Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Winnie Truong at Line Gallery

“…a labour of love…”

At the end of Winnie Truong’s artist talk at Line Gallery (North Bay, ON) on May 16, I asked how far back her interest in hair—her dominant subject—went. She shared that as a child, she drew princesses and girls playing tennis, and they invariably had long, flowing hair. Somehow, she got sidetracked from drawing, even though she filled many a sketchbook and “grew up on Edward Gorey.” At OCADU, where she earned her BFA in 2010, she majored in drawing and painting, with her thesis in painting. She felt “forced into…the tradition of oil painting,” which may account for her assessment of her thesis as being “really contrived.” When professor Luke Painter challenged her to transform a black and white sketchbook drawing into colour and on a grand scale, she bristled. Ultimately, though, she felt liberated and “completely abandoned painting.” Today, she works in pencil crayon, “a juvenile tool we’ve all used. It’s not [used to create] painting or sculpture, which were historically revered.” She gets a kick out of contributing to drawing’s status as an “elevated medium,” whether through the international exhibition of her drawings, or through high-profile commissions for publications like The New York Times, both of which have allowed her to work full-time in her Toronto studio.

When her work is installed, she imagines the figures as representing a “tête à tête à tête” through imagined dialogue with one other. “The figure is almost secondary,” she says. Hair has been a constant focus, as her traditional portraits with a twist (like bearded ladies) morphed into dual-face portraits and recently, skulls. She sees hair as personal expression and also as a universal concern. She favours a palette of cotton-candy-like pinks and blues, and notes that these colours used to seem fantastical but are now commonplace; in fact, after the talk, I walked along the boardwalk and spotted a young woman whose hair transitioned from purple to pink. The unnatural quality of these colours prevents her from referencing a particular race or culture, Truong explains. Consequently, they have an “alien” quality and present “as their own species or genus.” Generally speaking, she likes her drawings to reveal “biological possibilities.” Their ambiguity stems from her self-conscience as much as it does from hair and fashion magazines, giving her work a purposefully surreal quality. Situated in a “vacuum of white space,” the figures appear “excised from reality.”

Her tendency to use the colours associated with boys and girls is of particular interest to me because of my own practice. Even though she acknowledged that her work touches on gender, I can’t help but indulge a more involved gendered reading. To me, these luscious images evoke the sexual power of hair that goes back to Biblical times and the female tradition of brushing one’s hair 100 times a day from the pre-Victorian era. She reveals that the figures are meant to be ambivalent—they are simultaneously beautiful and ugly. When hair is coiffed, Truong says, it is attractive, but a wig in the gutter in the club district is “menacing” and “disgusting.” She activates this tension in her work. By way of example, she describes a drawing in which a “woman [is] completely wrapped in this duvet of hair,” giving the effect of comfort and constraint in equal measure.

She describes her “crazy line work” as “really obsessive.” She says, “It’s such a labour of love…I still find it very exciting.” The process of making pastel colour studies; determining optical mixing with her old iPhone; applying hair after hair as marks on the page; and using an electric eraser to create highlights has become more repetitive over time and also more meditative. Drawing is “an exercise in relaxation.” At the same time, Truong revels in its tension, recalling her embrace of ambivalent subject matter. For instance, she notes that drawing is vulnerable to damage with something as simple as a kink, reminding me of artist Dana Schutz describing drawing in Roger White’s The Contemporaries (Bloomsbury, 2015) as, “You’re going along, and then you make a move and the whole thing is destroyed” (p. 122).

Truong’s exhibition, Comfort Objects and Other Attractions, was on show at Line Gallery from April 11 to May 15.

Images courtesy of Line Gallery. 2nd image: Winnie Truong, Counter Countance, 2013, pencil crayon on paper, 19 x 15"

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Party of Five: Kegan McFadden reflects on 1990s Canadian art publishing

“…let’s make it happen again!”

Curator Kegan McFadden gave me a tour recently of Yesterday Was Once Tomorrow (or, a Brick is a Tool) at Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art (Winnipeg). We caught up afterwards for a Q & A, which has been condensed for clarity.

H-In this exhibition about artist-produced magazines in Canada during the 1990s, you’ve examined Texts (Calgary, 1989-93); Flower (Toronto, 1992-96); Boo (Vancouver, 1994-98), The Harold (Winnipeg, 1995-97), and Cube (Montreal, 1996-98). You mentioned that The Harold was your personal gateway to contemporary art. Given that and the fact that the show is at Plug In, its publisher, was The Harold your starting point for research?

K-Yes. In many ways The Harold started it all. I was 15 when I first went to Plug In and The Harold was something I picked up on the way out. This was a time when alternative papers would litter the doorways of public buildings–or at least buildings of a certain kind: cafés, galleries, theatres, you know. I was transfixed by it. Even though I’d been regularly picking up alternative weeklies who mainly focused on music, The Harold was the first art zine I got my hands on…I didn’t really know anything about contemporary art; I certainly didn’t think I’d ever be a curator at that point, or really even know the word. Upon subsequent visits to Plug In, I’d always pick up the latest Harold. It was their in-house magazine, but it started as an artist-project by the late Jean LeMaitre.

