Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Big Picture 28

At the end of every April, the GTA’s many colleges and universities set dozens, if not hundreds, of visual arts students free to roam the streets. Animators, graphic designers, film and video technicians, printers, set designers, needle traders, and, worse off, full blown artists (i.e. people with no sellable skills) clean out their lockers and wander off campus by the dazed busloads - with nothing to protect them from the cold, soul-eating world but their dreams, their looks, and a cash payout from their aging boomer parents.

What’s to be done with all this youthful talent, energy, and ambition? Some of these bright heralds of the future even have valid degrees. Personally, I think a forced relocation program is long overdue. Toronto has enough artists. But can the same be said for, say, southern New Brunswick (the north is lousy with whimsical Acadian potters – I’ve been there), North Bay, or the mountainous regions of Alberta? Hardly. As unattractive as the sight of a locked plane full of crying post-teens might be, it’s for their own good. And mine.

Of course, there are always do-gooders determined to reach out a helping hand to youth – well meaning people who don’t realize that today’s emerging artist is tomorrow’s competition for wall space. But nobody listens to us prophets anymore, so I’ll let the helpful helpers cut their own throats.

One such patroness is Toronto curator Sophie Hackett who, with co-curator Jennifer Long, has assembled Flash Forward, an enormous exhibition of photographic works by graduating students from Toronto and New York.

To call Flash Forward a revelation might be overselling the show, but it pains me to admit that I walked away from this exhibit with a renewed sense of urgency – namely, that particular panic faced by all senior artists when confronted by their inevitable replacements. I felt like Francis Ford Coppola watching Lost In Translation, or, more accurately, an early Trump wife shopping for an eye lift. Time to gas up that plane!

Hackett is the first to admit that emerging artists are becoming something of a fetish object in the art world, at the expense of mid-career and established artists – but, on the other hand, she’s glad she took the assignment.

“It wasn’t my idea!”, Hackett jokes, “One of the mandates of the Magenta Foundation, who paid for Flash Forward, is to support emerging artists, so I wanted to do the best job I could within that framework.”

“And, kidding aside,” she admits, “I do have a soft spot for emerging artists. It’s gratifying to provide people with their first chance to exhibit. I certainly agree that there have been a lot of initiatives for emerging artists lately, which is part of the generational shift that will continue as the boomer’s kids start taking up the space occupied by their parents … and maybe this interest in the young is pursued to the exclusion of mid-career artists, but a good show is a good show.”

And Flash Forward is a very good show. Like any large group exhibition, FF has its bright and dim moments, but the overall impression it gives is that younger photographers are playing fast and loose with core, indeed sacred notions of what constitutes a proper “high art” photograph. Many of the works here look like little more than digital snapshots, or, conversely, are so flamboyantly stagy and artificial they might as well be 19th century story paintings. Most of this work would be equally at home in a theatrical installation or as a prop in a performance piece. And the level of technical finesse proves the cliché that kids today are the most technologically savvy generation in human history.

The works that struck me as the most accomplished were those that were obviously samples from a larger, cohesive body of work - such as Adam Peters’s “Crop” series, a collection of ruthlessly cropped, colourful party pics that focus on sexily intertwined dancing limbs, Johanna Warwick’s unnerving images of a not-so-happy couple trying to glare each other to death, Nicole Stafford’s drive-by shootings of run down, working class store fronts (the kind her generation’s grandparents founded, to pay for her education), and Jesse Boles’s night shots of fairy-lit industrial wastelands (an obvious nod to Edward Burtynsky, but everybody goes through a shoplifting phase).

Hackett is not surprised by my faves. “One of the yardsticks we used was to see if the artist had a committed vision already in place. We wanted to find artists who were steadily pursuing a visual goal, not experimenting with anything just because they can do it.”

Experimenting? That’s kid’s stuff.


Toronto video artist Leif Harmsen is a hopeless exhibitionist. I, and everybody who travels in art circles, have seen more of Harmsen’s unmentionables than I’ve seen of my own. His motto seems to be: If I’m outdoors, why am I clothed?

It’s only natural (pun intended) that Mr. All Access should create VendaVision, a video nickelodeon and pop machine designed to bring new video art to the masses for a mere dollar a peek.

VendaVision works just like a snack machine: you put in a loonie and pick your can of pop. The pop choice determines what video you will watch – a one minute sample from Harmsen himself or local stars Peggy Anne Burton, Ed Sinclair or John Greyson, among others. What could be easier?

There’s no great message on offer here, no pretence to anything grander than mixing art and fun (and carbonated drinks). My only question is, why set up VendaVision in a building full of art galleries? This quick fix belongs in Niagara Falls, right beside the fortune telling puppets and mystery grab bags.


This space is supposed to be filled with my report on a terribly important piece of art by a terribly senior artist, but said artist washed out on me at the last minute and, lucky day! I discovered instead some unassuming, disposable art by an unassuming young artist.

Frank Maidens is a graphic designer wondering what to do with his off hours. He has decided to make art – clever, colourful and light-as-a-pill art based on the familiar shapes of capsules. Is this an homage to General Idea’s 1991 One Year of AZT? Maidens claims he’s never seen the work. Is he a pill head himself? No.

What Maidens is doing is even simpler than it looks. He’s taking the pill shape and turning it, via endless repetition and a Turkish carpet’s worth of primary colours, into a pattern standard, an ubiquitous form and symbol no more loaded with medical or personal subtexts than an asterisk or a triangle.

As a design exercise, Maidens’s work is a telling example of the nullifying power of visual reiteration. But as art, it’s very, very cute – perfect for the bathroom wall, beside the medicine cabinet.

Flash Forward
Lennox Contemporary 12 Ossington Ave.
Until April 30

401 Richmond Street West, 1st Floor (across from YYZ Gallery)
Indefinite run

Frank Maidens
Things That Are Pretty
Le Gallery 1183 Dundas Street West
Until May 1