted above, already loaded with cultural, economic, sentimental and literary meaning, has been installed in a startling fashion.  It barely skims the surface of the glossy Guggenheim ramp. It is described on a nearby label as having a particularly disquieting provenance.  This, and two other chandeliers which Danh Vo was able to purchase and which are also in the Museum in different “states,” hung in the Hotel Majestic in Paris.  The Hotel was the site of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, which ostensibly ended the Vietnam conflict but also marked the beginning of a period of violence, betrayal and humiliation on both sides of that war.

Lot 20. Two Kennedy administration Cabinet Room Chairs

Lot 20. Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs by Danh Vo

What appears to be an abstract sculpture, above, is defined by the artist as leather upholstery from two chairs.  The chairs were purchased at Sotheby’s at an auction of items belonging to Robert McNamara.  McNamara was the defense secretary for both Kennedy and Johnson during the period of Vietnam War escalation.  They were given to McNamara by Jacqueline Kennedy after President Kennedy’s death.

Danh Vo deconstructed the chairs.  Parts of them are scattered around the exhibition.  The frames here.  The springs and stuffing there.  To me the dismemberment of these potent objects manifests as rage.  But then (…) I was 21 in 1973 and I remember the end of the war.  What do these objects and the wordy labels mean to someone in their 20s now?

I really like the way Danh Vo allows meaning to change, to evolve and to flicker in and out of objects.

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Robert McNamara – US Secretary of Defense, 1961-1968

There are other objects in the show that a similar proximity to notorious events: Ted Kaczynski’s manual typewriter for example. (Which somehow I did not see.  Only read about!  But even in pictures, it seems to hold barely restrained malevolence within its banality.  But of course that is my projection.  Not long ago I watched Manhunt: Unabomber on Netflix.  All eight episodes!)

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Theodore Kaczynski’s Smith Corona Portable Typewriter, by Danh Vo

It should be pointed out that although many of the objects in the show are accompanied by rather lengthy texts the work does not rely on labels.  I concluded this because of the following: I was in NY for just a few days.  I went all the way up to 90th Street and Park to see this show on Thursday.  The Guggenheim is closed on Thursday.  Pressed for time and overly committed I went back on Friday.  At one point wandering up the ramp I got irritated waiting, in back of an overly witty couple, to read the descriptive cards.  I struck off, ignored the texts and was swept up in the pure visual power of the show.

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Massive Black Hole in the Dark Heart of our Milky Way by Danh Vo

The piece by Danh Vo entitled “We The People” is an extreme undertaking.  I didn’t quite understand that I was looking at a dismembered replica of the Statue of Liberty, constructed of copper at full scale, until I was on the subway going back downtown reading the exhibition notes.  This extraordinary artwork will never be exhibited in one place as it is gradually being dispersed to various cultural institutions around the world.

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We The People by Danh Vo

To see Danh Vo talk (in Danish with subtitles) about the creation of We The People, click here:

 

The inclusion of Catholic imagery, especially the medieval sculpture, adds gravitas and grace to the exhibition.

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Artwork by Danh Vo

The piece above is an example of the artist’s joining of objects from different era: damaged medieval wooden sculpture is fused to fragments of Roman marble statuary.  Elsewhere naturalistic tangles of branches have grafted to them tiny, finely wrought medieval countenances.

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Christmas (Rome) by Danh Vo

The artwork above is made of velvet fabric which was used as backing for an exhibition of objects in the Vatican Museum.  (Just thinking about how Danh Vo came to get his hands on this particular velvet has so much narrative potential.)

One of my favourite pieces in this show are the letters from Henry Kissinger to New York Post theater critic Leonard Lyons:

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In another letter, dated May 20, 1970, Kissinger writes the following:

“Dear Leonard, I would choose your ballet over contemplation of Cambodia any day — if only I were given the choice.  Keep tempting me; one day perhaps I will succumb.”

At the time, Kissinger was helping to orchestrate the so-called Cambodian Incursion.

 

August 6, 2016

The McMichael Art Collection – Sarah Anne Johnson

In terms of the perpetuation of the species and the human life span, the period between 15 and 25 is the really crucial one.  This is the period of maximum fertility and all its attendant characteristics: the fierce courage, idealism and passion that belong only to the young; and of course, on the dark side, the selfishness, fecklessness and brutality that hopefully dissipates with maturity. Looking back to this era in one’s own lifetime can produce feelings of awe and possibly an overriding sense of good fortune that we even survived at all.  Sometimes we barely recognize our former selves and are obliged to murmur, almost inaudibly: “Was that idiot me?”

