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May we suggest

Reviews / July 3, 2008

Heritage Complex: From Stereotypes to Nuance

Henry Tsang Orange County 2003 Installation view

Suburbia may seem a sea of cookie-cutter homes, donut shops and big-box buildings, but a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Peel drops the stereotypes for a more contemplative kind of analysis. Curated by Tejpal Ajji and Atanas Bozdarov, both of whom divide their time between Toronto and its suburbs, “Heritage Complex” reconsiders what the relationship between cities and residential communities really is, while addressing the tough questions about civic planning, alienation and excess that places like Brampton raise.

Upon entrance to the gallery we see Toronto artist Eric Glavin’s site-specific painting Brampton (2008). Using a process that he developed in the early 2000s, Glavin abstracted a blue and grey pattern from a photo of a local Mazda warehouse and has painted it right onto the gallery wall. The meaning seems ambiguous. On the one hand, it might be a comment on the flat uniformity of much suburban architecture. On the other, the subtle pattern invites our aesthetic contemplation, confounding assumptions about industrial design.

In a humourous twist, the Arbour Lake Sghool grows a crop of barley in the front yard of a suburban Calgary home and offers a step-by-step beer-making tutorial in their video Harvest (2008). The ridiculousness of scything and flailing grain against a backdrop of concrete driveways is striking. Then questions come to mind about the use value of the average front lawn and the distance that most residents now have from the idea of working the land.

The diversity here is impressive. Ajji frames his selection of seven artworks in terms of “states of adjacency,” a phrase that loosely captures all kinds of landscape contrasts and comparisons. But more than that, the show brings to mind all the words we use to describe the land—urban, rural, industrial, commercial, residential and more—and how inadequate they can sometimes be.

Henry Tsang’s Orange County (2003) bears a more obvious connection to the theme. While pursuing studies at the University of California, Tsang videotaped himself walking the sidewalk in front of homes in a gated Southern California community. Then he did the same thing in a replica of the neighbourhood in Beijing. It’s almost impossible to tell which houses are on which continent: each has a faux-European flavour, stucco exterior and prominent garage. The videos play on four separate screens with Tsang appearing to walk a continuous loop across them. It’s a small world, or at least we’re making it that way.

But contrasting that sentiment is Jackie Sumell’s piece, The House that Herman Built (2006–8). For it, Sumell collaborated with Herman Wallace, a Black Panther activist who’s been in solitary confinement at Louisiana State Penitentiary since 1972. Through a 6-year correspondence, Sumell created architectural plans and renderings of Wallace’s dream home, which he envisioned and described from his 6-by-9-foot cell. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a spacious home on a large yard with gardens and a wraparound porch. Though the house is plain, the project seems to speak to the idea that architecture is about the body first, and consequently why the ideal of a spacious, open suburban home appeals to so many.

Perhaps the nuance of “Heritage Complex” is its best feature. To be sure, it doesn’t hide the problems of development. But as it suggests alternative ways of seeing suburbia, we’re apt to think about how it could be different. (9 Wellington St E, Brampton ON)