I think that everything is research. So, holding on to my cache of Harold magazines, and the others that came after, was in a way a long-term commitment to curatorial research, I just didn’t know it at the time.

H-That’s a lovely perspective; it’s such a great contrast to the tendency to conduct last-minute research that is seen all too often in the present day.

Was the content primarily regional, Canadian, or international, or is it not possible to generalize?

K-We have to remember, these magazines represent a pre-Internet moment. So there was a network in place, but it was analogue. It amounted to which editors knew which contributors, and where everyone was based/how far their experiences went. So, for instance, CUBE magazine published “reports” from various cities: Toronto, Chicago, and Seoul. In a way it was the most international of the five I’ve chosen to focus on. But then there’s Texts, which found a lot of its material from the proximity to Banff and all the artists in residence there. Boo out of Vancouver had contributions by writers from San Francisco, etc. More precise than ‘regional,’ I believe these publishing projects represent communities. Flower, for instance, is a calling card for a certain generation of artists in the Queen West scene of Toronto.

H-Speaking of pre-Internet, you noted that hesitation about digital media was expressed in the pages of these publications. It strikes me that 1990s art represented a point of transition, being pre-digital but also being made after the freshness of postmodernism had diminished, arguably. How would you characterize 1990s art?

K-It seems there is something in the air. There is a huge show touring the States right now–Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s, curated by Alexandra Schwartz. It’s getting rave reviews as being the first museum show to historicize the decade. Many of the critics are discussing the representation of identity politics at play in so much of the work in the show. The ‘90s really ushered in a postmodern approach to discussing, and addressing, the marginalization attached to class, gender, sexuality, and race.

If I take Yesterday Was Once Tomorrow as a springboard for that idea, we see work by queer artists in the exhibition. There are also moments regarding the representation of Indigenous peoples, of women, and even of class struggle. In an editorial for Cube, Pierre Beaudoin writes about how, at the time, he was the Director of an artist-run centre in Montreal, and on the way home he buys a quart of milk and thinks to himself whether or not the clerk is making a better living than he. So, I’d characterize the art of the ‘90s, as seen in my show, as intersectional.

H-That makes me think of when I was an ARC director (post-‘90s) and I’d pick up groceries for receptions in a suitcase and a backpack, with a baguette poking out of the backpack! No glamour there.

In your opinion, is there a quality to printed matter that can’t translate into digital? I don’t think it’s just the vitrine displays that make the publications feel precious.

K-Yes, for sure! That’s why we’re still printing things everyday. That’s why the biggest thing to come about in the art world lately is Art Book Fairs. People love to hold things, to flip trough things, to touch and smell things. The fact that I enclosed the 60 issues of magazines within vitrines was purely pragmatic; we couldn’t have folks handling the material, the chance of damage was too great, and some of the magazines are on loan from institutions/collections. I also didn’t want the show to feel like a reading room. So I worked with this amazing designer, Susan Chafe, and we figured out a way of turning the content of all the magazines into wallpaper (shown below), effectively making it so the visitor to the gallery could feel like they’re inside the pages.

H-Why did you want to show the history of the magazine “warts and all,” as you put it?

K-I think that’s because I’ve met too many people lately who are afraid to try things. They’re afraid to fail, or to look like an idiot, or maybe they’re lazy. I wanted to show that here are five magazines that had various outputs throughout a decade. Some were made in people’s kitchens while others were printed more professionally. They’re all equal; they’re all contributing something…so let’s make it happen again!

H-Is there a disarming quality about the looseness—to borrow the term you used to describe the networks—of these publications? I was struck by the fact that a 90-year old was touring the show as you were sharing an anecdote about François Morelli, a Cube contributor collaborating with his 11-year old son, Didier. And when I reflect on the tone, it often veered towards the casual with writing often in the first person, reminiscent of Sassy, a personal favourite from my own youth that was a gateway to so much in terms of culture.

K-As part of that intersectional descriptor I threw out earlier, I think intergenerational approaches also play a role. It dovetails with the reality that we are now in a moment of the hyper-professionalized artist, but the ‘90s weren’t like that. You could have a collaboration with your 11-year-old son be published, or a book review by the teenage babysitter might take up as much space as a prose poem by A.S.A. Harrison. I like that thinking a lot; it is disarming in the best sense.

H-You observed that Texts was the most invested in art criticism, and that throughout all the magazines, many well-known artists are represented who were then emerging artists. Were up-and-coming curators and critics also cutting their teeth on printed matter?

