September 30, 2019 § Leave a comment
After learning their ancestors were adversaries, AA Bronson and Adrian Stimson explore what it means to personally reconcile Canada’s colonial legacy
A PUBLIC APOLOGY TO SIKSIKA NATION by AA Bronson and IINI SOOKUMAPII: GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? by Adrian Stimson as part of TORONTO BIENNIAL OF ART Photo: Samuel Engelking
The paths of history can make for improbable crossroads in the present.
Take the case of AA Bronson and Adrian Stimson. The artists have a lot in common – both are queer and use performative personas in their practices. But the two discovered they had a deeper connection: the historical antagonism of their ancestors.
Bronson’s great-grandfather, the Reverend John William Tims, was an Anglican missionary from England who worked to colonize Siksika Nation, the territorial home where Stimson lives in Alberta. Bronson felt he could acknowledge this past with an apology. Seeking a connection with the Siksika people led him to Stimson, a meeting that proved serendipitous. In 1886, Tims founded the Old Sun Boarding School for Boys. The residential school was named after Stimson’s great-grandfather, a chief of the Siksika Nation, part of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Western Canada.
In a phone interview from his home, not far from the grounds of the now-shuttered school, Stimson agrees the coincidence is uncanny. “The Blackfoot believe in a higher power. It does give you the feeling that larger forces are at work.”
This encounter led to three years of meetings and discussion that is now coming to a head in Toronto. In response to their shared history, the artists have made dual works that debuted at the Toronto Biennial of Art. As part of their work, Bronson also apologized to Stimson in two performances on the exhibition’s opening days (September 20 & 21).
Addressing Stimson, the Siksika Elders and biennial visitors, Bronson gave a relaxed, measured and sometimes emotional performance of his text. Wearing ceremonial dress, Stimson noted in his introductory remarks that all members of the Siksika delegation present were residential school survivors. After thanking Bronson, saying, “We accept your apology,” Stimson went on to personally shake hands with and thank all members of the audience. This open-hearted gesture powerfully underlined the emotional gravity of the moment.
It’s one of the more high-profile projects happening as part of the mega-art event, which organizers hope will eventually develop a larger international pull, similar to the Toronto International Film Festival. There’s a special focus on venues located close to the waterfront, giving substance to the theme “What does it mean to be in relation?,” which encompasses how the city relates to the body of water at its doorstep.
Biennial senior curator Candice Hopkins, a member of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation in the Yukon, originally introduced the men in 2016. “AA is moving into difficult territory in a way I haven’t quite seen before,” she says. “[The project] is not about the past, but setting a relationship for the future.”
By working together, she adds, the artists “bring a personal dimension to ideas of reconciliation.”
Adrian Stimson’s installation Iini Sookumpaii: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? Photo: Samuel Engelking
To date, conversations around reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have primarily focused on government and institutional culpability. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in 2015 and this year’s final report by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls make clear the devastating and ongoing impacts of colonization on Indigenous people.
During a trip to Winnipeg in 2010, Hopkins had the opportunity to attend the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings. “I was struck at the time by how much emotional labour was put onto the backs of those who testified,” she recalls.
With A Public Apology To Siksika Nation, Bronson and Stimson are creating the conditions for a cultural reckoning: reconciliation in Canada is a shared responsibility.
Stimson expresses a similar idea about what the possible outcome of his work with Bronson could be. “To make change is to recognize that history. It’s a first step,” he says.
The two men first met in person under the glare of TV cameras while filming the CBC Arts documentary show In The Making. In an episode profiling Stimson’s work, the artists had dinner at his home with friends and elders from the Siksika reserve, some of whom are residential school survivors. Despite the initial awkwardness, Stimson describes the meeting as a “seamless first step in what would become three years of constant discussion.
“It was a generative process,” he adds. “Artists have their way of doing things.”
In the CBC show, he talks about their working relationship as part of a wider process of “rebuilding our histories together.” It’s not that Indigenous people just want settler Canadians to apologize, Stimson emphasizes. Rather, the simple request is being made that this historical legacy is acknowledged, so that the country as a whole can move forward together. These are the next steps that lie beyond artistic and ceremonial gestures.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission created a public dimension for the residential schools,” says Hopkins. “The land acknowledgments [that now precede most cultural events] came out of the TRC. But I want to see how this becomes actionable.”
A Governor General’s Award recipient in 2018, Stimson regularly exhibits in Toronto and has often performed as Buffalo Boy, a drag alter ego that takes a camp approach to macho stereotypes. The performance subverts the more threatening parts of masculinity to explore painful aspects of the past, for himself and his people.
