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Tag: Art Gallery of Ontario

Infinity Mirrors @ AGO

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Dots Obsession- Love turned into Dots 2007 Yayoi Kusama

Well, we finally made it to Yayoi Kusama’s  Infinity Mirrors at the AGO. Kusama is definitely having a moment at the moment. Her work seems to be custom made for our times, although she’s been exploring these ideas for decades. The rest of the world has finally caught up. The process of seeing Infinity Mirrors is almost a separate experience to actually viewing the work in Infinity Mirrors. Let me explain……

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Life (Repetitive Vision) detail 1998

Kusama’s work is a playful exploration of materials, sexuality and your position in the universe. We are all solitary dots in an infinite cosmos of dots. As bleak as that outcome sounds, she still infuses the work with a sense of jubilation. The work also acts as a catalyst for the viewer, where are you in relation to the work and do you make yourself the focal point?

The experience of Infinity Mirrors started long before the exhibit opened. The interweb was awash with images and the hype was thunder on the horizon slowly growing louder. Securing tickets was part of the experience. The logistics of the exhibit had to limit availability, so the demand heightened. No one likes to read these words “You are currently 9000th in line.” There was a sense of joy being able to be a part of it. You were given a time  and then all you had to do was wait. Kusama provided you with infinite space but had to limit your time and the result; time became the true star. You had 20 to 30 seconds in each room. Not a lot of time to drink in your place in the universe and that is why Infinity Mirrors works so well.  The obligatory selfie helps you freeze time to help sustain that fleeting moment. Yayoi Kusama has her finger on the pulse of our lives.

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Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity 2009

 

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Mystic Landscapes at the AGO

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Paul Gauguin: Vision After the Sermon 1888 The Yellow Christ 1889 Christ in the Olive Garden 1889

Who knew these three paintings were originally meant to be a triptych? I certainly didn’t; but now that they’ve been arranged together for the first time (for the exhibition Mystic Landscapes at the Art Gallery of Ontario) since Paul Gauguin painted them , it sure makes sense. The primary colour scheme alone should have been my first clue. The otherworldly theme of the story of Christ’s life as envisioned in French Brittany runs through all three as well as the artist himself appears in all three with him taking the starring role of Christ in 2 out of three. I always found this to be very revealing about Gauguin, it takes some kind of hubris to paint yourself as a martyr. Maybe this is the reason  they never made it to a church to serve as inspiration for the pious. Piety was kind of on the back-burner of Paul Gauguin’s life but I guess  he did like to dip his toe in the mystic. He was definitely a seeker.

My hat’s off to the curators for pulling off this feat (along with another, I’ll get to in a minute). I was most excited to see Vision After the Sermon when it was announced it was coming to Toronto, but had no idea the other two were along for the ride. Now that I’ve seen them as a triptych it’s hard to see them any other way. This is exactly what good curation should do, shed new light on the familiar and re-contextualize art into new and exciting combinations and narratives. Having said that: my biggest criticism with the AGO is some of their exhibition themes can get really stretched and unnecessary. Please let the art speak for itself and don’t put words in its mouth.

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Vincent Van Gogh Starry Night Over the Rhone 1888

The art not only speaks for itself in Mystic Landscapes but sings. Besides Gauguin you get heavy-hitters like Munch, Whistler and O’Keeffe and lesser known artists like Jansson and Dulac. There is a wonderful room devoted to the work of Claude Monet with fine representations of the various series he embraced over the years. His Waterlilies, Cathedrals, Poplars and Haystacks are all present. Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone is given a place of prominence near the end of the show. A personal highlight for me was this Egon Schiele,

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Egon Schiele Landscape with Ravens 1911

but the biggest surprise of the show is the inclusion of our own nation’s artists. When it comes to landscapes, mystic or otherwise you have to admit Canada can hold its own. Lawren Harris, Emily Carr and Tom Thomson get to share the walls with Monet and O’Keeffe and rightly so. The curators have positioned our artists at the table with some of Art history’s biggest names and this is an exciting and revelatory prospect. It is one thing to propose this in our own backyard but another to shout to the hills, which will happen when this show ends its run in Toronto and moves to the Cathedral of Impressionism itself The Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

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Tom Thomson The West Wind 1916-1917

Make your way to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see Mystic Landscapes. Come for the Van Gogh, stay for the Gauguin and revel in our National treasures before the secret gets out and standing in line becomes a way of life.