K-Well, I can say that there were contributors to these publications 25 years ago that are still very much in the mix now, if not in more institutional roles. For example, Barbara Fischer and Kitty Scott both contributed to Texts, as did Bruce Grenville. Jeanne Randolph was interviewed for Cube, and so was Scott Watson for Boo. These are all names of a certain generation, but all playing major roles across the country and internationally to this day.

H-You mentioned that Flower ceased publication because of funding. Was that the reason for the other four magazines folding as well?

K-The reality is that no one is getting rich or even making a living doing these sorts of projects. They were labours of love. So I believe that was the reason each of them ceased.

H-Is there a reason you looked at publications that both began and ended in the 1990s rather than looking at publications that had a life into the next century?

K-The end of the ‘90s is really the cutting off point for so much. There were amazing magazines that crept over that millennium line, like Lola (Toronto), or Tart (Winnipeg). For me access to the technology in 1989 versus 1998 is one thing, but extending beyond 2000, it was so radically different and practically unrecognizable. Also, distribution of these periodicals differs vastly into the Millennium. One editor I spoke with remembered a concern over making their magazine digital had they continued beyond the ‘90s. That seemed like something less interesting to them at the time.

H-Editors for four of the publications provided brief descriptions that are included as didactics in your show, but François Dion and Pierre Beaudoin chose instead to stage a photo called “Draft for Cube 6” with them in front of wallpaper comprised of past issues. You seemed quite taken by this photo. Can you comment on what it means for you?

K-It was a Call and Response situation. I wanted to offer room for the voices of those editors who produced the material. I didn’t want to exclude them by only allowing for my voice. And when I approached each of the editors of the five magazines I did so in the same spirit they would’ve 20 plus years ago. I asked for a recollection, and was clear I wouldn’t limit them in any way. I said it could be as long or as short as they wanted; it could be a text, or a visual. The team from Montreal were the only ones who took me to task, and so I was very pleased to show their performance photo as didactic material.

H-There have been a number of special events planned in association with Yesterday Was Once Tomorrow (or, a Brick is a Tool). How has this programming shed light on the show?

K-I really have to acknowledge Jenifer Papararo, the Director of Artistic Programs at Plug In ICA for all the work she did in organizing what’s been referred to as a “raft of programming.” Jenifer was recently appointed to the position with Plug In, and this was the first show she inherited. I had the idea of inviting a few artists and writers for presentations, but she spun it and pulled more out of me, and together we were able to offer nearly a dozen related events. When a show is on for four months, the gallery really needs to be activated in various ways. I’ve been so thrilled at the huge amount of interest for these events. Each one seems busier than the last. We’re hosting Angie Keefer this coming week, and she’ll be speaking about her project The Serving Library. We’ve also had writers who were contributors to these magazines come and offer lectures or readings. That’s been amazing to invigorate the space with the voice of these thinkers. They’ve all been really fun and inspiring, too.

H-As we wrapped up the tour, you referred to the pairing of original artworks with related content from the magazines as creating sightlines. Do you have a favourite sightline in the show?

K-There are some very powerful moments in the show for me. One of them is in Gallery 4, a small salon type room that includes work by Denis Lessard comprised of slides, black and white photographs, and lecture notes. This is the ephemera from his 1991 performance, Banff**. The piece first existed as a performance at the Banff Centre for the Arts, and then was reprised in the pages of Texts. Walking down the corridor at Plug In there is wallpaper of Texts pages featuring that work of Denis’ and just as you round the corner, you see the same piece in the flesh. There’s a bit of an ‘uh-huh’ moment. I also really adore Gallery 2, the space we’ve been using for all the activity accompanying the show. In that room I’ve collaged a wall with numerous photocopied pages from all of the magazines to act as a backdrop. There’s also the huge reproduction of the cover from Boo 11 that features an image from Brian Jungen’s Anonymous Drawings series. Two walls of that room are all windows facing Memorial Blvd. and Portage Ave. I’ve also translated a number of artists’ graphics from the magazines into vinyl decals and put them into the windows to blur the inside/outside gallery/street potential of the show. These vinyls include works by Carl Skelton, Annie Martin, and Christine Freidman. That room is full of great sightlines.

H-Do you have any advice for aspiring arts critics or publishers?

K-Stop waiting and get started. While researching this material I had many conversations with Ann Dean about how she started Flower in ‘93 with David Buchan and her husband, the artist, Tom Dean. She said time and again that I really needed to make a zine as part of this show. And so I’m working with a team here in Winnipeg and together we’re launching a new magazine to close the show next week. It’s called Group Text, and it will be printed and circulated in unconventional ways as tribute to those who have inspired us. So, if someone is reading this and thinking they want to write criticism…then start writing! What’s holding you back?!

H-Best of luck with Group Text and thank-you, Kegan!

Yesterday Was Once Tomorrow (or, a Brick is a Tool) closes May 24, 2015 and will tour to Artexte (Montreal) this fall.