Bronson, born in Vancouver and now based in Berlin, is a legendary artist whose career cuts a wide swath through the international art world. Starting out as a founding member of the renowned Toronto artist group General Idea in the 70s and 80s, the 73-year-old is a self-styled art shaman and healer. He founded the New York and Los Angeles Art Book Fairs, and was executive director of NYC art bookstore Printed Matter, a counterpart to Toronto’s Art Metropole, which General Idea founded in 1974.
General Idea had a kind of camp composite identity, a three-person art group (Bronson is the sole surviving member) known for arch commentary on the workings of their own aspirations for glamour and success.
Neither man’s artistic persona played a role in the apology at the Biennial. For this performance, Bronson knew he had “to strip down to his naked self.
“Making myself exposed for the sake of the apology was much harder to do than it would be if I was simply working in character,” he says. “The General Idea persona was embedded in a narrative.”
Self-mythologizing their lives as artists was a major early focus for General Idea. To make the apology, Bronson opted for what he calls a “declamatory approach.” It’s a different artistic tradition, one reserved for expressions of sincerity, as opposed to the ironic commentary that infused his earliest work.
Bronson’s work on this apology began when he was a child. “I have been hurtling towards this project for the last seven decades,” he writes in the opening sentence of A Public Apology To Siksika Nation, 14,000 copies of which are available as a free booklet at the main Biennial site on Lake Shore East.
In many ways, family legacy has shaped his existence. “I always planned to address this,” he says. In the text of his apology, Bronson writes: “We are a community of the living and the dead.”
“As a child, I felt the presence of spirits,” he explains. This continued into his adult life. “My intense experiences of spirit life were related to people who had died.”
His relatives passed down a story about an uprising against his great-grandfather on the Blackfoot reserve in 1895 that forced his ancestors to flee. On a 2015 visit to the archives in Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, Bronson discovered letters he had written to the museum in the 70s to request – unsuccessfully – documents about the uprising. At the time, his plan was to write a biography of Reverend Tims. He couldn’t confirm the uprising – it would remain hidden, mirroring the tendency among Canada’s official histories of settler relations with Indigenous people.
Adrian Stimson’s “response” to Bronson’s apology includes 68 photos of boys who attended the Old Sun residential school, which was named after his great-grandfather. Photo: Samuel Engelking
Stimson’s response (Bronson says their artistic partnership takes the form of a “call and response”) is a multifaceted installation that includes three large sculptures based on Blackfoot pictographs, a dining table set for 10 that features 10 small bronze bison sculpted by the artist. “Nine people were at the dinner where AA and I met,” he says. “I am adding the tenth setting for the ancestors.”
Also included are 68 photos taken from a family collection that feature boys who attended the Old Sun school. Used with permission, Stimson observes that the figures in these photos are “all our fathers from the Nation.”
Making tangible the connection between historical crimes and present political realities is part of the goal. Bronson describes the residential school practice of keeping children from their parents “very Trumpian.”
In his apology, the artist addresses an expansive range of people. Along with those on the Blackfoot Reserve who would have known and ultimately rebelled against Reverend Tims, Bronson addresses the people closest to him and his artistic collaborators. And he makes clear he also speaks to all political refugees, an acknowledgement that the colonial narrative continues in more ways than one: “the dispossessed and the abandoned… those who travelled across oceans but never made it to this safe haven of Canada.”
“When Bronson first reached out to me,” Stimson explains, “he was looking for someone to facilitate a connection with the Siksika Nation.”
Stimson describes himself as a “scout” reporting back to the Elders, and plans to arrange a private ceremony for Bronson to conduct his apology at the reserve.
Beyond merely “performing trauma,” Stimson sees Bronson as well-suited to the task, calling him “an agent of social change” because of the work he has done throughout his career as a representative of queer communities. General Idea is especially renowned for their activism during the AIDS crisis.
Noting that public discussion on Indigenous issues has taken steps forward in recent years, Bronson sees his participation at the Biennial as the beginning of a process. He does not simply want to perform an apology in front of an art audience. Asked about how he felt after the ceremony, Bronson said, “Having gone through it, I feel it is an ongoing process and I doubt I will have the real answer for some years.”
For his part, Stimson said “given the gravity of the apology” it needed to be him, and not his persona, who performed accepting it from Bronson. “The elders say ‘be humble, be generous,’” he says, adding that he is using the occasion to “put Buffalo Boy to bed,” as the logical conclusion of this phase of his work as an artist. “Every now and then Buffalo Boy has some sort of death, and then renewal,” he explains. “Putting him to bed lets us all have a little rest from his antics.”
Through art, the two men find a context that provides a useful – and non-confrontational – platform for people who are connected by past events to work through Canada’s cultural genocide and its continuing effects in the present.