 

Hurvin Anderson: Backdrop @ the AGO

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Flat Top 2008

I was unfamiliar with the work of Hurvin Anderson before I made my way up to the 5th floor of the AGO’s contemporary section. I was immediately struck by the similarities to a painter I greatly admire: Peter Doig. It then came as no surprise that Anderson was actually a student of Doig’s back in his native country of England during the 90’s.

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Exhibition View

Backdrop which was first shown at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis consists of a collection of drawings, sculptures and photographs but it was the paintings I was most excited about. Anderson’s approach combines loose flourishes with flat passages that evoke both energy and control. His subject matter ranges from the Jamaican/Trinidad countryside to residential attic barbershops to the filtering of experience through barriers, fences and pattern.

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Peter’s Sitter’s II 2009

Anderson’s paintings allude to the vulnerability of the sitter in a barber chair. There is an unspoken conception of trust and renewal. His barbershop patrons floating on flat backgrounds reminded me of another British painter: Francis Bacon.

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Untitled (Welcome Series) 2004

Painting is alive and well at the Art Gallery of Ontario and Hurvin Anderson makes the case loud and clear.

May 19 – August 21

The Idea of North: Lawren Harris @ the AGO

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Lawren Harris    Mt. Lefroy 1930

Growing up with an Italian Grandmother; the idea of portion control is a completely foreign concept to me. So when the tastefully arranged modest fillet of perch on a bed of zucchini was placed in front of me I had to remind myself I wasn’t in my Nan’s kitchen anymore. We were in fact dining @ Frank: the fine dining experience located at The Art Gallery of Ontario as part of Summerlicious. But the main reason we were at the AGO, was to see The Idea of North: the Paintings of Lawren Harris .

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Exhibition view

The work of the Group of Seven and Lawren Harris is as ingrained into the Canadian fabric as road hockey or the first snow fall. It’s part of who we are, and the idea that no one outside of our little hamlet (9.985 million km2 – little) has any clue to their power and brilliance seems unfathomable. But what is so familiar to us is all shock of the new to our neighbours to the south and destinations further abroad. This is a very appealing prospect: what’s old is new again and what’s oversight is getting its due. This is at the core of this exhibition and one of the main motivators for its curator Steve Martin to get involved. He believed our national artist should be recognized internationally.

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Untitled (Mountains near Jasper) 1934-1940

Martin is no stranger to the art world; he has been an avid collector for decades and has amassed an impressive personal collection. It was this collection that was the impetus for this exhibition. The story goes- the curator for the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles ‘discovered’ a small landscape at one of Martin’s dinner parties. She inquired who the artist was and when he proclaimed Lawren Harris, she replied “who”?  A few trips to Canada later and she was hooked and the only one she wanted to helm a Harris exhibition was ‘one wild and crazy guy’. His initial response was he would have to be crazy to take on something like this, but the need to give Lawren his due quickly erased any fears.

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Mount Thule Bylot Island 1930

The Idea of North is a two part exhibition that focuses on two aspects of Harris’s career: his early Ward paintings of Toronto’s immigrant housing projects from the early 20th century and his momentous northern landscapes from the twenties and thirties. (There is also a small abstract near the end that ties Harris’ work to the city of Toronto but I’m going to focus on the other two aspects.) The Ward paintings do a nice job of highlighting Harris’ mastery of paint and colour but fall short of illustrating the pathos in which I believe they were intended. The effects feel too much like an observer looking in rather than an authentic documentation of immigrant life, but as far as images go they illustrate Harris’ life long pursuit of tapping into the unseen forces of the sublime that are at work behind the paintings. It is this aspect that makes his northern landscapes so powerful. He has focused the landscape to amplify its impact and presence.

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Mt. Lefroy Study 1930

Whether you are long time admirer or first time observer The Idea of the North does a wonderful job of showcasing one of our national treasures. There are old friends to revisit and new surprises to discover. I did have to keep reminding myself that this not a retrospective (I love his mountains but his tree paintings are my favourites- saved for another time I guess) but rather a focused introduction, and just like my little perch – less is definitely more.

The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris

July 1- September 18

 

Happy Canada Day

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Lawren Harris North Shore Baffin Island I 1930

The Idea of North opens today at the Art Gallery of Ontario; an exhibition of Lawren Harris paintings curated by Steve Martin- ya that Steve Martin.

Floor Burger and Art Deco Ceiling

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The Bank of Commerce                             Floor Burger Claes Oldenburg 1962

Simple juxtaposition of two icons of Toronto’s cultural landscape.

Emily Carr : From the Forest to the Sea @ the A.G.O.