Kegan McFadden is an independent curator and artist/publisher whose projects often explore the intersection of visual and literary arts. Numerous periodicals as well as artist-run centres and public galleries throughout Canada have published his critical texts engaging and reimagining contemporary art practices. Over the last two years McFadden has conducted research concerning magazines produced by artists in Canada during the 1990s. This research has led to residencies with The New Gallery (Calgary) and Artexte (Montreal), resulting in the exhibition Yesterday Was Once Tomorrow (or, A Brick is a Tool), which premiered at Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art (Winnipeg, 2015). McFadden will be taking part in the upcoming conference, This is Paradise: Art and Artists in Toronto at the University of Toronto from May 28th to 31st, where he’ll be presenting his research on Flower magazine as a case study for a larger understanding of artist publishers in Canada.

Images, top to bottom:

The Harold
Gallery 1 installation view
Denis Lessard, Banff**, 1991, black and white photographs, with lecture artifacts (slides and note cards). Collection of the artist.
All images courtesy Plug In ICA.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Alex Landon Richardson at Nipissing University

“…you can have it all with painting.”—Alex Landon Richardson

The newest member of our faculty, Alex Landon Richardson, gave an artist talk on March 6 at Nipissing University.

Image: Juggernaut, 2013, oil and sticker on canvas

The Vancouver-born, Toronto-based artist observed that the art world has become increasingly global. Richardson is a case in point: she holds a BFA from London, Ontario (from the University of Western Ontario, now Western University) and an MFA from London, UK (from Goldsmiths, University of London). And she just returned from a residency in South Africa. Generous with the extent of advice and encouragement she offered to the many students in the crowd, Richardson described the path from undergraduate studies to working as a professional artist as being “gnarly and curvy…very DIY.” For her, the path pointed west (she worked at vineyards across western Canada while painting) and then it pointed back east (where she joined an open studio in Caledon, Ontario).

Visitors’ feedback at the open studio allowed her working process to encompass impromptu collaboration. She recalled, for instance, a visitor sharing a John Updike poem that contextualized the series she was making at the time for her first solo show at The Rivoli in Toronto. The show featured photo-based works such as Beth & Marj and Cadmium Blossoms (2010)*, a portrait of her mother’s friends who were among the first women working in the financial district of Toronto. Here, they are shown relaxing at the cottage. The figures are sketched in paint, revealing the underlying primed wood surface, while the cottage surroundings are rendered in detail and in colour. The right-hand figure’s strapless jumpsuit dates the source image (my mother used to wear strapless jumpsuits and she just turned 70). Through this body of work, she developed an interest in middle class leisure as subject matter.

Eventually, the challenge and security of commissions she gained in the open studio setting lost their sheen and she decided to relocate to Britain for graduate studies. Although she described London as a difficult city to live in, she acknowledged its incredible history and networking potential. Goldsmiths’ regular visiting artists as well as large enrolment and faculty fostered a culture of frequent feedback, but rarely from the same person twice. Thus, there was no risk of altering one’s style to suit an advisor’s tastes. What did affect her style was the city itself. She explained that it no longer made sense to paint with vibrant colour and plasticity as she had in Canada, once she had settled into a city with grit and darkened pub interiors. She became enthralled by the latter for their contrived aesthetic. Thrift store finds were cobbled together into a pastiche that was passed off as if it had accumulated over time. Paintings in pubs struck her as “alive [with] illusion and trickery,” which is curious because as she noted, painting and illusion were comfortable bedfellows for much of art history.

When she began her MFA, “[i]t was not popular to paint at Goldsmiths.” That’s unsurprising, given that the institution is known for alumni like Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas, who work in mixed media. People questioned why she didn’t simply make a film or take a photograph of a pub, rather than toiling over a huge canvas of the same subject matter. She commented that photography and film have barriers such as contending with light, but that “you can have it all with painting.” Cognizant that trends like anti-painting can be “fashionable,” “flawed,” and “superficial,” she remained committed to painting. She did, however, take measures for her large painting of a pub to not “feel static” on the wall and to “be aware of its environment;” she coated the floor with beer and put French fries in the room in advance to create a pub-like odour that would have made Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti proud for making art a multisensory experience that could border on irritating. Exasperatingly, in her second year, painting made a comeback and her classmates took up the medium with great fanfare.

