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May we suggest

Reviews / February 29, 2016

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: What “Showroom” Gets Wrong about Toronto’s Art Scene

The Art Museum at the University of Toronto, Toronto, January 21 to March 5, 2016

Last month, the University of Toronto Art Centre and the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery launched a new identity as the federated Art Museum at the University of Toronto with the opening of “Showroom,” a survey exhibition of work by 48 Toronto artists that “considers the dramatic changes brought about by a decade of rapid urban development” in the city.

Curated by Sarah Robayo Sheridan, now the Art Museum’s curator (to Barbara Fischer’s new title as executive director and chief curator), “Showroom” immediately garnered local attention, with a packed reception (“It’s like Nuit Blanche in here,” a friend texted from the opening) and an at-capacity panel discussion about “Art and Artists in Toronto.”

This public interest is not unexpected. After all, it’s been nearly a decade since one of the city’s major institutions mounted an overview of Toronto art. While the Art Gallery of Ontario has been increasingly showcasing the work of Toronto-based artists in solo and group exhibitions (thanks to the work of modern and contemporary art curator Kitty Scott), the Power Plant’s “We Can Do This Now” exhibition in 2006 was the last time a pair of institutional curators attempted to narrate the story of Toronto art now.

So it was with high expectations that I visited “Showroom” in its opening week: expectations buoyed, in part, by the track records of these two curators. Fischer has an almost superhuman capacity to take omnibus themes that sound like they might be one-liners—such as “Projections,” a survey of Canadian artists’ use of projections, in 2007, and “The Piano,” her piano-themed contribution to Nuit Blanche in 2012—into carefully researched and masterfully executed museum-quality exhibitions. More recently, she has turned over the University of Toronto galleries to guest curators who have mounted ambitious projects of their own, including Charles Stankievech’s “CounterIntelligence” (2014), and John G. Hampton’s “Rocks, Stones, and Dust” (2015), two of the most timely and original exhibitions to take place in the city in the last few years. During her tenure as director of exhibitions and publications at Mercer Union, Sheridan curated several standout shows, including the impressive “We Interrupt This Program” (2009), a look at artists’ interventions into print and television ads since the 1960s.

Instead, I found myself bewildered, puzzled and irritated by “Showroom.” After repeated visits to Sheridan’s exhibition, I still cannot make sense of how the chosen works bear out the show’s supposed theme, or how it accurately reflects the interests and aims of Toronto artists.

The didactic panel opening the exhibition makes its goals seem straightforward: “How do Toronto artists perceive new social and visual orders brought about by a decade of urban development?” it asks. It’s a relevant and rich topic, to be sure: one that Toronto (and other Canadian) artists have been exploring for decades.

But instead of the works I expected to see—ones that delivered an incisive critique of gentrification, for instance, or made radical proposals for equitably designing and using space—“Showroom” offers a series of projects that, taken together, seem singularly fixated on the aesthetics of presentation and modes of display. This has the effect of taking complex works and flattening them into an exhibition that could just as aptly be titled, “Toronto Artists Want Things to Look Nice.”

My confusion about the exhibition’s theme began in the lobby of the University of Toronto Art Centre, where VSVSVS has constructed a full-scale gym, including a registration desk offering towel service, out of found materials and plywood. Complete with videos (culled from YouTube) of people using exercise equipment in a variety of dangerous and strange ways, the installation is typical of the collective’s cheeky approach.

But what is this VSVSVS work doing in an exhibition about “the ubiquity of lifestyle marketing as a determining feature of the cityscape”? Maybe it’s meant as a not-so-subtle reminder that “every condo has a gym,” as one of the members told me, or as the group’s ironic embodiment of what lifestyle marketing is trying to convince us all to do: to set up a home gym with the space and materials at hand. Weightlifting equipment clustered in one corner is made out of concrete, Styrofoam and bricks salvaged from the Leslie Street Spit: a place where the material from destroyed Toronto buildings is regularly dumped. But it’s hard to even notice this subtle critique of urban renewal when another gallery visitor is running in the human-sized hamster wheel at the work’s centre.

Other kinds of feats of strength and ingenuity are at play in Jon Sasaki’s 58 Yard / 53.0352 Metre Runway (2015), the artist’s attempt to build a working airplane during his stay at the Glenfiddich Artists in Residence program in Scotland. It’s classic Sasaki in its combination of earnestness and inevitable failure, but how the work comments on Toronto, urbanism or lifestyle marketing is opaque to me.