Emily Carr Landscapes

Emily Carr     Various Landscapes – the gasoline paintings

I’ve always felt guilty about my feelings towards Emily Carr‘s paintings. I felt like I should like them more than I do. I felt like maybe I was missing something. I didn’t dislike them, but there were so many other paintings I’d rather look at. I guess my guilt comes from the fact that on paper I like everything that Emily Carr stood for and represents. I like that she documented different First Nations communities all along the West Coast. I like the fact that she’s a woman making a name for herself at the beginning of the 20th century in a very biased male dominated art world. I like the fact that she was so attune with nature that she actually preferred trees to people. I like the fact she studied in France and was influenced by the Fauves. I like that she’s a famous Canadian artist and sometimes it feels like we don’t have enough of those. I like all these things but unfortunately most of her paintings leave me cold.

So I went to the A.G.O. to see From the Forest to the Sea hoping to find that something I was missing. In the first few rooms I encountered the usual suspects: totem poles (a painting of a totem pole can never hold a candle to the real thing), very crowded compositions and tons and tons of green. My heart was beginning to sink and then……… I found them. Along one back wall were a series of paintings done in the thirties, executed on paper; they were loose, fresh – amazing. She actually mixed gasoline with her oil paints to give them more of a watercolour feel! I’d finally found my Emily Carr.

From the Forest to the Sea runs from April 11 to August 9th.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now is the Time at the AGO

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Oh the eighties, what a decade; a decade of excess – “Everything counts in large amounts.” From the hair to the shoulder pads to the laser discs, everything was bigger and bolder in the eighties and the art market was no exception. The stock market was booming, Japanese investors fell in love with everything Impressionism and art became a status symbol along with an appealing place to invest your money. In the seventies the highest price paid for a piece of art at auction was 5.5 million for a Velasquez. The eighties would shatter that record repeatedly with paintings going for 10 times that amount. Van Gogh‘s Irises was the big winner but everyone benefited from the trickle down effect. Contemporary art of the time reaped the most rewards. If you can’t afford a real Van Gogh, how about a Van Gogh in waiting. Nobody wants to be the one who passed on overlooked genius. Collectors and dealers were ravenous for the next big thing and many artists of the eighties both cashed in and were cashed out because of it.

Number 4  1981

Number 4 1981

This was the climate when a 20 year old Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) took the art world by storm, burned bright, started to fade and then was dead only 7 years later. 27 years after his death, The Art Gallery of Ontario is staging the first major retrospective of his work in Canada entitled: Now is the Time. They have assembled an impressive collection of roughly 85 works consisting of both paintings and drawings spanning his entire career. Unfortunately his entire career was a mere 8 years long, cut short by a drug overdose. It begs the question – what could have been? He is now and forever: a young talent never allowed to fully develop as an artist, eternally suspended in a decade of contradictions.

A panel of Experts 1982

A Panel of Experts 1982

The major contradiction that can be observed about the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat is that it can be misconstrued as simplistic, childlike or poorly executed by the casual observer; when in fact he is in complete control, a savvy and clever draftsman who orchestrates what he decides to put down or omit. (He would intentionally cross words out to draw more attention to them.) Basquiat is a self-taught artist whose compositions are constructions comprising of expressionistic flourishes of paint, wordplay, sketchbook drawings and iconography. They are all done with a sense of urgency and an almost disregard for themselves that make them crackle with energy. Now is the Time does a wonderful job of channeling that energy.

Quality 1983

Quality 1983

Part of that crackle I believe comes from Basquiat’s roots as a street artist. He started on the streets of New York as a teenager spray painting social commentary on the sides of buildings under the name SAMO. Graffiti by its nature is a speedy process that translates in his technique and onto his canvases.  The early eighties saw the first big boom for the gallery system to adopt street artists with Jean-Michel and Keith Haring being the standouts. As much as Basquiat was initially brought in as a street artist, his influences also included Picasso, Jean Dubuffet and the Art Brut movement along with mark makers like Cy Twombly. His art is steeped in art history along with what was going on in New York at the time. Throughout his career he employed a cut and paste sampling approach to composition not unlike early hip-hop records of the time.

Horn Players 1983

Horn Players 1983

Basquiat was heavily influenced by music – especially jazz. He embraced it for both its improvisational qualities as well as where it fits into the story of black history. Music and professional sports were two avenues afforded to young black men to improve their stations in the racially biased society of the mid 20th century. These are motifs he returns to again and again throughout his career and Now is the Time (which is a Charlie Parker reference) does a wonderful job of highlighting this through the inclusion of many works and accompanying commentary. Race and racism also factor into the work of Jean-Michel. Being among only a handful of recognized black visual artists at the time, he was in many ways a lone voice using his art to draw attention to the inequalities inherit in the system.