Richardson’s work is often compared to that of Peter Doig, which is fitting because he also spent time in the UK and that experience impacted his landscapes of Canada (where he spent much of his youth). A summer visit back home between Richardson’s two years of study caused her to reflect on her Canadian identity, especially in the context of outdoor leisure. Landscape has shifted from something to conquer for survival to something to conquer for fun. She pointed out that it has also become a backdrop to leisure, as if a theatre set. She had long been interested in the Canadian habit of staying at a cottage, but her “whole world changed” when she took a spontaneous floatplane ride above a lake in the Kawarthas. She realized that “the machine you are in mediates your experience.” Upon returning to Goldsmiths, she painted objects like powerboats, chairlifts, and helicopters, all in majestic settings that feel somewhat magical with intense colours and twinkling lights. She identifies a gaze unique to the modern/postmodern/post-post-modern era: “The machine is made to be looked at” and “it’s aware of its being-looked-at-ness.” On the surface of these works, she has affixed decals to assert the “unique identity” of the machines. They double as reminders of the flatness of the canvas, emphasizing the materiality of the work. To return to the concept of the gaze, these decals remind me of accessories like necklaces or headscarves in 19th Century Orientalist images that reinforce the romanticism of the setting and draw attention to the figures’ nudity or partial nudity. She coated the edges of each work with fluorescent paint and tilted them on gallery walls to catch the overhead lighting and appear electronically lit. If there’s an afterlife, Piet Mondrian—who was obsessed with electric lighting and mimicking it with paint—must be smiling in response. As was the audience.

*For image, please click here

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On Kawara at the Guggenheim

“...a creature of habit.”

I must admit that I was so excited to see On Kawara – Silence (February 6 – May 3) at the Guggenheim in New York that leading up to visiting, I was singing ‘On Kawara’ in my head to the tune of My Sharona’s chorus.

Curator Jeffrey Weiss has capitalized on Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture for this posthumous retrospective of the Japanese artist’s work. The spiral formation of the rotunda is complementary to his endurance and his tendency towards repetition because the wall space keeps going and going, with minimal interruption.

Kawara is renowned for his ‘date paintings,’ which are officially called Today (1966-2013). Spending that long on a series and attempting to contribute to it every day is phenomenal. Daily, he set out to make a painting (or possibly two) with a solid ground of blue, red, grey, or black. He mixed the acrylic paint by hand and kept swatches, resulting in canvases that are unified but not assembly-line-like. After experimenting with Letraset in earlier work, in Today, he painted the date of the day he made the painting in equally precise white block letters. He used the language of the country from which he was working, and if the country did not use the Western convention for writing dates, he used the universal alternative of Esperanto. The paintings are typically small enough to hold with hands shoulder-width apart, but on days that commanded more attention, like the day Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, a bigger painting might have been generated. If he didn’t manage to finish a painting by midnight, he would destroy it, tying him to the trend of dematerialization that Lucy Lippard associated with conceptual art. Whereas artists like John Baldessari relished destruction, cremating paintings and baking the ashes into cookies, Kawara seems to have been more about the act of creation, as noted by Ben Kinmont (1).

The tension between creation and destruction always brings me back to the cubists, and this association is helpful for contextualizing Kawara’s work. Georges Braque introduced stenciled letters and numbers to the paintings and papier collés he and Pablo Picasso made in lockstep, to jolt the viewer. His rationale was that type was flat and couldn’t exist in space in the same way that an object would, so it could help the viewer to parse out the image spatially. With Kawara’s work, there are no objects projecting into illusionistic space; the painting becomes an art-object, modern in its flatness. Picasso and Braque referred to these additions as ‘certainties (2),’ which links nicely to Kawara's work. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but we can be almost certain that there will be a tomorrow. Braque, along with Picasso, also elevated the status of newspaper to be an appropriate material for art, which I mention because it was a mainstay for Kawara. Many of his date paintings were stored in, and are displayed at the Guggenheim with, a cardboard box constructed by the artist and often lined with a newspaper clipping from that day. As an information professional, I was pleased as punch to see that he recorded the date and publication on most of the clippings, minimizing the kind of extensive research to track newspaper sources for the likes of photomontage artist, Hannah Höch.


The first painting from Today, shown above, is sheltered by a vitrine on the main floor. Throughout the rotunda, others from the series are grouped. For example, there is a wall of paintings featuring Sundays. Today inspired other series like I Went (1968-79), a volume of artist books containing maps showing where the artist traveled that day, and I Got Up (1968-79), a series of postcards, which he rubber stamped to announce the time he awoke that day to recipients like Lippard. Inconsistent wake-up times, like 3:59 am and 5:06 pm, suggest that Kawara was not a creature of habit. Paradoxically, the ritual of making this series indicates that he was indeed a creature of habit.

Rather than showcasing his entire output, Silence features selections and integrates series, highlighting the web of connections in his oeuvre and preventing the viewer’s energy from fading. It worked: the only person I saw who wanted to opt out was a cranky toddler. Overall, visitors seemed to pay careful attention and take their time. Surprisingly, for art that might seem impersonal in its objectivity, visitors evidently connected with the work. For example, I overheard a visitor excitedly discovering the language she spoke used in one of his date paintings, and another keeping track of which of her family members’ birthdays she had observed in the series. I found myself most invested in the series, I Am Still Alive in which he sent telegrams starting in 1970, confirming for recipients that he was still alive. I took note of a pen stroke that an anonymous clerk had made under the ‘ill’ of ‘Still,’ compared ‘i am still alive’ to ‘I AM STILL ALIVE,’ and wondered about the emoticon potential of symbols that surrounded this text. The title and concept are heavy with meaning less than a year after the artist’s death and that was something I felt like pushing out of my mind just then, preferring distraction in the details.

