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Take a stroll through the online exhibitions on Contact’s website: Lots of powerful imagery emerges, but it also becomes clear that some photography needs to be seen in the flesh

Spa Duchamp Fountain by Lynne Cohen.Lynne Cohen

What is a photograph but a collection of pixels? It’s an array of grey or coloured dots, a configuration as easily viewed on a computer screen as printed on a piece of paper and hung on a wall. Couldn’t we just move every photography exhibition in the world online?

As Toronto’s Contact festival, that Maytime firehose of photo shows, shifts from offering an actual event to a virtual one, the answer is … well, no, actually. Take a stroll through the online exhibitions on Contact’s website: Lots of powerful imagery emerges, but it also becomes clear that some photography needs to be seen in the flesh.

Contact’s core exhibitions at public galleries and in public spaces – a billboard project by New York photographer Kim Hoeckele at Dovercourt and Dupont, an installation by the Italian artist Alberto Giuliani at Brookfield Place, the Diane Arbus show at the Art Gallery of Ontario – are postponed or closed until further notice. Instead, the festival has organized some digital alternatives on its website, including a new video by Hoeckele and Giuliani’s photographs of Italian doctors and nurses, their faces furrowed and reddened by the masks they have removed for these end-of-shift portraits. And Contact is pointing viewers to online versions of its many featured exhibitions, the shows mainly provided by the city’s commercial art galleries. Turns out, these online experiences are both illuminating and frustrating, just like the times.

Take, as the most rewarding example, the retrospective dedicated to the late Lynne Cohen that is showing on the website of the Olga Korper Gallery. For those acquainted with Cohen’s pristine images of eerily empty industrial, medical and social spaces – an antiseptic spa, a puzzling military warehouse, a futuristic lobby – the show will be a welcome reminder of the way the photographer, who died in 2014, could fascinate and unsettle. And for those unacquainted, it will take but moments to click your way to an unusual new experience. Cohen’s places are full of signs of human purpose yet sinisterly devoid of any actual people, and they take on a darker realism in the current crisis as the dystopic becomes actual.

There’s no doubt that the white walls and high ceiling of Korper’s postindustrial space in the city’s west end would be a strong setting for these works, but you don’t actually miss the gallery as you view the photos online. On the other hand, Spring Hurlbut’s Dyadic Circles 2019-2020 series seems unanchored, losing some evocative power when viewed outside an art shrine, in this case Georgia Scherman Projects, which recently closed down its Tecumseth Street gallery. Hurlbut has taken the ashes of cremated humans and animals and shaped them into perfect discs, using two different tones of ash for each side, so that the left is lighter than the right or vice versa. (The difference in colour depends on the heat of the fire; sometimes the two are from one body, sometimes they represent two different beings.)

Dyadic Circles: Barley and Cujo 1, 2019, by Spring Hurlbut.Courtesy Georgia Scherman Projects

The tension between the pristine abstract aesthetic and the grim materials, between art and death, order and chaos, should be exquisite – and I can only imagine it would be if one saw these photographs in a quietly echoing space. Yet without being a body standing in a gallery, without being able to relate one’s own physical presence to the art, the works seen reduced to an exercise that is intellectual rather than visceral or poetic. It’s a sobering reminder, as the market speeds up its already rapid move to online sales, that art still needs to be seen in person. And that basic observation can apply to a reproductive medium such as photography as much as it does to sculpture or painting.

On the other hand, perhaps some of the more confrontational work on offer is actually enhanced by the opportunity to move straight into your home and right into your face. Jean-François Bouchard’s melodramatic portraits of gun-toting Americans and their bullet-riddled targets at Arsenal Contemporary seem perfectly suited to high-definition reproduction on the computer screen. Looking at them feels no different from turning the pages of a photography book as the artist seemingly dares you not to just shrug off your distaste and walk away.

In Guns We Trust, by Jean-François Bouchard.Jean-Franois Bouchard

At the Patel Gallery, Shellie Zhang is also in the business of manufacturing exotica, although her fruit photography is more transparent about the process, and potentially humorous in its use of riotous colour and trompe l’oeil effects. Mimicking the Asian practice of leaving offerings at graves, Zhang mounds perfect specimens of outlandishly bright fruits, some real, some artificial, in equally ornate dishes to create photographs that, like Bouchard’s, are surreal in their saturation.

Still Life with Citrus, 2018-2019, by Shellie Zhang.Shellie Zhang

Somewhere in between these extremes of new pertinence and lost poetry sits work such as the oddly manipulated images created by Montreal artist Megan Moore. At the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, her exhibition entitled Specimens features photographs of mysterious blobs, pebbles or detritus, irregular yet vivid forms that look both natural and photographic, with surfaces that are both cracked and glistening. In fact, these unrecognizable things are enlarged photographs of previous photographs that have been altered using a gel that starts to dissolve their ink. The artist intends them as a metaphor for the instability of memory, but viewed online, these records of evaporating imagery speak to our newly fractured relationship with visual art.

View from a window in Rosemere, May 2003, 2019, by Megan Moore.Megan Moore

Contact continues through May.

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