Nearby, a small wood-paneled room combines photo-based works by Annie MacDonell and Lili Huston-Herterich, two smart, rigorous artists whose individual practices investigate the increasing gap between human and digital vision, and the ways that space is flattened and made unreal by image-making technologies. Without the room to breathe, though, these two projects bleed together, and read as mediations on interior design and aspirational decor. (“The World is Your Oyster,” reads a framed image in one of Huston-Herterich’s works.)

Eventually, I started to wonder whether I was taking the curatorial theme too literally. Perhaps “Showroom” is actually performing an exaggerated form of auto-critique, asking us to consider how easily these contemporary artistic practices could be appropriated as lifestyle marketing themselves, or transformed into promotional material for condo sales.

Maybe this is why Jennifer Rose Sciarrino’s Cloak: Staircase (2016) is here. A ghostly image of a minimalist staircase that seems to float in a billowy, transparent acrylic casing, the work continues Sciarrino’s investigation into the persistence of human vision in trying to make sense of 3-D modelling—but in this context it doesn’t feel like a far leap to imagine it hanging in the model suite of a downtown condominium.

The same goes for Nadia Belerique’s I Hate You Don’t Leave Me (2015), an installation comprising a series of still images generated from a nearly empty flatbed scanner that captures more fingerprints than recognizable images, and a steel-cut silhouette of a crouching, private-eye-style photographer. Belerique’s smart, self-reflexive take on identity in a post-photographic moment here reads as market-savvy advertising for a new high-rise development: “The Flatbed, with one bedrooms from the low $200s. Register now.” Yet somehow I don’t think that’s the reading the curator or the artist intended.

At the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, one of the strongest works in the show is also one that seems the most incongruous: Maggie Groat’s Trying to Give the Moon Back to Itself (2009) is a poetic attempt at just that. Two legal documents, framed and mounted to a black wall, document the artist’s purchase of a lot in the Sea of Vapours from the Lunar Registry (a group that promises to allow people to purchase property on the moon), including “mineral rights to a plumb depth of 5 km,” and her gifting of it back to the moon itself through a “Gift Deed.”

Groat’s gesture is simple and effective, drawing on the strategies of Conceptual art to suggest that no one individual can lay claim to the cosmos. Had it been paired with another work addressing the same issues from the perspective of Indigenous land claims in Toronto, Groat’s work would have served as a poignant counterpoint to the shiny surfaces and slick design aesthetic of many of the other works in the exhibition.

There are a handful of works that directly address themes of urban architecture and real-estate speculation, which feel like mini oases in an otherwise disorienting collection of works.

Oliver Husain’s Parade (2013), a video montage of computer-generated images of “fly throughs” of yet-to-be-built condominiums, cleverly foregrounds the uncanny aesthetic of these sales tools, which bear a remarkable resemblance to the fantasy worlds of Second Life and virtual reality video games.

Will Kwan’s three-channel video If All You Have is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail (2014) stages a cringe-inducing conversation between a white real-estate agent and an Asian home buyer as they drive to look at houses, the agent making racist assumptions about the experiences and values of her client, while articulating a few of her own, intercut with shots of the urban and natural landscape.

A photomural documenting Jesse Harris’s installation on Queen Street West, announcing to the formerly working-class area, turned scrappy art scene, turned gentrified-hipster neighbourhood, You’ve Changed (2012), is an obvious exemplification of the show’s theme. So is Adrian Blackwell’s series of pinhole camera photographs documenting the live/work spaces of six residents at the Hanna Avenue studios in Evicted May 1, 2000 (9 Hanna Avenue) (2001). While Blackwell’s series suggests the precarity artists experience in finding, and keeping, living and working space in Toronto, it tends to traffic in a sentimentalism for bygone spaces that does not go far enough to consider the role that artists play—however unwittingly—in the gentrification machine the city constantly feeds.

What concerns me most about “Showroom” is how monocultural the exhibition is. Of the 48 artists included in the show, 7 are people of colour. One is Indigenous. Doing a cultural headcount of this kind can be dangerous, suggesting that the solution to including diversity in arts programming is to practice a form of tokenism, where who an artist is (or appears to be) is more important than the work they make.

