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Features / April 17, 2014

Kitty Scott’s Contemporary Re-Hang Elevates the AGO

Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto January 29, 2014, to October 2015

“What happens here has to start with Toronto,” Kitty Scott says as she walks me through the recently reinstalled contemporary floors of the Art Gallery of Ontario. It’s a quiet morning in early spring and our respective boots clack along the polished concrete floors of the fourth floor, the entry point to “Elevated: Contemporary Art in the AGO Tower.”

Though Scott’s explaining her philosophical approach to re-hanging the gallery’s contemporary art collection, as a description of the show, her statement is also literal: the experience begins with local artist Stephen Andrews’s Heaven (2012), a massive, luminous painting of the galaxy. Rendered in thickly applied layers of deep blues and blacks, with speckles of bright pink and green, the centre of Andrews’s canvas erupts in a brilliant white, suggesting a mysterious and explosive celestial event.

Andrews’s work—a quiet but engrossing meditation on what might lie beyond our earthly experience—is a fitting introduction. Spanning works from the past 40 years, “Elevated” is an overview of the ways artists transfigure the base materials of the world, from abject forms of decay (mussels and mushrooms), to refined luxuries (mirrors and diamonds). Though it puts the emphasis on the AGO’s recent contemporary acquisitions, the show also traces the trajectory of recent art production back to its foundations in Conceptualism, installation art and Arte Povera.

“I began this whole process by thinking about sculpture, and by thinking about what happens when sculpture moves off the pedestal,” Scott tells me. “That kind of approach allows for a way of thinking that moves out into space to incorporate performance, social practice and all kinds of other strategies.” Sculptural practice comes to the fore even in Scott’s terminology around the show—she emphatically calls it an “installation” rather than an “exhibition.”

Though Scott has been the AGO’s curator of modern and contemporary art since September 2012, it is only in the past year that audiences have been able to see her curatorial vision realized in the gallery, first with the engaging Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller survey “Lost in the Memory Palace,” and now with “Elevated” and “Bruce Nauman’s Words on Paper,” both drawn from the AGO’s contemporary collection.

“When I first came to the AGO, and worked with Janet and George, I began to understand the architecture I have to work with, which is this Frank Gehry tower,” Scott explains. “And I began to think of the hallways as the main streets, with the rooms as buildings, or little houses, off these main streets. I decided I only wanted to fill the rooms, with one work in each room. And then the walls of the public space, of the streets, could be the place for signage, but you could also enter the rooms and just be with the art.”

The subtle, spare installation strategy in “Elevated” gives the works ample breathing room: a curatorial tack that has caused consternation for some viewers who expect a permanent-collection hanging to boastingly offer a view of as many works as possible.

This is also an installation with a distinctive voice, one that, like Scott’s own, is thoughtful but warm, attentive to the resonances between works and artistic practices, but isn’t showy. It speaks of a long time spent with these works, a familiarity with their makers’ concerns and with their material lives as objects, as well as an openness to being surprised.

“I wanted people to see a constellation of contemporary works—to present artists’ voices, and to bring those voices forward,” Scott explains. “I wanted the focus to be on the art and staging intense moments of encounter.”

Those moments of encounter occur not just between the viewer and the art, but between the works themselves. In a gallery close to Andrews’s painting, for instance, Scott has paired General Idea’s The Armory of the Miss General Idea Pavilion (1985–86) with a Theaster Gates shoeshine stand, on loan from a private collector. While GI’s coats of arms use their trademark symbols of poodles, AZT tabs and television colour-bar test strips to create a camp iconography of queer royalty, Gates’s Yukata (2010) uses found materials to transform a shoeshine stand into a throne. Here, we seem implicitly invited to assume a position of power (by climbing onto Gates’s throne), or to bow to it (by kneeling in the position of the shoeshine boy), raising questions about exactly who or what is being “elevated” in these artists’ acts of transformation.