Sarah Anne Johnson wanders into this territory of youthful enthusiasm and misadventure in her exhibition called Field Trip, at the McMichael Collection.

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Yellow Dinosaur by Sarah Anne Johnson

The “trip” Sarah Anne Johnson takes the viewer on is deep and quixotic, at times hilarious, contemplative and hopeful, and then suddenly frightening and grim.  I really liked looking at this show.  For me the dazzling images conjure up a sense of how perception is shared, how my own perceptions conform to contemporary custom and how they change.

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Zombie Dance by Sarah Anne Johnson

I’ve been reading a book by Jenny Diski called The Sixties.  She writes:  “We were …a bunch of dissolute, hedonistic druggies.  We lay around and got stoned, had sex, listened to music that exalted lying around, getting stoned, having sex, and hymned our good times.”  It seems that fifty years later this is the same crowd that Sarah Anne Johnson has photographed. In her book Jenny Diski goes on to chronicle how the sixties became the Reagan years and turned into ” that beast: the Me generation.”  Time will tell.

Chillin’ at the Void by Sarah Anne Johnson

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Detail of Chillin’ at the Void by Sarah Anne Johnson

Sarah Anne Johnson intertwines so many interesting threads of thinking. The detail of Chillin’ at the Void depicts a new crop of “dissolute, hedonistic druggies.”   It makes me think of a different kind of chill: a cold and dreadful chill, of how marketing and propaganda ease each  generation through its own very special, unique and individual journey.

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Group Portrait by Sarah Anne Johnson

In the piece entitled “Group Portrait” Sarah Anne Johnson captures the joy and satisfaction of belonging, so critical for the young.  The individuals are obliterated with dopey masks and transformed in an instant to exotic creatures that have banded together.   We will always be together!!  We celebrate our originality!  We defend our tribe!!  It’s such a brief sentiment.  Maybe only an afternoon or two.  That weekend at Bird’s Hill Park.

Sarah Anne Johnson’s trip includes some dark alleys, strewn with garbage, seriously dangerous drugs and stoners slipping over the edge.

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Blob by Sarah Anne Johnson

The lurid, day-glow monsters of nightmare and death are observed with nonchalance.  This is an ability of the very young and very stoned, and a feature of their passage into the humdrum adult world….if all goes well.

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Glitter Bomb by Sarah Anne Johnson

February 14, 2016

Song Dong – Lori Nix

Art Gallery of Ontario – Song Dong

Wisdom of the Poor: Communal Courtyard is the name of the installation by Song Dong at the Art Gallery of Ontario.  The piece has the strange effect of slowing down time and creating a consuming sense of melancholy.  The viewer steps out of the moment and into a maze, composed of antique wardrobes, and, concurrently, into a bygone era.

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Detail of installation by Song Dong

The wardrobes have been dismantled and roughly knocked together to create twisting, labyrinthine passageways.  Bits of fabric, modest curtains, broken locks, faded posters and other sentimental items cling to the gutted furniture and add to the sense of forlorn domestic ruin.

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Detail of installation by Song Dong

The art piece feels funereal, and there is the lingering presence of ghosts.  Glimpses through openings may reveal another viewer wandering hesitantly, an abandoned bicycle or perhaps a rising tower (wait, its the AGO’s  Sol Lewitt sculpture and elsewhere is the AGO’s Warhol portrait of Karen Kain.)

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Detail of installation by Song Dong

China is famously changing at a breakneck pace despite an increasing public outcry against the demolition of historic neighbourhoods and a gathering preservationist movement.  Song Dong taps into a powerful emotional yearning for an idyllic past that is felt apparently all over the world. The object of the loving backward gaze could be the narrow, crowded streets of bygone China or …… Mayberry.   In North America this imagery can be baldly manipulative romanticism, covering for a suspect agenda, but what it is in China I do not know.

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Mayberry set

Admittedly there are some very appealing aspects to the decades past.  For example, long before the rise of Twitter and ISIS (forever linked in my mind) anyone could smoke and drink with abandon, even on airplanes.  But is it my actual memories that view these activities fondly or is it the “Mad Men” portrayal of them that I like?

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Smoking on airplanes through the eyes of the creator’s of “Mad Men”

Meanwhile the unrestrained development in China has not only resulted in the spectacular buildings we see in the media but some weirdly manufactured nostalgia, for example Thames Town, built to look like a charming Tudor town in the English countryside.