But it’s not just the artist’s biographies that indicate a cultural homogeneity in “Showroom.” The works themselves articulate an assumed and naturalized whiteness. There are condo ads on the subway that demonstrate greater diversity than this exhibition.

The problem, of course, is that Toronto’s art ecology is tremendously diverse. For every artist whose inclusion perplexed me in “Showroom,” I could think of another whose absence was palpable.

Where, for instance, were Walter Scott’s tremendously funny display signs supporting excerpts from his Wendy comic, Marvin Luvualu Antonio’s sculptures of contorted office furniture and punny neon signs, Jérôme Havre’s beautifully painted murals mimicking wallpaper, Hazel Meyer’s feminist luncheonette menus and hand-painted banners or Kotama Bouabane’s photographs juxtaposing trade-show images with the “dream marketing” of vacation billboards? These artists are not only vital voices in the Toronto art scene, but their practices directly and explicitly engage lifestyle marketing and cultures of display, all the while entangling them in the histories of indigeneity, queer politics, colonialism and class divisions.

This is one of the risks in offering a survey exhibition of a city that has been notoriously resistant to self-mythologizing. The lack of a coherent narrative about Toronto art and its histories means any attempt to construct one is bound to be met with the burden of representation, the expectation that it be all things to all people. That’s impossible, of course, and curatorial practice inherently involves making choices: saying yes to one work means saying no to another.

But if we deserve to have the story of Toronto art told in the city’s largest institutions—and I believe we do—we also deserve a narrative that makes room for the messiness that these histories entail.

Perhaps, in the end, I’m not taking the show’s theme literally enough, expecting a kind of messiness that a showroom just cannot contain. As Sheridan’s curatorial text asserts, “the showroom demonstrates a flattened ideal of living, devoid of the nuances of lives as they are lived.”

A performance series, curated by Life of a Craphead, seems to bear this out. Riffing on their monthly performance comedy night, Doored, Amy Lam and Jon McCurley have tried to intervene in the show’s politics by hosting events such as Camille Turner’s Afronautic Research Lab (2015), a performance in which Afronauts, who left earth 10,000 years ago, return home to try to save the planet. Their first mission: to ask citizen researchers to confront their historical amnesia about the existence of slavery in Canada—and to consider how it has shaped the urban and social landscape—by examining slave ads posted in 18th century newspapers.

But Life of a Craphead has no dedicated space in the Art Museum’s packed venues to host the series, so these events mostly occur in various peripheral spaces across the university (such as lecture halls and an outdoor courtyard). These spaces have been chosen by the performing artists based on factors such as the content of the performances and the need for adequate sight lines and acoustics, which were limited in the galleries proper. For the most part, the events are kept outside of the official university galleries physically, as well as symbolically.

Maybe, like a model suite, one needs to look beyond the chrome finishes and marble countertops (which never come without added costs, anyway) to get a clearer picture of the environment one is participating in: to invest the time required to see how rapid urban development is having real-time effects on the bodies beyond the condo lobby doors.

As curators, Fischer and Sheridan are undoubtedly poised to provide that kind of observational investment. Both have made careers out of offering artists the chance to realize ambitious projects in the gallery, and the Art Museum’s ongoing commitment to “developing Toronto art histories” is bound to provide further opportunities to reimagine “the nuances of lives as they are lived” in the city.

I only hope that the next time they offer a snapshot of Toronto art, it shows the city’s artists in a better light.

“Showroom” continues until March 5 at the Art Museum at the Univesrity of Toronto.

Gabrielle Moser is a writer, educator and independent curator based in Toronto. Her writing appears in venues including, Art in America and C Magazine, as well as in the forthcoming book Photography and the Optical Unconscious (Duke University Press, 2016). Moser is a lecturer in art history at OCAD University.

This article was corrected and clarified on March 2, 2016. The original indicated that all of Life of a Craphead’s events took place outside of the galleries; in fact, most of them did. The new copy also includes a clarification about why the performing artists found the gallery space unsuitable for most events.

Gabrielle Moser

Gabrielle Moser is an independent curator and writer based in Toronto. A founding member of EMILIA-AMALIA, she is assistant professor of aesthetics and art education in the Faculty of Education at York University.