There is a certain mystique that surrounds downtown Toronto bar the Cameron House. With its boxy, art-covered façade on Queen Street just west of Spadina Avenue, the Cameron has long been a beacon for the kind of cultural stimulation fuelled by cheap draft beer and punk-rock attitude. That raw edge seems to be rarer along this city strip these days, and while the area will likely always have its share of grit, in many respects the Cameron remains a holdout from another time before the fashionably hip shops and shifting demographics of gentrification came to rule the Queen West scene.
It is in this storied past that we find ourselves when looking at “This is Paradise / Place as a state of mind,” an exhibition of works by artists from the 1980s Cameron House heyday gathered by artist Rae Johnson and former Cameron House owner Herb Tookey at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art‘s main space. It’s a history lesson of sorts, designed to remind us of a group of then-young artists who, by various circumstances (some worked there or lived in the rooms above the bar, while others drifted in and out from the nearby art scene), found themselves drawn together at and, in some cases, inspired by the Cameron.
An expressionist brand of painting ruled the day, as is evidenced in works by Johnson, Brian Burnett, Oliver Girling, Joanne Tod, John Scott, Andy Fabo, Tony Wilson and Lorne Wagman, among others. Photography shows up in the work of Isaac Applebaum, Barbara Cole, Peter MacCallum and George Whiteside, and performance in projects by Tanya Mars and Randy & Berenicci as well as in the Art vs Art mayoral campaign by the Hummer Sisters (Deanne Taylor, Janet Burke and Jennifer Dean). Many of these artists figure prominently in each others’ work, particularly in the figurative paintings on view. And the performance documentation offers a good sense of the collaborative playfulness of the era.
Yet, while it is interesting to resuscitate recent histories and to examine what has changed and what has not, this is an exhibition that feels too narrowly focused to take in the wider art scene of 1980s Toronto. The Cameron House was certainly a clubhouse for raucous experimentation, but how important was it all, really? To me, there’s little to take away from “This is Paradise” aside from a microcosmic historical exercise—which, to be fair, is perhaps exactly what Johnson and Tookey intended. But is that enough? From the wall-mounted didactic texts to the accompanying exhibition essay by Johnson and a 1987 text by Tom Dean (which fills in the story behind the exhibition’s title), there’s a heavy emphasis on insider anecdotes of the Cameron House’s importance to the artists of the day, but little in the way of critical grounding. Ideally, you’d have both.
Johnson does touch on a key point in her text, noting the tragic side of the 1980s, in particular the AIDS crisis, that from the perspective of many of the works in the show was yet to come. That does help to explain the lack of urgency felt in the majority of the works on view. Displays of artist-led publications hint at the existence of a critical dialogue, but that side of the story remains untold here as the magazines sit locked in vitrines like unopened time capsules.
All things considered, this is a celebration of what was, for the most part, a social scene, and it’s a big boost for the Cameron House myth; but for those of us who weren’t there at the time, it’s hard to say what this slice of “paradise” adds up to.