Top Ten exhibitions of 2011

by | Dec 30, 2011 | Reviews | 4 comments

It’s taken me longer than usual to compile a list of the ten or so shows that stood out for me in 2011. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have the push of a deadline from Sally McKay and L.M. this year (and, let me say, I’m sorely missing Joe McKay’s annual list of best video games right now. How will I know how to waste my time on the flight home?). Or, maybe it has something to do with the kind of year 2011 was in the Toronto art world. I think it’s telling, for instance, that, rather than a traditional list, Akimblog’s Terence Dick chose a list of “singles instead of albums” in his list of best exhibitions of the year in local venues.

Like Terence, I’ve also found myself thinking back to particular artworks that fascinated me this year within larger exhibitions that weren’t always completely successful. I mostly think back on my favourite shows of 2011 as those that introduced me to new work, or solidified my interest in an artist’s practice by being exposed to more of their work. So here, in no particular order, are my ten standout shows from 2011:


1. General Idea, “Haute Culture” at the Art Gallery of Ontario, curated by Frédéric Bonnet

I don’t know anyone in Toronto who didn’t love this show and I went back to see it no less than three times. Though I didn’t love the thematic organization of the work that Bonnet employed, it was pretty fantastic to see so much of GI’s practice all in one place, especially some of their very early works, like Felix Partz’s Mylar Purse (1968) performance and the poodles-as-paint brushes appropriation of Klein International Blue in XXX (bleu) (1984). Not only was the exhibition a crowd-pleaser, but it also offered a great chance to revisit and reevaluate a group of artists whose practice still seems overdue for a proper critical appraisal. It was also a pleasant surprise to see contemporary Canadian art take over two floors of the AGO, an event that should really not be such a rarity in an ideal world.


2. “The Work Ahead of Us,” The Quebec Triennial 2011, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, curated by Marie Fraser, Lesley Johnstone, Mark Lanctôt, François LeTourneux and Louise Simard

The 2011 Quebec Triennial was faced with the difficult challenge of topping the already amazing 2008 iteration of this exhibition which offers an overview of contemporary art-making in the province: a challenge made all the more difficult by the curators’ self-imposed rule that there be no repeats, with each artist showing in the triennial only once. Despite, or perhaps because of, these restraints, the triennial still offered plenty of exciting works by artists who I’ve followed in the past but was keen to see expand their practice in the kind of space the MACM can offer—such as Seripop’s room-sized installation made entirely out of their paper posters, or Charles Stankievech’s engrossing film in an all-white screening room—and a whole host of pieces by artists I was unfamiliar with. Standouts for me included jake moore’s feathery dirigible and hallway installation, Alexandre David’s domed plywood floor, Frédéric Lavoie’s re-edited nature documentaries, Stéphane La Rue’s beautiful geometric drawings and Olivia Boudreau’s minimalist video of an empty steam room that magically became populated as the steam plumes cleared.

3. Geoffrey Farmer at Casey Kaplan, New York

I wrote a lengthy review of this show for Canadian Art magazine, but it was a quiet but playful exhibition that stuck with me the longer I considered it. Not only was it Farmer’s first US solo show, but it demonstrated a whimsical approach to installation that reminded me of some of his earliest works in Vancouver, such as Catriona Jeffries Catriona (2001) and his solo show at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver in which he collected (and then was reprimanded for “stealing”) the parking direction signs from film shoots around the city. It was the kind of solo show that made me excited to see the next phase of his artistic career.

4. “You had to go looking for it,” Nuit Blanche Zone C, Toronto, curated by Nicholas Brown

This section of this year’s Nuit Blanche, curated by my friend Nick Brown, restored my faith in the “all night contemporary art thing” sponsored by the city and a big corporate bank. I didn’t think I could be surprised by anything at Nuit Blanche anymore, but Nick’s tightly selected group of works, which commented on the financial district as a zone of protection, surveillance and potential revolution, changed my mind. The awe-inspiring, newly commissioned installation Soon, by British duo Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, also set the bar very very high for next year’s curators. Now, if only someone would hand Nick a gallery to curate 12 months a year (again)…

