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Toronto is burning

There’s a rainbow spotlight hitting most of our art institutions this summer as  galleries citywide honour and celebrate WorldPride. With exhibitions from Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari’s The End of Time, a deeply personal video and photo installation at The Power Plant, to What it Means to be Seen, an exhibition curated by Sophie Hackett of materials from the Black Star Collection and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives at Ryerson Image Centre, there’s plenty of eye candy to catch this summer.

Hackett does it again at the AGO with Fan the Flames: Queer Positions in Photography while MOCCA features Stephen Andrews, General Idea, Andy Fabo, Public Studio and others in Over the Rainbow: Seduction and Identity From the Collection of Salah Bachir and Jacob Yerex.

The Gardiner Museum leads the season with Camp Fires—the perfect title for an exhibition that foregrounds the exaggerated aestheticism of camp sensibility, combined with the fiery method of curing clay, alongside the notion of gathering around and telling stories. Resoundingly, the three artists in Camp Fires have something important to say.

Draw nearer….

Warm: There are deep connections, both artistic and personal between Leopold L. Foulem, Paul Mathieu and Richard Milette. For starters, they’ve all dedicated their artistic practices to working with ceramics, a medium that the contemporary art world is finally catching on to as a conceptual, political, authentic and cutting-edge possibility.

(Ceramics are truly having their moment with many clay-based works in the recent Whitney Biennial, Venice Biennale and contemporary galleries and art fairs everywhere.) Of course, this is something these three have known all along, though they have seemingly revelled in its “otherness.” What was once outside is being invited in.

Warmer: Foulem, Mathieu and Milette romp fluently through ceramics history (classical, Baroque, modern, kitsch) and their attendant references, many contained within a single piece. Each circumvents the functionality of ceramics (vases with no voids, lids that don’t lift) whilst taking the form of domestic objects, but instead as Paul Mathieu notes, each “investigates the surface as pictorial space” and loads it with meaning and intent.

Warmest: Gay male identity and experience is a strong tie that binds the work together but “camp” as a concept, sensibility, political position, strategy and aesthetic phenomenon provides the lens for thinking in both a broad and nuanced way about the myriad queer themes embodied in these ceramics. Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” is a touchstone in both the exhibition and the catalogue essay, for how she gets it right in certain aspects of style but moreover how her ambivalence to camp as a subversive, political position taken on by artists like Foulem, Mathieu and Milette disregards style as content, and as Bruce LaBruce asserts, “an enormously serious and profound frivolity.”

Foulem, an Acadian now living in Montreal, was the teacher and mentor to Mathieu and Milette, and his work stands out as the most frisky and iconoclastic of the trio. He cruises easily between references both high and low with humour and skill—his series of Bicycle Seats are a naughty surprise that ought not to be spoiled. Returning From Brokeback Mountain (2006-07), an urn brimming with cultural quotations from Meissen porcelain, Blue Willow pottery, contemporary film and  Canadian lore, alludes to multiple narratives of star-crossed lovers and exemplifies Foulem’s engagement with hierarchies of taste, media and value.

Richard Milette’s ceramics often take the form of classical Greek vases complete with depictions of modern goddesses such as Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, but his earlier series of black and silver teapots and cups stand out as exceptionally complex mixtures of religious ritual and hardcore S/M gear. Of Ioudas (1986), a cup adorned with metal studs on the lip and handles, Milette speaks of “the need to suffer;” the pleasure and the pain are visceral here.

Paul Mathieu, who now lives and works in Vancouver, covers every square inch of his ceramics’ surfaces in intricate, mingled motifs from multiple times and places. In his wall-mounted Cute Boys vessels (2005) he presents portraits of heroes from Arthur Rimbaud to Michael Morris as Miss General Idea, as well as cheekily including himself.  

Artworks on pedestals in shades of pink radiate outwards from the central three-sided “campfire,” complete with sculptural logs for sitting. While two sides of the installation depict a glowing hearth, the third side contains video conversation with the artists. Curator Robin Metcalfe and exhibition designer Barr Gilmore deserve special praise for a bold, extraordinary installation analogous to the “profound frivolity” on view.


Over the Rainbow: Seduction and  identity. From the Collection of Salah Bachir and Jacob Yerex. To August 17. Mocca. 952 Queen St W. mocca.ca.


What it Means to be Seen: Photography and Queer Visibility. To Aug 24. Ryerson Image Centre. 33 Gould St. ryerson.ca.


Camp Fires. To Sep 1. Gardiner Museum. 111 Queen’s Park. gardinermuseum.com


Akram Zaatari: The End of Time. To Sep 1. The Power Plant. 231 Queen’s Quay W. thepowerplant.org.


Fan the Flames: Queer Positions in Photography. To Sep 7. AGO. 317 Dundas St. W. ago.net.

PAMELA meredith is TD Bank Group’s senior curator.