- I AM HERE: Home Movies and Everyday Masterpieces
- Venue: Art Gallery of Ontario
- Artists: David Hockney, Claes Oldenburg, Annie Pootoogook, Arthur Jafa, Jack Chambers and Mary Pratt
- Curators: Jim Shedden, Alexa Greist and Rick Prelinger
- Open: April 13 - Aug. 14
On the first anniversary of the lockdown, the shuttered Art Gallery of Ontario was trying to keep in touch with its audience so it invited the public to make digital submissions of their pandemic art. About 3,000 people from Canada and around the world sent in samples; today, the gallery is including all of them in a new exhibition about amateur and quotidian image-making, entitled I AM HERE: Home Movies and Everyday Masterpieces. The full 3,000 can be screened in a five-hour digital display but the gallery has also selected 100 to reproduce as vinyl posters that are displayed on a wall in the show. That is to say: Curators have made a professional cull of their crowd-sourced art.
This innovative and engaging exhibition is all about that tension, about how we make distinctions and definitions in a world saturated with pictures, how artists represent everyday life or how everyday people represent themselves. It is a show that juxtaposes – to great effect – historic, renowned, professional art with the anonymous and the amateur: home movies, family photo albums, that cool Instagram feed.
This high-concept exhibition was curated by the AGO’s publishing manager Jim Shedden and prints and drawings curator Alexa Greist, along with Rick Prelinger, a U.S. archivist and filmmaker who collects “ephemeral” films including home movies, ads and industrial shorts. Prelinger’s collection includes more than 18,000 home movies, little 20th-century film clips of people dancing, showing off pets or celebrating holidays. They were the inspiration for a project that places these brief but numerous documents of human existence beside their grand artistic antecedents and their numerous contemporary equivalents.
Those include unusual pairings from the AGO’s permanent collection and a few strategic loans – a section about urban life features an oversized horizontal view of a Los Angeles street scene by the British artist David Hockney, that master of estheticizing the banal. A section about family includes history’s first home movie: In 1895 Louis Lumière filmed his brother and sister-in-law feeding their baby breakfast. In a prototypical piece of performance, the baby tries to offer his biscuit to the camera held by its uncle.
Provocative and telling combinations abound. The section entitled Food Glorious Food includes home movies showing construction workers with their lunch buckets, a pie-eating contest and two kids with giant lollipops, while Toronto graphic designer Gilbert Li contributes recent images from his Instagram feed, the spot where he posts his lunch. Those small-screen works are placed alongside two hyper realistic paintings, depictions of fish dinners created in the 1970s by Mary Pratt, the Newfoundland artist revered for her luminescent renderings of kitchen still-lifes.
The show culminates in a viewing room for Prelinger’s Panorama, a reel of the home movies showing a stream of miniature dramas as a tourist photographs a bear, a group of deaf people hold a party and a man tries to loosen a champagne cork. Prelinger’s collection is largely American but the AGO has snuck in various Canadian references, pairing scenes of U.S. road trips with a slide show of social media posts from Weber’s hamburger restaurant, that perennial pitstop on the way to Ontario cottage country. And the section on family includes a large display of found photo albums – baby pics, holiday snaps, wedding photography – from a collection donated to the AGO by Toronto artist Max Dean.
Still, Prelinger’s home movies, dating from the 1920s to the 1980s, encapsulate a particular American sensibility. Reflecting their respective places in the world, American culture is performative while Canadian is observational; a whole other show might be made of the difference.
One of the most impressive bits of observation here is Jack Chambers’s monumental landscape 401 Towards London, not displayed at the AGO in a decade. With the long grey roadway receding to the horizon line, that wondrous painting freezes the vast summer sky and green scenery of Southern Ontario in a moment of intense visualization. Whatever an Instagram post might achieve, this is what an artist can do, making the viewer see.
Another theme that emerges repeatedly is that of collecting, memorabilia, ephemera and the analogue too. Dean’s photo albums are paired with Everything in My Father’s Wallet/Everything in My Wallet, a 2005 commemorative project by Toronto artist Sara Angelucci photographing the contents of her late father’s wallet and comparing it to the cards and bills in her own. The show also includes We Buy White Albums, the collection of Beatles’ White Album covers gathered by U.S. artist Rutherford Chang, each copy defaced or stained in a different way. And, in one of their cleverest borrowings, the curators have snagged a single cardboard box from the Andy Warhol Museum’s archives and unpacked the time capsule’s contents: bills, posters, pamphlets, all hoarded some time in the late 1960s by the pack rat pop artist.
Warhol, prescient as always, predicted not merely the cult of celebrity (another topic of this show) but also the volume of material with which technological reproduction would eventually swamp us. Today, who has time to cull the photos on their iPhone?
Faced with the vastness of his own collection, filled with so many images of the remarkable and the mundane, Prelinger was quoting the German playwright Bertolt Brecht as I AM HERE opened this week: “There are times when you have to choose between being human and having good taste.” In the midst of this show, it seems you can actually do both.
I AM HERE continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto to Aug. 14.
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