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Thames Town, 19 miles from Shanghai

***

Bau-Xi Photo  – Lori Nix

All over North America laundromat seating is the same.  I may have known this as a fact before I saw the show of photographs by Lori Nix at Bau-Xi Photo, but to be honest I never really thought about it much. In Lori Nix’s photo of a post-apocalyptic laundromat (shown below) under dreadful fluorescent light, the seats are identical to those at the “Coin Wash” in the vicinity of Dundas and Keele.  In fact everything is exactly right, except of course the obvious…

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Laundromat at Night by Lori Nix

What I liked about looking at these photographs was noticing the detail and how exacting and precise it is.  Lori Nix builds miniatures of scenes she comes across in her daily life and then she photographs them. (To learn how she does this click on the link.)

Lori Nix does not replicate reality.  In all her photographs something is off, really off.  Something has occurred.  Things will never be the same.

Fountain

Fountain by Lori Nix

What’s going on in Fountain, the art work shown above?  A spectacular public space has been vandalized and then abandoned entirely.  The bronze sculptures have deteriorated, maybe because of chemicals in the atmosphere, such as chlorine, sulfur, nitrogen oxides or maybe just rain. Vines have overtake graffiti and then all (hubris) is silenced by cold and ice.

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Bar by Lori Nix

Could this be a bar in rural Ontario on any Sunday morning?  It does look very familiar … except there is no hockey memorabilia.

Despite visions of catastrophe Lori Nix’s art work transmits a sense of enthusiasm for the places she creates.  With meticulous patience she commits these mundane arenas of everyday life to a suspended state of timelessness.

 

January 20, 2016

Report from New York

Following an afternoon in NYC and 9 days in British Virgin Islands (BVI) it is clear there is virtually no art in BVI.  New York, on the other hand, is stuffed with art. It kind of makes sense if you simply look out the window.

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Shown above is the view out the window in BVI.

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Shown above is the view out the window in New York.

In New York the radiators hiss and clang and strange cries rise from Second Avenue, four floors below.  It is a John Cage symphony here in this overheated loft and time to rush downstairs into the brittle cold and take a walk.

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There are two Lehmann Maupin galleries.  I dropped into the one on Chrystie Street.

Lehmann Maupin – Catherine Opie

It turns out Elizabeth Taylor was one of those women who exists with a tiny, precious dog on her lap. She was very close to her white, beribboned, silky, toy-like Maltese called Sugar.  Elizabeth Taylor’s affections, for animals, people and things are sumptuously revealed in an exhibition of photographs by Catherine Opie at the Lehmann Maupin .

The exhibition is called 700 Nimes Road, which was Elizabeth Taylor’s address in the glamorous Los Angeles neighbourhood known as Bel-Air.

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Above: Installation shot of 700 Nimes Road exhibition by Catherine Opie

The photographs have the ability to transport us to this hushed, rarefied retreat where the iconic actress spent her last years in violet tinted luxury. Catherine Obie had access to the home and belongings of Elizabeth Taylor.  Despite the fact that she never actually met Elizabeth Taylor the images and the “indirect portrait” they create are filled with tenderness and respectful reverence.

Below, an array of perfect sling back heels in assorted pastels, about size six, stand ready for the return of their owner as Fang strolls by.

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“Fang and Chanel” by Catherine Opie

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“The Shoe Closet” by Catherine Opie

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“The Quest for Japanese Beef” by Catherine Opie

The jewels are photographed as transcendent objects: sometimes glowing, floating, as if glimpsed in a dream-like, delirious haze.  Or as above, precious trinkets lovingly arranged.

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Photograph by Catherine Opie

Luxurious bags, luggage, sunglasses are maintained in impeccable order, ready for their owner to cast a lovely violet-eyed glance their way.  But sadly, Elizabeth Taylor, never returned to 700 Nimes Road. When Catherine Opie began her project in 2010 Elizabeth Taylor was hospitalized and died before it was completed.

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Elizabeth Taylor, February 27, 1932 – March 23, 2011

The New Museum – Cheryl Donegan

Cheryl Donegan is carrying out a four-month residency at the New Museum. To fill up this immense period of time Cheryl Donegan started a newspaper, opened a store filled with objects she has made and/or repurposed, created an online retail operation of sorts, is planning a fashion show for the Museum in April and continually carries out performances, videos and create more objects.  Simultaneously, a selection of her paintings, other works on paper, objects and videos work together to create a more conventional exhibition of the work of this artist at the Museum.