Silence emphasizes that our experience of information has changed dramatically. A demonstrative example is one of his clippings from a Today box, which contains an advertisement about fighting polio encouraging readers to “write for our pamphlet.” The cubists used newspapers in cafe scenes as potent political symbols; it’s how people who couldn't afford newspapers could catch up on global events. When Kawara began his date paintings, the print medium continued to be essential and just as relevant politically. Rubén Gallo observes that Kawara’s clippings from Mexico City outlining the deteriorating relations between the government and students leading up to the Tlateloco Massacre on October 2, 1968 were censored from libraries and archives (3), making his inclusions vital sources for historical research in addition to representing the dissemination of information at the time of publication.

I find I am often fighting an uphill battle of convincing students of the merits of research using books, and on the car ride home, I felt I was rewarded for going old school with my background reading about Kawara. I glimpsed the date slip in the back of a catalogue of his work, shown here, and noticed that while my own borrowing via the postal system is traceless (read: silent), at least for now, there is a link to the past. This slip of paper shares the following features with Kawara’s work: dates in various but similar sizes, rubber stamping in a limited number of colours, and more than one language. Modest and outdated, it struck me as the perfect tribute to this enigmatic artist, even better than the selfies gallery visitors tried desperately to take before security guards intervened.


(1) Watkins, J. and Denizot, R. On Kawara. New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2002, p. 26.

(2) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection. Accessed February 17, 2015, at

(3) Watkins, J. and Denizot, R. On Kawara. New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2002, p. 24.

Images, in order of appearance:

Watkins, J. and Denizot, R. On Kawara. New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2002, p. 70.

Watkins, J. and Denizot, R. On Kawara. New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2002, p. 160.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Shelley Niro at OCADU

"We need to remind ourselves of history." ~ Shelley Niro

My wish list for the art section of our library has a new addition: Blue Medium Press is publishing a series of monographs about Canadian artists, because as co-publisher Julian Jason Haladyn explained, "We don't see enough of what they're producing." The first volume, Shelley Niro: Seeing through Memory (2014) by Madeline Lennon, was launched last night at OCAD University, in concert with an artist talk by Niro.

Lennon noted that when she received her PhD in art history in 1980 from the University of Toronto, she had not been exposed to even one female artist in her classes. She acknowledged that times have changed but that the need for further recognition is unabated. (That point was underscored before Lennon was invited up to the front, when Niro was introduced without the usual mention of accolades and when her graduation from OCADU was later misremembered).

Niro began by highlighting the connection between the ongoing disregard for missing and murdered native women and problematic visual culture, such as the book cover of a provocative-looking Pocahontas, which she described as disturbing. In a gently sarcastic tone, she imagined Pocahontas saying to the explorer John Smith, "You're free to help yourself to whatever" (even though she would have been a child when they met and she saved his life). Her snappy use of language translates seamlessly into artwork. Take the film, The Shirt (2003). In it, which she summarizes in text on t-shirts worn by a friend the atrocities committed against the native community, culminating in, "and all's I get is this shirt."

"We need to remind ourselves of history," she said, and be aware of biased versions of history. She cites Queenston Heights, in which native warriors helped defend the Americans in the War of 1812, as an example. In response, at Rodman Hall Art Centre in St. Catharines in Resting with Warriors (2001)*, she installed sculptures of female warriors outside because she thought, "Where are they [in common accounts]?"

She often blends the personal with the political. The first work she shared, Waitress (1986), for example, is set in a Chinese restaurant in Brantford, where she is based. In this self-portrait, she serves a customer, who looks characteristically uncomfortable upon realizing that she does not speak Chinese and is Mohawk. Brian and Mila Mulroney dance merrily in the background of the painting, surrounded by burning False Faces Masks, with beadwork patterns underfoot. It was made around the time that the Prime Minister met with First Nations leaders and behaved in a dismissive manner.

Some works like Waitress are darkly humorous and others are celebratory. Some are a combination, like the film, Mars Thunderchild Gets a Calling (2005), in which the optimistic and exuberant main character, Mars Thunderbird, speculates, "Maybe there's still racism." Niro shared that humour and celebration are critical strategies for "self-preservation...[otherwise these situations] can hurt you. In my mind, I try to switch it around....once that mind shift happens, it's so much easier for me [to continue working]. When something is so heavy, you can only understand it to a certain degree."

Ease of comprehension is key to her practice; in reference to several works, she emphasized the importance of not needing to translate the work conceptually. Based on the Q& A that followed, the audience clearly connected with her work, demonstrating its universality.

