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Douglas Coupland at MOCCA
Mary Pratt at McMichael

Barry McGee at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston
AGO's Jack Chambers: Light, Spirit, Time, Place and Life
Just My Type

AGO's Black Ice: David Blackwood Prints of Newfoundland

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Douglas Coupland at MOCCA
Posted 04/14/15

A co-presentation of the Royal Ontario Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, originally organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery. This is one exhibition, two venues — both galleries are thus hosting the most significant survey of Douglas Coupland's prolific output. He is one of today's most celebrated visual artists. In fact, he's a multi-disciplinarian. He is likely best-known as an author of many novels, including the generation-defining story Generation X among them. In that novel, he brilliantly encapsulated the mood of the identity-searching sandwich-generation of young adults born after the 'boomer' generation. Similarly, as a visual artist, he continues to capture and record through painting, sculpture and assemblage, the energy of our world as seen through the lens of popular culture. Douglas Coupland's work is an expression of the present day, the future, of identity, and technology, among other themes. He's a futurist really. And an anthropologist — he elevates common objects to the status of art pieces, re-examining them is part of his visual art practice. And once viewed this way, he says that it's impossible never look at things any other way, challenging conventional notions of what art is. Common plastic-molded consumer goods, enlarged to super-size scale, express underlying meaning — they are the detritus from Japan after it experienced a shocking tsunami that floated en masse across Pacific Ocean currents to be deposited on the shore of the artist's homeland, British Columbia. Presented in large scale, they embody the seemingly impossible challenge of an immovable object, too big to overcome. Being plastic, this debris is virtually indestructible.

Douglas Coupland captures curiosity, and embraces the current in particular ways — from a Canadian perspective. In the MOCCA show, the common household hutch becomes an expression of national identity. A hutch is basically a storage unit, but in the artist's hands it is transformed into a repository, storing national identity. They're modern references to 21st century experiences. From the FLQ crisis of the 1960s, to the debates over free trade with the U.S., the Japan tsunami, nuclear threat, these repurposed hutches become transformed objects. They are tableaux, by way of furniture. They are objects where we place our dreams in drawers and cubbies. A striking hutch features highway signage, mounted on top, a plastic-molded prosthetic leg — this object a monument to Marathon of Hope runner Terry Fox, it's a modern update on classic Greek and Roman sculpture, the fallen hero from antiquity for the 20th century.

More play on Canadian identity: reimagined landscapes made famous by the Group of Seven, by Douglas Coupland, those iconic scenes are reinterpreted, becoming geometric abstracts. But they're definitely not nostalgic either. While those famous images from the Group of Seven are now expressions of national identity, they are impulses for the artist, images of the past becoming the present, the future is already the present — ergo, the name for this exhibit. Everything is simultaneous, the future is closer than ever before, we already inhabit it. It's perpetual. He says "Everything becomes a time capsule."

Early in the exhibit at MOCCA, a large-scale installation of a collapsed electric hydro pylon, charred black. The object recalls the Quebec ice storm that collapsed hundreds of electric transmission lines disrupting the provinces energy infrastructure, causing widespread damage. Depicted in art form, the crumpled framework becomes a skeleton of bones, — once alive, now dead, succumbed to the forces of nature.

For the artist, thinking is harmonized. "Data is universal to everyone. The universal is a different game now. There is no blue collar, white collar — only blank collar." There is mass equivalency now — which requires that we reframed how we look at the world. Given vast meta data computing systems, he wonders what will happen to human intuition? Will we offload individuality into networks? In his words: "The future is every moment being revealed to us."

Click the slidewshow below to see Douglas Coupland at MOCCA. Enjoy.

Douglas Coupland: everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything
Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) & Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA)
Until April 19, 2015 (MOCCA) & April 29, 2015 (ROM)

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Mary Pratt oneMary Pratt two

Mary Pratt: McMichael Canadian Collection of Art
Posted 05/05/14

Not a retrospective in the traditional linear chronological sense; this is an exhibit of a lifetime of work by the accomplished Canadian visual artist Mary Pratt — arranged by themes. It appears at the McMichael Canadian Collection of Art in Kleinburg, Ontario. The exhibit is simply called: Mary Pratt. Seventy-five pieces — paintings, mixed media and drawings — span five decades of artistic effort. The artwork is grouped by general themes: daily life from the artist’s kitchen and household; a small group of images of people; and environments, a small group of landscapes.

