Visitors to Art Toronto first encounter masked employees in official baseball caps and white lab coats screening for COVID-19. Resembling post-apocalyptic hosers, they performatively illustrate that 2021 was an unusual year for the fair. After all, this year marked its return after the pandemic resulted in its 2020 cancellation—a symbolic reinstatement of art world normality marked with anticipation but also with trepidation in facing potential crowds.
Clearly, COVID-19 wreaked an economic toll on Canada’s largest commercial fair. The number of exhibitors dropped by around 40% from 2019, with just over 60 galleries this year and only seven—yes, seven—from outside Canada.
Pandemic aside, since its year 2000 launch, the fair has failed to deliver internationally despite the predictable “world class” boosterism that Torontonians promoted it with in its nascent stages. Its failure lies in both attracting the right galleries and not vetting the wrong ones, leading to less relevant work than that of prominent international fairs: Frieze Art Fair, the Armory Show, Art Basel Miami Beach, et al. Much of Art Toronto is unabashedly commercial, replete with obligatory landscapes and unimaginative photorealist works.
With international travel still at a COVID crawl, global recognition is an especially tall order now. This year, one would have been hard-pressed to find any overriding international art trends, such as the new Black figuration and photography.
All that said, a promising turn did arise this year that embraced regionalism rather than the distant goal of globalism: an emphasis on Canadian Indigenous art. A third of exhibitors included Indigenous work in their booths, and much of this work contributed a critical undertone to the fair, a reflexive criticism of commercialism that defined its best work overall.
From Halifax’s promising mid-pandemic–launched The Blue Building gallery comes the work of Halifax-based Mi’kmaq multidisciplinary artist Ursula Johnson (the 2017 Sobey Art Award winner), whose satirical take on the commodification of Indigenous culture is timely and fitting. Two of her three included prints are from a decade-plus performative project she has deemed “IHTA,” the Indian Truckhouse of High Art, involving her setting up a makeshift vendor booth in downtown Halifax, soliciting passersby while wearing traditional costume and speaking almost exclusively Mi’kmaq. These pieces, a screen-printed poster titled ITHA Label (2021) that advertises dream catchers, and ITHA Wallpaper (2020), digitally printed vinyl wallpaper that features serially repeated imagery of wolves, Indigenous headdresses, and buffalo, present Indigenous icons popular with the white consumer. Johnson accordingly prompts a meaningful dialogue on the contradiction between the art fair’s commercialism and the inclusion of serious critical discourse such as this.
Jay Isaac at Paul Petro Contemporary Art (PPCA) likewise highlights the friction arising from social commentary in a market-driven environment. A New Brunswick-raised painter recently returned to the province from Toronto, Isaac addresses this through fake mural proposals realized as studio paintings. Consider, for example, Mural for a Stairwell 3, 2021, a Day-Glo–bright acrylic on canvas—a colourful confection of purple, pink, light green, and green–yellow incongruously depicting a bleak industrial motif of smoke billowing from four smokestacks. Its title and its narrow rectangular shape both imply it is suitable for a stairwell installation, although it was never commissioned. Why make a proposal on canvas for what never will be commissioned? As Isaac observes in the press release for his 2021 eponymously titled exhibition Mural Studies at PPCA, murals “are historically political and social-minded in content … Unlike the art market, there is no mural market.” Thus, “within the framework of commercial art production [a mural] will always have contradictory aspects to [its] socio-political thesis.” This dichotomy between politically progressive art and the art market expands to a meta commentary on the fair itself.
Equally relevant to the fair context is the work of Vikky Alexander, a 1979 NSCAD University (then NSCAD) graduate associated with both the Pictures Generation and the Vancouver School of photoconceptualism. In a wise move given the fair’s often cluttered booths, Trépanier Baer, her representing gallery, dedicated its entire booth to her work, with six of the seven included pieces from a 2021 suite of thirteen prints titled Les Jardins de Le Nôtre à Versailles. The imagistic and historic references for these photo collages are engravings of Versailles fountains by André Le Nôtre, one of the landscape architects who designed the Gardens of Versailles. The realism of photographic images of gardens, grass, and walls and the abstraction of the ensuing collage link past and present and reality and unreality in a kind of stream of consciousness common to the artist’s practice. The title of an earlier series by the artist, Between Dreaming and Living (1985/2008), which explored consumerism as a stream of consciousness, is a perfect, pithy summation of how an art fair is both about overt materialism and the dreamier world of artistic vision.
The 2021 fair cannot be fully explored reflexively without addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, which Newfoundland-based artist Will Gill does at the Christina Parker Gallery in his 2021 Pandemic Series. His subtle analysis is especially visible in Provision Drop, a staged photograph of two wooden crates attached to a pair of landed parachutes, all of which are pink and reddish with a neon-like glow. They sharply contrast their backdrop: a dark, mossy remote shoreline by the steel-cold ocean. Not directly referencing the pandemic the way the series title does, the photo instead illustrates metaphorically the mix of isolation (there are no signs of people in this picture beyond the parachutes and the provisions packages) and the connectedness of outside help, be it governmental or personal, that is a crucial part of the pandemic’s social framework.
Including artworks as portals for reflexive contemplation and discussion makes Art Toronto, despite its drawbacks, a worthwhile event. While there may be much to sift through, the payback of the fair’s highlights is more than a reasonable trade-off.