Wednesday, 28 October 2009

A Family Tree

Toronto's Don Valley is known for the natural history contained within its layers of geological sedimentation, where traces of the plant and animal life that once thrived in Southern Ontario’s prehistory survive as fossilized impressions. One sandy, fossil-rich layer called the Don Formation contains evidence of the mollusks and trees existing in the region some 120,000 years ago, the most notable example perhaps being the plant species Acer torontoniensis. Thought to be an evolutionary ancestor of the sugar maple, Acer torontoniensis (Latin for Toronto maple) is named for the city of its discovery.

Torontoniensis (pronounce every syllable: to-ron-to-ni-en-sis) is also the collective name taken by a group of artists who began exhibiting together in Toronto in the mid 1990s. Like the many other exhibiting collectives that emerged in Toronto during those years, Torontoniensis took root in the rocky soil that was the Canadian art scene during the last decade of the 20th century. And like a tree it grew and flourished from 1995 to 2005, producing eight exhibitions and representing the work of 32 artists. It was rooted in Toronto’s visual art scene of the 1990s and its branches were the artists who came from across the country, and eventually from as far away as Scotland. Its leaves were the many artworks that were exhibited and that were made to be exhibited in the collectives embrace.

Only a decade distant, the pre-digital, pre-Internet decade of the 1990s in many ways seems like a foreign country. It was a time of cultural reaction and economic restructuring in the face of a devastating recession. Government support for the arts, which had grown through the 80s, weakened in the face of the recession and challenges to government’s role in the economy. And during this period, Canadian art schools continued to deliver talented and ambitious graduates into an ailing economy and a barely breathing art market. As commercial art galleries closed down, artist run centres and artist collectives became the new centres of an emerging visual culture. The depressed economy provided a stable supply of relatively inexpensive raw urban factory spaces and downtown storefronts that were converted to galleries with the savings and sweat equity of the artists and the eventual support of the provincial and federal arts councils.

Canadian artist run culture in the 90s was a mixture of do-it-yourself marketing and sub-cultural salons. Artists gathered into groups loosely defined by the art schools they had attended or by their circle of friends, or they gravitated to groups defined by the media they worked with or the ideas that inspired them. Some were motivated to market themselves and their art, and others were content to make art intended to be seen by their friends and colleagues and to live within a street level cultural ambience that stimulated connections between people and nurtured a unique sense of community. Being part of an artist collective became an expression of community, and of cultural, career and individual survival -- a way to keep talking about, thinking about and making art when the rest of the culture was turning its back.

1. June 8 - 11, 1995, Mark Adair, Kate Wilson, Tim Howe, Andrew Cripps, Richard Banks, Lakeshore Village Artist Co-op.

Torontoniensis began in the Lakeshore Village Artist Co-op in Toronto’s west end. A project of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto, the Lakeshore Village Artist Co-op had a mandate to provide stabilized rents and legal live/work spaces for artists. Tim Howe and Kate Wilson had moved to Lakeshore Village from Durham, Ontario in 1993. Wilson was a painter who worked primarily with oil on vellum, and was creating a body of work in which dilapidation and retro styling seemed to emerge from of a vortex of furious painting. Howe was developing video and mixed media installations, soundtrack compositions for film and multiple screen live performance works, taking found video material and modifying it to produce absurdist scenarios. Wilson’s work was represented in the Canada Council Art Bank collection and she had recently received a copy of The Art Bank: Celebrating Twenty Years 1972-92. Mark Adair, their new neighbour in the co-op was listed on page 15. Howe approached Adair at a co-op meeting and said, "Hey. Toronto Bank Robbery. Mark Adair."2

Wilson was an organizer. While in Durham, she and Howe had been involved in the CCAOS Festival (Canadian Centre for the Arts in Owen Sound) and Wilson had curated exhibitions of the work of Andrew Da Costa and later Mike Constable and Gail Geltner at Durham Art Gallery. The existence of a 1500 square foot gallery at her new home in the co-op presented itself as an opportunity, and so Wilson and Howe decided to approach Adair about organizing an exhibition. Mark Adair had recently returned to Canada following a period of time in the US. After finishing graduate school at the University of Victoria, he became involved in the founding of the Green Party of Canada. A committed environmentalist, Adair had developed a figurative approach to sculpture, painting and drawing to create political allegories of an ecologically suicidal society. Exhausted by politics, Adair’s response to the idea of organizing an exhibition was straightforward. I wont do anything unless its fun, he said. It has to be fun.3