The collection featuring still life scenes dominates most of the show and is most outstanding to behold. These are the paintings that have lead to the artist’s popularity, that we most associate with Mary Pratt. Hung salon-style, a long wall features tightly grouped scenes of the seemingly mundane: a red Jell-O mold dessert on a silver serving plate; jelly jars backlit by sunlight; and numerous images of fish in various states, raw and cooked. But what scenes they are! The Jell-O mold dessert painting, served on a silver plate, it sits on a doily table cloth — leaps from the surface. Translucent confection, reflected in luminous sunlight metal on intricately spun fabric — a seemingly quotidian view is unexpectedly elevated to high art — like Jell-O as sculpture. Uncooked Silver fish nestled on a crimson sheet of foil is absolutely stunning; light dances off the intricately complicated dented foil surface, reflected on the shimmering scaled surface of the raw blood-soaked catch. This image captures the senses of sight and smell. Another painting similarly captures a whole Salmon on Saran, the thin film of transparent cling plastic wrap. These scenes are new genre paintings; once depicted by the hands of Europe’s Flemish masters — those familiar arrangements of fruit and vegetables in bowls, wild hare hung from a hook, all grounded on rich heavy fabric tablecloths — like paintings from Vermeer, are transposed into the modern day, right out of the modern kitchen. Mireille Eagen in her essay from the companion catalogue writes about Mary Pratt “For her, time is not dictated by clocks but ordered by daily rituals. Her images reveal a pattern of privacies, of the half-visible, half-said — but articulated nonetheless. They represent a lifetime of looking closely, an intimation of the buzzing pause before one turns and continues.” Almost humdrum, they’re a glimpse of daily life, but illuminated and bathed in fantastic light, recorded on canvas.

The artist’s technique for recording so much detail, is aided by photography. She photographs her subject matter, then projects transparencies — remember those slides in a carousel? — onto canvas. With precision and control, she outlines and paints. She works in her house in St. John’s. It was her former husband, and painter, Christopher Pratt who initially suggested the use of photography back in the 1960s. It allows the artist much time for consideration of detail; these paintings can’t be rushed. However, a review of her earlier work shows some paintings to be less finessed, less refined. The Bed, 1968, is a scene of an unmade bed, sheets hanging over the corner posts in a blank room that is almost flat with no colour, there is barely any sense of depth in the image. You get the sense this is a painting that was done quickly, the need to capture the scene in daylight. But with the use of a camera, there is time to explore minutiae.

Interestingly, Mary Pratt offers ongoing commentaries on most of the paintings in the exhibit. The usual labels that identify painting name, year and media, also feature first-person comments from the artist. They’re insightful and sincere. They offer another observation, if briefly, into the explorations of her artistic life. Accompanying video and audio commentaries also enhance the visitor experience featuring the artist, at ease in her home, talking about her work.

A neighboring gallery at McMichael is Changing Tides: Contemporary Art of Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s not part of the Mary Pratt exhibit, but serves as an interesting companion to the main event. In fact, when entering Changing Tides, one finds a large-scale Mary Pratt painting on prominent display. Nearby, a painting by her former husband Christopher Pratt — one of his characteristic detail-filled paintings of a horizontal slatted wood frame out-building in a muted colour palette. Work by Mary and Christopher Pratt’s own children — Ned and Barbara are featured here to; the parental artistic influences are very apparent. Also, a few David Blackwood prints are on view among many other artists.

Mary Pratt
McMichael Gallery
Until April 27, 2014
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Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston: Barry McGee
Posted 09/03/13

On a brief stop in Boston, Mass this summer, I was eager to see the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. The building sits on the city’s waterfront; designed by award-winning architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro. It’s a stunning structure, the main gallery on the top floor is cantilevered, seemingly sitting high above the water’s like a tabletop, on the edge of falling into the harbor itself. Inside, visitors ascend in a clear-glass cube elevator to the galleries. A glass curtain wall spans the full width of the gallery on the fourth level, offering stunning views of the waterfront. A unique tiered digital media centre sits suspended underneath the cantilevered tabletop — think of the viewfinder of an old-school pop-up Kodak Polaroid camera upside down — offering restricted views of water and opportunities to learn about ICA’s artists. This is a great building and I highly recommend a visit. The public transit system’s MBTA Silver Line is nearby, it’s about a 10-minute walk away.

