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Critical Craft at the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition

The 53rd edition of the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition (TOAE) gathered more than 300 artists and an additional exhibition, “Art Now,” curated by Elise Hodson, Rui Pimenta and Simone Rojas-Pick. Ambitiously seeking to inspire “a sense of critical play between the audience, and the civic square and outdoor art fair environment,” and including works by Derrick Piens, Heretical Objects and Jenn Goodwin, among others, “Art Now” occupied a small swath of space on the outskirts of the TOAE. With diverse media such as performance, sculpture and installation, this exhibition within an exhibition seemed like the TOAE’s attempt to join other fairs and commercial events that are appending curatorial or discursive programming to their usual market-driven bills. Still, at a busy and sprawling outdoor art festival such as this, “Art Now” felt physically and conceptually alienated from the other TOAE artists.

While many of these artists offered typical craft-centric fare (ceramics, jewelry, shawls, and blown-glass abounded), others introduced conceptual, playful or deconstructed elements to traditional artisanal wares. Humboldt Magnussen, a recent MFA graduate from the Ontario College of Art and Design University, exhibited an assortment of new drawings and sculptural works continuous with his interest in ornamentation, masculinity and the queer body, and received the People’s Choice Award. Another recent OCADU grad and illustrator, Ness Lee, artfully collapsed the still-prevalent, yet problematic, craft/fine-art distinction with her whimsical ceramic sculptures and charmingly wry drawings and pins that make unapologetic declarations like, “nobody loves you.”

Noelle Hamlyn’s booth stood out with intricate salt-encrusted sculptural and textile works. Her framed sets of handmade bobbins with delicate crystallized paper-linen thread and rust-clad sewing tools won her the Best in Exhibition prize this year. Best in Photography went to Maureen O’Connor, whose arresting photographic works often feature vacant and ruinous spaces. She mitigates the harshness of her mise en scènes with the use of muted palettes and uncanny cameos by startled porcupines and baby foxes.

Other highlights included Micaela González’s sparse and charming mixed-media illustrations, Tricia Johnson’s prints made from photographs of everyday scenes accompanied by haiku-like descriptions, and Jeannie Pappas’s surreal ceramic works that recalled Tim Burton in their mix of the grotesque and the endearing. Colleen McCarten won Best in Fibre for her woven industrial material tapestries and small weavings; her use of unconventional material in craft-like processes is emblematic of the productive mingling of disciplines and media in the aforementioned artists’ practices. As these artists attest and as my walk through the booths at the TOAE revealed, craft continues to be a rich venue for compelling artistic inquiry.

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