In his 1922 satirical essay My Discovery of England, the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock achieved a kind of colonial reverse thrust in print. A send-up of the travel diaries of European (particularly British) travellers, who noted the endearing efforts of North American cities to emulate the European capitals, his essay does just the opposite, noting with ironic delight those moments when, touring London, he encounters reminders of his own North American homeland across the sea.
“The upper end of Whitehall opens into the majestic and spacious Trafalgar Square,” Leacock writes with mock afflatus. “Here are grouped in imposing proximity the offices of the Canadian Pacific and other railways, The International Sleeping Car Company, the Montreal Star, and the Anglo-Dutch Bank. Two of the best American barber shops are conveniently grouped near the Square, while the existence of a tall stone monument in the middle of the Square itself enables the American visitor to find them without difficulty.”
Leacock’s tour continues: “Passing eastward towards the heart of the city, one notes on the left hand the imposing pile of St. Paul’s, an enormous church with a round dome on the top, suggesting strongly the first Church of Christ (Scientist) on Euclid Avenue, Cleveland.” It’s a delicious put-down of the motherland, and all her maternal pretensions.
I thought of this essay when looking this week at the paintings of Toronto artist Joanne Tod, who has produced a new set of pictures documenting the hallways of 1 Spadina Crescent, home to the University of Toronto’s visual-studies program, where Tod teaches. It’s a place of faux-Gothic archways and shiny linoleum floors (no time-worn flagstones here), which she documents with a bright and sparkling attention, and a kind of rapture for what is culturally hers. What seems to draw her eye is the building’s likeness to its European architectural precursors, reconstituted here in Toronto in economical, ersatz form (one work is titled Toronto Gothic), yet Tod affirms this colonial version. It feels like home. Expertly painted (they are crisp where they need to be crisp, liquid where they need to be liquid), these paintings are classic Canadiana.
While this building may look like a British monastery, Tod’s closer inspection reveals other, more intriguing histories. Over the past century, she says, the site has been the home to scientific laboratories. Poliovirus and penicillin have been cultivated here in pioneering programs, and she has discovered the subtle remnants of this past in old refrigerator doors and other discrete industrial touches. The building has also served as an eye bank, and as a centre for the study of psychology. Next month, it will morph again, as the artists move out and the faculty of architecture moves in. Renovations are planned, change will come, but Tod captures the present in her crystalline gaze.
Tod has a second show on in Toronto right now, too: Invited Invasion at the Gardiner Museum, an institution devoted to the history of ceramic art. Here, again, she riffs on the idea of the historical. Rather than celebrating the royal wedding of Wills and Kate or the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, Tod’s new china collectibles memorialize contemporary life in the Canadian metropolis. A commemorative plate sports an image of the Occupy tents huddled beneath the spire of St. James Cathedral (at the foot of Church Street). A cup-and-saucer set depicts the Liberty Grand at Exhibition Place (our very own frumpy faux-beaux-arts pile), accented with a rendering of the Gardiner Expressway wind turbine, a sleek symbol of the winds of change.