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Toronto
Terence Dick
Is Toronto Burning? at the Art Gallery of York University | Hazel Eckert & Annyen Lam at Open Studio
November 18, 2014

To say history is written by the victors is a familiar adage; however, when discussing art history, it is perhaps more accurate to say it is written by the writers. Mike Kelley started writing about his own work because he needed to reclaim the narrative from reductive readings. Art Gallery of York University curator (and former employee of both the AGO and The Power Plant) Phillip Monk, on the other hand, is perhaps more concerned with being forgotten than being misinterpreted. He has taken it upon himself over the years to ensure that the fruitful period of art production that took place in downtown Toronto in the late seventies continues to get its due. That he is also a figure in that history only adds a self-reflective wrinkle to an already self-aware age of image making.



Ross McLaren, Crash’n’Burn, 1977, film

They were the kids who were fired up by conceptualism but also inspired by the recently translated post-structuralism and Marxist theory of Continental Philosophy’s usual subjects. They were also the children of Warhol and their relationship to the art market was a conflicted combination of suspicion and desire. Masters of that flirtation, General Idea open the exhibition with a video press conference where their strategies are laid out in all their linguistic glory. It was a time of lots of words and there is plenty to read here. The texts aren’t only on the page; they appear as advertisements, magazine spreads, fashion shows, and lo-fi videos that aspire to the lowest common denominator mass-market television. What distinguishes these “faux” commercial messages from the “real” thing is a thread of political consciousness that manifests itself to varying degrees of intensity and irony. Artists weaved their way through punk culture as much as the radical socialism of the time, trying on new identities in the same way they played at being artists. If there is any remnant of this era in the present, it is the adage that artifice is the only truth. Today’s artists have inherited the free flowing stream of signs that their elders interrogated, but have lost the anchor for their posturing. If you are the type to search for origins and the cause of our current malaise of meaninglessness, the answer you seek might be in a part of Toronto that is as far from the downtown as you can get.



Annyen Lam, Portent, 2014, monoprints, hand-cut paper, paper casting, wood

I was thinking about my own memories of Queen West circa the mid-80s as I drove in circles looking for a parking spot this past weekend. The Goodwill store is gone, as are the secondhand record and bookstores, but stragglers from that era can still be found in the art centres that hide within 401 Richmond. I passed through galleries with video works on Cuba, photography by First Nations artists, and installations that investigated globalization, so perhaps I’m wrong about the lack of politics, but something about the exhibitions felt old hat. It wasn’t until I got to Open Studio that I saw something that intrigued me. Annyen Lam’s delicate botanical fantasies cut from paper are accomplished both in terms of skill (she’s put a box of used knife blades on display to show what it takes) and imagery. She takes them to a new place with two backlit twilight dioramas that evoke Ed Pien (on the right) and David Hoffos (on the left). Any taint of Romanticism I might have felt at this point was pushed to the side by Hazel Eckert’s rigorous reclaiming of film and photography’s material debris. She turns these scraps into another kind of landscape, one whose connection with reality is just as dreamy, though a bit more abstract. Her concern is with seeing, not the sign, and as such trades imagination for contemplation.


Art Gallery of York University: http://theagyuisoutthere.org/everywhere/
Is Toronto Burning? continues until December 7.

Open Studio: http://www.openstudio.on.ca/
Hazel Eckert: Traces continues until November 22.
Annyen Lam: Wayfinding continues until November 22.


Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow his quickie reviews and art news announcements on Twitter @TerenceDick.

 

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