Art essays are like advertorials.
They puff up artists into sparkly, sweet ArtStars profound Gods who are capable of no wrong and dish their readers obtuse jargon, frilly phrases and a dollop of hefty smarter-than-thou theories where, more often than not, you’re forced to peel to the back page for the a-ha footnotes.1
But let me cut you a deal.2 Here at YYZ Artists’ Outlet, Toronto artists JENNIFER MARMAN AND DANIEL BORINS transform an artist-run centre into a shopping mall. Sound simple?3
They have divided the gallery into four shops and handed the reigns over to a selected number of artists who are pumped to hustle, sell, consult and charm as entrepreneurs and salespeople, cheerful retail renegades of their own brand before they are artists.4
They step down from being the untouchable ArtStars too snotty to give us their time or handshake. Here, they are not rare and precious rubies, or the quixotic, straggly starlets shining in the glossy pages of Artforum.5 They get real, for once.
Therefore,6 this show functions as the opposite of most. The ArtStars here are like everyone else on the sidewalk or streets of Toronto selling their stuff, hawking their wares, be it behind the cash till or in your junk mail with this show as their sales pitch.
So forget the dealers, the curators, the collectors, and the critics. Marman and Borins surrender their own exhibition property to feature the artists of their choice. And these artists are (for the time being) solely held responsible for the fate of their own success or failure. For they are the shopkeepers, taking it all into their own hands: Be it the sales, the promotions or the handshakes.
The first shop in the gallery is War and Leisure , a designer menswear line by Aleks Ognjanovich (imagine Harry Rosen-meets-military museum).
A parody of sorts, this boutique for the well-heeled could blend right in with the Holt Renfrew and Birks in the heart Yorkville.7 But it isn’t all fun and games Ognjanovich8 is a player. He will stand behind the concrete-clad bunker bar posing an odd challenge for customers: Can you snag the art of the deal when the best merch is tucked behind the bar?9 The shelves will be empty, more or less. He calls it takeaway sales.
His approach is this: He hopes to convince customers that the bunker boutique is all out of product, just to create demand. You have to haggle with him, chat him up, and get all chummy, just to see the stuff. He will play favourites and give access to what he thinks you deserve.10 The concept may be subtle, but you barely need to read between the lines. Spray painted on the side of the concrete bar bears the phrase: O Tolmon Nika meaning Who Dares Wins, in Greek.
Across the way is a shop entitled Chirajito: Clown Painter 11 by Ulysses Castellanos which is hard to miss. The walls are speckled in blue, yellow and red dots like the home of Polkaroo or a big bag of Wonderbread. Step inside to find a portrait studio that calls to mind an indoor version of a seedy slab of Yonge Street, specifically the portrait artists who sit by the curb sketching pedestrians curious enough to stop in their stride. In the same vein, Castellanos offers hand-painted portraits. Portraits, that is, of how he imagines you as a clown.12 But expect the unexpected in these portraits,13 he’s not afraid to show fear and failure in the eyes of the subject, or to slap on the satire. Imagine yourself as a politician in the funny pages or inked with your flaws by a curmudgeonly newspaper cartoon artist. The atmosphere is apt. In the style of an old school portrait art studio, Castellanos has given it a lounge-ish twist, being stacked with crates of records for sale,14 booming tunes on the speakers and a rotating disco ball hanging from above.
After you see your new face, not to worry, you’re not alone. Castellanos will be dressed as a clown himself.
Things take an Orwellian turn across the hall at Shinndustry International , a local design firm and family business. While most businesses start out with a storefront and later obtain a website, here they’ve done it the other way around: Imagine their turf as their online presence in physical form. The snaky logo up on the wall may look like something that would greet you on Wellington Street, but this is a family business that is anything but corporate cold. They are never too busy to take the time and talk to you.