Black Soap 1981

Black Soap 1981

When it comes to assessing the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. No one piece leaves me gob-smacked but seeing so many works together provides the proper breath and scope of what his contribution was. Over the course of his brief career he created 1000 paintings and 2000 drawings, not all with the same results. In some cases his critical filter may have been impaired by the drugs along with the huge market demand that he constantly repeat himself and not allowed to fully develop made the work suffer. One of his dealers at the time notoriously would sell his works as the more desirable “early Basquiats” (1981-1984) as opposed to the “late Basquiats” (1985-) while he was still alive. Some feel that he may have been exploited by an art world that only saw dollar signs.

Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat Win $1 000 000 1984

Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat Win $1000000 1984

An artist that was no stranger to dollar signs was Andy Warhol. In the mid eighties the two artists struck up an unlikely friendship and collaborative practice. Critics accused Andy of using Basquiat by riding on his popularity and getting his name back in the headlines.  Its obvious by looking at their 4 collaborations in the show that the two are having fun and their relationship was based more on friendship than business. Of the many works they did together the juxtapositions are kind of interesting but mostly fail to live up to either of their solo work.

Now is the Time does a nice job of surveying the work of an artist who was gone way too quick. Make sure to make your way to the Art Gallery of Ontario to feel that crackle, if only for a brief moment.

Feb 7- May 10

 

Michelangelo and Alex Colville at the AGO

Michelangelo Studies for the head of Leda 1630

Michelangelo Studies for the head of Leda 1530

The work of Michelangelo doesn’t like to get out much. There are a few exceptions: France won the lottery  with the acquisition of his Slaves that now reside at the Louvre and even The National Gallery in London has a few unfinished paintings, but the majority of his work hasn’t left Italy. Its keepers tend to keep it close to home. There are no major works of his in North America, even the great Met in New York only has a scant few sketches. So I have to admit I got a little excited when I heard that the Art Gallery of Ontario was going to have a show of his drawings; the Casa Buornarroti in Florence had graciously lent the people of Toronto 29 of their drawings from Michelangelo’s personal holdings.

Michelangelo Nude from the Back 1505

Michelangelo Nude from the Back 1505

The curators of the exhibition had the misguided task of taking a little and trying to turn it into a lot. The mistake they made was: they had a lot and they turned it in to a little. They tried to fill the plate by adding artworks that represented his influence on other artists specifically the work of Auguste Rodin. No disrespect to the Frenchman but, when Michelangelo’s name is on the marquee, nothing else matters. The exhibit needed to focus, be more intimate and let the drawings speak for themselves. Michelangelo famously took a museum’s worth of drawings and set them ablaze near the end of his life, so to say they are rare is an understatement and to have them on our doorstep is a privilege. Having said all that- Studies for the Head of Leda is worth the trip alone.

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Alex Colville Seven Crows 1980

Along with Michelangelo, the AGO has a major retrospective of one of Canada’s most revered artists Alex Colville (1920-2013) on at the moment. All the greatest hits are here and it’s a must see. Colville is a master of atmosphere; he can take the mundane and turn it into mystery and intrigue. Sometimes his figures float in their backgrounds casting no shadows like ghosts, and sometimes they stare out of the picture plane directly confronting the viewer.  He routinely and deliberately obscures the focal point by turning the protagonist away from us or putting something directly in front them. He has a way of capturing the exact moment between banality and conflict with the precision of a master storyteller.

Soldier and Girl at Station  1953

Soldier and Girl at Station 1953

Alex Colville started his artistic career as an artist for the Canadian Armed Forces. He used his brush to document the reality of war, sometimes with horrifying affect. He had the devastating job of chronicling the nightmare that was Auschwitz.  After the war he returned to Canada and became an instructor at Mount Allison University in Nova Scotia. He taught into the 1960’s and then focused his full attention to painting for the remainder of his years.

Dog and Priest 1978

Dog and Priest 1978

I had the pleasure of meeting him a few years back. I was taking a group of school children to see an exhibition of his at the Art Gallery of London in London Ontario. We had arrived early and we were making our way through the show. We turned the corner and found a lone solitary man sitting in one of the galleries. I couldn’t believe my eyes: it was Alex Colville. He was gracious enough to talk to us and I shook his hand. One of the students asked him if that was his dog in one of the paintings and he smiled and said “Yes it was.” Alex Colville had an intimate relationship with everything in his works. His wife figures prominently, along with his children, pets and surroundings.

