Original article: ArtSlant, December 12, 2014. By Brad Phillips.
I remember when I first moved to Vancouver, and told people I was from Toronto, the venom and animosity for my hometown astonished me. Many of the people who were so vehemently hateful of Toronto and had never been there before, I was told. I found this astonishing, because in the 28 years I lived in Toronto, I’d never heard a single person bash Vancouver. If anything, people from Toronto spoke highly of Vancouver—the phenomenal beauty of British Columbia, the number of great artists Vancouver had given the world. I felt and still feel that there’s something terrifically sad about a rivalry where only one side is even aware that a rivalry is taking place. To me, this reaction mirrored the way that people in Toronto have a love/hate relationship with New York. Or the way Canadians in general tend to castigate America, while being totally enthralled by America. If Toronto felt insecure about New York—I will discuss the deleterious effects of this neurosis later on—then it seemed to me that Vancouver felt about Toronto the way Toronto felt about New York.
Before I continue, some statistics: that the following lists do not include any female artists is both problematic, and also too complex to address in one essay. However, I write this piece fully cognizant of the glaring exclusion of women amongst the artists I’m about to list.
According to the 2011 census, Toronto’s population was 2.6 million people. Going back 50 years, the artists that Toronto has produced and who have gone on to have an influence in the larger art world are Michael Snow and General Idea. For the purposes of both these summaries, I am not going to include artists from either of these cities who moved to New York to achieve their success, and become influential—and in reality, there really was only ever Peter Schuyff, golden boy of 80s abstraction and one-time resident of Vancouver, who matches this standard. From Toronto, Paul P. moved to New York, erasing all evidence of having shown in Toronto from his curriculum vitae, and after having had a few years of real success, seems to have vanished completely from the contemporary art landscape.
The 2011 census of Vancouver states that Canada’s westernmost city had a population of 603,500 people. The notable artists that never left Vancouver, but also smartly bypassed showing in Canada (save Ian Wallace, who shows on occasion in Vancouver seemingly to qualify for certain awards and be seen swathed in layers of cashmere) are as follows: Jeff Wall, Ken Lum, Rodney Graham, Ian Wallace, Steven Shearer, and Stan Douglas. Some might argue that Douglas Coupland deserves mentioning, but Coupland is a truly bad visual artist who wrote one influential book, Generation X, and beyond that has written novels whose primary virtue is that they have good titles: Girlfriend in a Coma, All Families are Psychotic. Coupland is no visual artist. His artwork exists in a category that I would call “passable”—art that resembles trinkets you’d purchase in an art gallery gift shop.
So why? Why has a city with just over half a million people produced so many great artists, and why has a city with millions of people given us so very little?
The question here does not ask why some of the artists from Vancouver are talented, or even why they are successful. It asks why certain Vancouver artists are seminal, influential, ground-breaking. Jeff Wall may not have been the first person to display photographs in a lightbox. However, it is irrefutable to say that any artist today mounting their photographs in a lightbox owes Jeff Wall, if not a royalty cheque, then a sincere acknowledgment of his importance and innovation. I may not necessarily think highly of his work, or the work of Steven Shearer, but many people do. I can say that, as a painter, when I see a Shearer painting, I just see a homoerotic rehashing of Edvard Munch, executed with much less skill and a fractional amount of sincerity. That’s irrelevant though. My opinion is not important when it comes to the ascendency of artists who seem to have had a great effect on culture at large and are lauded worldwide, commanding enormous sums of money. Shearer has been vouched for, and re-vouched for—and knowing as I do that art and its industry are extremely picky about who is allowed access to the golden palace, he is by definition an Important Artist.
