Skip to main content
gallery going

Scott Conarroe at Stephen Bulger Gallery

  • $1,200-$2,500. Until Sept. 12
  • 1026 Queen St. W., Toronto; 416-504-0575

When I ask Scott Conarroe - whose exhibition of photographs called By Rail has just opened at Toronto's Stephen Bulger Gallery - if he really loves trains, he answers: "I'm sure I do. I go out with my old-fashioned camera and I watch the sun come up and I watch the sun go down every single day." By which I guess he means that anybody who behaves that romantically is bound to love trains.

But as Conarroe is quick to point out, train tracks, which appear somewhere in each of the 10 large-scale colour photos making up his exhibition, nevertheless "take up only about one per cent of each photo. So they're mostly about something else." What else? "The tracks are the thread that joins all the spaces," Conarroe says, "and the tracks go everywhere. The tracks are therefore a given, a constant in the pictures, and the rest of the world revolves around them."

And "the rest of the world" is Conarroe's subject. His tracks carry the viewer, for example, from the frenetic middle of Chicago ( Loop Canyon, Chicago, Ill. ), through majestic open prairie ( Prairie Tracks, Saskatchewan ) and dispiritingly cluttered plain ( Trailer Park, Wendover, Utah ), past stunningly beautiful scenic vistas ( Bow River, Alberta ) to unbeautiful knots of social congestion ( Hobo Camp, Reno NV ).

It seems clear that these big, radiant photographs of Conarroe's (who is a master of delicate, subtle light, veiling down over his chosen views) are the bountiful harvest of an epic journey. Conarroe says his trip began in Dawson Creek, his hometown, and, after packing everything he needed into his 1981 Chevrolet van, continued to Toronto, Chicago ("a big railway town"), went south to Miami, then west via New Orleans to northern California, and then proceeded to the east and back again to the west.

He says he has a special fondness for Canal, Cleveland OH , reproduced here. He had been teaching for one semester at the Art Institute of Chicago and after the course finished, he drove to Cleveland and made the photo - the first trophy of his safari. He says he was standing on top of the van, looking down at what clearly turned out to be a graphic gathering of dead-tech objects and passages - like a sort of calligraphic drawing in the snow.

He travelled alone (the trip lasted from January, 2008, until September, 2009). "Do you remember the film The Bridges of Madison County ?" he asks me. I reluctantly admit that I do. "Well," he says, laughing, "it was sort of like that. You show up in a town, make your pictures, and kind of amble around for a while." But he adds that he always had a destination, "so as not to feel completely unruddered."

He uses a 4x5 film camera, not digital. His old-fashioned trip makes recalls those legendary American art-journeys: Robert Frank drove around for a year, shooting his book The Americans (1958); Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady crisscrossed the country in their old Hudson, pre- On the Road . "It was like that," says Conarroe. "The whole trip was a big romantic picture-fest for me."

Dax Morrison at YYZ

Until Aug. 8, 401 Richmond St. W., Suite 140, Toronto; 416-598-4546

Dax Morrison's installation The Willing and Able has it all. A chromatically stupefying, wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling muster of 212 vertical stripes, each 1 5/8 inches wide, the piece - now a gigantic "modernist" op-art "painting" - is a compendium of strips of the colour found on Toronto's art galleries' walls, donated as samples to the artist.

The participating galleries are listed in alphabetical order on an adjacent wall, where they form a crisp typographical tower stretching from the floor to the ceiling. The coloured stripes making up the big "painting" are positioned, left to right, in the order in which the galleries appear on the list.

There is much here to wonder at: the exhausting vision of Morrison's soliciting paint samples from 212 galleries; his tenacity in executing this mega-work; the real but also accidental beauty of the wall of rippling colour, like a massive harp that offers hues, not notes. As YYZ director Marissa Neave notes in a splendid essay accompanying the exhibition ( Leveling Hierarchy and the Process of Neutrality ), Morrison's piece, "though visually abstract, clearly eschews the hierarchical constructs of an art 'scene,' quietly redefines a community as such, and sharply highlights a methodical process in a smirk-ridden nod to conceptualism."

Johanna Billing at Mercer Union

Until Aug. 15, 1286 Bloor St. W., Toronto; 416-536-1519

This engaging 27-minute video from 2007 by Stockholm-based artist Johanna Billing is titled This Is How We Walk on the Moon - also the title of a song by the late Arthur Russell.

The video is about sailing. It is built around the experience of four young musicians and aspiring sailors who are being given a sailing lesson on the Firth of Forth (with the mighty bridge arching over their frail bark) off Edinburgh. Nimbly evading the worn-out idea that such an ocean-going sojourn might be seen as a voyage of self-discovery, Billing makes her nautical video a virtual handbook to sailing - I really think you could learn the ropes just by watching it.

The more engrossing meaning of the work comes gradually to the fore as you learn that the four young would-be sailors, while frequently engaged in performing songs with seafaring themes, are nautical virgins. The film documents, therefore, what writer/musician Brian Kuan Wood refers to in his catalogue essay as "a way of reclaiming a relationship that before only existed as a stylistic allusion."