Adrian Stimson’s “response” to Bronson’s apology includes 68 photos of boys who attended the Old Sun residential school, which was named after his great-grandfather. Photo: Samuel Engelking
“The apologies to the First Nations and Inuit peoples [by Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper, respectively] were important to the elders who were present. I can’t diminish that,” Stimson says. “But you need to walk the talk. What we are really looking for is systemic change.”
AA Bronson’s ancestors colonized Siksika Nation and were forced to flee in an uprising in 1895. Photo: Samuel Engelking
September 18, 2019 § Leave a comment
Including the inaugural Toronto Biennial of Art, Hito Steyerl at the AGO, Hajra Waheed at the Power Plant, Nuit Blanche and more
The upcoming art season is packed with interesting shows, but the biggest hype is around the newly hatched Toronto Biennial of Art, launching at multiple locations on September 21.
A staple in cities internationally (there are over 300 biennials globally), Toronto is a latecomer to the format of a large-scale international art show presented every other year. The curatorial team is led by Candice Hopkins, who was one of the curators for the Canadian effort at this year’s Venice Biennial, the granddaddy of the format (founded in 1895).
Complementing the Biennial is the 14th edition of Nuit Blanche. The always popular all-night event encompasses City Hall, Don Mills and Scarborough’s Civic and Town Centres (added last year), while offering an expanded program at Fort York that extends to the edge of Liberty Village.
Crowds who frequent Nuit Blanche will know what to do at the Biennial: venture out into the city to see it anew as it gets reframed and repurposed by artists’ works. Here is a list of our most-anticipated exhibitions for further art-going in the coming months.
Deanna Bowen, God Of Gods: A Canadian Play
At Art Museum at the University of Toronto (7 Hart House)
September 4-November 30
Black Canadian artist Bowen is renowned for using archival research to tell stories left out of official histories. For Hart House’s centennial celebrations, she reimagines Carroll Aikins’s play, originally staged there in 1922, which used Indigenous motifs to look at the horrors of war. Bowen has created a film that examines Aikins’s work through dialogue with Indigenous writers and artists.
Jay Isaac, Midnight Repairs / Ron Giii, Geometry Street
At Paul Petro Contemporary Art (980 Queen West)
September 6-October 5
These simultaneous shows of painting and drawing are by a mid-career and senior artist respectively. Isaac presents a suite of witty black-and-white paintings with urban themes. Much loved artist Giii is self-taught and known for drawings featuring a solitary figure on the page. Recently he surprised fans by branching out with the sparse geometric works presented in this show.
Olga Korper Gallery (17 Morrow)
September 7-October 5
Over the course of 30-odd years, Toronto artist Andison has refined her practice, which focuses on kinetic sculpture and installation. Whereas earlier work has an outright figurative emphasis, Andison more recently is making smart, minimalistic kinetic works that have no less relevance to the body as it is changed by an encounter with artworks.
Zalucky Contemporary (3044 Dundas West)
September 13-October 12
Based in Montreal, Tremblay has built up a thriving international painting career by making effortlessly cool-looking still life abstractions. For her second show with gallerist Juliana Zalucky, the artist is showing a series of works based on her visit to Arcosanti, an experimental eco-architectural community in Arizona.
Undomesticated, Mary Anne Barkhouse, Sandra Brewster, Erika DeFreitas, Lucy Howe, Nicolas Fleming and others
Koffler Gallery (180 Shaw)
September 18-November 17
This sprawling group show sheds light on how domestic lives are in an uneasy relationship with the natural world. Lucy Howe’s melting couches and other deformed furniture sculptures are typical of the ways artists are adept at making everyday things look unfamiliar. Nicolas Fleming adds an extra dimension of strange to this show through a rough-hewn immersive environment that frames the overall exhibition.
Toronto Biennial of Art, Maria Thereza Alves, Judy Chicago, Dana Claxton, Shezad Dawood, Naufus Ramírez Figueroa, Kapwani Kiwanga, and Curtis Talwst Santiago and others
259 Lake Shore East and other locations
September 21-December 1
This milestone art event for the city features a stellar international lineup of artists and an extensive slate of public programs. All events are free, spanning numerous venues – including Riverdale Park and a film program presented at the Cinesphere – along with the show’s massive main venue on Lake Shore East. How we live “in relation” (and also out of sync) is the show’s overarching theme. On view is a procession featuring visiting youth artists from Cape Dorset, Nunavut as well as their banners, costumes and sculptures.
Hajra Waheed, Hold Everything Dear
The Power Plant (231 Queens Quay West)
September 21-January 5
The widely shown multidisciplinary Montreal artist (who is also part of the Biennial) has created an installation that includes 100 small works on paper. Through the intimacy of handmade details, Waheed investigates complex themes like geopolitics and surveillance. These preoccupations, derived in part from a childhood spent in a gated compound in Saudi Arabia, speak to how the complexity of the contemporary world gets filtered through personal experience.