Ken Lum is, I think, the best artist Canada has produced in a hundred years. He achieves what has always been my goal, a quality I’m painfully aware of the difficulty of achieving: Ken’s work makes you laugh, and it makes you cry. And not on occasion. Consistently. Ian Wallace is ostentatious and bothersome to me, but people take him seriously and his work is expensive. I’ve seen him wearing two scarves at once, and that alone is a signal that Wallace is a real somebody. Stan Douglas makes films that are presented as art, so I don’t watch them, because I’d prefer to watch a movie than a two-hour movie trying to convince me it’s an artwork. Rodney Graham is indisputably talented and has a seemingly endless range of skills. From tiny Picassoesque paintings to hilarious videos to emotionally charged installations; Rodney can do it all. And does it all.
Toronto has a longstanding issue with wanting to be seen as a “world-class city.” In this way, it never can be a world-class city, because a world-class city is something that develops organically, and more importantly, sincerely. New York, Los Angeles, Paris, and London are all without a doubt world-class cities. They’ve become such through accretion, through attempting, some cities more successfully than others, to maintain the presence of their historical monuments, and by not looking to other cities as models for what cities should be, instead too busy doing the work of becoming a city. Toronto’s primary identity is its quest for identity. It’s a highly neurotic place that spends far too much time wondering how it appears to other cities. I don’t imagine Los Angeles wonders what Chicago thinks of it, or Paris wonders what Athens has to say about it. But Toronto has always wanted you to know that it’s a serious place! A big city with big aspirations and a lot going on! In fact very little is going on, or has ever gone on
I would posit that the primary factor in Toronto remaining forever mediocre is its proximity to New York. Toronto loves to divide its neighborhoods up into “districts.” There is, for example, literally a three-square block named “Design District,” where I’ve never once seen a person rolling a rack of clothes through traffic towards a fashion shoot. Certainly there are a smattering of leather wholesalers, modelling agencies, and various other nebulous “branding” companies nestled inside of this area. It is not however, a district. There is also the “Theatre District,” which is one small stretch of King Street marked by a few theaters. We also have here, Little Portugal, Little Brazil, Little Italy, Koreatown, Little India. When I say we have these districts and areas, I mean that these appellations are emblazoned on the street signs. The designated ethnic neighborhoods are in fact the most flourishing ones, the ones with the most legitimate claim to being a “district.” However, this has nothing to do with the city, or the signs it posts in two languages; it’s entirely the result of the immigrants who settled within these areas, opened small business, and stayed within the confines of their neatly organized replications of their home countries. But the other districts, Fashion, Theater, Design, etc., are Spartan at best, and frankly pitiful when compared to their sister districts in New York. It’s a fundamental cliché at this point that attempting to be “cool” automatically renders it impossible to be so. The same goes for wanting to be a world-class city. Make this your goal, and watch it never materialize.
The problem then is mimicry. Toronto as a city mimics other cities. And artists in Toronto have historically mimicked the art they’ve seen succeed in other cities. This can and does work within the very small art world in Toronto, where the vast majority of people are uninformed about the larger contemporary art world, so that artwork containing elements of contemporary art culled from magazines like Artforum and 13-hour bus trips to Manhattan can and does sell in Toronto. But anyone with sophistication and a broader understanding of what is happening in art currently can spot and then dismiss a replica in an instant. Artists in Toronto look at art far too much. And the art they look at is in magazines, and those magazines most often showcase art that is being made and shown in New York.
The result? Many pastiches are made, and sometimes even outright frauds are created in the hopes that nobody will notice, and sometimes nobody does, and that is where innovation begins and ends in this city. There will always be a few artists with real vision and originality, but then the proximity to New York is problematic in a different way, in that collectors here figure they might as well take the 50-minute plane ride to New York and buy strong contemporary art that’s already being reproduced in magazines and written about in the New York Times, not the Toronto Star.
There exists in nature a fairly apt example of all that plagues art in Toronto. In ethology, certain species display a quality known as passive mimicry. In order to not be beleaguered and eaten by predators, some animals are able to transform themselves in such a way that they appear to be, if not a threat, harmless and inedible. The Owl Butterfly can contort it’s wings in such a way that it appears to have two giant eyes, resembling an owl, which thwarts off attacks from lizards and predatory birds. Toronto is the Owl Butterfly—able to mimic something which it is not in order to stay under the radar and alive, although alive with the constant tremble of fear and neurosis.