Co-op members Andrew Cripps and Richard Banks were invited to be part of the four day co-op exhibition. Andrew Cripps exhibited an installation of semaphore figures and Richard Banks exhibited his two of his paintings. Mark Adair exhibited the beginnings of his massive Chaise Longue, Tim Howe installed a picture in picture video and Kate Wilson exhibited her oil on vellum paintings. There was no budget for publicity or mailing so word of the opening was spread on co-op bulletin boards and by telephone. When asked what was memorable about the exhibition, the Stoly fountain at the opening was recalled by more than one of the members. The exhibition was short, informal, produced on a shoestring and not all of the artists even agree that it was in fact their first show as a group. The official inaugural exhibition would take place a year later, with a new tongue-twisting name and a downtown location.

2. March 1 - 31,1996, TORONTONIENSIS: Inaugural exhibition by Mark Adair, Andrew Cripps, Suzanne Gauthier, Tim Howe, Kate Wilson, 425 Adelaide Street West, Toronto.

There are no blue prints for artist collectives they are the creations of groups of individuals who bond together voluntarily and their method of functioning is a product of the dynamic interaction of the members. Artist collectives function fluidly and dynamically, with duties and responsibilities falling to those who are able and energetic. People come and go according to their commitment and their contributions to the group. Typically, a core group of energized activists, organizers, and grant writers is the glue holding a collective together. Their energy and enthusiasm for the project spreads outward to involve other artists as exhibitors and as potential activist members of the collective.

Mark Adair, Tim Howe and Kate Wilson emerged as the core group of the collective for the inaugural show. The name of the collective was suggested by Adair, who having recently returned to Canada from the US, found the name to be an apt metaphor of what was organic and unique about living and making art in Toronto and Canada. Howe was the electrical genius and humourist of the group, in charge of providing the power requirements for lighting and video and keeping it fun. Howe could write and he put together clever, funny press releases that caught people’s attention. Wilson was exhibiting with the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Artists with their Work programme, had participated in the Surrey Art Gallery’s China/Canada exchange exhibition and had many contacts within the art community. Most importantly, she possessed the drive and vision to make it happen. She was an important link for the members of Torontoniensis to other artists and it was Wilson who invited her friend Suzanne Gautier to exhibit with the collective for its inaugural show.

In the large unheated space on Adelaide Street Kate Wilson installed her gestural expressionistic oil on vellum paintings of lush but toxic plant life and generic portrait heads. Andrew Cripps further developed his semaphore figures to encompass an entire wall, and Suzanne Gautier exhibited a large encaustic. Mark Adair exhibited his notorious Chicken Choker – a nightmare of unbridled consumption rendered as an autoerotic asphyxiation, and the Chaise Longue (The Coffin Project), which he had exhibited in a previous stage of its development in the co-op show. The Chaise Longue is a massive carved wood, bone and ceramic sculpture that took Adair over 10 years to complete and which he would exhibit in various states of completion in four Torontoniensis shows. Begun in 1990, Chaise Longue consists of a life-size medieval bed, on which lies a deathly, desiccated hermaphroditic figure. Hovering over the figure are groupings of angels, skeletons and demons that are, in effect, spectres of the Hermaphrodites dream. The work resists definitive interpretation as Adair sought to explore, through the process of making, how creation of myths permit us to act in the world. The intensity of the exhibition was unrelieved by Tim Howe’s video installation that featured a dialogue between a mechanical bird and cat, with the bird reciting a scene from the movie Goodfellas, You think I’m funny? You think I’m here to amuse you? Clearly, these artists had other ideas.

Torontoniensis’s inaugural exhibition was a mixed success. None of the newspapers, entertainment weeklies or art magazines reviewed the exhibition and no one bought anything. But the group of artists had succeeded in describing an emerging group aesthetic and artists in the community took notice. By the time of the next show three years later, the number of participating artists had doubled.