Nuit Blanche, Daniel Arsham, Esmaa Mohamoud, Ghost Atelier, Javid Jah, Simin Keramati, Kent Monkman, Sophia Oppel, Ebony G. Patterson and others
Nathan Phillips Square, Scarborough Civic Centre and other locations
Given the massive crowd that enjoyed the Raptors’ victory parade, it’s fitting that the spirit of that event continues at Nuit Blanche. Artists Bryan Espiritu and Esmaa Mohamoud unveil their sculpture commemorating the team’s 25th anniversary. Other highlights include Daniel Arsham’s luminous monochrome Zen Garden at City Hall, and Drake collaborator Director X, who offers a sequel to his landmark work about environmental destruction from Nuit Blanche in 2016. Presented at the Ontario Science Centre, the installation is on view until January 5.
Hito Steyerl, This Is The Future
Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West)
October 24-February 23
The AGO hosts celebrated German artist, filmmaker and writer’s first solo show in Canada. Steyerl is known for looking at the production and circulation of images as a way to tell a story about wider issues of global politics, technology and economics. Three of her large-scale works are featured, including HellYeahWeFuckDie (2016), a standout at the Skulptur Projekte Münster 2017. Steyerl chats with critic Brian Droitcour on October 23.
Maryse Larivière, Under the Cave of Winds
Gallery 44 (401 Richmond #120)
November 1-December 14
The always inventive Larivière has a multi-faceted practice that includes sculpture, collage, performance and writing. For this exhibition, she presents a black-and-white 16mm film featuring a female protagonist held captive at a remote island location. A follow-up to a novel she wrote with the same theme, Larivière sees such scenarios as an analogy for her role as an artist.
July 26, 2019 § Leave a comment
The artist, curator and trailblazing Queen West gallerist created the world she wanted to live in
JULY 22, 2019
The death of gallerist Katharine Mulherin is a hard blow for Toronto’s art community. Beloved and highly respected, Mulherin was central to building the vibrant art ecosystem the city enjoys today. Struggling with depression in recent years, Mulherin took her own life last week at age 54, her son Jasper Mulherin confirmed in a Facebook post. The loss has been widely mourned on social media – and at an informal gathering of friends on July 16 at the site of one of her former galleries at Queen and Dovercourt. Over the years she had many.
Mulherin created the world she wanted to live in. A habitual gallery-maker, she founded a stream of them, first in the late 90s in Toronto, then in New York and Los Angeles. Making spaces was at the heart of her practice. She also worked and showed as an artist, studying art first in New Brunswick, where she was born, and then in Quebec City. Her move to Toronto in 1988 was accompanied by a shift to curating. She graduated from the criticism and curatorial practice at the Ontario College of Art and Design in 1998, a time when the profession was just becoming formalized as a career.
Things were different when Mulherin was starting out. In a 2001 cover-story interview with NOW, she said there was a simple secret to running three galleries simultaneously while also being single mother to a small child: “Cheap rent.” More than a wisecrack, this was a strategy. Work with what you got – and live behind the store, or above it, which Mulherin did at a number of locations, along with her young son, Jasper. She opened BUSgallery in 1998, then quickly went on to create 1080BUS, also on Queen West and, at the invitation of OCAD, the School BUS project space.
In the NOW interview Mulherin cited an abundance of younger artists she wanted to show as the reason for her growing empire. This was the emerging Toronto scene she played a key role in nurturing.
Countless artists benefited from Mulherin’s discerning curatorial eye, with shows at her gallery leading to recognition elsewhere. A random sampling includes Kris Knight, Sojourner Truth Parsons, Elaine Stocki and Balint Zsako, who calls Mulherin “magnetic.” Her “mix of wit, intelligence and enthusiasm made her like nobody else in Toronto,” he says.
“Katharine invented communities, programs and collectors,” notes painter Margaux Williamson, who showed with Mulherin in Toronto and New York. “The stakes were high, but they were not typical, so there was so much more room to move.”
Art collector Paul Bain remembers Mulherin as “kind, down-to-earth and open,” noting that’s not always the case in the art world. Bain bought his first artwork from Mulherin, who made it easy for people to collect. “Working with her was like a process of discovering things together,” he recalls. “Like a partnership.”
Over 20 years, Mulherin created many spaces, including Board of Directors, KMLA, Katharine Mulherin’s Sideshow, No Show Exhibits, Mulherin Pollard Projects, Mulherin New York, No Foundation, New Multiples and Mulherin Toronto. The range of initiatives spoke to her entrepreneurial drive and an ad hoc approach, with the general temper of the times, budgets and affordability dictating the terms of each project.