Vancouver is as far west as one can go in Canada without falling into the ocean. Like all cities in the West—Fairbanks, Alaska, Joshua Tree, California—it is the end of the road for social miscreants and outsiders. The west is the refuge of the freak, the disenfranchised, and the lonely. The closest American city to Vancouver is Seattle. Vancouver is isolated; isolation breeds creativity and innovative thought. There was a period in the early 2000s when Winnipeg was spewing a lot of unique and, to some people, interesting art out into the larger world. Winnipeg is also isolated, a tiny city in a vast range of nothingness. Isolation is a great thing for an artist, but it also takes a terrible toll on the psyche of a human being. Prisoners in solitary confinement will, if they aren’t allowed pencils, scratch drawings into the walls of their cells with their fingernails or stray fragments of brick. Humans have an innate desire to express themselves visually when in isolation.
As I mentioned above, there’s no avoiding that the art scene in Vancouver is a boy’s club. Certainly this is unfortunate, but it’s a topic for another essay. Jeff Wall, putatively the first person to establish what has come to be called “photoconceptualism,” had his first solo show at Vancouver’s Nova Gallery in 1978. Between 1976 and 1987 Wall was an associate professor at Simon Fraser University and for many years also taught at the University of British Columbia. His influence on his students cannot be underestimated, in that he essentially nurtured and launched an entirely unique school of Vancouver art. It helped that Wall also published essays on other Vancouver artists, such as Rodney Graham, Roy Arden, and Ken Lum. This generosity of spirit and championing of companion artists is a throwback to the days of another boy’s club: Abstract Expressionism’s painters such as Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell. It could be argued that without Wall’s support of other artists, Vancouver might not have become the important city for art that it is today. It’s certainly a quality and community-minded spirit that is admirable, and sadly rare in other cities, such as Toronto. Through championing the work of other artists, by recommending his peers to curators, dealers, writers and the like, Wall was instrumental in creating a culturally autarkic art scene. In Toronto, where everyone is seemingly battling to get to the very middle, there is a noticeable lack of generosity.
If artists in Toronto have connections to galleries, curators, writers, they keep these connections close to their chests. The closest Toronto artists get to generous is a sort of quid pro quo: I’ll show your website to this person if you show them mine. Self-advancement and competitiveness are the status quo. As a result, with nobody helping anybody else, everyone remains mediocre, and unable to break through to a more dynamic level of success and creative development. Artists in Toronto seem to be so desperate to be successful, that they forget that success is something most easily achieved through the help and assistance of other like-minded people. Vancouver understood this, and artists helped artists. I know from my own experience that much of my success has been contingent on the recommendations of other artists, and in turn I have acted out of a similar desire to help others. Because it is, in fact, extremely difficult to break into the more relevant contemporary art world, and too easy to stay mired in the simulacrum of a real and vital art community.
One glaring difference between Toronto and Vancouver that’s symptomatic of both the success of Vancouver artists and the perpetuated mediocrity of Toronto are the publicly funded institutions in both cities.
I live in Toronto again now. Toronto is home to the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. I’ve yet to see a single interesting show there. And this was true before I left Toronto in 2002. What’s remained consistent about MOCCA in those 12 years are that it has had the same director, David Liss, and it has no curator. It desperately needs a curator, or some other advisory employee, but it is, as it’s always been since he took over the job, the empire of David Liss. As a result, while it’s supposed to showcase the best art in Canada, and could occasionally show us good contemporary art from other countries, it’s mired in the anachronistic vision of a single person: a middle aged white man given free reign to run his own private museum. That second-rate Toronto artists like Balint Zsako, mostly likely unknown to over 99 percent of the international art audience, have been given solo shows there, is symptomatic of a Toronto-centric parochial approach to running a museum that is supposed to represent and speak for an entire country.