Niro observed, "Without spirit, nothing would be made." Her prolific career is evidence of abundant spirit. Niro has exhibited at the Venice Biennale; her work is in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada; she was the first recipient of the Ontario Arts Council's Arts Award; and she holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Western Ontario.

*This image is a woodcut print made from sculptural installation of the same name at Rodman Hall

Monday, December 29, 2014

Paris Letters by Janice MacLeod

“…likely to appeal to fans of Elizabeth Gilbert’s EAT PRAY LOVE...

After unwrapping Christmas gifts, I took a rare break from lecture preparations to kick back with one of my presents, Paris Letters (2014, Sourcebooks Inc.) by Janice MacLeod, in which the author gives up a job in Los Angeles as a copywriter to find the meaning of life in Europe during her mid-thirties. When someone who hails from the same rural county as you writes a bestseller, the overwhelming impulse is to want to like the book. At best, I can borrow MacLeod’s wording of “cute, but slow”—which she used to imagine the Parisians’ assessment of her Anglophone self because of the language barrier—as a description of her autobiography.

MacLeod relays the details of her job of writing text for junk mail, presumably so that the onerous task will ultimately stand in contrast to the pleasurable creation of painted letters. The degree of detail draws out this portion, though. This is followed by an entire chapter about the epiphany she has while cleaning her underwear drawer in which she quotes four times the voice in her head that says, “Clean out your underwear drawer.” In the process, she says farewell to the lovers for whom the undergarments were purchased. From there, she moves on to her clothes closet, which keeps her away from the mall, which saves her money and contributes to her ability to skip town. The book picks up when her trip begins, but the time lag persists here and there. For instance, at the end of the book, there is a list of 100 things that she did to save money. As George Carlin said of the Ten Commandments, many could be combined rather than being stretched out into a significant-sounding number, like playing the stock market and, listed separately, taking the advice of rich men at the coffee shop (about how to play the stock market).

MacLeod captures the local colour of Paris, from its delectable macarons to the hair salon in Robespierre’s former bedroom, where she has her bridal hair done. Throughout the book, “see[ing] Paris as a canvas,” she includes illustrated letters, but unfortunately not in colour. In the negative space of a rosebush, or a less visually busy area like a winding sidewalk, she writes about her experiences and the city’s history. The complication is that she appropriated the concept from another artist, Percy Kelly (1918-1993) (1). In a passage where I almost gave up reading Paris Letters altogether, she reveals, “…I sat in a chair with Percy’s book. At moments, I felt Percy whispering to me from the pages” (p. 88). Fortunately she attributes her source, but she seems to have no qualms about using someone else’s concept, which is reminiscent of the lack of conviction in the canvases she makes of crows to sell on Etsy to help fund her trip. It wasn’t until she referred to the Mona Lisa as “my new friend Mona” (p. 79) that I adjusted my expectations. I will concede that she can’t be faulted for lack of passion about being an artist. She makes a New Year’s resolution to become an artist; reads Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (1992, Penguin Group) and introduces Paris Letters with a quotation from it; and announces with clichéd excitement two-thirds of the way through, “It had only occurred to me in that moment that I was indeed an artist. In Paris!” (p. 175).

She is also in love in Paris, with a butcher named Christophe. She describes him as lovely and evidently he is just that: he buys matching robes so they can always feel like they’re on vacation, and when she sulks, he calls her phone and sings Lionel Ritchie’s I Just Called to Say I Love You. Their relationship is certainly sweet, but it feels one-dimensional. Part of it may be that the relationship moves forward easily, aside from no common language and eventual bureaucratic obstacles related to MacLeod’s visa, both of which are humorously described. They declare their love after two weeks and when she's travelling afterwards, he calls several times a day. To use a postal analogy for their relationship, since that seems apropos, Jacques Derrida’s concept of adestination (the “possibility of non-arrival”) (2) is absent. There is a PG-rated sightseeing day in Rome with a man with whom she once flirted, which demonstrates her loyalty to Christophe but also her slight hesitation about settling down. Unsurprisingly, she trades in her take-out boxes for eating on plates with Christophe. She writes, “Everything was perfect.” Melodramatically, she begins the next paragraph with, “Until I changed things.” She then recalls how she updated the apartment flooring after he recommended against it; it causes the couple to walk in silence and then they make up immediately afterwards. It feels like tokenism, to avoid causing irreparable damage to their relationship through disclosure of something more substantial. If there is nothing more substantial, good for them.

Paris Letters is likely to appeal to fans of Elizabeth Gilbert’s EAT PRAY LOVE (2006, Viking), as the protagonist gives up the majority of her possessions, lands in Europe with an insatiable appetite, ponders spirituality (though to a lesser degree here), and finds love. This comparison is invited by a photograph of the two authors on MacLeod’s website. Relatedly, fans of Julia Roberts may appreciate her Runaway Bride-like realization that she changed herself to be like her various boyfriends, taking on their hobbies to be relatable and agreeable. Those who dislike the rom-com and chick lit genres may prefer to clean out their underwear drawers instead.

