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60 Painters: A Class Act

Michael Davidson Liberation 2011 installation view Courtesy General Hardware Contemporary / photo Barbara Solowan

The recent monster of a show “60 Painters” was installed in the Humber Arts and Media Studios in Etobicoke, providing an unfamiliar backdrop to some heavy hitters in Canadian painting. The exhibition filled six classrooms and their connecting hallways with the work of some 60 painters and collectives, most of whom are well known in the Toronto art scene. (Disclosure: One is particularly well known to me; my partner, Patrick Cull, was among those featured.) While the canvases were formidable and often arresting, the building’s unique framing was perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the show.

Seasoned gallery-goers are accustomed to the evenly lit, freshly painted and polished environment of the “white cube.” Many hours are often spent removing the traces of human existence from the walls and floors of a gallery, offering a sanitized vacuum for the presentation of artwork. A different experience unfolded as the visitor walked into the dance, theatre and film school located in the neighbourhood of New Toronto.

While atypical, there is something comforting about seeing a cityscape by Susanna Heller installed above a scuffed dance floor, or the fleshy abstractions of Harold Klunder hanging next to a wall-mounted telephone. A frenzied fleet by Denyse Thomasos, veiled ever so slightly in shadow, offered a glimpse of what the artwork might look like in one’s own home. The rather unconventional environment of Humber College provided the works in “60 Painters” with an informal or even domestic context, one that felt a bit more inviting than a traditional exhibition space. Where works by such revered artists (and personal favourites) as Sandra Meigs and David Urban could have a sacramental effect on the viewer, in this setting the works felt more accessible and approachable-and even more loveable.

Many works were created within the past few years, but a couple stretched back to the 1990s. This show did not have a sense of “now,” but it provided visitors with a recent trajectory through contemporary painting. They were allowed to draw connections between the works of established artists and those of more emerging practitioners. Influences were traced from room to room, concepts invited comparisons from across linoleum floors, and the wide span of what can be considered painting was pondered while leaning on banks of lockers.

Wandering through the maze of classrooms, I felt a strong sense of democracy and DIY action in the air. The ambitious project was artist-organized: Curator Scott Sawtell (who is a deft painter himself, represented in the show with an aggressive and claustrophobic painting from his Canadian War Museum series), banded the group of 60 mudslingers together. Fundraising, advertising, installation, education and outreach were accomplished by a small group of the artists along with supportive foundations, organizations and volunteers. Without a board of directors or paid staff, “60 Painters” was an independent enterprise free from the restrictions of catering to an established membership. The result was a carefree sampler of what Canadian painting has to offer.

Carefree is not to say unconsidered. Each room and hallway grouping was thoughtfully composed. In one room hung a trifecta of masterful paintings by London’s Sky Glabush, Toronto’s Matt Bahen and Kitchener’s Doug Kirton. The three works were installed side by side, echoing and bolstering a common grandeur. Employing impressionistic paint handling, the artists achieved the effect of luminescence seeping through natural and architectural spaces. Bahen’s heavy oil painting of an abandoned gothic cathedral titled Beneath the Night’s Pale Globe held me for a while. The dissonance between the warm glow of light peeking through a rose window and the wildness of what looked to be a pack of B and E dogs was enough to keep me sandwiched between the power of Glabush’s and Kirton’s work for a transcendent moment.

Works that straddled the painting/sculpture divide were exciting components of the show. Jinny Yu’s crumpled, gesturally painted aluminum panels oscillated in long-range feedback with the relief work of John Eisler. Eisler’s contribution stood out in a narrow hallway with a punkish assemblage of cut-out neoprene, spray-painted Coroplast and chunky steel chain. Rock on, John!

The school’s quirky painted walls were used advantageously. Shelley Adler’s halting mauve portrait Nicky vibrated against a green screen likely used by students for video effects. Anda Kubis’ beautiful oil-paint-on-digital-print abstraction looked like it was created for the lilac wall on which it hung. And Wanda Koop’s radioactive red burned against the backstage-black walls of the performance studio.

The strong curatorial gestures made by Scott Sawtell and his installation crew were adventurous and exhibited a strong sense of play. They had fun putting this show together. I had fun walking through it. And while the most popular question fielded by the show’s organizer is “Are you going to do it again next year?” the discrete and rare experience of seeing all these compelling artworks under one strange roof may be better left in memory.

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