On to the art. ICA featured a stunning 20-year-spanning chronological survey of California-based multidisciplinary artist Barry McGee. Installations, drawings, paintings and objects are part of the 30-piece exhibit. At only 47, one is struck by the accomplishments of this artist, considered one of the west coast’s best. In his early days — living in San Francisco in the mid-1980s — he was a graffiti artist, tagging by the name Twist. He is actually credited with leading graffiti art into a respected art form — off the streets and into galleries. His work at ICA evokes youthful energy: messy, urban, street-smart, chaotic, spontaneous and anti-establishment with references to graffiti, sign art and illustrated comic book characters. More recent work brings that grittiness inside to boxy gallery confines creating environments that are jarring, challenging and delightful. ICA appeared to dedicate much of their space to this show, out of necessity for such large-scale and important work.

A contradiction is apparent in this show: a street-wise graffiti artist bent on illegal tagging, or marking of private property — with the practice of art itself. It’s the art and life balance story that most art stories tell. Complexity underscores his work – living in San Francisco in the early years of AIDS, his own personal loss of his first wife, consumerism and economic challenges confronting the U.S. Yet, as the ICA website describes, he is “unwilling to simply reflect existing conditions. McGee’s work proposes an alternate reality of political provocation, cooperative survival, and creative exuberance.”

Numerous works and installations stood out at the ICA show. A circular tower of old televisions, piled high, featuring grainy video footage of surveillance cameras watching private property while other videos show graffiti artists tagging, while loud music beats in the gallery. It’s subversive, an anti-establishment expression of freedom. The artist acknowledges — now in his late-40s — he doesn’t identify with his early graffiti art. Twist’s days are long gone. Then there’s an old rusty shelter in one gallery, the exterior featuring a painted down-and-out, sad-faced man on his knees. Inside the shed, images of women painted by McGee’s former wife, artist Margaret Kilgallen. According to an online article by Greg Cook at theartery.com, she died following the couple’s birth of their child. The shed as tomb, memorial, and gallery. The sad-face cartoon figure is a visual leitmotif – showing up throughout the exhibit in framed drawings and rendered on empty glass bottles hung in clusters, created during a dark period in the artist’s life; the bottles were collected from homeless people. The rusty shed is passed by and then things turned brighter. A huge collage of bold geometric shapes, illustrations, textures and crudely drawn slab serif letterforms covered walls in shocking colour like Op Art. My graphic design sensibility loved it. An assemblage of surfboards feature more textured patterns. The artist’s roots in street art were on display in cabinets featuring sketch books, music CDs, dirty rags, bricks and more curiously painted bottles. Early in the show, an old worn jacket hangs on a wall, its pockets filled with spray cans, it looks like an unconventional uniform. So much visual stimulation at this show. This art is fully of energy and emotion. It was a great, inspiring show. So glad I made it to ICA.

Click the slidewshow below to see ICA/Boston and the Barry McGee exhibit. Enjoy.

Barry McGee
Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston
Until Sept. 2, 2013
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Art Gallery of Ontario
Jack Chambers: Light, Spirit, Time, Place and Life
Posted: 02/04/12

Light, Spirit, Time and Place form this exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario which includes more than 100 works in various media: film, paintings, drawings, notebooks and archival photography. The exhibit is curated by professor and AGO director Dennis Reid. Touchstone paintings provide focus for each theme, while the artist’s film work can be viewed in a small theatre.

Jack Chambers' artistic interest began in the 1960s with unconventional, or ‘underground’ work in stop-action film: With a fixed-position camera, he recorded the shifting day-by-day activity in his London, Ontario home backyard, recording the slightest aspects of changing scenery. In the same decade, he spent eight years in Spain, met Pablo Picasso, and experimented in surrealism. On his return to London he shared studio space with fellow artist Greg Curnoe.