(1) Percy Kelly changed his name to Roberta Kelly in 1985 but eschewed a sex change operation.
(2) Tucker, Thomas D. Derridada: Duchamp As Readymade Deconstruction. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009. Print.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Suzy Lake: Playing with Time at the Art Gallery of Ontario

“…a ‘history of feminism as seen through her [Lake’s] work.’”

On November 21, the Art Gallery of Ontario was the venue for the debut screening of Suzy Lake: Playing with Time by independent filmmaker, Annette Mangaard.

The feature-length documentary opens with Toronto-based artist, Suzy Lake, developing film. In this immediate reference to the theme of time, she shakes a developing tank back and forth, back and forth, highlighting the mundane nature of this particular part of her otherwise captivating practice. It counteracts any presumptions of glamour, as do later scenes like a pigeon crossing Lake’s path while she adjusts a tripod. The arguable irony, of course, is that the act of making the film is glamorous. It’s been a while since I watched films about grande dames like Marina Abramovic or Vanessa Beecroft, but it strikes me that they stand in contrast to Mangaard’s almost four years of coverage of Lake, who comes across as a grounded artist.

Mangaard purposefully avoided pandering to the feminist adage, ‘the personal is political’. The audience does learn that Lake was born and raised in Detroit, where she began making art as a child, and that she relocated to Montreal in 1968 at age 21 with her husband, a draft dodger. She recounts him being asked at the border if he was bringing in a car, a wife, or cattle, which underscored the belief that “a wife was property.” The focus, however, is on Lake the artist. She states that she is more interested in the audience knowing what she is than who she is.

As to what Lake is, gender invariably informs the answer. Her Choreographed Puppet Series, which she began in 1976, communicates the concept of women as property without relying on personal anecdotes: she created a harness with straps that allowed her to be moved like a marionette by friends stationed on the top of a box, resulting in photographs of the jarring movements. Through such performative photographic self-portraits, she subverts the male gaze. Like her contemporary, Mary Beth Edelson, she takes the approach of, “I’m not trying to flirt with you” (Edelson). Lucy Lippard, who defended Lake’s early work when it was seen as radical, observes that Lake made “people see that a body was just a body.” She has continued in this vein, making works like large (read: imposing) portraits showing off her post-menopausal chin hair. “Ageing is just a different beauty,” she says matter-of-factly of the series.

In terms of appreciating the performative nature of her work, it’s terrific to see footage of images unfold rather than just seeing the finished products of still photographs. Personally, I was able to see Extended Breathing in Public Places (2008-2014), in which the artist attempts to stand motionless in loaded settings like the Detroit Institute of Art and the World Trade Centre construction site for an hour-long exposure, as evocative of the early daguerreotype where the sole human activity in focus was at a shoe-shining station, with the rush of modernity reduced to a blur.

Interview clips with Sarah Angelucci, Barbara Astman, Connie Butler, Mary Beth Edelson, Lucy Lippard, Lisa Steele, Françoise Sullivan, Dot Tuer and Martha Wilson are included. Only one man, gallerist Donald Browne, speaks about Lake in the film (and ever so briefly), which has the effect of both celebrating women as authority figures and reinforcing the prominence of female voices in feminist art history. The multiplicity of voices is a strong contribution, but the occasional soundtrack of a voice without confirmation of the speaker’s identity is disorienting; I found myself trying to anticipate who the initial narrator was and once the interviewees had been shown on screen, trying to recall whose voice sounded like a match.

Numerous connections could be drawn between Lake’s work and the works of other feminist artists. Her Transformation (click Next for Gary William Smith) series, begun in 1973, comes to mind for its coincidence with Ana Mendieta’s gender-bending bearded self-portraits. Mangaard narrows in on the complementary practices of Lake and Wilson, adding to the Canadian flavor of the film, since Wilson worked at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design during the period where she and Lake discovered one another’s work through personal recommendations and snail mail. "We're the same person!" Wilson exclaimed in the Q&A that followed, noting that they were born in the same year and they address similar subject matter.

Following the screening, a discussion ensued stemming from Lisa Steele’s question in the film about how far society has come. Wilson commented that she wants to punch someone in the nose when they say we’re in a post-feminist era. Mangaard noted that the film was intended to be a “history of feminism as seen through her [Lake’s] work.” Its archival footage and stories like Jared Sable telling Barbara Astman, “I’m taking on a new gal,” referring to Lake, indicate that we are by no stretch of the imagination in a post-feminist era.

Suzy Lake: Playing with Time is also featured in the AGO retrospective exhibition, Introducing Suzy Lake (November 5, 2014 – March 22, 2015) co-curated by Georgiana Uhlyarik, associate curator of Canadian art and Sophie Hackett, associate curator of photography.

Image, l. to r.: Martha Wilson, Suzy Lake and Annette Mangaard.