Given the global scale of the real estate affordability problem, the term “gentrification” might now seem like an outdated notion. Regardless, Mulherin’s gallery practice ran on the rhythms of gentrification. She was intimately acquainted with the process, moving into overlooked neighbourhoods like West Queen West. “Before the Drake and the taco shops,” Bain notes.
On Queen West, Mulherin would find a clientele in the area’s new condo dwellers, who would go on to take over and transform the neighborhood, making it much less affordable. But art always exists in this uneasy symbiosis between patrons and artists. All credit goes to Mulherin for the ingenuity she brought to this balancing act for so long.
The artist Annie MacDonell had her first exhibition with Mulherin after graduating from Ryerson University in 2000. She went on to show with her for almost 15 years. “I always thought of her as someone who was unstoppable, as someone who would keep on reinventing herself and the world around her for a long time to come,” she says. “That’s part of what makes it so hard to lose her.”
Mulherin is survived by her sons Jasper and Satchel, her husband Daniel “Paco” Paquette, sisters Jennifer and Erin and brother Shawn. A celebration of her life will take place at the Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen West) on August 2 from 4 pm to 10 pm.
A GoFundMe page to cover immediate and ongoing expenses for her family has also been set up.
February 19, 2019 § Leave a comment
During a visit to Toronto, Guatemalan artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa summons the greater prairie-chicken and passenger pigeon to provoke a change in mindset
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER FEBRUARY 19, 2019
Seances are boring in the way meditating is boring. You have to relax and let yourself sink into the moment. This requires letting go of things, including everyday worries and the non-stop, tyrannical pull of our electronic devices.
Guatemalan artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, visiting the city for the exhibition How To Breath Forever at OCAD’s Onsite Gallery, himself used the b-word when talking about his experience with seances.
The internationally shown and very busy artist (he will also be participating in the inaugural Toronto Biennial of Art this fall) introduced the event by talking about his own history with this type of spiritualism, which was in vogue over a century ago. In Canada, such enthusiasts famously included William Lyon Mackenzie King, prime minister for the first half of the 20th century, who used mediums to get advice from his dead mother.
The soft-spoken Ramírez-Figueroa talked about being an art student at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University and attending seances with local spiritualist practitioners. “This was a way for me to have some communion with other Latin Americans because my school was pretty white,” he says.
He did this again when going to art school in Chicago. He experiments with the form in his art practice, but gives it a different focus. At the seance he conducted on a chilly Wednesday evening in Toronto, the goal was to contact not people, but extinct species of birds from the local area.
Wearing white toques to keep out bad spirits, 18 people held hands around a large table and tried their luck at contacting the beyond. Since spirits presumably stay close to the area where they once lived, the artist researched a number of extinct birds the seance might summon. Were the greater prairie-chicken, the Eskimo curlew and passenger pigeon haunting our gathering? It’s hard to say.
The former two birds were declared extirpated (gone from the area but still living elsewhere on earth) from Ontario within the last decade or so, while the passenger pigeon was notoriously hunted to extinction over 100 years ago.
Whether their spirits visited the Onsite Gallery on this particular occasion was somewhat beside the point, as Ramírez-Figueroa made clear in conversation after the event. The product of a non-religious upbringing, the artist saw his own spiritual investigations as mostly a kind of rebellion.
Calling the seance an exercise, he said, “I don’t think I’m guiding it too much but it does become a kind of guided visualization.” He cited the tradition of hippie idealism in British Columbia, where he lived from ages 12 to 26, as influencing this part of his practice. The grandeur of the landscape in B.C. has a spiritual power, though his interest is more in how we typically fail to connect with the natural world.
“You can live close to nature and ignore it at the same time,” he noted.
While at Emily Carr, for example, he said he “lived near the ocean but never looked at it.” Seances are a form of group projection, and Ramírez-Figueroa feels that humans tend to project things onto nature instead of seeing it for what it is.
For those at the seance who had never given much thought to extinct species in Toronto, it was a chance to contemplate what gets lost in the incessant busyness of contemporary life. There is a cost to never getting bored. “This is the reality we are all facing: mass extinction,” Ramírez-Figueroa says. “And we don’t even notice.”
So maybe we do need a medium, as opposed to constant electronic communication, to get back in touch with ourselves and our urgent predicament.
Ramírez-Figueroa is also preparing to make a work about extinct species in Lithuania for an upcoming biennial in that country. He feels there is a higher level of concern around looming environmental catastrophe there than in Canada. Perhaps part of the problem is that Canadians are fooled by their own PR. He talked about the dominance of Canadian gold mining in Guatemala.
“It’s a really small country and the damage it does is substantial,” he explained.
Upwards of 75 per cent of mining companies globally are based in Canada. The industry is massively destructive, but Canadians are only minimally aware of this. We’re happy to go on seeing ourselves as the good guy. Closer to home, oil sands workers are required to sign waivers preventing them from speaking about any form of environmental destruction they witness as a result of this now largely unprofitable form of resource extraction.
