The Globe and Mail (Toronto), Thursday, June 20, 2002 - Print Edition, Page R3

A tale of two art worlds

SARAH MILROY isn't being rhetorical when she asks: Why can't Toronto produce artists like Vancouver?
Thursday, June 20, 2002 Print Edition, Page R3

TORONTO -- A month ago, I gave a speech to the Toronto Friends of the Visual Arts that I titled, "The Trouble with Toronto." It revolved around one awkward question: How is it that Vancouver -- with its smaller population, its much smaller cultural institutions, its more conservative collecting community, wary corporate sponsors and geographic isolation -- has produced a bumper crop of artists with substantial international reputations (such as Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, Ken Lum, Rodney Graham, Ian Wallace), while Toronto has not produced a single equivalent career since Michael Snow and General Idea emerged on the international scene in the seventies? Is this just a case of the fickle finger of fate pointing elsewhere, or are we dealing with something systemic?

Make no mistake, there are lots of good artists in Toronto, a number of whom have small but serious followings in Europe, such as Vera Frenkel, Max Dean, Ian Carr-Harris, Robin Collyer and John Massey. The Toronto voice is a thoughtful, considered voice. But it has not necessarily been a voice that carries to the back of the hall.

There are a number of possible reasons for this, some of them intrinsic to the work. Toronto is just big enough to give artists the impression they are having a career even if they only show in Toronto. Why project your voice if you are speaking only to your immediate community?

There are other factors. The art schools in Toronto have been weak, for the most part unable or unwilling to conscript the best talent that the city has to offer. And the artists they train suffer accordingly. They should serve as the intellectual core of the community and they do not. There is no core.

Public programming of contemporary art has been tentative, and few exhibitions couple local artists with artists from elsewhere. There are virtually no visiting artists' programs to bring in fresh energy and ideas, largely because of severe funding constraints.

That's not all. To a degree that is chronic, the museums, art schools and universities all work in jealous isolation from each other, so that no momentum is achieved.

Lastly, there is virtually no exchange between the generations in Toronto, and very little mentoring. Senior artists are politely ignored, while each new generation seems fated to start from scratch.

While one can think of exceptions to all of these assertions, and while one can see signs that some of these things are changing, I still believe this is the big picture, and it's not pretty.

Vancouver provides a vivid contrast. The city's leading artists have leapfrogged over Toronto to establish connections in New York, Dusseldorf and beyond. Their intended audience is the world, and the scale and ambition of the work -- and the depth of research and rumination that underpins it -- anticipates that expected audience.

In part, this is because the museums and even the artist-run centres in Vancouver (like The Western Front) have, at numerous critical junctures, believed themselves to be engaged in an international conversation, despite their very limited means. As early as 1970, the Vancouver Art Gallery was mounting Lucy Lippard's landmark exhibition 955,000, which placed fledgling Vancouver conceptual artists, such as Wall and the collective N.E.Thing Company, alongside American artists, such as Dan Graham, Lawrence Weiner and Robert Smithson. The impact this had on the way Vancouver artists thought about themselves can't be overestimated. More than 30 years later, we are still waiting for that kind of programming in Toronto.

In Vancouver, the art schools, universities, museums and artist-run centres generate a steady round of symposiums and visiting lectures. Multivenue, collaborative exhibitions of international art -- from Cuba, India, China, you name it -- are regular occurrences. It's a big world out there; no developing artist could miss that message.

Finally, the more established artists foster the younger, through teaching and through careful looking and interaction.

The current exhibitions at the Power Plant in Toronto show us what happens to art under these two very different conditions. Where the three artists from Vancouver come across as energetic, optimistic, ambitious and fancy free (Philip Monk has, appropriately, titled the show Bounce), the Torontonians -- for all their smarts -- seem grim, constrained, even defeated. (Xandra Eden curated the Toronto section, which is titled In Through the Out Door.) It's art made in a landscape of thwarted expectations. The contrast couldn't be clearer.

From Toronto, Germaine Koh is showing a turnstile in the gallery's clerestory space, which is hooked up electronically to a wind vane on the top of the building. It spins faster when the wind picks up, disrupting the sanctity of the white cube gallery space with messages from the physical world outside. But the spectacle of the turnstile, that indicator of box-office attendance, turning and turning with no one passing through it, also feels like a statement about the public's indifference to art. It's a melancholy sight, like a tumbleweed blowing down some dusty, abandoned main street.

Koh is also showing, outside the gallery and mounted high on a ledge, a machine that belches out little puffs of smoke, which correspond to the dots and dashes of Morse code. These are generated from a computer in the gallery where you can tap in your message.

Now, Koh's work has always had a sly, quiet quality about it. But rather than seeming subversive, her works in this Toronto show feel apathetic, like she couldn't make an object to do her idea justice. Talking to Koh, there is no mistaking her intelligence. Why has she set her sights so low? As is so often the case in Toronto work, it seems like she is making art to demonstrate the futility of making art.