Shinndustry International is an offshoot to Shinn Design Inc. , a typography and design business spearheaded by Nick Shinn,15 an internationally acclaimed typographer and graphic designer since 1998. And here, hear him decode design. The front plexi-glass window may call to mind a bank booth, but that’s just where you make an appointment. Inside is the crisp, clean office space, which expands to include what you may not get online. Consider it a part-design, part-fashion boutique, bookstore, as well a lecture, workshop and consulting headquarters. Eric Shinn16 and his dad will mount brand consulting meetings17 and demonstrations of fonts up on a projected screen while fashion designer, seamstress and mom Karey Shinn18 will lead a fashion show about fonts. Remember, if they’re reproducing their online store, they do business from home. So look out for the folks in their pajamas.
While the Shinns are serious about their sales, artist and graphic designer Ken Ogawa will make money by literally, creating his own currency. His bamboo-clad booth, which he calls 156 – Ehohe , has the vibe of the home of a psychic. That’s because the Ehos, or foreign currency which Ogawa has designed, bears the face of Helena Blavatsky, the 18th century spiritualist and founder of theosophy.19 And the exchange rate to Canadian currency will change weekly based on astrology and tarot card readings, and their numerological conversion. Once you’ve scored the cash, try to win a game of mini golf. Reminiscent of a carnival, fair or the Canadian National Exhibition, to Ogawa, it’s not about ripping people off. He sincerely hopes his guests will clean him out the prizes range from vegan leather black platform shoes to a pair of nunchucks,20 bondage gear and handcrafted perfume.21 But they can’t expect too much. Up on the wall is a reminder: A Japanese theatre mask, a wide-eyed grey face with devil horns, which symbolizes jealousy.
The ArtStars here at the YYZ MALL are not necessarily coming to a store near you; they are still in the gallery.22 The only ones missing are the artists behind the project, Marman and Borins .23 But that may be a part of the plan they’re standing back so we can step forward. Don’t just stand there. Buy something.
1 I hate that.
2 And save me from channeling my inner Peggy Gale. *snap*
3 A practical show deserves a practical essay.
4 The artists will humbly stand by their stuff everyday at the gallery, shift work from open to close, to snag each of their sales, one by one.
5 Though, I’m sure if the opportunity presented itself, they’d jump and ask: How high?
6 Good essay word, or what?
7 Cold heart, that is. Here, the tracksuits go for a whopping $1,500.
8 During installation, Aleks wore one of his pieces–a white t-shirt splattered with fake blood–to the liquor store, where the woman behind the cash almost refused him entry. Are you alright, sir? she asked.
9 With the vodka bottles.
10 He used to be a bartender.
11 Chirajito means little rag in Spanish.
12 The price of the portrait is pay-what-you-can, either before or after you see the product. Ulysses is easygoing, you see.
13 Painted in India ink and chalk pastel, and in broad, expressive brushstrokes that call to mind a cross between Alex Katz and Basquait
14 For $4 each, you can snag a Heaven 17, Sexpress or the Studio 54 soundtrack. He’s worked as a DJ, remember? While supplies last.
15 Nick is the dad of the family who is essentially a design superstar: having taught design at the Ontario College of Art and Design, York University, Humber College, and has most recently redesigned The Globe and Mail masthead.
16 A writer, journalist, artist and poet who has written for The Toronto Star and Maisonneuve magazine.
17 Which range anywhere from $200-$2000.
18 Who has dressed Britney Spears and Priscilla Presley.
19 Theosophy/n. any of various philosophies professing to achieve knowledge of God by spiritual ecstasy, direct intuition, or special individual relations, esp. one following Hindu and Buddhist teachings and seeking universal brotherhood; theosophical/a.; theosopohist n. [medlL f. Gk (theosophos wise concerning God)]. — Oxford Dictionary
20 Which once belonged to his father.
21 Which he calls Scent Will Set You Free. But set you free from what?
22 Though, I’m sure 50 years from now there will be YYZ MALLS absolutely everywhere.
23 They might be mall security, watching the tapes from the booth behind the glass wall, or secret shoppers hunting for kleptomaniacs.
NADJA SAYEJ is the founder and host of ArtStars* TV, Toronto’s only art show that shatters the myth of the art diva, be it curators fumbling over their cocktails or artists fessing their frustrations. It is better known as: TMZ for the art scene. Nadja has written for The New York Times, artUS magazine and The Globe and Mail. She lives somewhere in the east end, far closer to the ground than most ivory towers. *snap*