There is a lesson in the fragile stirrings that occurred during the seance. In the gentlest terms, Ramírez-Figueroa’s seances with extinct species are a form of collective action. The exercise suggests we need a new form of collective belief to avert humanity’s extinction.
Instead we are participating in a mass delusion of denial.
Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, “Seance for Extinct Species of Birds,” part of HOW TO BREATHE FOREVER at Onsite Gallery (199 Richmond West). ocadu.ca. January 16 – April 14, 2019.
January 29, 2019 § Leave a comment
The kinds of photos that are popular on Instagram are well represented in True To The Eyes, an exhibition of one of Canada’s most important collections
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER
JANUARY 29, 2019
Instagram is often considered the “good” social media platform. It is a place for photo sharing and largely free of the fake news and sheer trashiness found on Facebook and Twitter.
There are, however, some ironies to Instagram’s pure-hearted dedication to the photograph. As it is practiced today, photography – i.e., taking snaps with our phone cameras – is digital and, as such, aided by in-camera artificial intelligence. Because of the adjustments AI makes, like sharpening blurs or adding light to dark corners, digital images have technically little in common with the analogue photography of the last century. This tech-aided evolution away from the original medium will continue, eventually to the point where image-making becomes something closer to illustration.
And yet the photos we take are completely influenced by inherited ideas about what makes a good picture – and what’s worth photographing. The categories or genres of photos that dominate today can all be seen in the Ryerson Image Centre’s new exhibition, True To The Eyes. Selected from one of the largest and most important photography collections in Canada, amassed by Toronto’s Howard and Carole Tanenbaum, the 200-plus photos on view span over 100 years and an eclectic range of styles, providing viewers with an excellent survey of the medium’s development to date.
Here are five photos from the exhibition that wouldn’t look out of place in your feed.
When it debuted in 1837, photo technology was still almost 50 years away from the invention of the hand-held camera. Access to the medium required a visit to a professional, with baby pics being among the most popular reasons for taking the trip. Long exposure times also meant strategies were needed for keeping your subject still, such as this posing of a child on a rocking horse.
As this picture taken by Toronto’s Rafael Goldchain shows, portrait photography always strives for a measure of idealization – in this case, in the image of the Virgin Mary. Today, in-phone digital photography has made the camera so accessible that a whole new genre of photo-taking has been invented: the selfie, the most ubiquitous form of vernacular photography, and one unique to the 21st century.
Attempts to capture nature at its most sublime is a perennial ambition of art. As seen in this photo, Niagara Falls is a favourite local subject because it is perfectly photogenic. The English idea of “the picturesque” tried to teach the best way to compose a picture out of the raw material of landscape. This tradition continues today in the beautiful sunsets and breathtaking mountain shots we choose to share and like on social media.
Landscape and portrait photography come together in the vacation shot. Examples in the Tanenbaum collection date from the time when photographers at scenic locations took your portrait for you. In 2019, social media influencers burnish their brand by art-directing their selfies in far-flung locations. Proof that you were there is still the abiding motive for this type of picture-making.
The shoot-from-the-hip style of documentary photograph sacrifices compositional perfection for immediacy – the fabled “decisive moment” taken by 20th-century greats like Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. As well, street photography has long had a sociological bent. Lewis Hine, an American sociologist working in the early 1900s, took photographs as a way to advocate for social reform. This use of the camera as a form of witness now arguably lives on in, and is much debased by, the contemporary voyeurism of the viral video.
TRUE TO THE EYES: THE HOWARD AND CAROLE TANENBAUM PHOTOGRAPHY COLLECTION at Ryerson Image Centre (33 Gould), January 23-April 7. Free. ryersonimagecentre.ca.
January 4, 2019 § Leave a comment
Look out for the Toronto Biennial of Art and exhibitions featuring work by Brian Jungen, Chantal Akerman, Carrie Mae Weems and Daniel Arsham
If last year is anything to go by, 2019 promises more social media exodus and a world slightly less obsessed with connected devices. Art galleries offer a good alternative. Instead of the light emitting from the mobile or computer screen, light therapy as art is on offer. And come September, Toronto gets the art biennial it has long been waiting for, featuring local and international artists at venues adjacent to Lake Ontario.
VAJIKO CHACHKHIANI: THEY KEPT SHADOWS QUIET
Scrap Metal Gallery, October 11, 2018-March 30, 2019
The first solo show in North America by the young Georgian artist is the most ambitious exhibition staged to date by this private gallery. It features a number of works, including a specially built “inverted” immigration checkpoints. Using two way mirrors in reverse direction, visitors can surveil the occupants of the booths, which are manned by actors every Saturday from 1-4 pm for the duration of the show.
