December 17, 2019 § Leave a comment
German artist Stephan Balkenhol’s polarizing public art work bears the heavy weight of Toronto’s globalized reality on its sturdy shoulders
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER DECEMBER 17, 2019
It was always going to be controversial. A 25-foot-tall sculpture of a man cradling a condo, standing on multi-coloured cubes. Commissioned by the developer Camrost Felcorp and made by celebrated German artist Stephan Balkenhol, Toronto Man (2019) is one of the city’s newest public artworks. It got a mixed reception when it was unveiled in August.
Balkenhol spends his time living between Meisenthal, France and Karlsruhe, Germany, where he teaches at the Academy of Fine Arts. He’s been a commanding presence on the European art stage for decades, and the work is the sculptor’s first commission in North America.
NOW spoke with Balkenhol by email over a number of weeks this fall. His comments made clear why he thinks his work has sparked dialogue: The sculpture is just a pretext for a conversation Toronto needs to have with itself about rapid development in the city.
Where to find it
Located at 101 St. Clair West and facing the street, the work is part of a three-condo development complex on the site of the former Imperial Oil building. It has provoked consternation ever since it went on display: here is the invasion of the city by developers made literal. Is the artist mocking us? Toronto Man inspired a social media debate, with one Twitter user noting that it represents “a certain class dominance over the society that is supposed to be diverse and multicultural.” It’s a fair summation of the ambivalence the work has prompted.
Why it stands out
Toronto Man is big. At 25 feet in height, it’s not at human scale. When asked how he decided on the size of the work, Balkenhol called the sculpture “big, but not too big.
“The location on the street in front of the high buildings demands a certain height of the sculpture,” he said. “It was meant to be a kind of landmark and should be perceived [by] the people driving on the road as well for those who walk by.”
The rough-hewn surface of Toronto Man is characteristic of Balkenhol’s practice. Using a carving style that dates back to the Middle Ages, he hacks and chisels his figures out of single blocks of wood. Casting the figure in bronze and adding a coat of paint is the artist’s contemporary update on this tradition. At the same time, the rustic look conveys a message about the technique’s medieval origins.
The figure of a standing man wearing slacks and an open collared shirt often recurs in Balkenhol’s work. A Twitter comment noted that Toronto Man has “a Soviet messianic look in his eye.” Is the figure some kind of new New Soviet Man? Or, more likely, John Galt, the libertarian architect hero of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged? In the book, Rand conflates architecture with a maverick world-building that cares not for the destruction it leaves in its wake. Torontonians could be forgiven for feeling that developers are equally disruptive, given the impact of condo development on city life.
But this reading falls short of seeing the sculpture as a whole. The cubes at the Man’s feet are as important as the building he is holding.
Who exactly is Toronto Man? “This guy in Toronto is a nobody in an everybody – he could be you,” says Balkenhol. “This sculpture invites you to take his place and hold the tower [while] standing on the coloured cubes.”
The cubes are a decisive detail. On a traditional sculpture, the pedestal separates the viewer from the figure it represents. The base of Balkenhol’s work suggests a more playful invitation.
That said, Balkenhol makes clear that seeing the man as a developer is not a misreading.
“I don’t want to illustrate stories but invite people to invent some by looking at my sculptures,” he says. “I do make proposals but don’t tell a story myself up to the end.”
Vice writer Mack Lamoureux couldn’t decide if the work was intended as a celebration of developers’ hold on the city or as an indictment of it. Is the “sculptor shitting on the developers for gentrifying cities by putting up some ‘luxury condos,’” he asks, while conceding “there’s also the real possibility that the developers are in on the joke.”
Balkenhol said in a 2014 interview: “It is the viewer who fills it with meaning. Astonishingly enough, many beholders can hardly bear this ‘openness.’”
The bigger picture
In the last decade, Toronto has been utterly changed by condo development. The skyline is more glossy, the population is bigger and rental prices keep going up. All of this is rolled up into one big, 21st-century package of globalization.
The Yonge + St. Clair BIA is also pushing to raise the profile of the neighbourhood and make it more of a destination. Public art is a big part of the strategy. Other recent projects include an eight-storey mural by Sheffield, UK street artist Phlegm and the pop-up Tunnel of Glam, an 80-foot long tunnel of sequins running to January 6.
