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Friday, April 9, 2010

TORONTO CREATIVE RESEARCH SABBATICAL JOURNALS - #1




The opportunity for a place to stay, and thus to independently organize my creative research sabbatical, January 23 to April 2, 2010 in downtown Toronto, "fell into my lap" only two weeks prior to my Ottawa departure. While it seemed to others to be a sudden leap, I had wanted to do something like this with Toronto for the past year. I had been feeling a restlessness relating to my art career. Embodying a natural participant observation approach to research, journaling an extension of my daily musings, I set out with an attitude of curiousity. I had possible ideas, remained open to "what would/could happen".  The first idea of finding a studio didn't happen. The second idea of taking courses, attending lectures, and preparing a Ph.D. research proposal also petered out.
Meanwhile, living in the up-scale Annex-Yorkville area, the establishment mover-and-shakers embraced me with social event invitations to the Women's Art Association (1907), and to the prestigious Toronto Arts and Letters Club founded by the Group of Seven. It was great fun, and interesting from a Toronto art history perspective that repeatedly refers to itself as "Canadian" art history.  This charmingly parochial perspective on "Canadian" art was reinforced with an informative visit and presentation at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery where family members of these deceased Ontario artists provided personal anecdotes of these artists. I felt comfortable in my position of voyeur at these events, but no room at the inn, so to speak, for me as a multimedia artist with a contemporary research practice. I wandered down Queen St . West on a cold and wet Sunday, starting at the Gladstone and taking shelter at store-front "Reference", an artist's project space he had rented from the nearby Drake Hotel. The artist, Kal Mansur, and his girl friend Maita Sayo, a Ph.D. (political economy) candidate, and I chatted for at least an hour about art, memory and place. A few weeks later, impressed with Maita's critical analyses, we discussed her writing about my art for C-Magazine which she is working on around her busy course paper writing. 

Kal and I negotiated my renting his storefront gallery space to stage a three-day exhibition of my new multimedia installation, Ecology of Identities, and the photomontage prints from the series Arctic Crisis Parts 1 & 2. The overall exhibition title was, Ecology of Narrative Space, the same as was used for last falls exhibition at Rails End Gallery in Haliburton, just north of Toronto. The dates available included Thursday, April 1st and I remembered the  West Queen West Art + Design 1st Thursday Walk from having attended the ones in both February and March. Having previously developed a rapport with the tour leader, Betty Ann Jordan, she accepted my proposal to include my exhibition and artist talk on the April 1st walking tour itinerary which gave me invaluable publicity and visibility. 
In the meantime, Toronto art critic Andrea Carson, wrote an Artist Spotlight on my art and upcoming exhibition at Reference, in her excellent blog at VIEW ON CANADIAN ART ARTIST SPOT LIGHT.  
While my photo-based and multimedia artworks that were shown at Reference Gallery Project Space on funkier Queen Street West are not represented by a gallery in Toronto as Andrea's blog indicates, my paintings have been represented in Toronto by Gevik Gallery, 12 Hazelton Ave. Yorkville,  since 2006 (brick house photo). This type of well respected gallery has the marketing strategy to promote the gallery, any of the gallery's artists assumed by clients to be worth collecting without their special promotion. However, given my presence in Toronto for an extended period, Gevik Gallery created an Exhibition Web Page of my paintings and new prints showing in their Lower Gallery, and gave it prominence in their monthly advertising with Canadian Art Magazine listings.  
The above "happenings" involved quite a bit of work on my part including a return trip to Ottawa to pick-up more prints for exhibition. People were wonderful in helping me along the way, especially when I broke my dominant right hand a couple of weeks before everything had to be installed. This photograph shows artist Kal holding the hammer, his intern, Deedee who is studying for her Masters in Architecture, and Barbara Mitchell (centre) who is one of the movers-and-shakers in the art consulting world to which I referred earlier. Barbara drove my car loaded with the work from our building to the gallery because with a broken hand, I could not grip the steering wheel safely. 


Given a previous professional career in socio-cultural analysis, it was natural that I would apply these skills in helping me understand how the Toronto art network of players, galleries, critics and publications interconnected. I would add that I'm an avid user of Facebook for social networking and already had made connections with people in the industry that I now had a chance to meet in person during my time in Toronto. 
Amish Morrell, editor of C-Magazine, was one of these facebook friends with whom I communicated once in Toronto, attending also the magazine's fundraiser art auction that must of raised at least $50,000 as they had in other years. It was $40 to buy a bidding paddle that included fabulous food. It was held in the ultra designer second floor Queen Street loft made available by Red Bull Projects. Amish does his bit with a Media interview at the auction in the adjacent photo.
At both this auction and during my survey of galleries, I repeatedly heard the term "important" being used in reference to galleries, artists and art. Being an outside to the Toronto culture, I was curious about what "important" meant within this context. In other words, where was this concept of "important" coming from? And it seemed to be used very loosely as in a defensive of judgements made. In two different galleries when I asked the gallery staff assistants what they meant, I was told that "important" artists were those who had been shown by "important" galleries, and this was the basis of their own selection for exhibitions. The CONTACT "gallery" spokesperson seemed not to have the depth of understanding concepts such as aesthetic location in contemporary visual art discourse and how "important" might relate to how a body of work contributes to this ongoing discussion. The scary thing, CONTACT "gallery" is offering artists "portfolio reviews" during the CONTACT Photography Festival in which my work is showing at another gallery.  They also had trimmed the perimeter of their gallery space with a linear collage of photos of Cambodia streets stuck to the wall like decals. The CONTACT gallery spokesperson suggested that this constituted and international level exhibition. How many times have we seen this exact same aesthetic presentation? Another Jeff Wall imitation in Toronto. I should mention that perhaps I do have a sense of the bigger picture given my attendence and exhibitions at major galleries around the world.
In general, people everywhere in Toronto including the art community are the most courteous, friendly and generous in the world. Even before a mother and daughter picked me up off the sidewalk when I fell at St. George and Bloor on March 20th splitting my eyebrow and breaking my dominant right hand. Torontonians are remarkably kind and honest for such a big city. Another case in point was the return of my id and credit cards to the movie theatre's lost and found, nothing used or missing. Even the slightest brush on busy sidewalks and the passer apologized with "sorry". And my fellow transit travelers patiently stood in lines, not pushing or budding in, never complaining if there was a delay, and cheerfully giving directions or just chatting. Where else could I meet perfect strangers who would show-up at my exhibitions just because I talked to them on the street. These everyday acts of kindness I observed support the reputation,  "Toronto the Good!"



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