SANAZ MAZINANI: LIGHT TIMES
Stephen Bulger Gallery, January 12-February 23
Known for her large-scale mosaic works embedded with political content, Mazinani returns to her hometown for this back-to-basics study of photography. Camera-less photos (i.e., light exposed to photosensitive paper) form the basis of this show – but Mazinani’s larger agenda is revealing the manipulations, framing and cropping that create photographic “truth.”
TRUE TO THE EYES: THE HOWARD AND CAROLE TANENBAUM PHOTOGRAPHY COLLECTION
Ryerson Image Centre, January 23-April 7
A presentation of over 200 works from the Toronto philanthropists’ private collection. The sheer range and eclecticism of the photos on view – including Brassaï, vernacular works, Diane Arbus and Edward Burtynsky – offers insight into how genres within the medium have evolved. A useful point of reference for photography’s expanded digital life today.
JAAN POLDAAS: A COLOURFUL LIFE
Birch Contemporary, February 7-March 2
This is a memorial exhibition for the Swedish-born Toronto-based artist who died in October. Poldaas made vibrant, hard-edged abstract paintings, working within set rules he imposed on his practice such as using primary colours and the colour grey in differing shades. This framework allowed him to discover constant variation in composition throughout his career.
LIGHT THERAPY &
MOCA, November 28-April 30/ MOCA, February 14-April 14
Here are two good reasons to visit MOCA’s new location. Slovenian artist Šušteršič presents a light therapy room as part of the museum’s interest in exploring the role galleries play in supporting well-being. Visitors who become MOCA members can also book it for private sessions. Filmmaker Akerman, who died in 2015, was one of Europe’s foremost auteurs of the last 50 years. While many of her films have screened in Toronto, MOCA is hosting the first museum presentation of her installation work.
CARRIE MAE WEEMS: HEAVE
Art Museum at University of Toronto, CONTACT Photography Festival and three public sites, May 3-July 13
Part of this year’s Contact Photography Festival, this show marks the first solo exhibition in Canada by this important African-American artist. Weems is known for her photo-based installations that incorporate film, daguerreotypes, textiles and period-specific dress. Her tableaux reflect on how power functions in society, in part by making viewers aware of the constructed nature of photography.
Art Gallery of Ontario, June 20-August 25
A solo exhibition by the celebrated West Coast artist touches down at the AGO this summer. Jungen is known for remaking everyday items, like Nike shoes or plastic lawn chairs, into powerful sculptural works. The artist’s always inventive refashionings often reference his Indigenous heritage. His use of mass-produced materials also critiques the conventions of museum display and the value of the objects collected therein.
Cooper Cole Gallery, September TBA
The New Zealand-born artist’s debut solo show will feature beguiling works that are part sculpture, part installation. Working with ceramics, bricks, glass and found materials like pebbles and other detritus, she often uses the floor and other overlooked parts of the gallery to subtly shift visitor experience – as well as the concept of what can be art.
TORONTO BIENNIAL OF ART
Various venues on Lake Ontario, opens September 21
Biennials are the lingua franca of the international art world and Toronto is long overdue to host its own. This 90-day event is helmed by Candice Hopkins and Tairone Bastien, two smart, experienced curators who have announced a theme focused on the history embedded in the city’s waterfront – the site of settlement, trade and Indigenous histories. Featured artists include Althea Thauberger, Shezad Dawood and Syrus Marcus Ware.
Various venues, October 5
The city’s all-night public art event again includes venues in Scarborough and adds first-time locations Fort York and the Garrison Common. Nathan Phillips Square will host an installation by Daniel Arsham. Few details are available, but given he works with meta-architecture firm Snarkitecture, it’s a good bet the New York artist’s piece will be big and involve the colour white. The deadline for artists to submit proposals for the Open Call section is February 4. 11 art exhibitions to be excited about in 2019
January 4, 2019 § Leave a comment
Historical legacies and Toronto’s changing landscape were major themes in galleries and in public art works this year
DECEMBER 3, 2018
Toronto is growing by the square metre, with buildings popping up everywhere. The city’s art scene is also changing and, in some cases, responding.
In 2018, all-night art event Nuit Blanche extended to Scarborough and Don Mills. Fighting condo glut, artists are building spaces in overlooked corners and raising voices against the threat of Toronto becoming homogenized for the rich.
Thinking about the urban landscape is second nature in a profession in which space is a core element. That’s one reason arts organizations here and across Canada are drawing attention to the contested status of the land beneath our feet. Land acknowledgments of First Nations territorial rights preceding art events have become common. This year saw Canadian art galleries cited internationally for changing the terms under which Indigenous art is exhibited. At the same time, one of the city’s leading curators, the AGO’s Wanda Nanibush, started a conversation to get arts professionals to better understand how to do it right.