However, in Vancouver, at the Contemporary Art Gallery, under the auspices of curator Jenifer Papararo, I saw shows by Mike Nelson, Frances Stark, and Canadian Tim Gardner. Group shows exhibited work by artists such as Hans-Peter Feldmann, Ingmar and Dragset, alongside Vancouver artists Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, and Steven Shearer. There was at the CAG, as there should be (at MOCCA as well), a conversation between Canadian artists and international artists, which immediately gave Canadian artist from Vancouver the patina of international contemporaneity. And this is a small building, a small institution, with a budget surely much smaller than the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. There was more bravery involved in the shows put together, and a sense that Canadian artists were just as interesting as “famous” artists from around the world. This alone lends Vancouver artists a certain aura of importance and glamor.
And this is how it should be. That MOCCA consistently provides a reliably mediocre Can-Con experience is fundamentally disappointing, and something art-loving taxpayers should take issue with.
The Vancouver Art Gallery also mounts much more interesting shows, which often include international artists. The VAG collects the work of both established and emerging artists from Vancouver. Like the Art Gallery of Ontario, they also have shows designed to bring in the broader public, to make money off ticket sales, but when serious contemporary art shows are mounted at the VAG, they are always more internationally minded.
The Art Gallery of Ontario is dismally tourist oriented. Not that this is a bad thing in itself. It was nice to see Frida Kahlo paintings in Toronto; the Francis Bacon/Henry Moore show mounted by Dan Adler, although a curatorial stretch, was wonderful in that we got to see a great deal of paintings by Francis Bacon. But the AGO is notorious for not buying the work of artists from Toronto. I’m not sure what they buy, if anything—but I do know, either personally or second-hand, the majority of successful artists from Toronto, none of whom are in the collection of the AGO. This is not only a shame, but it is municipally unpatriotic, and again, something that taxpayers should take issue with. I think it costs thirty dollars to get into the AGO, to walk through room after room of Group of Seven paintings— meanwhile, artists in Toronto who have done well internationally and may have sold work to the New Museum or The Museum of Modern Art, and the AGO still cannot deign to purchase their work. Consciously ignoring local artists is a basic dereliction of duty for an institution that relies on tax dollars, yet would rather spend that money to print Frida Kahlo mugs for the gift shop, than buy the work of a single mid-career artist from Toronto.
Ultimately, the disparity between myopic and parochial Toronto institutions, and broad minded and courageous Vancouver institutions is another important factor in what has allowed artists from Vancouver to have international cache while the Toronto scene remains stuck in a cycle of mediocrity and malaise.
If Vancouver is Artforum, Toronto is Art in America. If you’re familiar with these magazines, you’ll understand the distinction.
It’s been a while now since Vancouver has produced new artists with global influence. This may in part be due to the fact that the succeeding generations have also chosen selfishness and careerism over community and kindness. Toronto remains, as it has always been, basically an irrelevant city for art. If one were to use warfare as a metaphor, it would seem obvious that a smattering of people, stationed behind boulders and on rooftops with grenades and sniper rifles aren’t going to do much to advance their cause, but should a group of them gather together and combine their skills, weaponry, and communication devices, advances would be made. That weapon can be a rifle; that weapon can be an email. But the intense suspicion of other artists, and the essentially selfish and ungenerous nature of artists working in Toronto, ensures that it will always be a city that makes art that looks a bit like art, and where original thought and innovation by a small number of people will always be drowned out by the voices of copycats, imitators and, essentially, interior designers. If and when Toronto gets over itself, puts its neurotic self-obsession on hiatus, and begins to formulate communities and generosity, it may have a chance.
In the meantime, the real hope for urgent and innovative art coming out of Canada will remain in Vancouver, where artists are too far away from Los Angeles to bother attempting to replicate it, and isolated enough that they spend more time thinking, and less time looking at the results of other people’s thinking. Like anything in being alive, communing with like-minded people and sharing information is the antidote to a malady called mediocrity.
And hopefully it will happen soon, because Toronto is, and has been for some time now, quite ill.