Kathryn Walter. Butter for Beuys. Toronto, Ontario: FELTstudio, 2005
Although it has become something of a Canadian art institution, Art Metropole began life as a small artist-run centre established by the Toronto-based artists’ group General Idea (1969–1994). The centre took its name from the building in which General Idea’s studios were located — a former art-supply house — and within a few months had issued its first retail catalogue, offering artists’ books, videos, catalogues and periodicals.
A new exhibition in the National Gallery of Canada’s Library — Then Again: A Celebration of Art Metropole’s 40th Anniversary — explores Art Metropole’s history and continuing legacy through a broad selection of artists’ books, documents and objects from the collections of the National Gallery’s Library and Archives. Selected artists’ publications from the Gallery’s Art Metropole Collection are juxtaposed with more recently published material from the Library’s own collection of artists’ books and multiples. The publications range from representative pieces spanning a single artist’s career to work by later generations, who have either realigned the art practice set by their predecessors, or who have appropriated and transformed the work of another artist in a critical way.
The work of German multimedia artist Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) is a case in point. Beuys had an enormous impact on contemporary art, using felt and fat as the signature media for many of his sculptures. Beuys’ felt hat, which he always wore, became an integral part of his persona. His conception of sculpture was directly related to the properties of the unusual media he chose: fat imbues other materials; felt absorbs whatever surrounds it.
To Beuys, the object’s outer manifestation enclosed the object itself, protecting it so that its inner being radiates life. Kathryn Walter, a Canadian artist who also works with felt, paid homage to Beuys’s chosen media — and to her great grandfather’s industrial felt business — by creating a felt butter dish.
Sherrie Levine. Gustave Flaubert (Un Coeur Simple). Ghent, Belgium: Imschoot, 1991
Sherrie Levine (b. 1947) questions the concept of originality in any art object, challenging the value placed on originality by artists and society in general. Gustave Flaubert: Un Coeur Simple is a short story by nineteenth-century French author Gustave Flaubert, which Levine had re-typeset and reprinted. It is the story of a simple servant girl, Félicité, who transfers her affections from one being to another, until finally she is left with a stuffed parrot, formerly her pet. On her deathbed, she confuses the parrot with the Holy Ghost.
In the spirit of the story, Levine’s book is a ghost of the original. The work is beautifully printed on handmade paper, conferring on the physical copy an aura hauntingly similar to that of the original. Levine does not conceal the reality that her work is a reproduction — indeed, she incorporates that fact in her title, taking possession of Flaubert’s story, and remaking it so that we can no longer distinguish the copy from the original.
Michael Snow’s (b. 1928) Walking Woman series (1961–1967) consists of hundreds of works in many media: drawing, printmaking, painting in and on all materials (watercolour, gouache, oil, enamel, etc.), sculpture in wood, metal and plastics, photographic works, 16mm and 8mm films, and performances — all of which utilize the same Walking Woman outline.
Michael Snow. Walking Woman Works. Toronto, Ontario: Isaacs Gallery, 1964 (stickers) / Michael Snow with Lyn Wiggins. Walking Woman: Silver Past and Present. Toronto, Ontario: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1994 (sterling silver pin) / Michael Snow. Biographie. of the Walking Woman, de la femme qui marche 1961-1967 (2004). Bruxelles, Belgique: La Lettre Volée, 2004
Biographie. of the Walking Woman, de la femme qui marche 1961–1967 (2004) is a book by Snow himself, composed of reproductions of all the representations by him and many others of the Walking Woman contour, which he collected during (and after) the project's seven years. Starting as a stencil, the series emphasized different means of reproducing the original and ends, so to speak, with the “biography“ implied in the title of his book.
Art Metropole was one of the first artist-run centres in Canada, and is now part of an international network of organizations committed to conceptual art. Art Metropole's early commitment to collecting, cataloguing and preserving the artistic production and documentary evidence of the conceptual art movement was unique in the alternative gallery community that developed in Canada in the 1970s.
From its inception, Art Metropole saw itself as both collector and custodian. Material was received by exchange, donation, and purchase, in non-traditional multimedia formats, including artists' books, multiples, video and audio works, mail art, posters, postcards, and stamps. In 1996, Art Metropole ceased collecting, in order to focus on its publication and distribution programs. And in 1999, the art, documentation, and archival material — including exhibition catalogues, periodicals, printed ephemera and trade publications on the avant-garde — that had been collected and preserved by Art Metropole, were donated to the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives by Jay A. Smith of Toronto.
In 2006, the National Gallery produced the travelling exhibition Art Metropole: The Top 100 along with a catalogue of the same name. The exhibition showcased 100 items selected from nearly 13,000 objects in the Art Metropole Collection, introducing the collection to a broader audience.
With this new exhibition, the National Gallery once again highlights a fascinating collection that not only features work by some of Canada’s best-known artists, but also important historical material tracing the trajectory of conceptual art in Canada during a pivotal period. Then Again: A Celebration of Art Metropole’s 40th Anniversary is on view in the National Gallery of Canada Library until December 19, 2014.
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