With this attention to historical legacy, and commitment to reasoned dialogue, the art world increasingly feels like a realm more thoughtful and separate from wider public spheres. Artist-led dialogue contrasts strikingly with conniving public figures like Premier Doug Ford, who emulate the worst tendencies of our U.S. neighbours. Toronto artists are fighting back in the best way they know how. By making art and putting on shows – some of it explicitly in protest.
1. Ibrahim Mahama, Radical Histories, 2012-2018, Nathan Phillips Square (September 29)
For Nuit Blanche, the Ghanaian artist transformed the pedestal ramp of City Hall by wrapping it in a patchwork curtain of jute fabric that had previously been used in trade of cocoa, coffee and charcoal. A thrilling, instantly readable monument to labour, colonialism and the hard truths of commerce.
2. The Work Of Wind: Air, Land, Sea, Blackwood Gallery, Mississauga (September 14-23)
This massive art project in Mississauga’s Southdown Industrial Area featured 13 outdoor installations that visitors could tour using a specially commissioned MiWay bus. Many of the works captured the event’s theme of stewardship in the face of environmental crisis, while remaining playful. A show highlight was Tomás Saraceno’s giant walk-in air balloon made from thousands of plastic bags.
3. Rebecca Belmore: Facing The Monumental, Art Gallery of Ontario (July 12-October 21)
For those who saw Belmore’s excellent 2014 show at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, her AGO exhibition was a revelation. This show featured a different but equally compelling range of works. Her monumental stack of shopping carts packed with fresh clay offered a concise statement about Indigenous dispossession. Just one of many works on view that combined critique of social and power structures with strong emotional impact.Expand
4. GTA, Gentrification Tax, Trinity Bellwoods Park (February 25); Public Studio (June 1-July 30)
GTA stands for Gentrification Tax Action, an ad hoc artist group who – in different combinations of people – have made activist art since the 90s. Via a temporary billboard installation in Trinity Bellwoods Park and poster project, GTA proposed a practical solution to Toronto’s gentrification problem: a tax on real estate speculation, with the money redirected to affordable housing. Their work added much-needed nuance to the conversation around the city’s affordable housing crisis.
5. Shannon Bool, Bomb. Shell., Daniel Faria Gallery (November 1-January 12)
Canada produces a lot of strong artists. Bool is a contender for one of the best. Her stunning photo collages and tapestries in this show combine the work of modernist giants like Le Corbusier with vintage postcards of nude Algerian women, whom the architect also made sketches of in his off hours. A deft exposé of Orientalism and the darker underpinnings of modernism.
6. Shelley Niro, Ryerson Image Centre (April 28-August 5)
This was a welcome survey show for the 2017 Scotiabank Photography Award winner. Niro is skilled at bringing humour to dark subject matter like the decimation of her Indigenous ancestors by white settlers in Canada. The preference for comedy and a light touch on view in this exhibition made clear her connection to the sophisticated craft-based work of artists like General Idea and Allyson Mitchell.
7. Believe, Museum of Contemporary Art (September 22-January 6)
Attendees at the MOCA’s inaugural exhibition at its new home in the Lower Junction Triangle were probably as curious about the building – five floors in all – as they were the art. This show is multifaceted and sprawling, with textile works sitting next to a playable and wildly decorated pinball machine, adjacent to sculptures and video works. A total experience of art and space, its highlights include works by Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Rajni Perera.
8. I continue to shape, Art Museum, University of Toronto (September 5-December 8)
This group show features mostly First Nations artists taking a non-didactic approach to settler and Indigenous histories. By combining traditional First Nations and contemporary art vocabularies – see Nicholas Galanin’s re-carving of a traditional native mask – the artists bring viewers into a fresh dialogue with the subject matter. In a show of great works, Joseph Tisiga’s paintings using Archie comic characters as stand-ins for white obliviousness are standouts.
9. Yoko Ono: The Riverbed, Gardiner Museum (February 22 to June 3)
How calming it was to visit the white environ Yoko Ono created in her three-part, ceramic-based installation. Ono was part of the first wave of artists making interactive (or instructional) artworks in the late 60s and 70s, and this recent work confirms her preeminence. Made with the help of museum visitors – who reassembled broken china and threaded twine into a room-sized spider web – and probably for that reason, the installations evoked the timeless mark-making of artists like Cy Twombly.
10. Diagrams Of Power, Onsite Gallery at OCAD University (July 11-September 30)
This exhibition articulates the forms power takes in the 21st century through works that highlight how today’s geopolitics are networked. We understand we live in a networked world and yet it remains intangible in important ways. The research-based works in this exhibition, such as Bureau d’études’ mappings of what they call “the World Government,” create a visual lexicon for grasping ideas society has yet to fully grapple with.