June 20, 2002 – Print Edition, Page R3
TORONTO -- A month ago, I gave a
speech to the Toronto Friends of the Visual Arts that I titled, "The Trouble
with Toronto." It revolved around one awkward question: How is it that
Vancouver -- with its smaller population, its much smaller cultural institutions,
its more conservative collecting community, wary corporate sponsors and
geographic isolation -- has produced a bumper crop of artists with substantial
international reputations (such as Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, Ken Lum, Rodney
Graham, Ian Wallace), while Toronto has not produced a single equivalent
career since Michael Snow and General Idea emerged on the international
scene in the seventies? Is this just a case of the fickle finger of fate
pointing elsewhere, or are we dealing with something systemic?
Make no mistake, there are lots of good artists in Toronto, a number
of whom have small but serious followings in Europe, such as Vera Frenkel,
Max Dean, Ian Carr-Harris, Robin Collyer and John Massey. The Toronto voice
is a thoughtful, considered voice. But it has not necessarily been a voice
that carries to the back of the hall.
There are a number of possible reasons for this, some of them intrinsic
to the work. Toronto is just big enough to give artists the impression
they are having a career even if they only show in Toronto. Why project
your voice if you are speaking only to your immediate community?
There are other factors. The art schools in Toronto have been weak,
for the most part unable or unwilling to conscript the best talent that
the city has to offer. And the artists they train suffer accordingly. They
should serve as the intellectual core of the community and they do not.
There is no core.
Public programming of contemporary art has been tentative, and few exhibitions
couple local artists with artists from elsewhere. There are virtually no
visiting artists' programs to bring in fresh energy and ideas, largely
because of severe funding constraints.
That's not all. To a degree that is chronic, the museums, art schools
and universities all work in jealous isolation from each other, so that
no momentum is achieved.
Lastly, there is virtually no exchange between the generations in Toronto,
and very little mentoring. Senior artists are politely ignored, while each
new generation seems fated to start from scratch.
While one can think of exceptions to all of these assertions, and while
one can see signs that some of these things are changing, I still believe
this is the big picture, and it's not pretty.
Vancouver provides a vivid contrast. The city's leading artists have
leapfrogged over Toronto to establish connections in New York, Dusseldorf
and beyond. Their intended audience is the world, and the scale and ambition
of the work -- and the depth of research and rumination that underpins
it -- anticipates that expected audience.
In part, this is because the museums and even the artist-run centres
in Vancouver (like The Western Front) have, at numerous critical junctures,
believed themselves to be engaged in an international conversation, despite
their very limited means. As early as 1970, the Vancouver Art Gallery was
mounting Lucy Lippard's landmark exhibition 955,000, which placed fledgling
Vancouver conceptual artists, such as Wall and the collective N.E.Thing
Company, alongside American artists, such as Dan Graham, Lawrence Weiner
and Robert Smithson. The impact this had on the way Vancouver artists thought
about themselves can't be overestimated. More than 30 years later, we are
still waiting for that kind of programming in Toronto.
In Vancouver, the art schools, universities, museums and artist-run
centres generate a steady round of symposiums and visiting lectures. Multivenue,
collaborative exhibitions of international art -- from Cuba, India, China,
you name it -- are regular occurrences. It's a big world out there; no
developing artist could miss that message.
Finally, the more established artists foster the younger, through teaching
and through careful looking and interaction.
The current exhibitions at the Power Plant in Toronto show us what happens
to art under these two very different conditions. Where the three artists
from Vancouver come across as energetic, optimistic, ambitious and fancy
free (Philip Monk has, appropriately, titled the show Bounce), the Torontonians
-- for all their smarts -- seem grim, constrained, even defeated. (Xandra
Eden curated the Toronto section, which is titled In Through the Out Door.)
It's art made in a landscape of thwarted expectations. The contrast couldn't
From Toronto, Germaine Koh is showing a turnstile in the gallery's clerestory
space, which is hooked up electronically to a wind vane on the top of the
building. It spins faster when the wind picks up, disrupting the sanctity
of the white cube gallery space with messages from the physical world outside.
But the spectacle of the turnstile, that indicator of box-office attendance,
turning and turning with no one passing through it, also feels like a statement
about the public's indifference to art. It's a melancholy sight, like a
tumbleweed blowing down some dusty, abandoned main street.
Koh is also showing, outside the gallery and mounted high on a ledge,
a machine that belches out little puffs of smoke, which correspond to the
dots and dashes of Morse code. These are generated from a computer in the
gallery where you can tap in your message.
Now, Koh's work has always had a sly, quiet quality about it. But rather
than seeming subversive, her works in this Toronto show feel apathetic,
like she couldn't make an object to do her idea justice. Talking to Koh,
there is no mistaking her intelligence. Why has she set her sights so low?
As is so often the case in Toronto work, it seems like she is making art
to demonstrate the futility of making art.