3. May 1 - May 29, 1999, No Fun Without You: John Abrams, Mark Adair, Shary Boyle, Catherine Daigle, Gail Geltner, Tim Howe, Francis LeBoutillier, Warren Quigley, Adrienne Trent & Kate Wilson, 425 Adelaide Street West, Toronto.

The bittersweet title of the second Torontoniensis exhibition, No Fun Without You, caught the tenor of the times. Betty Ann Jordan called No Fun Without You millennial humour, and on the cusp of Y2K it had the feeling of being dark, pessimistic and slightly manic.4 The exhibitions preoccupation with death and mortality aligned it with some of the major themes of the visual art of the 1990s, where the AIDS epidemic, ecological degradation, and the economic recession of the decade caused widespread cultural pessimism and despair.5 Mark Adair’s work both carried the burden of his experience as a founder of the Green Party of Canada and screamed his despair at the cultures apparent headlong rush to ecological suicide. He exhibited his mixed media assemblage Mechanical Spirits and his series of small paintings Death Goes Sailing, his darkly humourous series about death without purpose. Kate Wilson exhibited a piece entitled Molecular Adorn, influenced by a look back at her rural culture experience, specifically car culture, of living in Durham. Together with Tim Howe’s manic video animation of actors dressed as twin angels, spitting fireballs at cartoon dogs, the trio formed a gathering point for artists whose work variously touched on dislocation, loss and madness. John Abrams’s triptych from his Rethinking Canadian History series echoed the patriotic name of the collective -- his paintings of mediated images of Canadian history and geography underscored the uncertainty and pessimism that pervaded the country following the 1995 referendum in Quebec. Catherine Daigle’s shadow-box memento mori assemblage Vanitas (Stilleven), Gail Geltner’s photo-essay documenting the decline and death of her mother, Francis LeBouthillier’s video installation Onion Skins and Shary Boyle’s mixed media installation, were all meditations on transience and loss, while Warren Quigley’s Companions, an installation of stacked animal cages containing large faux-fur balls, and Adrienne Trent’s Sisters, were explorations in the realm of the disembodied and the surreal. The exhibition received favourable reviews in the Globe and Mail by Gary Michael Dault, where it was accompanied by a large photo of Catherine Daigle’s Vanitas, and by Betty Ann Jordan in Toronto Life. Torontoniensis had arrived.

The same forces that bring artists together also work in reverse. Artists drift apart as friends or colleagues, or their interests change and they find new connections and collaborators. Following No Fun, founding member Kate Wilson left the group to participate in the founding of a new artist collective, Persona Volare, leaving Mark Adair and Tim Howe as the two remaining founding members. With Wilson’s departure, Catherine Daigle and John Abrams stepped forward to take leadership positions in the group. Daigle brought to the group her passionate commitment to the project as well as her organizational and promotional skills. John Abrams was well known in Toronto through his regular exhibitions at the Garnet Press Gallery until its demise in 1996. He and his wife Carla Garnet brought the group significant profile in the Toronto art community and a web of connections to talented and developing artists.

4. May 20 - June 17, 2000, More Fun: John Abrams, Rhonda Abrams, Mark Adair, Beth Biggs, Laima Bruveris, David Craig, Catherine Daigle, Robert Houle, Tim Howe, 425 Adelaide Street West. Toronto.

