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The great shows this year included a retrospective of an icon, savvy cultural analysis and, most often, pointed political commentaries on resistance, eco-issues and gender.
Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, January 23 to March 16
Berlin-based Canadian artist/curator Charles Stankievech marshalled an array of documents, texts, videos, photographs and assorted artworks on the fascinating topic of art’s strange relationship to espionage and military intelligence, from a surrealist-designed torture chamber to the escapades of curator/spy Anthony Blunt to military simulation video games. The depth and breadth of information took the concept of research-based art to whole a new level.
The League of Women Wrestlers smashed a whack of stereotypes.
Polish Combatants Hall, February 22
Featuring characters like Dirty Ol’ Maude, the roller-skating Dyke Master 3000 (with her giant-penis-costumed sidekick) and Wiccan nightmare goddess Shreeeka, the League of Women Wrestlers, a collective of artists from Dawson City, Yukon, stomped into the Polish Combatants Hall to smash cisgendered and heteronormative stereotypes in one of the craziest displays of campy queer feminist exuberance we’ve seen since, well, ever. Here’s hoping they come back and put T.O. in another hammerlock.
The Alex Colville survey, including To Prince Edward Island, got into the icon’s mind.
Art Gallery of Ontario, August 23 to January 4, 2015
The master of uncanny modernist disquiet was given his due in this exhaustive retrospective spanning Alex Colville’s career. Starting from his youth as a Canadian war artist witnessing the liberation of a German death camp, it moved on to chronicle his painterly relationship with the small town of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, all the way to his last portrait of his wife and lifelong muse, Rhoda. Confronted with film footage, interviews and Colville’s meticulous sketchbooks, viewers got an unprecedented glimpse into the mind of an icon.
Scrap Metal Gallery, April 6 to June 28
Channelling Dadaism and the eastern European absurdist tradition, Czech artist Eva Kotátková showed collaged photos of people from old textbooks and magazines to which she applied restraining or encaging white lines, and sculptures made with children’s sweaters and wheelchairs. She poetically evoked the experience of educational indoctrination – and the spirit of growth and resistance – in a restrictive society.
Narwhal, September 6 to October 4
Team Macho founder Lauchie Reid’s show of new paintings had him doing what he does best: using classical painterly tropes to send up concealed historical narratives in ways that were both poignant and deliciously perverse. The group portrait of upper-class 19th-century women wearing iron scolds alone was one of the lasting artistic images of the Toronto season. Going beyond the whimsical, eccentric and twee, Reid displayed a masterly grasp of the ironies of representation.
MOCCA, February 8 to April 6
This exhibit of glittery, eye-popping artworks was a first introduction for many gallery-goers to Canadian Tricia Middleton, who showed a spectacular coloured-wax room-sized installation. The other five international artists, all of whom play with theatricality and excess, are no slouches either. Thank the National Gallery and the Art Gallery of Alberta for also bringing works to town by New York-based Canadian David Altmejd, L.A.’s Mark Bradford and Britain’s Yinka Shonibare.
Jamie Angell Gallery, July 19 to August 16
Video artist Jason Trucco, who recently directed Billy Idol’s video for Can’t Break Me Down, transformed Jamie Angell’s space with an analog paper printout of a digitally simulated exhibit papered onto the gallery walls. It was a bold and paradoxical inversion of the virtual and the real.
Koffler Gallery, June 26 to August 31
Inspired by architecture, decorative arts and nature, Penelope Stewart treated us to one of her honey-scented beeswax installations. (Its fragrance still lingered in the space during Koffler’s subsequent show.) Entitled Vanitas, the wax-tiled room-within-a-room overflowed with golden beeswax domestic objects, flowers and seedpods, serving as a valedictory for bees lost to colony collapse disorder and a meditation on the relationship of nature to concepts of beauty and value.
Trinity Square Video, February 15 to March 15
At the forefront of art about gender and the body, L.A.-based Canadian Heather Cassils, a trans performance artist and personal trainer who’s masculinized his body through working out, showed four videos that forced us to question some of our basic assumptions. Especially moving was Tiresias (the Greek prophet who became a woman for part of his life), in which the artist allowed his naked torso to slowly melt a classical-style breastplate of ice.
Daniel Faria Gallery, July 24 to September 6
Curator Rui Mateus Amaral made a savvy pairing of two artists who at first glance couldn’t be more dissimilar: New York sculptor Allyson Vieira, who works with humble drywall and I-beams, and Seoul-based Canadian Paul Kajander, who usually does installations and video. His tiny “décollages,” made by blacking out portions of textbook photos of ancient Greek sculptures so they become anatomical oddities or modernist forms, and her big, rough yet noble caryatid figures both spoke to the continued cultural legacy of ancient Greece.