The international contemporary art scene in Toronto dates back at least to 1959, when Walter Moos opened his Gallery Moos, introducing Canadians to European artists like Karel Appel, Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Jean Dubuffet, Paul Klee, Joan Miró and Henry Moore, while at the same time supporting local and emerging talent. "I was a pioneer. I stuck my neck out and I started something!" Moos came from a long line of art dealers, dating back to 1899, with immediate family having owned notable galleries in Germany and Switzerland.
Half a century later, this 82-year-old eminence gris, a boardmember of the Art Dealers Association of Canada and a staunch supporter of all things Canadian, still runs his gallery with great enthusiasm. Today, however, he is surrounded by literally hundreds of other galleries spread across the city. "The Toronto art scene has exploded over the last decade," says art consultant Linda Belshaw Beatty. "Galleries sprang up everywhere."
Gehry’s new AGO
And it's not just a commercial explosion. In November 2008, the Art Gallery of Ontario joined the boom with a $276-million "transformation" overseen by local boy Frank Gehry, in the Toronto-born architect’s first commission in Canada. The latest AGO expansion -- it’s had seven since moving to its current spot in 1911 -- adds 97,000 square feet of new space, plus a "billowing glass facade that evokes a crystal ship" (New York Times architecture critic Nicholai Ouroussoff), a signature spiraling Gehry "baroque stair" linking the old and new buildings, and a new five-story "contemporary centre" overlooking Grange Park. The renovated museum now displays some 4,000 artworks, 40 percent of which are recent gifts or purchases.
Gehry detractors might note the emphasis placed on the celebrated free-form architect’s usual tricks, notably the overdetermined "sculptural" elements. One definite success, however, is the 450-foot-long Galleria Italia, a long and narrow sculpture gallery that looks over the front of the building through the majestically arching wood-strut and glass facade. The space was hosting a show of Arte Povera sculpture and wall works by Giuseppe Penone during my visit. The facade’s rearing glass "sails" are not practical or functional in any way -- but spectacular, and typically Gehry.
The AGO's popular summer show, "Dada and Surrealism," originated by London's V&A, followed on from "Sin and Salvation: Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision," organized by the AGO in association with Manchester Art Gallery. The museum’s upcoming fall blockbuster, "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs," Nov. 24-Apr. 18, 2010, is a no-brainer, though the faltering economy is expected to result in a 20 percent drop in revenues. But is it really what the "Transformed AGO" should be doing? I don't think so.
More relevant, perhaps, is "Alexander Calder: The Paris Years 1926-1933," no doubt another crowd-pleaser, which arrives at the AGO on Oct. 3, 2009, after appearing at the Pompidou and the Whitney Museum, plus another traveling exhibition, this one from the International Center of Photography, "Edward Steichen: The Conde Nast Years 1923-37."
The AGO stays contemporary
But the AGO has contemporary programming as well, including the Grange Prize exhibition, which features works by a photographer selected by an online vote (the lucky winner also receives a $50,000 award). The 2008 winner, 2004 Yale MFA Sarah Anne Johnson, was featured in an impressive solo exhibition titled "House on Fire." Johnson’s grandmother was apparently one of eight patients subjected to mind-control experiments in the CIA’s MK-Ultra project, and Johnson’s multimedia installation mixes family photographs distorted with over-drawings, plus small bronzes of vulnerable, distorted female figures and a dollhouse. A sensitive, sobering show.
The AGO’s top floor boasts a photo survey called "Beautiful Fictions: Photography at the AGO" -- but it’s not a "mere" collection show. The galleries are dubbed the Campbell Centre for Contemporary Art after benefactors Vivian and David Campbell, both now 89, who gifted $5 million to the new building plus ten monumental photographs by German photogs Thomas Demand, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth, some of which are showcased here.
The show of 60 works by 27 artists also includes photographs by artists ranging from Cindy Sherman to Michael Snow. "How the frontiers of photography have radically expanded in the last 40 years," exclaimed AGO photo curator Maia Sutnik, who noted that the show also traces "the demise of chemically-based photography and the rise of digital technology." In one work, the Canadian photographer Robert Burley (b. 1957) videoed the literal implosion of Rochester's Kodax plant, which is emblematic of this forced technical passage.
Also on view was "Remix: New Modernities in a Post-Indian World," a touring show of works by 15 contemporary Native American artists from North America (Apache, Hopi/Mohawk, Cherokee, Navajo, Zuni and others) that originates at the Gustav Heye Center in Lower Manhattan. Among the participants are the flamboyant Kent Monkman, aka Miss Chief Eagle Testicles, and Dustinn Craig, who draws fascinating parallels between skate culture and tribal life. Nadia Myre's gentle, dreamlike video depicts an aboriginal woman in a symbolic half birchbark, half aluminum canoe, paddling slowly across a still lake in the morning mist.
A newer entry on the Canadian museum scene is Toronto's Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, otherwise known as MOCCA, founded in 1999 to focus on Canadian art. Its relocation to an adapted textile manufacturing building in downtown Toronto in January 2005 is, its mission statement says, "Central to achieving a bold vision." In fact MOCCA is well placed in the heart of one of Toronto's most lively gallery districts, Queen West, named after the street.
MOCCA had on view "Pulp Fiction," an exuberant and youthful group show of drawing, painting, video and installation that fearlessly tackles the comic-book esthetic in loose, often humorous narratives of disjointed scenes and wry text comment. Its fall show, "Arena," organized with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, examines Canada's fascination with hockey, and is on view Sept. 10-Nov. 1, 2009.