Just over a year after No Fun, More Fun demonstrated the influence of the new core members. The More Fun exhibition advertised its inclusiveness by inviting artists whose interests ranged from pop culture, political culture, art history, craft traditions, economics, iconography, death and sexuality.6 Tim Howe continued to be the standard bearer for a pop culture gone horribly wrong and, for the opening, arranged to have made 5,000 fortune cookies containing bizarre fortunes, distributed by a woman dressed in a cat costume. Yet, as a whole, the exhibition demonstrated strong national and ecological preoccupations. Mark Adair’s Inventions of Greed continued some of the formal characteristics of the previous exhibitions Mechanical Spirits, thrusting mythic warships off the wall and into the spectators space. Adair’s archly dark humour had its absurdist, pop culture counterpoint in Tim Howe’s Klaus Super301, a video installation showing a Klansman-like figure in a jail cell viewing a modified animation of the 1950s Looney Tunes cartoon character Pepé Le Pew as a Nazi collaborator. Guest artist Beth Biggs’s, Gaze, focussed on adornment and political implications behind gaze. Catherine Daigle exhibited her multi-piece work Eleanor, a series of 13 shadow boxes that tell the story of her grandmother’s early pioneering life in Saskatchewan. Guest artist David Craig installed his photographs of Dundas Village in North Eastern Greenland, the most northern community traditionally inhabited by humans, and Laila Bruveris exhibited her ceramic installation The Village, a meditation on urban sprawl and ecological deterioration. Robert Houle exhibited Savage Love (Delacroix Indians), part of his larger critique of the commodification and objectification of aboriginal people and Rhonda Abrams exhibited her campy music video Trailer Song, where she sang of the virtues of country life. John Abrams exhibited a series of paintings called Canadian History from his Rethinking History (1991-1999) series. These monochrome paintings of the Plains of Abraham, the fathers of Confederation and an iceberg were alternately coloured by the addition of fire and a spray of gold droplets, a further elaboration of Abrams’s ambivalent relationship with his country’s history.

5. October 10 - November 3, 2001, Torontoniensis: QTIPS, at West Wing: John Abrams, Mark Adair, Ho Tam, Catherine Daigle, and Tim Howe, West Wing Artspace, 1267 Queen St. West.

West Wing Art Space was a small artist run gallery founded in 2000 by Karen Azoulay, Paul P. and Ingrid Z, three recent grads from York University’s Visual Arts programme. The gallery quickly gained a reputation in Toronto as a centre of a street-level fashion, music and art. In that context, the group of artists in the Torontoniensis collective represented an older generation, and, in recognition of this, called themselves QTIPS, to signify their white or greying hair.

The press release for the exhibition continued the self deprecation and irony, . . . a show by a group of artists all interested in gender politics, politics, death and politics and all that crap. -- as if the kids would be rolling their eyes at all that. Yet, despite the defensive posturing, the group of accomplished but comparatively introspective mid-career artists again caught the uncertain mood of the time. RM Vaughan listed this apocalyptic fright show as one of the ten best exhibitions of 2001.7 Opening almost a month to the day after the attack on the World Trade Centre, the images and themes that had long been part of the work of this group of artists were inevitably read in the light of the confusion, fear and despair resulting from that catastrophe. The centrepiece of the exhibition was Mark Adair’s Harvest Time, exhibited beside the deathly portrait bust he had created for his Chaise Longue. For those wracked by doubt, Harvest Time, a painting of skeletal figures reaping not stalks of wheat but blocks of housing, could hardly be missed as an illustration of the biblical admonition “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”8 Against the self-righteousness of the powerful, John Abrams image of the arrest of a young shirtless man seemed to foreshadow the suspicion and obsession with security that has since dominated life in the American orbit. For those just trying to make sense of it all in front our televisions, caught between the depressing images of George Bush Senior and George Bush Junior, Tim Howe’s pet cat Prrrl, caught in the middle, was the figure many of us related to in his video Long Pig Finds Cleopatra’s Diary (also called Long Pig@Ground Zero). For those who felt powerless in the face of world events, Ho Tams series of candid photographs of tired subway commuters in Passages (1998), not only evoked the enervating despair we experience in the face of global conflict but also recalled the 1995 saran gas attack by the cult Aum Shinrikyo in the Tokyo subway. Finally, Catherine Daigle’s Hard Questions, shadow boxes of images of pale lifeless hands and bunches of flowers accompanied by the text from the Song of Solomon, was an elegiac statement which seemed to long for a more hopeful past.

6. March 8 - April 21, 2002, Songs From the Waterfront: John Abrams, Mark Adair, David Craig, Catherine Daigle, Libby Hague, Robert Houle, Tim Howe, Katherine Knight, Alistair Magee, York Quay Gallery at Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queens Quay West.

