For Toronto art, the biggest story is not any single artist, curator or gallery, but a neighbourhood – specifically, the semi-industrial area surrounding Bloor and Lansdowne. Four galleries have landed there in the past year or so: Daniel Faria, Scrap Metal Gallery, Arsenal Toronto (an outpost of two Montreal galleries, René Blouin and Galerie La Division) and the Jessica Bradley Annex. If this, in fact, marks a spread of galleries to the northwest of the city, it’s a trend that could change the way Torontonians view art, and in turn, what they will come to expect of the art that’s produced here.
By and large, the consumption of art in this city has been largely relegated to, and thus dictated by, storefronts. This has been the case for as long as the Queen West strip has served as the hub of contemporary art galleries (those on Dundas Street West are likewise storefronts, and nothing relevant has been going on in Yorkville for as long as I can remember). This means that the way we have been looking at art has been defined by a series of problems. These galleries are all cramped and narrow. Generally, there is one large south-facing storefront window, which means that there are perpetual lighting issues: bleaching direct sunlight in front, dim obscurity in the back.
With the closing of the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation – the best exhibition space in Toronto, which housed some of the city’s most important shows, culled from her own collection – the sole non-institutional gallery here that stands as a meaningful exception is Olga Korper; the space is cavernous, with indirect lighting that filters down from the barn-like ceiling.
The four galleries that have squatted this new hub are uniformly massive: long and high and deep, with huge swaths of uninterrupted wall space. At the opening of the Jessica Bradley Annex, the gallery was set up as basically a glorified storage area; individual works by artists in her stable. Still, even in the sardine crush of people at the opening, each piece – painting, photograph, sculpture – could be given its spatial due.
The group show I saw at Arsenal (a space yet to be routinely active) was put up for the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, to inaugurate the gallery and demonstrate its potential. It was a standard group show affair – multiple works by seven artists, the kind of thing that would choke any other non-institutional space in the city. Instead, each photograph had room to breathe and project, and thus, not only could they be seen and considered in and of themselves, the conversations and relationships between pieces were all the more profound for the space they were allowed to take up.
Constrained exhibition spaces constrain ambitions, and the large scale of these galleries demands more from artists. Some flourish under these new circumstances; the strength of Chris Curreri’s show of photographs and sculptures at Daniel Faria was such that it assumed a Parthenon-esque power and grandeur in this new context. Scrap Metal Gallery, established by Samara Walbohn and Joe Shlesinger to house work from their private collection, uses this spatial immensity to showcase epic installations by international artists: Ragnar Kjartansson’s operatic five-channel video The End, for instance. And this has already proved a test for some; I have seen a couple of shows that are concrete examples of the art failing to meet the physical demands of the gallery.
So this isn’t merely a question of counting square footage and ceiling height, or numbering the windows. Beyond its mercantile use, a gallery functions as a contextual frame for the art – an idealized viewing space. This, in turn, has a profound effect on the kind of art that gets made, that can be deemed possible to house and display to best advantage.
Torontonians have been trained by this city’s spaces to expect a certain kind of art. The emergence of this new gallery-going corridor could very well not just retrain our eyes, but give our artists the room to give full breadth to their ambition.
2012 HIGHS AND LOWS
10th Sobey Art Award winner presentation at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art
An appalling spectacle. Five nervous artists were trotted out and forced through the paces of a pageant competition – all for the possibility of a lump-sum cheque. Canada must jettison this infantile, and ultimately, deeply insulting obsession with competitions and the concomitant pretensions to TV awards shows. If corporations want to support artists, then they should do just that, with a modicum of sobriety and dignity: Announce a shortlist and a winner all at once, give the latter a large cheque and the former smaller honoraria, and have done with it.
Christian Marclay’s The Clock at the Power Plant
Whatever happens to Marclay’s career, this single piece is surely one of the most significant artworks of the past decade, a rare instance of contemporary canon-formation.
Will Munro at the Art Gallery of York University
Due, diligent reverence paid to an epicentre of Toronto’s cultural life. A show of heartwarming inclusion, heartbreaking in the implication of what could have been.