It is in these moments of dialogue between the works that you begin to feel Scott’s influence most clearly. She is, above all, a close and careful viewer.

In a room that shows the work of Los Angeles–based conceptual photographer Anne Collier alongside a series of still lifes taken by Scott McFarland in a West Coast cabin, Scott points to a subtle but repeating gesture across the Canadian’s three works. The showstopper is Torn Quilt with Effects of Sunlight (2003), McFarland’s large-format photograph of an old, hand-stitched quilt, dappled in sunlight, its stuffing emerging from tears in its worn cover. But if you look for long enough, the quilt’s checkered pattern re-emerges in the photographer’s other two images—first in the form of a rusted wire fence, barely discernable in front of a knotted tree stump, and again in set of quilted oven mitts and pot holders, burnt and hanging from a metal rack in a kitchen corner. Set against Collier’s cheeky appropriations of record and magazine covers (a new acquisition under Scott’s tenure), McFarland’s brand of photo-conceptualism takes on the air and authority of an Old Master, ripe for Collier’s deadpan feminist reworking.

Themes of value, authenticity and doubling emerge more starkly on the fifth floor, where Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto has placed one real diamond among thousands of crystal replicas piled on the floor in One (2008), and where British artist Simon Starling has subjected a copy of a Henry Moore sculpture to the effects of Lake Ontario’s waters—and its zebra mussels—for his Infestation Piece (Musseled Moore) (2006–08). The Starling work presents a particular set of challenges for display that speak to a tension between entropy and a desire for permanency that lies at the heart of any collection of contemporary art. Its metal corroded and its mussel inhabitants drying up and occasionally falling off, the Musseled Moore is exhibited “in hospital,” in a miniature lab where an AGO conservator can be seen working on it three days a week.

The Musseled Moore situation reflects some of the surprises that emerge from working with a permanent collection: surprises Scott is so far embracing. “What I know, in a way, right now, is very surface,” she says. “New things will emerge.” In fact, emergence of “new things” is another aspect of the exhibition—rather than remaining static, the installation will shift and change, with the work of more than 30 artists moving through the space over the course of this open-ended project. (The fourth-floor installation will continue until October 2014, while the fifth-floor installation will extend until October 2015.)

Some of the discoveries Scott has been making in the collection come from the legacies left by her curatorial predecessors. When I ask her about the differences between working with the permanent collection at the AGO and that of the National Gallery of Canada, where she was curator of contemporary art from 2000 to 2006, she points to the lasting impact of those figures.

“The National Gallery has an agenda that is connected to the nation, so it starts from a very different place than the AGO. Here, I came into a collection that had already been shaped by other voices—by Jessica Bradley, Philip Monk, and David Moos in particular—and I think there are great moments between those voices and the voices of other artists: Barbara Fischer’s work with Mary Kelly, for instance, stands out to me as an important feminist moment in the history of the collection. And you want to build on those strengths.”

The fourth and fifth floors look nothing like the rest of the AGO, and that is a good thing. In contrast to the packed, salon-style hanging of the Group of Seven’s paintings on the second floor, or the busy first-floor rotunda of Baroque Italian sculpture, “Elevated” offers a space for quiet contemplation—an opportunity, as Scott describes it, for “intimate experiences with works of art.”

Also, in a move that is as simple as it is effective, Scott has opened the cedar Venetian blinds along both sides of the galleries, letting in the warm glow of natural daylight and a panoramic view of Toronto’s skyline. “Sculpture needs some daylight on it,” Scott shrugs, but there is more to it than that. For the first time that I can remember, the AGO’s contemporary tower is not a closed, white cube, but an open, breathing space: one where we can get lost in the cosmos of Andrews’s painting, or the deep waters of Starling’s Musseled Moore, but always come back to the city to find ourselves again.

This article was corrected on April 17, 2014. The original copy erroneously stated that Jessica Bradley worked with Mary Kelly at the AGO. It was, in fact, Barbara Fischer who worked with Kelly in that context.