“Under this mask, another mask. I will not finish taking off all these faces.” This thought from late French photographer Claude Cahun—an artist renowned for her inventive self-portraits—appears in the central room of “Light My Fire: Some Propositions about Portraits and Photography, Part II” at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and appropriately so. Just as Cahun’s own work dazzles with its arrays of personalities and personae, the works in this group exhibition fascinate with their different approaches to questions of self and other.
One attraction of this exhibition is a refreshingly eclectic and poetic approach to the theme of portraiture. There’s a real diversity of works: old and new, fashionable and unfashionable, anonymous and A-list. A small bark-and-quill-framed photograph of a Sioux infant from 1871 hangs on the same wall as Robert Mapplethorpe’s Pictures/Self-Portrait of 1977, which shows the artist’s hand in different “costumes” (one wild, one buttoned down) writing a self-reflexive note. Sarah Charlesworth’s Of Myself—a six-foot-tall, intensely red Cibachrome print from 1989 featuring images of vases and medical illustrations—hangs across from an uncanny 1925 collage by Hannah Hoch and a few steps away from Spring Hurlbut’s Mary #1, a monochromatic 2006 photograph of cremated ashes. Face gives way to face gives way to face, even if that “face” does not seem conventional at first.
Another appealing aspect of “Light My Fire” is the chance to see strong works by Canadians presented alongside those of international (if often better known) peers. A double self-portrait by Janieta Eyre, hung close to Suzy Lake’s re-visioning as Bill Vazan, is arranged in the same room as an Untitled Film Still work by Cindy Sherman and a text-and-image piece by Barbara Kruger. Black and white street photography by the late Michel Lambeth—who seems to have documented Toronto with the same passion that Atget brought to Paris—hangs across the room from a Weegee pic. If one is exhausted of saying that Canadian art is just as good as art from anywhere else in the world, one is certainly not exhausted of seeing that made evident through curation—the latter seems to happen far too little.
The chance to view art that has long been locked away in the AGO’s vault is yet another reason to see “Light My Fire.” The wall labels for several pieces bear a small orange notice indicating that this is the first time a work has been on view. Sophie Hackett, a gallery curator specializing in photography, deserves great credit for bringing these works to public light. She reminds us that there are always fresh ways to see familiar things—whether that thing be a visage, a medium or a museum.
Though “The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910–1918” is advertised as the AGO’s main attraction right now, “Light My Fire” is little gem of a show truly not to be missed.