Returning to a large exhibition space after the small store front West Wing gallery allowed Torontoniensis to again represent a large group of invited artists. Less than a year after the West Wing exhibition, Adair, Daigle and Howe exhibited pieces that were elaborations of work in progress or that had been previously exhibited. The larger York Quay gallery space permitted John Abrams to exhibit his multi panel assemblages Land Mark Wheels (Red & Blue), which continued the Canadian iconography of his Rethinking History series. After exhibiting with Abrams in the two person exhibition Landmark: The Paintings of Robert Houle and John Abrams, organized by the Tom Thomson Art Gallery and the University of Waterloo Art Gallery, Robert Houle was invited back to exhibit with the group a second time and his paintings continued their direct dialogue with Abrams’s Landmark Wheels. Another dialogue was initiated by the inclusion of Libby Hague’s two channel video Parade, which found a counterpart in Tim Howe’s found video manipulations. Hague collaged watercolour figures on to video footage of parades on the right channel and contrasted them with a left channel of archival footage of an approving audience during a political campaign. The resulting asynchronous loops created a manic interplay between the two screens. The exhibitions horizons ranged from the street detritus of Alistair Magee’s meticulously painted hand notes to Katherine Knights large format wide angle silver prints of placid bodies of water.

7. October 16 - November 20, 2003, Good Medicine: John Abrams, Mark Adair, Mary Anne Barkhouse, Catherine Daigle, Libby Hague, Robert Houle, Tim Howe, University of Waterloo Art Gallery, 263 Phillip St., East Campus Hall, Waterloo, ON.

Good Medicine at the University of Waterloo Art Gallery was the groups fifth exhibition in four years an ambitious pace given that the artists were pursuing solo careers and requisite day jobs while they organized and planned their collective project. A number of the core members of the collective had also been involved in establishing the artist run co-op gallery Loop in 2000. At the same time, Torontoniensiss move from rental spaces and artist co-op galleries to public galleries afforded the group a larger profile and additional resources. Since More Fun, additional support had been coming to the group from the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts. At the University of Waterloo, Libby Hague exhibited with the group again installing her work Children See Everything, an ongoing series drawn from childhood recollections. This piece grouped together 30 groups of prints recalling comic book cells that described the large and small events of childhood. Guest artist Mary Anne Backhouse’s work fit well with the ecological/political profile that the group had developed. She exhibited two pieces, Focus and Petition, allegories of human conflict in the context of contemporary battles over land and resources. Tim Howe exhibited a new video installation entitled Tim Howe exhibited a new video installation entitled The Passionate David, an assembly of delusional correspondence by a Toronto street person by the name of David, juxtaposed with a video of an angel hovering above an inferno and John Abrams exhibited Everybody's Happy in Hollywood, the beginning of a new series of work based on film stills.

8. November 12 - December 31, 2005, Suitcase, the Good Medicine Group of Independent Artists: From Toronto (Torontoniensis): John Abrams, Mark Adair, Jane Buyers, Catherine Daigle, Tim Howe, JJ Lee, Alistair McGee, Rhonda Parkes, From Scotland: Matthew Inglis, Stuart Mackenzie, Moira Scott, Alastair Strachan, Donald Urquhart, York Quay Gallery, Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queens Quay West, Toronto, ON.,

It had been ten years since the first exhibition at the Lakeshore Village Co-op. Following the recession early in the decade, Torontoniensis had emerged along with the revival of the visual arts in Toronto. It had survived and thrived to embody the ambivalence that greeted the new millennium, to then witness the changes taking place in the world following the event of September 11, 2001. During this time, the artists, who had at one time had been outsiders exhibiting in rough unserviced commercial spaces, had progressed to being invited to show in publicly financed institutional art galleries. Along with the rest of the economy, the once sleepy Canadian art market had heated up. In Toronto, people were displaying a newfound wealth and were buying art in the galleries that were springing up all along Queen Street West. Despite the growing indications of the certainty of global warming, the globalized economy was on a roll in 2005 and the production and consumption of non-renewable resources was advancing unchecked. Even the art world had become global in ways never before seen, as art fairs and biennales all over the world became part of a non-stop world tour of artists, curators, dealers and collectors.

And where did Torontoniensis fit into this new world? What role did its eco-nationalist message play in the transnational world of hyper-capitalism? Was this species of local vegetation exportable and transferable to the global digital age? Or did this metaphor even work any more? Not all the members of the collective liked the awkward Latin name and since the Waterloo show, the group had also been calling itself Good Medicine -- an identity crisis, perhaps, signalling a less fun and more socially responsible and pragmatic approach to making and exhibiting art in the new world order.

