1. Shary Boyle: Flesh and Blood at the Art Gallery of Ontario
Is it just me, or has it been the year of Shary Boyle? There’s this major solo show—which feels like the most space the AGO has given to a single Canadian since its reopening—the Hnatyshyn Award, the big room at the National Gallery’s “It is What It Is,” the sold-out performances, and the mini-showcase of new ceramics at the Gardiner. Throughout, Boyle balances delightful and disturbing like nobody’s business, translating her themes with an increasing commitment to craft that conveys serious gravitas. Remarkably, Boyle even turns the problems of this AGO venue—four historical-collection rooms jammed between two wings of ancient Christian icons—to her advantage by seguing haunting historical works into the first room of her exhibition and juxtaposing her ecofeminist-tinged imagery with a classic Bernini crucifixion scene. As always, it’s an open question as to what the curator, Galerie de l’UQAM’s Louise Déry, contributed in terms of this striking installation solution. But barring a few wobbly points—like Boyle’s relative inexperience in larger-than-life sculpture—this outing showed a major domestic talent at the top of her game. Why can’t the AGO do solo shows of Ontario artists on this scale more often? And maybe even… curate them itself?
2. Kai Chan: A Spider’s Logic at the Textile Museum of Canada
My year-end picks are all fall museum shows. This, I realize, is due to my own faulty memory and research. But I also realize that this year, I was most touched by works that feel deeply human—works that contain much of the complexity, delicacy and (most significantly) corporeality that being human requires. So this TMC portion of Kai Chan’s 35-year retrospective truly astounded me. (The other part of the survey, which I haven’t seen—boo!—is at the Varley.) Looking at this remarkable span of work—1970s silk skeins, 1980s dogwood bundles, 1990s button matrixes, 2000s grass clippings (what!?!)—I was agape at Chan’s material and conceptual facility, and at the great care with which he approaches creativity. All the traditional art lessons are here—figure vs. ground, abstraction vs. representation, image vs. object, history vs. presence—but they’re distilled with exceptional elegance and emotion. In an exhibition video, Chan says he wants make works that reflect the fragility of human bodies and the strength of human will. At this noble (and some might say unfashionable) goal, he succeeds with heaps of class. Leave it to one of Toronto’s most unglamorous institutions to pull off a humble, generous show whose effect on audiences is very nearly alchemical.
3. El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa at the Royal Ontario Museum
I’ll ’fess up: this is one of those times when my admiration for an artist and their best work overshadows the potential weaknesses of an exhibition. I mean, when Anatsui gave a Toronto talk last year (one co-presented by the Canadian Art Foundation) he started by discussing the work of his students. What other art star pays it forward like that? Also, Anatsui’s large, found-object “tapestries” are both stunning and socially relevant. It was definitely a thrill to see them in person at this exhibition after years of anticipation—including one beautifully burdened work, Straying Continents, that I’m very glad will remain in the ROM’s collection. Institutionally, it was also super to see the ROM host (if not actually curate) a show with such broad contemporary resonance—a show that even, thanks to Anatsui’s openness to contingency and to hanging pieces in different ways, almost worked in its awkward, slant-walled “crystal.” However, the fact remains that the museum largely got lucky with this world premiere when the organizing institution, New York’s Museum for African Art, didn’t finish its new building in time. What’s more, a couple of major works were hard for viewers to locate. Terrific, but tons to improve on institutionally, too.
Leah Sandals is associate online editor for Canadian Art and an art critic for the National Post.