Skater 1964

Skater 1964

The survey of his work is tremendous, but just like the Michelangelo show the curators felt the need to add a little more: this time in the guise of pop culture references to his work. They were trying to make the weak argument that somehow Colville’s work influenced scenes from films by Wes Anderson, The Coen Brothers and Stanley Kubrick. Colville’s paintings do in fact appear in The Shining, but the other two are a stretch at best. For a show this strong, it was an unneeded add on.

Couple on Beach 1957

Couple on Beach 1957

Dear AGO, you’re putting together a great schedule and the number of wonderful shows in recent years has been inspiring, but for the future: could you drop the up-sell and just let the work speak for itself.

Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the A.G.O.

Grapes (detail) 2010

Grapes (detail) 2010

The Toronto International Film Festival is wrapping up this weekend. Two weeks of long lines, premieres and celebrity filled red carpet cotillions will soon be over. Our cult-like worship of celebrity will be satisfied for yet another year. Many big names graced our northern clime this season, but I would have to say the brightest star in Toronto right now, would  be Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Unfortunately, the artist couldn’t personally make it to Toronto for the opening of his show:  According to What? at the Art Gallery of Ontario but his presence is definitely being felt.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn 1995/2009

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn 1995/2009

See, the thing with Ai Weiwei is; he is kind of an independent spirit living in an oppressive environment. These two elements tend to butt heads when directly confronting one another; and Ai Weiwei literally has the scares to prove it. Targeted by the Chinese government for his political activism, Weiwei has had his freedoms dramatically reduced, including not being able to leave China. You might think that a person who has suffered physical assault and wrongful incarceration (80 days) at the hands of his government would have nothing but negative things to say about China, but Ai Weiwei (in his art) can separate country from state and history from politics. The genius of Ai Weiwei’s work is that he can both celebrate and condemn his homeland in equal measures.

China Log 2005

China Log 2005

China has a spellbinding history with countless contributions to the pantheon of art. Dynasties have come and gone, each leaving evidence behind of their innovations and legacy. Weiwei assimilates their historical artifacts into his assemblages. He recycles the materials and working methods of the past to both pay homage and re-contextualize our relationship with objects. In both China Log and Kippe the sculptures are made up of salvaged pieces from Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) temples. The map of China has been hollowed out of the core of China Log. The log itself has been assembled using  traditional Chinese joining techniques utilizing eight separate temple pillars. The core of Kippe consists of playground parallel bars commenting on the artist’s memories of childhood. 

Kippe 2006

Kippe 2006

Ai Weiwei uses traditional materials in new and unexpected ways, whether it is his supreme unfolding stool of Grapes or his Teahouse. The Tea Houses are exactly as they are named; houses made using a ton of tea each. The delightful thing about experiencing these structures in the gallery is the aroma. Every piece in According to What? has a dual role. They first arrest you with their aesthetic and then subtly play on your emotions.

Teahouse 2009

Teahouse 2009

The other side of Ai Weiwei’s art is to raise a critical finger at the injustices of the world. Weiwei also mines China’s recent past and his filter of nostalgia has been replaced with tragedy and injustice. On May 12th,  2008 a massive earthquake rocked Sichuan province in China killing approximately 90 000 people. A horrific event that went virtually unnoticed by the entire planet. The tragedy was made worse by substandard building practices, especially hard hit were the schools where countless children lost their lives. The government minimized the event in the press and wouldn’t release the names of the dead. For a free spirit like Ai Weiwei, this was unacceptable. He and his team started looking for the lost names and posting them to his blog, which was eventually shut down by the government. In the exhibition, one wall of the gallery is devoted to the names of these lost children. Along with the names sits a massive pile of rebar that forms waves on the floor (Straight 2008-2012). Each metal bar was salvaged from the earthquake wreckage and then manually straightened.

Ceiling Snake (2009) is made using 100's of children's backpacks.

Ceiling Snake (2009) is made using 100’s of children’s backpacks.

The beauty of Weiwei’s work is the balance he strikes between the old and the new and the sublime and the tragic. At his worse he can delve into the sculptural equivalent to a visual parlor trick like:  Forever or Moon Chest. They’re fun to look at but ultimately don’t resonate as much as the other work which can be beautiful, complicated and haunting. He helped shed light on a tragic event, bringing dignity to the departed and was ultimately persecuted for his convictions.  The role of the artist is to interpret the world we live in for good and bad.  Weiwei shows us at our best and our worst and we should thank him for it.

Moon Chest (detail) 2009

Moon Chest (detail) 2009

Ai Weiwei ‘s According to What? is definitely a must see.