The Suitcase exhibition was the collective’s foray into the globalized world of art. It was organized as an exchange show where five invited Scottish artists would reciprocate and in turn host the Canadian artists in a group showing in Scotland. Both Catherine Daigle, with her When Daddy Comes Home, All the Fun Stops, and Tim Howe, with his Les Jumeaux, exhibited digitally manipulated prints for the first time. Inspired by the theme of the exhibition Daigle also created a new piece out of an old suitcase. The suitcase was filled with bright yellow sunflowers whose message of sunny optimism was tempered by the inclusion of a scroll of flies.9 In another flower reference, John Abrams exhibited She was like a flower, from his Betty Blue Suite. The suite was a continuation of his film stills series and was derived from the 1986 erotic French film Betty Blue. Mark Adair exhibited the Eternal Pussy, who represents Life, Deaths counterpoint in the series of drawings Death is in Trouble Now. Guest Canadian artists Jane Buyers exhibited a ceramic book-work, J. J. Lee two of her juicy canvases of ironic Chinoiserie, Alistair McGee his acrylic renderings of found notes and graffiti, and Rhonda Parkes a series of enlarged instructional medical photographs addressing pregnancy.

As much as the collective was rooted in Toronto, the core members realized they would have to look beyond the city for new exhibitions, and Scotland was part of that calculation. Since its inception Torontoniensis had provided exhibition opportunities and exposure for its members and its invited guests, and making connections and creating events was what the group did well. But the Scotland show didn’t materialize and the days of rough space warehouse shows had long since passed in Toronto’s gentrified downtown core. Without another show to look toward, Torontoniensis drifted as its members pursued their individual careers.

But the body blow to the collective was the death of Catherine Daigle in December 2006 following a lengthy illness. Catherine had been the group’s graphic artist and media contact and its driving force after the departure of Kate Wilson. She was admired and adored by her colleagues for her feistiness and for her determination. As much as the work of any other artist in the group, Catherine Daigle’s work carried the minor tone that came to characterize the collective -- a tone that Carla Garnet characterized as a deep sadness. It was perhaps Catherine Daigle’s artist statement in the press release for the Suitcase exhibition that summed up not only her attitude to her own work, but also the legacy of Torontoniensis:

"[it] . . . has largely been informed by an interest in the transitory nature of life and how we, on a regular basis, reconfigure deeds to provide meaning."

Born of the economic uncertainties of the 1990s, Torontoniensis was a part of the movement of artist collectives and cooperatives that emerged in those lean years – "the do it yourself " energy that helped to create the international reputation of Toronto as a centre for art. Over the course of a decade the collective brought together a wide variety of artists in exhibitions that gave form to many of the anxieties and desires of the time, and in doing so they made a mark on the culture of their city -- creating meaning for themselves, for the artists whose work they admired and exhibited, and for the community lucky enough to take part in their vision.

Gordon Hatt, 2008


1. The National Gallery of Canada's acquisition of Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire in 1990 began in Canada a national debate about role of art and the state. See Voices of Fire: Art, Rage, Power, and the State, eds. Bruce Barber, Serge Guilbaut, John O'Brian, University of Toronto Press: 1996.

2. Email from Kate Wilson, June 30, 2008.

3. Conversation with Mark Adair, June 15, 2008.

4. Betty Anne Jordan, Toronto Life, June 1999, page 34.

5. For a discussion of the subject of death in the art of the 1990s see Adam Gopnik, A Death in Venice, New Yorker, 2 Aug. 1993, pp. 67-73.

6. Introduction to exhibition brochure No Fun Without You.

7. "The Year in Pictures," RM Vaughan, EYE Weekly, December 20, 2001.

8. Galatians 6:7.

9. Mark Adair had been reading biblical prophecy to frame his dismay at the hubris and ecological blindness of industrial capitalism and had quoted to Catherine a verse from Isaiah 7:18. "And it shall come to pass in that day, that the LORD shall hiss for the fly that is in the uttermost part of the rivers of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria." The passage is in reference to Isaiah 13:5, "They are coming from a far country, From the farthest horizons, The LORD and His instruments of indignation, To destroy the whole land."

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