5. “Decisive Moments, Uncertain Times” at Gallery TPW, curated by Kim Simon

TPW is always on my list of “must-see”s when I check out what’s happening at the local galleries, but I almost missed this group show—curated as part of an ongoing dialogue between TPW curator Kim Simon and Trinity Square Video programming director Jean-Paul Kelly, who produced his own show, “Decisive Moments Somewhere Else,” at the same time—and only caught its last few days. Simon chose to reexamine Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous maxim about the “decisive moment” by choosing to show works that hint at a moment or event of trauma or social tension without depicting it. Instead, the photographs and video works she selected depict the affective charges left around the traumatic or horrific event, often being indexed by the responses of witnesses or spectators. The works were tricky to engage with as contemporary viewers who are often quite far, both spatially and temporally, from the events that are being (un)pictured, which I think was Simon’s main goal as a curator: to ask what happens when viewers are faced with these images in the strange context of the art gallery. The curatorial premise left me with a lot of questions (in a good way) about the purpose and function of the gallery space, but mostly I remember the pieces in the show that were immediately arresting in their emotional appeal to the viewer, such as Jannicke Laker’s disturbing video of a woman running along a deserted country road, panting and crying in an exaggerated, yet haunting manner.

6. Didier Courbot at Susan Hobbs Gallery, Toronto

Another exhibition that I wrote a review of, this was a solo show of new works by Paris artist Didier Courbot, someone whose individual works I’d seen in the context of group exhibitions in the past but whose new works—a series of actions performed on discarded objects in the streets of Paris and documented by photographs—I think need to be seen as a series to be used to best effect. I especially like Courbot’s blend of playful inventiveness and serious conceptual sculpture/photographic practice. There is something slightly anachronistic (it seems totally in keeping with Ed Ruscha or John Baldessari’s works, for instance) yet current about his approach that makes me want to see more of what he does in the next few years.

7. Laurel Nakadate, “Only the Lonely,” MoMA PS1, New York, curated by Klaus Biesenbach

Laurel Nakadate is an artist whose work polarizes viewers and critics (in fact, Corinna Kirsch at Art Fag City just published a pretty convincing argument about what’s not to like in Nakadate’s work), but I guess I fall on the schmaltzy/gullible side because her solo show at MoMA PS1 was one of the highlights of my trip to New York last year. While I could have done without her massive photographic installation of the artist crying every day for one year, I loved seeing all of her video work in one place, ranging from the early forays into “interacting” with men she’d found on Craigslist to her more recent, feature-length films made in collaboration with teenaged girls. The power dynamics in Nakadate’s work, for me, are uncomfortable and icky in all the right ways, asking questions about identity and representation rather than shutting them down.

8. “To What Earth Does This Sweet Cold Belong?” and “Coming After,” The Power Plant, curated by Jon Davies

This was the year I felt I got to see the full range of my friend Jon Davies’ curatorial prowess, from his quiet and contemplative survey of artists engaging with depictions of the natural world (which included new works by two Toronto artists whose work I have long followed, Jennifer Rose Sciarrino and Annie MacDonell), to his slightly more raucous look at younger queer artists’ renewed interest in the 1980s and 90s as a period of bygone cultural politics. These were group shows that definitely worked, presenting a convincing overarching theme without suffocating the nuances of individual artworks.

9. Tricia Middleton, “The Call is Coming from Inside the House” at Mercer Union

I’m a sucker for Tricia Middleton’s maximalist aesthetic and loved her installation at the first Quebec Triennial in 2008. And while I also loved her messy, sparkly, wax-dripping sculptures that appeared behind the curtain in this Mercer Union show, I was even more compelled by what appeared in the exhibition’s foreground: a kind of manic workspace full of notes, sketches, photographs, art materials and a compilation of engaging hand-written texts (I hesitate to call them letters). Rather than presenting the space of creative work as a superficial rendering of Dr. Jekyll’s lab, Middleton’s workspace was one that felt at once familiar and uncanny.

10. My favourite (re)discoveries of the year:

Aleesa Cohene: just everything the video artist made/exhibited this year; cheyanne turions’ Toronto editions of “No Reading After the Internet;” Elle Flanders and Tamira Sawatzky (Public Studio)’s Road Movie installation as part of TIFF Future Projections; the novels of J.M. Coetzee; fantasy football.