Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirrors: Worth the Wait

The highly anticipated Yayoi Kusama interactive exhibit has arrived at Toronto’s AGO. And while it is here, it is still highly anticipated by many. Long online ticket release queues mimic the ones we are used to at actual events. Kusama’s expertise at playing with form, image, time, space and inclusion has extended itself, in the Instagram era, both offline and online, to the excitement-level of a concert announcement, and the bodies hoping to get in, in numbers enough to fill a stadium. Stadium love, Toronto has for Kusama.

And just like original, groundbreaking music, great art is worth the wait. Kusama’s work predates rock concerts and music festivals. She was behind the original “happenings” that formed the worlds of both student protest and student art in her first years as an artist.Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors (March 3 – May 27, 2018) is the first of its kind, an institutional survey exhibition that lets attendees enter immersive infinity rooms. It marks the most ambitious North American tour of the artist’s work in almost a generation. The AGO in Toronto is the only Canadian stop and one of just six on the tour that runs into early 2019 (Seattle, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Atlanta).

Yayoi Kusama. Interior view of peep in mirror dome from Dots Obsession –Love Transformed into Dots, 2007, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York., © Yayoi Kusama. Photo by Cathy Carver.

The infinity rooms are surreal and incredibly immersive. They defy the eye (and the camera lens) to place oneself in this landscape, and yet the landscape is “real”, three dimensional and allows us right inside it. It is kaleidoscopic and rich with fantasy inspiration, and marks the debut of a number of new works such as All the Eternal Love I have for Pumpkins (2016), featuring dozens of Kusama’s signature bright yellow, dotted pumpkins, a motif for the artist’s artwork and preoccupations since she was a small child. An artist working out their dreams of childhood and seeing them continually blossom as they enter their senior decades is something striking in itself. The newness and excitement it has created in so many young people and not just the expected numbers of AGO members and long time fans of the artist’s work who might remember the happenings of their youth is something else entirely. It seems that Kusama finds herself right at home and right on time for audiences today just as in prior decades and other eras and places. Perhaps the artist bends time. Defies it. Remakes it. Indeed, the artist does. Even if we can’t linger too long within it.

Yayoi Kusama with recent works in Tokyo, 2016. Courtesy of the artist ©
Yayoi Kusama. Photo by Tomoaki Makino.

Perhaps the fantastical, the introspective, the reflective, the dreamlike, the childhood wishes Kusama articulates in acute, imaginative detail, as surreal or unusual as they are, wildly coloured and lit from unknown sources and free-floating are deeper to our shared dreams than anyone ever anticipated.

The AGO’s presentation of Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors will be complemented by an installation of her 1966 work Narcissus Garden, featuring over 1,300 stainless steel mirror balls placed in the AGO’s Signy Eaton Gallery. Narcissus Garden will be free to view with general admission.

Jacqueline Howell

The Idea of North at AGO: Curated by Steve Martin Opens Canada Day, July 1

Steve Martin, iconic actor/writer/comedian/musician (lately with Edie Brickell) is also an avid art fan who discovered our own icon Lawren Harris of Group of Seven fame, in a book some time ago. It seemed that among Martin’s wide circle of friends including art collectors and artists, the work of Harris (and indeed, The Group of Seven) was not widely known in some pretty big circles in the U.S. So began a thirst, a quest, and an emerging passion for this work which led to this premiering exhibit’s creation and curation by Martin for the AGO. The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, opens tomorrow, July 1, Canada Day.

Martin spoke on his love for art and the work of Harris (and his personal / artistic links to Canada/ Toronto) at a media preview on Tuesday June 28th at the AGO. A high profile group including Trinity-Spadina MPP Han Dong and local media and culture pros filled out the main floor atrium space while gallery visitors and staff overflowed second floor balconies above to catch a glimpse of this historic visit and hear about the exciting new show. While The Group of Seven’s work is among the most high profile of national treasures, celebrated and featured in our most staid and formal parliamentary settings and spaces, public galleries, formal textbooks and deepest imagery, Martin’s talk brought some L.A. cool and a refreshingly relaxed approach to this art, this project, and to our own relationship with Canadian and local art and culture. His appearance itself lent something unusual, special, and yet understated to the whole proceedings and to the ongoing art conversation that is such an important one for local/regional/generational/national voices and identities. Also rather important for the future – that we take some of the formality out of art appreciation and bring it back down to earth where the young can be inspired to access, appreciate and create future master works. This approach is something that the AGO is leading in and bringing Steve Martin into the mix is a beautiful facet of this approach.