The Power Plant
The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, which is housed along with several other arts institutions in the city’s 20-acre Harbourfront development, opened in 1987 (and this summer boasted free admission). Bill Boyle, director of Harbourfront and founding director of the Power Plant, maintains that the Power Plant, MOCCA and the AGO form a dynamic triumvirate. "We work well together. MOCCA focuses on Canadian art. The AGO is a big collecting institution. The Power Plant is totally devoted to current, cutting-edge international art, and also puts Canadian artists in an international context."
Unlike MOCCA, which owns 400 works by 150 Canadian artists, the Power Plant does not have a collection. The three institutions occasionally collaborate: the Power Plant and the AGO worked together on the recent Michael Snow retrospective, and also collaborated on a Simon Starling commission which was then purchased by the AGO for its permanent collection.
The Power Plant's big summer exhibition, "Universal Code: Art and Cosmology in the Information Age" featured 23 artists, including Fred Tomaselli and Gabriel Orozco, and was one of the most interesting exhibitions I saw. Timed to coincide with the International Year of Astronomy (Galileo demonstrated his telescope 400 years ago), the show included four Canadians (three of whom are based in Berlin; ironically, none live in Toronto), together with artists from 11 other countries. It focused, as one might expect, on new technology, DNA research, corporate communications and satellites.
The Toronto gallery scene
It seems that no sooner does a city develop a thriving art scene, than it becomes way too decentralized. So it is with Toronto. Back in the 1980s, the city had two focal points: Uptown Yorkville for established galleries and downtown Queen West for cutting-edge art. Artists lived all along Queen Street West and galleries grew up there.
Now, artists have been forced out by the very trendiness they helped create, a common story. As a result, the contemporary scene is spread among Queen West and five other areas: Yorkville, East & Distillery, Downtown, Uptown and Midtown. Each area contains at least one or two important galleries. For instance, the Mira Godard Gallery, which opened in 1962 and boasts three floors of exhibition space, is located in Yorkville; the Corkin Gallery, established in 1978 by Jane Corkin, is in Distillery; the 20-year-old Birch Libralato, where the summer exhibition by Silvie Bélanger and friends converted the gallery into a kind of model condo apartment, is in Downtown; and Olga Korper, who opened Gallery O in 1973 and now operates as Olga Korper Gallery -- and has the nicest space in the city, in my opinion -- is way out on Morrow Avenue.
What’s more, a cool new "happening" part of town, called "The Junction," is home to newer galleries like Latitude and Smash. As a result, Toronto gallery-going can be hard on the feet and impossible to do at speed. The city does have a helpful gallery guide at www.slateartguide.com.
A mercantile area with a concentration of vintage boutiques, pizza parlors and electronics shops, Queen West is home to the six-year-old Clint Roenisch Gallery as well as the considerably older Edward Day Gallery, which was established in 1992. Another dealer in the area is Stephen Bulger, who specializes in photography. The Grange Prize winner, Sarah Anne Johnson, exhibits with Bulger, as does the well known Sunil Gupta, who I first met at London's Royal College years ago. His summer show, "Mr. Malhotra's Party," addresses the issue of being gay in Delhi where it is still illegal. In the 1980s Gupta's series "Exiles" showed shielded or cropped faces. Today's young Indians confront the camera with brave, even heroic defiance.
In Bulger's summer show, the 2005 Nova Scotia College of Art & Design MFA Scott Conarroe presented the photographs that resulted from his traversal of North America, photographing the railway through romantic post-industrial eyes. A pink dawn fills the sky, snow delineates burnished tracks empty of trains or people. The wide open prairie bakes or shivers, junctions and marshaling yards sleep, Chicago architecture beckons. It's an elegy for Amtrak, Canadian Pacific and the like, via large-format, lyrical color.
Still more photography is found at Jessica Bradley Art + Projects, where Kristan Horton is currently showing "Orbits." For his deliriously quasi-abstract images, Horton takes several photographs of common objects -- a doorknob, roll of wire -- and scans them into the computer to produce a multilayered, neo-Cubist view of the world. He is one of the artists in the AGO's "Beautiful Fictions."
Out at Olga Korper Gallery, a summer group show was on view, featuring works by some of the gallery stable, including Barbara Steinman, Christine Davis, sculptor Tim Whiten and painter Ron Shuebrook, whose energetic black-and-white loops and swirls are particularly noticeable. Korper’s stable currently is about 70 percent Canadian artists, with the rest from the U.S. and Europe. The photographer Lynne Cohen, who is well known for her quirky images of public inferiors -- an extra high window, an out-of-proportion chair -- shows with Korper, as does John McEwan whose sculptural installations use steel cut-out animals (a wolf, a bear, a deer), as pointers to the stars and a more hopeful spiritual world.
But back to Walter Moos. I asked him to name one of his favorite shows from his long gallery history. With no hesitation he picked "The Board Room" by Catalan artist Muntadas from 1984 which featured an installation of 13 photographs of religious leaders like Billy Graham, John Paul II, Maharishi Yogi, Sun Myung Moon, Ayatollah Khomeini, "All mouthpieces of spiritual moneymaking empires, and spewing forth from their mini-video mouths are streams of ideology combined with demands for money!" he chortled. Right on track for 2009!
CLARE HENRY is a New York-based art writer and critic.