Written by By Monique El-Faizy, CNN
Ranging from a tenement building in the 19th century to a 1970s apartment in the 20th, Robert Houle’s “Red Is Beautiful” exhibition explores the spaces in which Canadian artists live and work over the years. Featuring over 40 paintings, sculptures and photos, the show, which runs at the AGO until May 12, is meant to reflect on both the emotion, and the economics, of the 20th century.
“As artists … what do we bring from our work back to those places?” Houle asks. “The fact that there are artists dwelling in some of the most lavish homes and most modest apartments, that reflects on the prices and who is profiting from those homes.”
Artists in the AGO
For nearly three decades, Houle, a Canadian-born, British-based artist, has been documenting the changing fortunes of the urban environment, which has contributed to the economic inequality that continues to be felt in Canada’s major cities. “In my mind, a good way to look back at the history of this place,” Houle says, “is to take a deep dive into each individual instance and see which event caused that transition.”
Inspired by Houle’s fascination with the characters, behavior and environment surrounding artists in Toronto and New York, on the one hand, and from Houle’s early work, on the other, “Red Is Beautiful” spans a five-decade period, starting with a humble tenement project set up by artist and activist Edward Burtynsky in the 1990s, and ending with a 1970s apartment in Toronto.
At the start of each decade, a different Toronto artist sets up a studio in a converted residential apartment to help with the conception of their new work. At the other end of the decade, a new set of artists moves in to relive those same experiences as they look into the key themes of the time.
Another section of the exhibition compares the circumstances of Canadian artists living in various 1930s buildings to those of American artists living in a flat set up by Norman Rockwell in 1947. In a period defined by the rise of post-war prosperity, many American artists made their living from illustration and commercial work. In comparison, Canadian artists made a living by working as teachers, social workers, or in the medical profession.
Although such an environment might seem physically better suited to promoting artistic expression, according to Houle, American artists enjoyed far more opportunities for commercial success. “The amount of work that American artists have enjoyed in the galleries in New York is far greater than what the Canadian artists have had,” he says.
Of the many overlapping artistic conversations Houle seeks to explore within the exhibition, one area that he says is central to the show is representation. “What I’m trying to do with this show is really think about this idea of representation, what it means for a young Aboriginal woman in a 1940s residential school to be represented, and what it means to a 12-year-old teen girl in a late 19th century apartment to be represented by the artist Joseph Crowley.”
In the exhibition, Houle pays special attention to one area that is often overlooked: the art market. He feels that artists in these spaces are usually much more self-employed than the majority of Americans who have become well known through advertising or illustration work. “The pressure to make those kind of financial and aesthetic decisions is much greater,” Houle says.
These concerns have led Houle to attempt to break down stereotypes surrounding the artists he has uncovered. “I don’t want people to ask about who lived and worked in each apartment,” he says. “What I would like is for people to take away a feeling of comfort and placeness. That should be a comfort to the home — a home isn’t just a building. It is a place and people living in it … all the time are living with that same love and passion of the people who were there long before them.”