For Lawren Harris’ work is sometimes abstract and other times, literal. You can visit the near north landscapes that look just like some of these works- although time of day, light conditions, patience and imagination (as well as a move away from the grab and go filter to death Instagram instinct) will be required to find those Harris blues and whites in nature. Those both fortunate and adventurous enough to find the Canadian public, shared, accessible, free Northern Ontario lakes can sit in a water craft or on a bank and see those impossible, pristine, unpeopled, advertisement-free, uncluttered landscapes, feel the stillness and feel truly humbled; “small, but not out of place at all” (as The Tragically Hip coined the feeling).  There are people, there are animals, there is life there out of frame (and always has been- these early 20th century works are not acts of erasure of Canada’s Aboriginals) but the land in the paintings and in Ontario’s rich natural world today is still overwhelmingly broad and generous and uncorrupted, largely, thankfully, protected as Crown Lands, as well as just remote enough to remain so for as far back as those old, even ancient, rocks have stood above clear lapping lakes and rivers.

It’s significant that a very famous, well-loved and respected Hollywood actor/artist and writer who’s no doubt seen every corner of the planet he’s ever wanted to and then some, who is among those few celluloid stars who can probably not go to any city on the planet even the more remote islands and not be recognized over a private dinner in a public space, finds something new, intimate, inviting, and addicting about Lawren Harris (and the landscapes and settings that inspired the painter). The work, these paintings, this Group, for Canadians, has national recognition  and is widely celebrated, while like all public, institutionally celebrated things, is also taken for granted – as we do our actors, our artists, certainly our comedians, our quality films and projects and our famous faces of the world today. Our own actors have long had to go south of the border for us to recognize them. Those who are brave and loyal enough to remain, and those unlucky or landlocked, can become part of the background, decoration for a passersby’s selfie. When really they are, like all artists worth their salt, really diamonds, despite their provenance or name recognition.

It is significant, also, that the broad ability for a painting to reach a collector or a book reader can propel someone very well established into new areas of inspiration and connectedness, outside of one’s comfort zone perhaps, far away from the expected areas of focus and enabling them to not “stay in their lane” as casual hate speech cautions artists, musicians, actors, and thinkers of today who approach debate or add voice to public conversations. It takes a very strong person/ality and a strong stomach, heart (what have you) to step into other lanes even if you have the power and credibility to call up the biggest art collector and biggest guns of the country and have a peek at their private collections in their “warehouses”.

As expected, Steve Martin is as quintessentially, naturally (and professionally) funny as anyone who’s ever made it big, and, let’s get this out of the way, most eternally silver fox handsome and funnier than most who probably ever will attempt the game. He’s also, in case you don’t look at film credits or think through the laughter of 40 years, a serious and insightful man. YET! His approach to art is just like ours- when he sees something he loves, it’s like a good wine. “Let’s get drunk!” A bad painting makes you say “Wow. Huh.” and a good painting makes you say “Huh. WOW!” The feeling great art (one could extend to “arts” music etc.) is the urge to dominate and own it, privately “to see it in your living room” followed by the reality check “Oh, I see it’s a national treasure…!” (Art can be both for wealthy big-game hunters but too, is and must be for Joe Public). A few embarrassing film junket-type questions emerge from the star-struck media who are careening out of their little, well trodden lane, as usual, longing to tie a star to our little berg with some little anecdote, when really, this is a citizen of the world and the arts, who has a lot of Canadian friends, great comedians, and likes being around comedians. The shrug Martin deflects such questions with is real, and it’s important. Canada needs to calm down and start being more confident in our worth in such fine company. When will we ever believe we are more than just a backdrop? And his advice to young artists is just about perfect: with reservation as it’s “always a cliche” he offers wisdom that reminds us in this jaded, overexposed, devalued generation that hard work and hustle has always been part of craft, talent, and the life of creative people.  “Do anything offered to you. Always keep making things. ” Martin says. Look for new areas of exposure for your work and yourself- your worthiness and ability to be asked to create for others. Look at all avenues for creating work. It’s a casual little chat. Like the best, probably most newsworthy culture stories. It’s not bombast. As usual, Steve Martin, the artist through and through, is (seemingly effortlessly) inspiring, timeless, mountain-like, and clear in his message. And funny. Nuanced. No pratfalls here.