More broadly, the city has a policy that requires a percentage of large-scale development projects go toward public art. Until Toronto Man, no public work has been funded through that program while overtly commenting on the city-building phenomenon that made it possible. Toronto Man bears the heavy weight of Toronto’s new lived reality on its sturdy, capable shoulders.
Look Closer is a column in which a writer visits public art or an art exhibition and explores why a specific work jumped out at them. Read more here.
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.
September 6, 2018 § Leave a comment
From garages and shipping containers to members’ clubs, art galleries are finding creative ways to carve out space in the city
SEPTEMBER 4, 2018
Artists see possibilities that mere mortals tend to overlook. This is especially true when it comes to finding the space needed for making and showing their work. In today’s real estate market, affordable rental properties are increasingly scarce. As densification increases in Toronto’s urban areas, gentrification now obeys its own logic, one in which everything looks like a condo tower just waiting to be retrofitted.
Long known as first adapters of derelict sites, artists seem less central to the gentrification process than before. Instead, they are devising new ways to carve out the space they need. What follows is a list of tactics used by artists working independently in the city – a place that of course belongs as much as much to them as it does to fat cat developers.
The Akin collective now boasts a 10-year track record of creating affordable space for artists. This includes a new partnership with the about-to -launch Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) that will provide studios for over 30 art professionals. The entire Akin enterprise, which includes a range of art-based programs, is funded through studio rentals – currently, about 30,000 square feet in seven locations across the city. The collective innovated a model where they rent buildings or parts of buildings on an interim basis, moving studios to new locations, as the locations they use get developed. They are having a party on September 6 to celebrate their 10-year anniversary and to raise funds to support their move into MOCA.
A shipping container located in a parking lot at Dupont and Symington, Bunker 2 is collectively run and funded on a project basis. Aside from the initial investment in the container itself, costs are kept low. As co-founder and curator Veronika Ivanova notes, this allows for “more experimentation and spontaneity in programming.”
Europe has an extensive network of Kunstvereins – art clubs, essentially – and membership comes with a modest annual fee. Toronto’s version has partners in New York City, Amsterdam and Milan. KVT’s director, the artist Kara Hamilton, reports that while they initially offered memberships, the model didn’t really fly here. Calling itself a nomadic platform, KVT today raises funds as needed, while partnering with various spaces in the city on a project basis. As important are the publications they make to accompany exhibitions.
Launched this summer, Ma Ma is run by two independent curators, Magdalyn Asimakis and Heather Rigg. Their initial slate of programming is happening in a space in the Junction where they plan to be until November. After that they will look for a new location, also temporary. Upcoming on September 21 at their current location on 300 Campbell is a project by the highly regarded First Nations artist Tanya Lukin Linklater. Entirely financed through crowdfunding, Ma Ma is happy to accept donations at gofundme.com/ma-ma.
These two separate galleries share a basement space on Wade Ave. Both commercial ventures, each is sustained by selling artworks. Run by artist Aryen Hoekstra and designer Kevin Boothe respectively, the galleries present separate programs on alternate months. They decided on a time-share model to lower costs and enable more freedom in programming. Additionally, Towards has an online publishing platform and Franz Kaka is participating at a number of art fairs, including Art Toronto in October.
Located in the alley behind 13 Mansfield Ave near College Street, this garage space is financed by its owners and through donations and art sales. The programming team shows work primarily by new and emerging artists, and foster the ad hoc communities created by the art shows. Through demand, the team has also found that private rentals of the space provide a good, if inconsistent, source of revenue.
KEEP 6 CONTEMPORARY ART
An art collector, curator and entrepreneur, Rafi Ghanaghounian has made art projects in Toronto, New York, Havana, and elsewhere. HOME AWAY HOME, focusing on the newcomer stories of Kensington Market and featuring ten artists, is his most recent venture. Launching September 6 (through September 10), the exhibition can be seen in Kensington’s parks, streets, laneways and art galleries. The show will enhance the Market’s already eclectic atmosphere with public programs, including tours, concerts and family activities.
Originally published in NOW Magazine