The exhibition is called Scenes and Commercials.

Looking at this work gives me the sense that Cheryl Donegan does not have much interest in tradition and yet the paintings are successful in a traditional sense. They are fun and surprising to look at and create a hectic feeling of rushing and recklessness.

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Paintings by Cheryl Donegan

Cheryl Donegan is like the girl next door. She is down-to-earth, hard working and a straight shooter. She uses plaid, Kelly green and cardboard. She is earnest and curious about marketing and commerce.

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Details from Concept Store by Cheryl Donegan

The idea of compression is one that Cheryl Donegan frequently references. This concept apparently has an idiosyncratic significance as she observed the gradual flattening of consumer electronics and extends its as a metaphor for society. She speaks about a hovering space of thin layers.  Maybe its about the way objects and ideas are quickly used up and disposed of in our mediated world.  Since nothing has any depth or substance, we need to only glance at it and move on.  Social media, retail items, relationships, events and disasters around the world, beliefs, emotions are all equally shallow, feckless, consumable.

What I really liked about Cheryl Donegan’s work is that she doesn’t let all this diminishment of all things get her down.  She seems to embrace the frantic pace of now and injects a joyful absurdity into it.  Below is a still from a videotaped performance by Cheryl Donegan in which she paints her ass green and creates shamrock prints.

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Still from video by Cheryl Donegan

80WSE – Language of the Birds: Occult and Art

Magic, Alchemy, Astrology, Kabbalah, Spirituality, spells, Divination, extra sensory perception, trance, Wicca, tarot cards, Kenneth Anger: this exhibition covers the range occult practice and imagery.  The title, Language of the Birds, refers to a particular mode of communication available to the initiated. 

The exhibition coincides with The Occult Humanities Conference 2016:
Contemporary Art and Scholarship on the Esoteric Traditions.

Although I do occasionally check my horoscope in the newspaper the occult is something I know nothing about.  I was looking for some context but it was not there.  Is there a current rising interest in these themes?  What’s the connection between the paranormal and the normal?  Why now?  It’s not really clear.

The curator, Pam Grossman, a teacher of magical practice and history, has divided the numerous works into rooms titled Cosmos, Spirits, Practitioner, Alter, Spells.  Many phantasmagorical things and images are displayed.

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Sirens by Kiki Smith

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Touch by Valerie Hammond

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Astrological Ouroboros by Paul Laffoley

Could be its all about plumbing the depths of puny human understanding or misunderstanding?

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Pomba-gira Maria Mulambo – Grande Circulo de Pontos Riscado [Whirling Dove Maria Mulambo – Great Circle of Scratched Points] by Barry William Hale

I could almost smell the incense burning.

January 7, 2016

These days looking at art means traversing the city and facing down the sea of red tail lights in every west bound artery.  Is all this frantic activity due to the mild winter and El Nino?  No!  It was explained to me that the reason it is so hard to get around by car in Toronto these days is because the streets are clogged with swarms of UberX drivers.  Endlessly cruising up and down Queen Street, they will not go home.  They need the money.

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The subject of ‘sex and women’ is fraught with a legion of competing agendas, all the time and everywhere.  It’s kind of comforting to know that in a world where women can be stoned to death for sexual transgression, in this country artists (men and women) are free to explore pretty much any sexual subject matter they can come up with.  One option is the light touch and the glance of the coquette.  Sexish, the title of the (all female) group show at Birch Contemporary largely takes this approach, and like many of the artworks in the exhibition, the title is a bit, well, coy.

Images of tightly crossed knees by Maryanne Casasanta  or flouncy skirts by Cathy Daley read as girlish, coltish, kittenish.  Sex seems a long way off…although there are hints.

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Artwork by Maryanne Casasanta

Two artworks by Cathy Daley

Using hand stitched embroidery on lovely found fabrics Orly Cogan depicts the eroticized domestic realm where home is a place to relax and get high.

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“Saturday” by Orly Cogan

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“Mirror Mirror” by Orly Cogan

Other artists in the show take on S&M imagery.   Fresh, original paintings by Ilona Szalay have a very contemporary feel, although they reference what seems to be a reenactment of Victorian prurience.

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“Girl and Graffiti” by Ilona Szalay

Janet Werner‘s painting of the back of woman’s head transmits a subtle shock.  First we examine the voluptuous coiffure and then the freakishly attenuated neck and damaged ear.  What happened here?