In the 1970s, Jack Chambers embraced realistic painting in a style he called ‘perceptual realism.’ An intellectual, he believed perception is the key to understanding everything: he strove to capture it in his painting. Thus, he painted scenes depicting the daily life of his family and landscape scenes of southern Ontario.

Light, the first of four themes in the exhibit, is brilliantly evoked in Sunday Morning No. 2 (1968–1970) featuring his young children watching television in the family living room; this is winter light reflected off snow-covered ground that appears outside the large living room window, the room is bright with light, not intense, but soft and cool.

A touchstone work in the exhibit identifying with the theme of Place is 401 Towards London No. 1 (1968–1969). The scene is a flat Ontario landscape punctuated by a ribbon of modern highway with brilliant spotted summer clouds, the landscape's horizon is physically shifted off-balance, it dips down to the frame’s lower left corner evoking the sense of flight. The artist caught this view in his car’s rear view mirror; he returned to photograph it in greater detail in preparation before painting the scene. Like many paintings in the exhibit, small photographs are present to offer glimpses into the artist’s working method. Dennis Reid lead an engaging tour of the exhibit one evening recently and suggested that 401 Towards London No. 1 can’t be deconstructed; to understand the work, would be a limitless pursuit. I’ve admired this work for years, like so many admirers.

Diagnosed with leukemia in 1969, this new reality informs all of his work for years to follow. Spirit, the exhibit’s third theme features the unfinished work Lunch (1970–): a seemingly typical Sunday afternoon meal in the family dining room. Again, light is interpreted brilliantly. The artist’s perception though is evolving and changing. An empty chair at the dinner table, unfinished paintings hang on the room’s walls and a large carpet has been roughly overpainted.

The exhibit’s fourth theme, Time, reveals interesting paintings. Images of the artist’s ancestors appear to be cut and placed like painted photomontages (photography has been described as ‘painting with light’). They are cut apart and arranged on the canvas. This is his family history, generational time over decades, these paintings evoke birth, death and rebirth.

The Art Gallery of Ontario has the largest collection of Jack Chambers work anywhere. This exhibit featuring examples from the AGO’s permanent collection and borrowed work brilliantly elucidates his career.

Jack Chambers: Light, Place, Spirit, Time and Life
Art Gallery of Ontario
Until May, 13, 2012
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Type oneType twoType threeType four

Just My Type
Simon Garfield
c 2010 Gotham Books
Art Gallery of Ontario $32 (full price), Book City, Toronto locations $9 (discounted price, where available)
Posted: 12/08/11

Another book commentary. I placed this entry in Art as Just My Type is a bit of a departure from the other branding books I’ve commented on previously.

I read a comment recently that suggested ‘typography is essentially what language looks like.' That notion really struck me and it stuck. British journalist Simon Garfield’s book brilliantly illustrates in word and image, 560 years of typographic development; he says we must appreciate what language actually looks like in the visual form whether viewed on paper or on the screen of a mobile device.

Just My Type is definitely not the history of typography, rather it’s a collection of about twenty lighthearted stories about great and curious contributors in the field of design who have affected popular culture through the development of typography. Garfield calls type “the uncelebrated hardware of our language.” Accompanying some of these stories are brief ‘font breaks’ which offer details into typefaces and their creators.

Straight away he tackles the font that went wrong: Comic Sans. Originally created for Microsoft Bob, a children’s computer application, Comic Sans was meant to be fun, uncomplicated; it was inspired by the lettering found in comic books. That all changed when it became a supplementary typeface in Microsoft Windows and since then, has become very common. Widely dismissed in the design industry, Comic Sans appears often on one-off laser printed flyers, posters and resumés. With credit given to Apple’s Steve Jobs and others, the growth of personal computers and their accompanying applications, everyone is now aware of fonts and their names: Arial, Verdana or Georgia. We’re introduced to prolific U.K. typeface designer Matthew Carter, the creator of Verdana and Georgia. Simon Garfield spoke to Matthew Carter, who made this observation regarding the now common knowledge people have about fonts, “…they don’t realized any human agency is involved, because fonts for them are part of the software ether that appears mysteriously on their computer, manifestations of some ghostly form. So they’re astonished when they hear that people do this.”

