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Features / December 26, 2014

Leah Sandals’s Top 3 of 2014: This Time, It’s Personal

Leah Sandals lists her top three art experiences of 2014, focusing on art that resonated personally and offered moments of reflection.

1. Alex Bierk at General Hardware, Toronto

This is one of the first shows I saw in 2014, and its marrying of personal vulnerability and aesthetic sophistication has stayed with me. Having struggled with my own self-destructive behaviours and mental-illness issues, I appreciated Bierk’s tracing of his drug and alcohol addiction (and his ongoing recovery therefrom) in monochromatic photorealist painting. It provided an echo of group therapy—a kind of simultaneous identification and differentiation—which I have found beneficial and which Bierk seemed to acknowledge in his painting of the Alcoholics Anonymous big book.

I also appreciated Bierk including an image of his father, who peered out starkly from one wall. (Often, artists dissociate themselves from their families in their work—or vice versa—subbing in Papa Greenberg or Papa Beuys instead.)

While there are a lot of creators who can cleverly (and cogently) point out the ways narratives can be fabricated, manipulated and contested, I still, every once in a while, value a project that says, in the vein of a good memoir, “You know what? This is my story.” Or: “You know what? This is me trying to figure out my story.”

2. Sophie Calle at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest, New York

Sophie Calle is one of those rare artists who engages the intimate and the interpretive simultaneously and with success. In May, Calle presented works about her mother—and her mother’s death—at a church on the Upper East Side, with the setting providing a quiet and reverential contrast to Frieze New York’s fair frenzy. In one audio work, a voice relayed her mother’s diary entries, forming the picture of a woman who was insightful one moment, petulant the next, and deeply human throughout.

Certainly, there was another personal identification here for me, as it provided a chance to reflect on my own experiences of my mother dying. I was also grateful to Calle for providing a work one could retreat into, snug in the velvet seats of a city chapel, and acknowledge the complicated centrality of “mom” in the lives of so many.

3. Brad Phillips and Sojourner Truth Parsons at Hot House, New York

Also during Frieze Week, I happened by Hot House, a project involving a number of Canadian artists in Spanish Harlem. Like Calle’s project at the Heavenly Rest, Hot House (at least when I saw it, on a quiet afternoon) provided a respite from the high–pressure fair environment.

As I entered, I heard a lone cellist playing beautifully in a large, ground-floor space. Climbing the stairs to various rooms, I saw a series of photorealist watercolour paintings by Brad Phillips. One in particular showed a manicured hand holding a bloody Kleenex, with a title scrawled in pencil beneath: “Not Pregnant.”

I couldn’t tell whether this pencilled statement added up to a pro or a con for the person holding the tissue—or the person rendering the image of that tissue—but given the limited extent to which I’ve seen pregnancy play out in contemporary art, and given the many years I’ve spent trying to either “be” or “not be” on this point, I appreciated the representation of common experience.

In another room, Sojourner Truth Parsons installed garlands of white flowers, evoking innocence, hope and wonder. These are elements I hope to keep in mind as the challenges of the coming year—which include giving birth and becoming a mother for the first time—unfold.

Leah Sandals is online editor at Canadian Art.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via