Ontario’s museums and public art galleries were the last to emerge from lockdowns, joining the rest of the country in mid-July. Here are some current must-see exhibitions in the Ottawa and Toronto areas that Globe and Mail art critic Kate Taylor has reviewed.
Rembrandt in Amsterdam: Creativity and Competition
The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, to Sept. 6.
This large exhibit explains how the famed 17th-century Dutch painter built his career alongside the burgeoning city – with a significant twist. Guest curators add texts and contemporary works by Black and Indigenous artists to address colonization. The relationship with slavery is fairly obvious – global trade, whether fair or not, was the source of Dutch wealth during the so-called Golden Age – while the link to Indigenous peoples in what is now North American is more subtle: Dutch traders were already, in Rembrandt’s day, building friendly relations with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The main exhibition of Rembrandt and his contemporaries is solid and satisfying; the additional elements are occasionally peripheral or distracting, but mainly succeed at a tricky expansion of art history.
The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, to Oct. 24
This sprawling retrospective organized by the Tate Modern in London and Cologne’s Museum Ludwig begins with Andy Warhol’s student work and culminates with the celebrity portraits and experimental television shows of the 1980s. It views Warhol’s art through a biographical lens, stressing that the artist was the child of working-class Eastern European immigrants, devoutly Catholic and openly gay. It includes some revelations, such as making the link between images of the widowed Jackie Kennedy and the Eastern Catholic icons Warhol would have known in childhood, but in the main does little to explain his importance or cement his legacy. The combination of COVID restrictions and large quantities of the less interesting later work mean the enduring hits of pop, including the Campbell soup cans and the Marilyn Diptych, don’t get as much space as they deserve.
Elias Sime: Tightrope
The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, to Sept. 6
The main attraction at the Royal Ontario Museum this summer is an exhibition devoted to the museum’s research on great whales, but tucked away on the fourth floor, this smaller show by the Ethiopian artist Elias Sime must be seen in person to be believed. Sime creates giant canvases where abstracted landscapes emerge from meticulous accumulations of recycled electronics: motherboards become miniature cities; coils of coloured wires read as fields or oceans; slight variations in fading and staining on hundreds of individual computer keys suggest the movement of clouds. Part of the obvious delight for the viewer is identifying bits of trashed computers or cellphones and marvelling at their creative reuse, but on reflection these impressive pieces consider our relationship with technology, with each other and with the planet. That’s the tightrope humanity walks.
Kumbi Saleh 3020 by Ekow Nimako
The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, to Aug. 29
The Aga Khan Museum has reopened with a remarkable acquisition it made shortly before the pandemic: a miniature city built by Toronto artist Ekow Nimako, who specializes in creating Afrocentric sculptures using only black Lego blocks. This example, Kumbi Saleh 3020, is a futuristic cityscape that is part Timbuktu and part Death Star. About the size of a pool table, the piece – which took 100,000 blocks and more than 350 hours to construct – is packed with details inspired by historic African architecture, but also exudes an intriguing sci-fi gleam as Nimako fashions a Black pop mythology.
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