In another chapter, he describes the global popularity of Helvetica. Garfield calls Helvetica “a font of such practicality that it is both ubiquitous and something of a cult.” He suggests that, “the better observation is that it is ubiquitous because it fulfills so many demands for modern type.” There’s a documentary film about Helvetica, entire books have been written about it, type geeks wear it on their T-shirts with pride. Wherever you go, it won’t take long to find Helvetica. Helvetica enjoys its Swiss heritage: it began as Neue Haas Grotesk, a modernization of Akzidenz Grotesk from 1898. It has gained a reputation as an honest font, it’s trustworthy, efficient and clean.

I enjoyed the chapter on one particular glyph, the ampersand. It’s two letters actually: the e and the t of the Latin ‘et.’ Way back, scribes had to work quickly, the ampersand provided a quick shorthand. Simon Garfield beautifully describes the italic ampersand rendered in the sixteenth century by Claude Garamond: the form’s calligraphic origins are clear, the e on the left, the t on the right, joined by a winding stroke that ‘ascends freely skyward.’ See the sample below. This glyph is more than an abbreviation, it “signifies permanence.” Would Marks & Spencer, House & Garden, or Dean & Deluca be the same without their ampersand?

Just My Type makes plenty of references to noteworthy British designers. Notably, Edward Johnston’s font for the London Underground. Johnston defined London type. Simon Garfield suggests it is often considered the first modern ‘people’s typeface,’ to be used in day-to-day applications, such as the need to travel. Design was contributing to society in everyday ways. Likewise, we trust Times New Roman when reading the Times of London. Today, we look at a very new font, Gotham, similarly. Adopted by the Barack Obama presidential nomination team, this font was “installed at the heart of the candidate’s graphic vision.” Here was a campaign designed like a corporate identity. Designed by Tobias Frere-Jones of Hoefler & Frere-Jones, originally for GQ magazine, its origins can be found in architectural lettering in New York City, hence its name. U.S. contemporary graphic designer Sheperd Fariey employed Gotham in the now-famous Obama HOPE campaign poster. See the sample below.

Simon Garfield offers “a universal font truth: we tend to treat the traditional and familiar as trustworthy. We are dubious of fonts that alert us to their differences, or fonts that seem to be trying too hard. We don’t like being consciously sold things, or paying for fancy design we don’t need.” Over 100,000 fonts exist today. Is it possible that we have reached our typographic limits? Apparently not according to the author, because we are continually changing, “we need to express ourselves in new ways.”

PS: Simon Garfield offers a couple of amusing type-related websites in Just My Type. They're really fun. Enjoy: Font or Cheese? and Max Kerning

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Ampersand

Art Gallery of Ontario
Black Ice: David Blackwood Prints of Newfoundland
Posted: 03/07/11

On the Art Gallery of Ontario website, curator Katharine Lochnan introduces the first major Canadian exhibition of the Newfoundland artist/printmaker and 1963 graduate of the Ontario College of Art, David Blackwood in Black Ice: David Blackwood Prints of Newfoundland. She describes his intaglio prints as “metaphors for man’s attempt to survive in the most hostile environment on Earth … They show us how we can survive against all odds. They’re very inspiring. They’re very mysterious … He’s created a mythology for his own province.”

David Blackwood considers himself a visual storyteller. This temporary exhibition at the AGO offers a visual insight into his life and imagination from childhood in the outport village of Wesleyville on Bonavista Bay in the form of epic visual narratives. Themes of struggle for survival, the brutal force of nature, life and death and myth reoccur in this iconographic exhibition. His website says, ‘His narrative work reflects the legend, toughness and landscape of Newfoundland — an historic journey not that far removed in essence and time.”

Check your bookshelf. If you read the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Shipping News by Annie Proulx you’ll see David Blackwood’s artwork: Hauling Job Sturge’s House, 1979 which is featured in the current exhibit at the AGO.

Dark Ice: David Blackwood Prints of Newfoundland
Art Gallery of Ontario
Feb. 5, 2011–June 12, 2011
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