To sit before a real star, the brightest and the best from the era who knows the world in a way the vast majority of audiences never will, who’s written for obscure 1960s tv shows and authored fine movies, books, and one liners to boot; who’s navigated the mountains and peaks and valleys of the glittery world of entertainment and survived the dingiest back alleys behind that city’s false fronts as well; it must be said, who remains when too many have fallen never to be replaced; an actor who you can name as the direct cause of some of your biggest belly laughs in your life, laughter-as-the-best-only-medicine that could bridge generation gaps and heal families; a performer who survived being a prop comic (the best prop comic); who played a sarcastic waiter in The Muppet Movie in short shorts and outshone Orson Welles, Milton Berle, Bob Hope (giants of their day) and Richard Pryor; who called our heroic talent John Candy a friend and colleague; is heady stuff indeed. To see him brush all expectations aside for a nice conversation about a cool thing he’s curating, while pouring a glass of water for his presenter, is nothing short of the almost forgotten, long promised magic of the Silver Screen.

The Idea of North presented informally, with ease and with a long overdue understatement, is that we have our own fascinating landscapes and artists that even a century on, are still ripe for discovery south of the border (and north of it).

The Idea of North is that we have rich, timeless landscapes that you will simply not believe within a few hours drive north of Toronto, that will make you forget or re-contextualize, if you will (students) the academic notion/reading/critiques of culture for something transcendent, apolitical (for once) and timeless indeed. If Steve Martin appreciates it among all the wonders of the world, it’s certainly worth a look for our own. If you have a friend who can show you the way, make haste, bring some wine or a board game, and count your lucky stars (they will bloom like nowhere else on earth.)

Innovative ballets have now been created in its honour. Andrew Hunter, the AGO’s Fredrik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art, will speak in depth on this topic and Lawren Harris’ view of this city of great diversity and dense urban growth in the 1910s- just as it is today- July 15th at Jackman Hall. With heavy international political and social concerns at the forefront of today’s news, with massive upheaval, migrations, displacement, wars, changes, and stresses, it’s not only timeless and reassuringly Canadian to look inward (in our historic way) but is also quite timely to look inward in a new, clear, confident way; to find strength, discussion points, context, inspiration, and pride in our art and our landscapes and our riches, in the truest and most pride worthy sense of the word. As usual, additional programming, art classes for children and adults, allow a deeper look and participation in this great new show. See the AGO website for more information, tickets and FAQs.

The Idea of North is flexible, open, not pinned to a wall in a calendar, not a coaster, not something dry and dusty from a textbook, not something for parliamentarians and school kids only to pass by each day at our Legislature. It’s rather exciting, starry, special, BIG, after all. Steve Martin said so.

With thanks to the AGO.

Jacqueline Howell

Icons, Heroes, Celebrities & Deities: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s rightful place transcends fascination at AGO preview show

“Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” – Public Enemy, Fight the Power – 1988

“Basquiat at the AGO: Separating the art from the art star – The question remains, does the legendary, tragic artist Jean-Michel Basquiat fascinate because of what he made or how he stopped making it?” – The Toronto Star, February 1, 2014

Let’s discuss the idea of celebrity fascination & death, artists, heroes and deities.

Why do we afford some artists the courtesy of minimizing premature, bad deaths and not others?  Are legends made or is legendary status prescribed by those holding the copyrights, the master recordings, and the rare photograph? Is it a relic left over from the Hippie dream that Manson destroyed so easily in 1969? Should we believe the hangers-on made good? The ex-wives? The art experts?



Continue reading “Icons, Heroes, Celebrities & Deities: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s rightful place transcends fascination at AGO preview show”

Most Of My Heroes Don’t Appear on No Stamps

“Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” – Public Enemy, Fight the Power – 1988

“Basquiat at the AGO: Separating the art from the art star – The question remains, does the legendary, tragic artist Jean-Michel Basquiat fascinate because of what he made or how he stopped making it?” – The Toronto Star, February 1, 2014

Let’s discuss the idea of celebrity fascination & death, artists, heroes and deities.

Why do we afford some artists the courtesy of minimizing premature, bad deaths and not others?  Are legends made, or is legendary status prescribed by those holding the copyrights, the master recordings, and the rare photograph? Is it a relic left over from the Hippie dream that Manson destroyed so easily in 1969? Should we believe the hangers-on made good? The ex-wives? The art experts?

The Beatles are worshipped as musical deities by critics and multitudes of fans. The fact of John Lennon’s assassination is not considered to infuse their myth with greater, or even outsized, meaning. The word “assassination” is out of fashion, too powerful, too threatening to the myth it interrupts while silently cementing it in place. It seems impossible to imagine that Lennon’s murder did not jump-start the canonization of his old band that he and the rest had run from a decade before.  Generations born as The Beatles ended and Lennon was assassinated and their catalogue became an asset for millionaires to trade like baseball cards and Apple Computers was rumoured to be named for them and on and on have no choice but to love The Beatles or be damned, for it’s a dull, accepted & expected societal norm.

Like those who are genetically predisposed to be repulsed by the taste and smell of cilantro, finding it “soapy”, there are people who don’t care for The Beatles and for whom “Love, love me do” is nothing more than the tinny loudspeaker soundtrack  of now- defunct 80’s retro hamburger joints they grew up in. Right on cue, comes the craving: too much garlic and piles of real cheddar and properly grilled, light, perfect buns. This shit is perfectly commercialized, but grilled to perfection.

For them, “Imagine” is some generic commercial sounding song that is received  by The Beatles- immune with an inquisitive pause for the tag line of whoever licensed its use to sell something. “Helter Skelter” was effectively stolen by Charles Manson. “Birthday” is a reference from Sixteen Candles. “Twist and Shout” belongs to Ferris Bueller crashing, and improving, a parade.  John Hughes was of the Beatles generation and used this music in his films as a gateway to introduce new forms of music that do not owe anything to them. Molly Ringwald, his onetime muse, and ours, led him to the music that L.A. kids were actually listening to. Modern music stands against the Beatles. Punk and Post-Punk obliterate them. Electronic music (Kraftwerk, New Order, OMD) make tracks as far away as they can get from the Albatross of the Beatles. Hip Hop remixed it all into entirely new forms. The Beatles were bigger than Jesus for a while but they aren’t Jesus.

There is a pretense among the devoted, including leading music critics and corporate entities of ’80, post Lennon’s assassination and onward, that The Beatles deserve all the accolades they can get, need dozens if not hundreds of tomes written about them, and that all the other commercial products and reproductions done in their name for half a century are not just cynical cash grabs and micro fame bids from those less-talented multitudes who’d like to beg, borrow, or steal a piece of that infernal legend. This lie depends on the narrative never settling on Lennon’s death and all the darkness surrounding it, including his own politics, arrogance, burned bridges, feuds, messy personal life, money, drugs, radicalism, ego and hubris. Somehow that dreadful looking 1970’s bed-in anti-mop top long hair and beard has done its work and a trick has been pulled, transposing Lennon with Jesus in his public’s imagination.

Elvis fans can fill their days listening to nothing but his extensive catalogue and are fulfilled and reminded of their youthful glow. This music, for the devoted, delivers time and again and no amount of collectible bric-a-brac for sale in tabloids or new permutations of the once-impossibly beautiful young Priscilla Presley’s face can trouble the ambient dream that Elvis fans enjoy. Elvis died at 42 years old. 42 YEARS OLD. What a waste, what a sin, what a crime for a man to do to themselves, their fans, their legacy. He abused his body with drugs and food, or, if we reach for some human empathy, as we sometimes do today for the special ones, he “self-medicated” his pain from (????) in this way. The amount of strain, of suspension of disbelief required to remain clear-eyed and loving toward a wealthy and beloved hero/singer/icon who died in this way at such a young age, rather than feel abject disgust and betrayal, is startling. Anyone born after ’77 knows fat Elvis, sweaty Elvis, caricature of Elvis, shadow of Elvis, country -trash indiscriminate, gaudy, money spending Elvis, Elvis-impersonator freaks Elvis, Eddie Murphy -skewering Elvis, and must look very hard to understand any other.

These dubious saints, Elvis and Lennon, sailed past their peak and were extinguished by the time Basquiat inhabited downtown Manhattan. The Clash said, rather matter-of-factly, in 1979: “Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.” At that moment, out of the dust rose a singular talent lyrically named Jean-Michel Basquiat.

It is a culturally relevant coincidence that Jean-Michel Basquiat hit the New York street-art, downtown and then quickly, glided into the uptown art scene about the time of Lennon’s murder nearby and three years after Elvis died.  Lennon’s image, words, protests, opinions and fame made him a target and he was silenced. There are no conspiracies about this assassination as the questions they would raise would hit far too close to home for his generation of fans and their most cherished belief systems. Yet, we minimize this death, as his image, words, ditties and music are considered bullet-proof and unkillable. He was sanctified, and in many ways, sanitized. Basquiat’s too-recent, not sepia-toned pedigree, his skin, and his work that was never cuddly, refuses any and all such hollow myth-making for mass consumption. What’s most impressive about it is that it speaks for itself and doesn’t need any help from the art scholar at all to be appreciated, as it’s visceral. It offers more than you could ever impress upon it even if a million words were written on the subject, like those 10 years of The Beatles that people can’t get enough of.

It is most definitely, always, a tragedy when someone dies young, and by young, we mean 27 or 40.  It is always a tragedy to lose an artist of any age who has much to say and has barely been heard yet, even as the outward markers of success suggest a phenomenon. It is a terrible loss, forever in the bones and nerves and heart and the brain we understand so little about, to lose someone we love. Someone we barely knew. Someone who changed the shape of the world, the space-time continuum, whether our mother, our friend, or Jean-Michel Basquiat.

But remember, we are talking about a great artist here. A visionary. An original. A wit. A brain. A cultural sponge. A self-made man. A boy with great style. A boy who lives on and on, in 1000 pieces of work spread out across the whole world, some of it destroyed, lost, hidden, and hoarded, but, through some miracle,  some of right here in Toronto for a few short months of winter. Remember the love that Elvis gets, that Lennon gets, as these figures are preserved in amber and mounted with their pale cheeks still soft, their forelocks still boyish,  good boys, loved this way, not the ways they later changed or failed to stay innocent. They look out and sing out, immortal, from those ancient pictures and recordings that their fans use as mirrors, where the devoted are forever 16 with everything ahead of them, every possible future, and John and Elvis sing, on an endless loop “love me” and you do. Tenderly.

Question answered: Basquiat lives, and waits for the world to be ready for him at AGO preview

 Basquiat at the AGO: Separating the art from the art star – The question remains, does the legendary, tragic artist Jean-Michel Basquiat fascinate because of what he made or how he stopped making it?” – The Toronto Star, February 1, 2014

Yesterday, Toronto media was given the chance to  preview the Basquiat show, the occasion of which prompted The Star to ask the above question. In  case readers find this approach dismissive and lacking in context, readers will have a chance to tackle the question for themselves when the show opens this weekend. In under a decade, Jean–Michel Basquiat produced a lifetime’s worth of vivid, emotional, funny, original drawings, paintings, mixed media collages, text based art and new ideas. He was there, on the ground, at a time when the New York art world needed a revolution, and he provided one all by himself. Any interrogation of his work 25 years on should be focused on his work and not his death as his legend is only a fraction of what it should yet be. Shall we?

A major article’s lead that Basquiat’s death is one of the more interesting things about him, especially if a follow up which retracts the assumption of “fascination” and goes deeper is not to come, carries a suspicion of racial, cultural, and confirmation biases. Fortunately, we are now dealing with Post-Modernism, where the very structures and rules of art criticism are forever upset, for the benefit of all amateurs who feel and respond to Basquiat’s musicality, its subversion and its originality. Watch as some experts grasp at the margins as their blessings are no longer required for the next few months in the Toronto art scene. Decide for yourself how it affects you: Step On Magazine was thrilled to be at the media preview and we think the AGO show is a triumph for the gallery, Toronto and for our local culture in 2015.

Jean-Michel Basquiat / Horn Players / 1983 / Acrylic and oilstick on three canvas panels mounted on wood supports / 243.8 x 190.5 cm / The Broad Art Foundation / Photography credit: Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles / © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. / Licensed by Artestar, New York

Jean–Michel Basquiat would have seen few heroes of his own to follow the early 80’s landscape, and so was wholly original: spray painting on any surface he felt like, slipping effortlessly with an irresistible grin and a rare youthful beauty into the hungry mouth of the Art world, charming the ultimate Art Star and always-at -heart Ad Man, Andy Warhol and, pop culture figures such as the then-up-and-coming, dangerously effective social engineer Madonna.

Continue reading “Question answered: Basquiat lives, and waits for the world to be ready for him at AGO preview”

It’s almost time! Basquiat at AGO opens February 7th with a dynamic roster of events and programming

Jean – Michel Basquiat: Now is the Time – Art Gallery of Ontario
Exhibit opens Feb 7, 2015 with great programming and extended hours on Friday nights.

To celebrate the first-ever Canadian retrospective (and the only North American stop) of Basquiat’s work, the AGO is offering a diverse array of programming and events:

  • Timed-entry ticket are now on sale at $16.50 for youth ages 17 and under, $21.50 for seniors and $25.00 for adults. Available at ago.net(Admission free for AGO members and children five and under.)
  • Friday hours in February (13,20 and 27) will be extended to 8:30 p.m. (Last entry will be 7:00 p.m.)
  • The Basquiat Idea Bar program takes place on these dates from 6-8 with Shinan Govani and the Kiki Ballroom Alliance.
  • Basquiat Bash Opening Party – Saturday February 7 from 6:00 to midnight. This free opening night event has 1000 free public tickets available via an online draw, with another 2000 free tickets booked by 125 community and youth groups across Toronto. DJ’s will spin Basquiat-inspired playlists. A break- dancing competition will be presented by UNITY Charity, showcasing the best break-dancers in the city.
  • Pop-up Talks on Wednesday evenings.
  • Basquiat for Families: Family Sundays, Family Day programming and March Break programming.
  • Basquiat Symposium: March 28, 2015 for information and tickets visit ago.net/jean-michel-basquiat-nows-the-time-symposium.
  • Film Screening – Downtown 81. April 8. Edo Bertoglio directed snapshot of post-punk Manhattan in the early 80’s, starring Jean-Michel Basquiat. For tickets go to  ago.net
  • Massive Party – Toronto’s hottest art night out and annual AGO Fundraiser returns April 23. This year’s event will bring together the city’s foremost underground artists and musicians for unforgettable performances and installations under the theme Hotbed under the artistic direction of TALWST who’ll recreate his acclaimed performance piece lanmò. Tickets are on sale at massiveparty.ca
  • Youth Arts Competition: The Scratch & Mix Project, which invites GTA youth aged 14 to 30 to submit original artwork on the theme of empowering the black community via exporations of social justice-including racism, materialism and exploitation. Up to 10 finalists will be awarded $1,000, see their work featured in an AGO exhibition in April. ly/ScratchMix.
  • Untitled - Jean-Michel Basquiat
    Untitled – Jean-Michel Basquiat
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