Exhibitions about “built environments” are a dime a dozen, but even with a rather uninteresting premise, Toronto’s curator David Liss pulls off a pretty good show with Empire of Dreams at MOCCA. The exhibition design and installation are well thought out, much of the talent is local, and the work uneven. You can’t have everything.
Given the exhibition’s focus, it’s not too surprising to see drawings, dioramas and sculptures of buildings dominate the space. The more realistic it is, typically the worse the work. Amongst the first images a viewer will see is Tristram Lansdowne’s suite of shacks and floating homes. The work resembles an over-sized mall poster but I like the inclusion for its formal connections to Dan Bergeron’s temporary Versace store-front attached to MOCCA facade. Fake store fronts seem to be all the rage these days, but I’m not totally tired of them. Yet.
This isn’t the only reimagined architecture in the show. Samina Mansuri’s movie set like diorama of a city titled Cedibidaee Reconstruction Site 9 asks viewers to walk along a platform while watching a black and white projection of this same site move across the landscape. As far as I can tell, the city doesn’t actually exist; the name can’t be found on Google and the cinematic lighting suggests falseness. This constructed sentimentality is all part of the critique according to the artist who claims the piece “questions the meaning and purpose of memorials”. Fair enough, but it’s not particularly directed, which makes an already boring piece more boring.
Better are the abstracted projection paintings of Janet Jones. These are mostly black and white paintings resembling overhead projections, in both a small-sized triptych and six-foot plus size. Solid yellow, orange and pink cover the sides of the canvas, as if refracted light from the projector. It’s unclear exactly how much the artist takes from actual projections, but the smaller paintings appear traced from one shot at an extreme angle. There’s vaguely science-fiction-y about the work, as if they are reflections on progress in which the past plays more prominently than the future.
Unearthing said past is the point of Josh Thorpe’s many layers of removed paint on the wall piece Subtratractive Mural for MOCCA (After Asher and Huyghe). Add Jose Lerma to that “after” list. The-museum’s-history-is-kept-in-the-walls!” idea has been executed by countless artists with a penchant for sentimentality, but this is still the best one I’ve seen. It takes the form of a topical map, which seems appropriate for what is essentially a contemporary landscape show, and at least makes a very visually appealing work. Toronto artist and blogger Lorna Mills has a million close ups of the piece on her blog, which I assume means she liked it too.
As Thorpe and Bergeron demonstrate, a fair number of familiar conceits and art making approaches are made exceptional through their skilled execution. Jade Rude and Bruno Brillio’s Russian Mountain and Yellow Black Mountain a Doozer scaffolding meets construction hazard tape palette sculpture is another such example as is Yvonne Lammerich’s Rimeter, an extruding white form emerging from a flat white wall. Both look familiar — Rude and Bruno’s being very of the moment, and Lammerich, an old school minimalist form. The careful arrangement of elements makes each piece compelling though and I’m relieved that in this case, the artist’s evoking industry isn’t accompanied by the cliche Jungen-esque moralizing on the subject. I don’t need sculpture to teach me what I can better learn from reading a book.
I also don’t need sculpture to repeatedly mimic the same forms which may be why I’ve never been a fan of architecturally inspired work — it relies too heavily on repeating forms. A known visual crutch in the art world, (it’s too easy to make an object look good), the built world is literally made up of this so called crutch. So why hold MOCCA’s Empire of Dreams to a standard that doesn’t exist in its inspiration? Like any successful city, the exhibition holds together — flaws and all.