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“Jo” by Janet Werner

Ceramic pieces by Julie Moon have a way of getting to the core of female attributes in a primal way.  I liked the sense of ambiguity in this artist’s work.  Hovering between nightmare and goddess the piece shown below holds a potent sexual charge.

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“Flesh Pile (Side Pony)” by Julie Moon

In another ceramic piece with Surrealist antecedents, Julie Moon creates fascinating tension as delicate limbs emerge from a glutinous heap.  Ruffles and a tender blue colour add to the horrifying sense of femininity caught in a grotesque trap.

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 “Bloomers” by Julie Moon

As the Sexish exhibition notes attest ideas about women and sexuality are “continuously evolving and unresolved.”  Here the clamorous sex/women issues dominating the headlines are sidestepped or ignored and it makes for a refreshing change.

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Taylor Swift’s Girl Squad

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University of Oregon protest

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Caitlyn Jenner in LA

 

 

 

 

November 30, 2015

Koffler Gallery – Isabel Rocamora

Yesterday was the last chance to see the Isabel Rocamora show – titled Troubled Histories, Ecstatic Solitudes – at the Koffler Gallery.  The exhibit, dominated by three large-scale video projections, opened way back on September 17, and it is utterly prescient in terms of its grave, unflinching tone and the subject matter it contains.

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Still from Body of War by Isabel Rocamora

In Body of War Isabel Rocamora probes the phenomenon of close-up brutality.  In an extended sequence the camera warily circles a fight to the death between two anonymous soldiers.  Staged on a barren runway beneath grey skies, this grim, slow battle confusingly becomes a kind of homoerotic dance from which there is no escape.  A soundtrack of medieval-like, choral chanting heightens the sense of ritual and archetype in this piece. Eventually a victor is left standing, panting and jubilant, and the camera turns away to slowly penetrate the opening of a nearby bunker.  The desultory movement toward darkness creates a truly horrifying moment.

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Stills from Horizon of Exile by Isabel Rocamora

In Horizon of Exile, a two channel video piece, snippets of monologue hint at the reasons a women must leave her home and set off into a barren, windswept desert.  Against an elegiac score and relentless wind, two women then perform a mesmerizing rolling dance, where they are carried like flotsam across a glittering salt flat in a God forsaken plain somewhere.

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Stills from Faith by Isabel Rocamora

An Orthodox Jew, a Greek Orthodox Christian and a Sunni Muslim are all engaged in prayer in Isabella Rocamora’s three channel loop called Faith.  Filmed in a craggy desert that reads “holy land” they are united in ancient transcendent practices.  The religious trappings – the robes, the gestures, the pious heavenward gazes, the fervent ritualized murmuring – are remarkably alike.  In fact not much is separating these men of God from one another, and yet, Isabel Rocamora seems to be saying, the superficial similarities are meaningless.  Tradition is terminally unique.

I really liked seeing this show: The stark graphic power, the rich soundscapes, the choreography of the camera and the subjects, and the potent imagery.  Ultimately the work struck me as very dark: The subjects are all unable to break out of age old oppression, each is condemned to endlessly repeat the rituals of the past and passively accept their fate.

Typology – Nicolas Fleming

Fortunately, it is possible to go shopping for handmade items on the third floor of Artspace Youngplace otherwise I would not have trekked upstairs and come across the tiny gallery called Typology.

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Installation shot of Moving Right Along by Nicolas Fleming

An installation by Nicholas Fleming called Moving Right Along is about to close.  I’m glad I caught this show.

Nicholas Fleming must be a very energetic guy.  He has built an entire room within the gallery, except that it is all delightfully backwards so that drywall, spackling paste, chipboard and insulation foam are on display and the smooth, white gallery walls with crisp corners and subtle lighting are hidden.  It’s kind of like putting a dress on inside out.

An unmistakable Home Depot fragrance wafts into the hallway from Typology.

I really liked looking at the “fountain” in the center of the space.  It has ghastly, poisonous look to it.  Something toxic appears to be weeping from the hardened foam to create a pool, coated in noxious sheen, at its base.

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Installation shots of Moving Right Along by Nicolas Fleming

No doubt Nicholas Fleming allies himself with Minimalism, Arte Povera and various Conceptual Art branches emerging in the 1970s but what is so interesting about this show to me is the exotic beauty created by these humble materials which leads to the whole idea of the infrastructure of our society and how it is hidden and denied and avoided, with perilous consequences.