Likewise, Nestor Kruger's pieces here have a kind of bleakness about
them that one discovers, in conversation, is unintended. We walk into a
darkened room to find two screens portraying the image of a dreary winter
landscape of computer-generated linden trees around which we seem to optically
revolve. His soundtrack suggests the grinding of heavy machinery, keyed
to the speed of the moving images -- which rev up and slow down. It is
the sound, more than anything, that gives the work its flavour. But what
is that flavour? The desolation that comes from a profound alienation from
nature? The claustrophobia of the cyber shut-in, dreaming of the open sky?
With more visual lustre, perhaps, the work could have pulled off a kind
of chilling elegance, but the execution fell short. Instead, the more I
looked at it, the more I found it sad.
A similar gloom pervades the work of David Armstrong-Six, who is showing
a giant Darth Vader-like mask constructed of glass and steel into which
you can walk. The scale of the work has a certain audacity to it that works,
but it feels weirdly devoid of an emotional charge.
The better piece is the little wooden self-portrait carving, which he
has installed in a gallery all on its own. This little figure, stranded
on this wide expanse of concrete floor in his Joy Division T-shirt and
jeans, feels like the authentic mascot of the show; the artist as loner,
as misfit, easy to overlook. You could step on him by mistake.
Moving from the Toronto show (which is, fittingly, on the east side
of the gallery) across the hall to the Vancouver show is a little like
stepping from a windswept gulag (think the York University campus in January)
into a three-ring circus. Pathos gives way to pizzazz.
Here, Monk has assembled the work of three artists who have moved away
from that city's photo-conceptualist tradition to create, of all things,
sculpture. While it is common to view these artists as working in opposition
to the high seriousness of their forefathers (Monk imagines in his essay
that their cheekiness would see them expelled from the Vancouver School
"for lack of a melancholic skepticism"), one need only think of Ken Lum's
weird furniture sculptures from the early nineties, of Wall's more bizarre
dramatic scenes like Dead Troops Talk (1992) and The Stumbling
Block (1991), or Rodney Graham's madly obsessive insertions into musical
scores and literary texts to remember that the antic has had a role to
play in Vancouver art all along.
Myfanwy MacLeod (a former student of Wall's) is showing what Monk describes
as a "hillbilly theme park" complete with oversized outhouse (a reprise
of the outhouse in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang -- Vancouver artists
are inveterate snitchers of film culture), an upturned park bench with
the artist's name inscribed in ladylike script in its surface, and an enormous
pile of wood, each piece cast in concrete, creating a great divide in the
The work feels like the funny papers, but it also refers in a thoughtful
way to the idea of a subculture developing away from the constraints of
society. Is this the artist as hillbilly, seeking isolation and time for
reflection in the studio/outhouse? Is all art, therefore, crap? And by
referring to Appalachian culture, is she riffing on the isolation of Vancouver,
and making a joke about the intergenerational inbreeding of its art scene?
One thing is clear: If the earlier generation set their clocks by New York
and Europe, for this generation, the wellspring is Los Angeles, and the
apocalyptic, comic vision of artists like Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy.
Brian Jungen's new works also come on strong. The visual acumen required
to look at a pile of white plastic patio chairs in a hardware store, as
he did, and see the potential to cut them up and create a 50-foot-long
anatomically correct whale skeleton -- is truly staggering. Cetology
(Bowhead) is the second whale Jungen has made; the first, half this
size, is now hanging in the National Gallery of Canada. Jungen's whale
is a clever idea, yes, but it's a clever idea that has been laboriously,
even fanatically, worked out to create a tremendous effect -- the refashioning
of environmentally unfriendly consumer products into an image of the natural
sublime, through sheer force of the imagination. There is a confidence
implicit in this gesture, a confidence that the skill, and the perseverance
would not go unnoticed.
Similarly, it takes a pretty confident fellow to take on Rubens just
to goof around a little with ideas, but that is what Damian Moppett has
done in his interpretation of Rubens's Kermis painting of 1631.
A suite of lush, loosely painted works on paper reprise Rubens's voluptuous
nudes of Bacchic orgies, drunken gods and succulent cupids. These are installed
around a large sculpture titled Endless Rustic Skateboard Park (Bacchic
The Kermis,Moppett explained in his artist's talk on Sunday,
traditionally provided a kind of escape valve for the pent up social pressures
within medieval society. For a few days every year, the social order would
be overturned, and the peasants would run amok, only to come to heel later
and return to business as usual. The skateboard park today, Moppett says,
serves a similar social function, providing a controlled environment for
the expression of adolescent rebellion and aggression. Moppett would have
been better off to work out the bugs of his model more thoroughly -- the
skateboard tubes don't connect with each other properly, and the spiral
stairways don't reach their destinations -- but it's still a blast.
It's not just the flamboyance of all this that makes it appealing. That
would be to belittle what these artists have to offer -- although comedy
is their mode of choice. Rather, it's the artists' sense of entitlement.
To work big. To crack wise. To run rampant through the history of art,
ripping off the old, dead white guys and wreaking havoc as they see fit.
The world is their oyster, and they intend to dine out. New art from Vancouver
can come across as flippant and bratty, but it also feels free and wonderfully
uninhibited. Good things can grow from this. It's serious fun.
Bounce and In Through the Out Door continue at the Power Plant at
Toronto's Harbourfront Centre through Sept. 12. For more information call: