January 27, 2012

Every age has its spirit. Germans refer to this as Zeitgeist, or the spirit of a time. Ghost hunting in one’s own time can be a thrilling and elusive pursuit. Cultural activities tend to yield signs marking broader social, economic and political currents. For the sensitive observer of contemporary culture, these markers create an impression of society as a whole.    

During these chilled days, my mind turns to the searing heat of the concrete heart of Toronto during mid-July. This is when the annual Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition (TOAE) takes place onNathan Phillips Square. It’s here that one can see a vast variety of art with an array of material, formal and conceptual approaches. This annual weekend show shares all the best traits of an energetic marketplace and dynamic forum of ideas. In this regard, not too much has changed over the exhibition’s half-century history. Look closely, however, and you’ll notice degrees of difference every year.

Something interesting was at play on the Square this past year. With over three hundred artists showing their individual studio production, some patterns seemed to emerge. From a material perspective, many artists were sealing their works with a highly reflective coating. Now, glossy paintings have been around for many years, but this year they were in great supply. As for demand, patrons were buying. This raises the questions: do the optical properties of art share parallels with economics? Does the appeal of lustre and sheen fluctuate along with market trends?

What I found most compelling were the themes and motifs explored by artists, particularly younger participants. Landscapes are a perennial and fitting favorite at any outdoor show. A critical mass of artists instead turned to the cityscape as their subject-matter. These weren’t images of metropolitans teeming with people, but rather haunting urban environs evacuated of its populace. Paintings, drawings and photos documented the textures and beauty of depopulated inner-city decay.

If the human elements eluded the cityscapes, they turned up in another, curiously concealed form. People disguised as animals. This was a prominent metaphor that could be noticed at dozens of artists’ booths. I particularly enjoyed following this brand of shape-shifting. Fauna adopted human traits to an effect that ranged from waggish illustrations to Aesop-style morality plays. I can still picture the cunning fox dressed in an Armani suit and a sinister wolf strutting on his hind legs. This type of attribution of human characteristics called anthropomorphizing, pointed to a deeper order in our collective consciousness.                         

Those are some impressions that resonate half a year later. I’ve seen the TOAE from both sides: as a participating artist and visitor to the Square. Some individuals produce art, but most observe it. If you consider yourself the former, take a step back from your production and think of how it’s situated in a broader context. You’ll be surprised at the synchronicities that are out there. Next time you’re at a cultural event or gallery–look for the signs and specters, they’ll be there.

A variation of this article appears in-print in the current issue of Surfacing magazine.

Fun in the Sun