Likewise, Nestor Kruger's pieces here have a kind of bleakness about them that one discovers, in conversation, is unintended. We walk into a darkened room to find two screens portraying the image of a dreary winter landscape of computer-generated linden trees around which we seem to optically revolve. His soundtrack suggests the grinding of heavy machinery, keyed to the speed of the moving images -- which rev up and slow down. It is the sound, more than anything, that gives the work its flavour. But what is that flavour? The desolation that comes from a profound alienation from nature? The claustrophobia of the cyber shut-in, dreaming of the open sky? With more visual lustre, perhaps, the work could have pulled off a kind of chilling elegance, but the execution fell short. Instead, the more I looked at it, the more I found it sad.

A similar gloom pervades the work of David Armstrong-Six, who is showing a giant Darth Vader-like mask constructed of glass and steel into which you can walk. The scale of the work has a certain audacity to it that works, but it feels weirdly devoid of an emotional charge.

The better piece is the little wooden self-portrait carving, which he has installed in a gallery all on its own. This little figure, stranded on this wide expanse of concrete floor in his Joy Division T-shirt and jeans, feels like the authentic mascot of the show; the artist as loner, as misfit, easy to overlook. You could step on him by mistake.

Moving from the Toronto show (which is, fittingly, on the east side of the gallery) across the hall to the Vancouver show is a little like stepping from a windswept gulag (think the York University campus in January) into a three-ring circus. Pathos gives way to pizzazz.

Here, Monk has assembled the work of three artists who have moved away from that city's photo-conceptualist tradition to create, of all things, sculpture. While it is common to view these artists as working in opposition to the high seriousness of their forefathers (Monk imagines in his essay that their cheekiness would see them expelled from the Vancouver School "for lack of a melancholic skepticism"), one need only think of Ken Lum's weird furniture sculptures from the early nineties, of Wall's more bizarre dramatic scenes like Dead Troops Talk (1992) and The Stumbling Block (1991), or Rodney Graham's madly obsessive insertions into musical scores and literary texts to remember that the antic has had a role to play in Vancouver art all along.

Myfanwy MacLeod (a former student of Wall's) is showing what Monk describes as a "hillbilly theme park" complete with oversized outhouse (a reprise of the outhouse in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang -- Vancouver artists are inveterate snitchers of film culture), an upturned park bench with the artist's name inscribed in ladylike script in its surface, and an enormous pile of wood, each piece cast in concrete, creating a great divide in the exhibition space.

The work feels like the funny papers, but it also refers in a thoughtful way to the idea of a subculture developing away from the constraints of society. Is this the artist as hillbilly, seeking isolation and time for reflection in the studio/outhouse? Is all art, therefore, crap? And by referring to Appalachian culture, is she riffing on the isolation of Vancouver, and making a joke about the intergenerational inbreeding of its art scene? One thing is clear: If the earlier generation set their clocks by New York and Europe, for this generation, the wellspring is Los Angeles, and the apocalyptic, comic vision of artists like Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy.

Brian Jungen's new works also come on strong. The visual acumen required to look at a pile of white plastic patio chairs in a hardware store, as he did, and see the potential to cut them up and create a 50-foot-long anatomically correct whale skeleton -- is truly staggering. Cetology (Bowhead) is the second whale Jungen has made; the first, half this size, is now hanging in the National Gallery of Canada. Jungen's whale is a clever idea, yes, but it's a clever idea that has been laboriously, even fanatically, worked out to create a tremendous effect -- the refashioning of environmentally unfriendly consumer products into an image of the natural sublime, through sheer force of the imagination. There is a confidence implicit in this gesture, a confidence that the skill, and the perseverance would not go unnoticed.

Similarly, it takes a pretty confident fellow to take on Rubens just to goof around a little with ideas, but that is what Damian Moppett has done in his interpretation of Rubens's Kermis painting of 1631. A suite of lush, loosely painted works on paper reprise Rubens's voluptuous nudes of Bacchic orgies, drunken gods and succulent cupids. These are installed around a large sculpture titled Endless Rustic Skateboard Park (Bacchic Peasant Version).

The Kermis,Moppett explained in his artist's talk on Sunday, traditionally provided a kind of escape valve for the pent up social pressures within medieval society. For a few days every year, the social order would be overturned, and the peasants would run amok, only to come to heel later and return to business as usual. The skateboard park today, Moppett says, serves a similar social function, providing a controlled environment for the expression of adolescent rebellion and aggression. Moppett would have been better off to work out the bugs of his model more thoroughly -- the skateboard tubes don't connect with each other properly, and the spiral stairways don't reach their destinations -- but it's still a blast.

It's not just the flamboyance of all this that makes it appealing. That would be to belittle what these artists have to offer -- although comedy is their mode of choice. Rather, it's the artists' sense of entitlement. To work big. To crack wise. To run rampant through the history of art, ripping off the old, dead white guys and wreaking havoc as they see fit. The world is their oyster, and they intend to dine out. New art from Vancouver can come across as flippant and bratty, but it also feels free and wonderfully uninhibited. Good things can grow from this. It's serious fun. 

Bounce and In Through the Out Door continue at the Power Plant at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre through Sept. 12. For more information call: 416-973-4949.

© 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.