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Year in Review: The Top 10 Exhibitions of 2008

Michel de Broin, Black Whole Conference, 2006 / photo Richard-Max Tremblay

1. The Québec Triennial, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal

This remarkable show served notice of a resurgent Montreal art scene that is beginning to make its presence felt across the country. The most impressive element was MACM’s ambitious and generous installation of works by emerging Quebec artists (Dominique Blass, Patrick Bernatchez and David Armstrong-Six were standouts). With its splashy professionalism, the project was an object lesson in what can be achieved when museums devote equal resources to the staging of local art.

2. David Hoffos: Scenes from the House Dream, Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge

Hoffos now has total technical command of his haunting projection and sound works. This survey of installations launched a cross-country tour for 2009 that promises to lift Hoffos into the top ranks of contemporary Canadian artists. And it all began in Lethbridge, which with its gallery exhibitions and university visiting artists program has made itself into a research centre for contemporary Canadian art.

3. The AGO Reopening, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

By the time the AGO reopened its doors in November, the story of the gallery’s refit had moved on from the Frank Gehry additions and the Thomson collection gift to the gallery’s remarkable restaging of its historical Canadian collection. Curators Dennis Reid and Gerald McMaster have reinvented the telling of Canadian art history with the incorporation of First Nations art as a central element. There are still big questions about the AGO’s grasp of contemporary art, and one wonders what happened to all the art produced in Toronto over the past 25 years, since not much was on view. All eyes are on its developing programming schedule.

4. The 1930s: The Making of “The New Man,” National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

This was not your average summer blockbuster, but rather a focused thematic show linking the market crash of 1929 and the rise of fascism in Europe with new representations of human form. Put together by outgoing National Gallery director Pierre Théberge and a team of curators that included Jean Clair, former director of the Musée Picasso; Didier Ottinger of the Centre Pompidou; Constance Naubert-Riser of the l’Université de Montréal; and Ann Thomas and Mayo Graham of the National Gallery, the show set aside familiar stylistic modern-art developments in favour of freshly made philosophical connections between works.

5. Krazy! The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art, Vancouver Art Gallery

The VAG went where no museum had gone before in this survey of comic art and gaming. This territory has served as deep background for much contemporary art (think Murakami and McCarthy) but the emphasis here was not on high-end glamour art. Rather, interest rested on the widespread alternate cultural underground sustained by things like Playstation and graphic novels. Any show with cartoonist and RAW founder Art Spiegelman curating is a welcome addition to public gallery programming.

6. Scott Lyall: The Color Ball, Power Plant, Toronto

Lyall had a big year with his inclusion in SITE Santa Fe this past summer, but his fall installation at the Power Plant was blessed with spectacularly good timing as financial markets collapsed around the world. Taking the Power Plant’s annual Power Ball party as his starting point, Lyall presented an installation that manifested an air of very recent ruin. He declared the party over and did so with his trademark elegance in meshing oblique conceptual markers. Lyall is making a new kind of sculpture that is held together more by intellectual glue than anything solid and concrete. He confidently pushes into a promising territory once opened by American artists Ronald Jones and Stephen Prina.

7. Diana Thorneycroft: The Group of Seven Awkward Moments, Michael Gibson Gallery, London

Winnipeg photographer Diana Thorneycroft reinvented herself with this latest series, “The Group of Seven Awkward Moments.” Using reproductions of artworks by Emily Carr and Group of Seven artists like Tom Thomson as backdrops, Thorneycroft constructs and photographs witty dioramas that plunge viewers into a Canadian purgatory of accidents, disasters and moments of poor judgment. It’s Canadian history with a droll sense of humour and a surprising departure for an artist whose work has sought notably dark themes over the years. With these images, she joins Vancouver’s Myfanwy Macleod as a comedic master. Guy Maddin, watch out; you have hometown competition for remaking history.

8. Oscar Muñoz, Prefix ICA, Toronto

This Columbian artist won kudos for his projection work of evaporating portrait drawings at the last Venice Biennale, and in what seemed like a coup, Prefix ICA brought a survey of his work to Toronto audiences last winter. In a city hard-pressed for good, comprehensive international shows, Munoz was a treat for starved eyes and Prefix lived up to its ICA status. More shows like this could turn the city into a hub for exhibiting important, near-star-status artists from around the world.

9. Adad Hannah: Reflections, Pierre-Francois Ouellette art contemporain, Montreal

Increasingly known for his series of video tableaux vivants that capture what he calls the “uneasy space between movement and stillness, the recorded and the live,” Hannah made waves again this summer with an exhibition of works shot on location at Madrid’s Museo del Prado. Using mirrors to reorient traditional notions of spectatorship, Hannah plays off both Velázquez and Foucault, and he brings new media into a critical relationship with art history. It is a recuperative project that blurs the lines between past and present and asks viewers to take a long view of artmaking.

10. Corin Sworn: Back in 5: Accessing the Back Story, Blanket Contemporary Art, Vancouver

Sworn’s exhibition combined sculptural and photo works to recall fragments of 20th century modernism. Taking Irish designer and architect Eileen Grey as her muse and model, she gave us a sense of the entropy with which the Modern lingers in the here and now. With its idealism cast in an elegiac light, Sworn showed us a seductive but dimming energy that nonetheless presses its weight onto Vancouver’s contemporary art. As a host of artists and exhibitions have shown, Vancouver is an art scene shaped by a critical and enthusiastic engagement with modernism, and Sworn has made herself its latest guide.

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