Number 548, Oct 27, 2005

Saltwater TAAFI

Pulling Off an Arty Coup

Contemporary art does not have to be boring and inaccessible, but from a quick look around the art world, it is easy to disagree. On its way to challenge this idea comes the somewhat awkwardly named, Toronto Alternative Art Fair International. TAAFI, as it is commonly referred to, is rumbling its way through town for the second year. Ultra-hip art hotels, The Drake and The Gladstone again play host to the fair which promises to include a mix of curators, commercial galleries, not-for-profit art institutions, panel discussions, and gala parties. In a purposefully cheeky decision, TAAFI is scheduled to take place at the very same time as the well-established Toronto International Art Fair (TIAF) at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

The less established, and more spunky TAAFI, is collectively organized. The non-profit curatorial and organizational group is comprised of Toronto art darlings, Barr Gilmore (graphic designer, proprietor of Solo Exhibition, and former senior design associate at Bruce Mau Design,) Andrew Harwood (artist, curator, and former proprietor of Zsa Zsa gallery,) and Pamila Matharu (artist, educator and founding member of the South Asian Visual Arts Collective.) Harwood says two years ago the idea for TAAFI was born at a zine fair called Canzine. On that day Harwood says he, Matharu, and founding collective member Selena Christo, decided to do a fair that “really rocks out.” From looking at the TAAFI musical roster alone which includes Stink Mitt, We Are Wolves and Peaches to name a few performers, the fair will indeed rock out. But it isn’t all about music, it’s not even mostly about music. TAAFI is, above all, a celebration of visual art.

Given that the fair touts itself as “Canada’s only alternative art fair,” an obvious question begging to be asked is just what exactly it is an alternative to. Though Harwood does not seem to be a fan of the question, commenting on how leading it is, his best advice to naysayers is to attend the fair and experience it directly. Still not satisfied TAAFI is an alternative event? The simple answer, given the scheduling, would be that TAAFI is an alternative to the Toronto International Art Fair. Taking place in hotels directly involved in the Toronto art scene, TAAFI viewers will feel more at home than within the sterile confines of the TIAF’s Convention Centre locale. On one hand, the TIAF, a markedly more stuffy and upper class event, is not for everyone if for no other reason than the admission fee. On the other hand, at TAAFI fun rules, and the door price is a more affordable $6, including an event catalogue.

As far as international events go, TAAFI is markedly Canada and Toronto-centric, but seeing as the fair is still new, this fact is not entirely surprising. Besides the swarm of art locals, the fair will also play host to artists and work from New York and across the US, as well as Germany. However, if being queer was considered in the same terms as countries are, TAAFI would certainly excel with its international status. TAAFI is bent. The high percentage of queer-con is not strictly part of the fair’s mandate, but rather an extension of who the organizational trio is. Harwood explains, “it is just natural for two fags and an out there bi gal to have events and artists that are queer user friendly!” Although rainbow paraphernalia is not likely to be found at TAAFI, pick any version of queer and you’ll likely find some form of it represented.

Donning multiple TAFFI roles, Barr Gilmore celebrates five years of his gallery, Solo Exhibition in room #202 at The Drake Hotel. In every day life Solo Exhibition is comprised of a small (less than 20 inches wide!) storefront window sandwiched up against Dufflet’s Pastries at 787 Queen St. West. Much like the space itself, Solo’s “motto” is succinct. “One window. One artist. One artwork. Every full moon ‘til the next one. Always open.” Admirably, Gilmore states his curatorial mandate is driven by his desire “to expose as many people as possible to contemporary art, so that no one is afraid or intimidated to experience it.”

Although one might be tempted to put the word gallery in air quotes when addressing Solo Exhibition as an art space, there is no denying that it has a strong presence in the Toronto art scene. It is an unpretentious forum that brings up unique questions relating to audience and space. Add to this the fun factor of Queen Street and you have a hit. Gilmore points out that Solo exhibition at TAAFI will be a survey of work from the last five years. It will include highlights such as AA Bronson’s The Hanged Man photograph, Matthias Hermann’s Photo Booth light box and Sandy Plotnikoff’s Hat Scene trucker hat bedspread. Currently on display at Solo itself is Denise Oleksijczuk’s Perennial Love, a hand-cranked text scroll.

Also at The Drake, Toronto-based visual artist, Patrick Decoste presents an installation and “killer” performance titled Baby Seal Club (babe phoque club.) Decoste, best known for creating lush, flesh-laden paintings, veers away from his previous work, opting for something decidedly more crass. Without giving too much away, Decoste describes Baby Seal Club as being comprised of “three white seal pup piñatas hung from the ceiling, the cute ones with the whitest of fur.” For the performance, scheduled for 5pm on Saturday and Sunday, “Brigitte Bardow [sic] enters the lounge, the artist holds a club in his hand,” and it degenerates from there. Do not forget to bring the children. Baby Seal Club is Decoste’s artificial re-creation of the culture of killing on the Spring time ice flows in Eastern Canada. While there will not be any actual ice flows at The Drake, viewers will no doubt be up to their tits in the profane.

Decoste says he is interested in TAAFI because of its success at providing a venue for art that is edgy and interesting. He describes the fair as being “more ballsy and cutting-edge” than other art fairs such as TIAF. And if anyone has got balls on his mind, it is Decoste. From his Silenus in Furs paintings of voluptuous naked men, to his more recent, and richly scatological Stag Club (a collaborative installation with Ken Moffatt), Decoste obsesses over masculinity. Baby Seal Club looks at how hunting is tied to Canadian and masculine identity, as well as the artist’s personal history of hunting small game in Nova Scotia. Either that, or it is an attempt to push people’s buttons.

Speaking of provocation, artist, porn director and local rabble-rouser Bruce La Bruce, presents an installation titled Women in Revolt in room #204 at The Drake. Labruce describes the installation simply as being comprised of a white room, a television set, and a bloody handprint. To make this exhibit Labruce culled clips from his favourite movies, largely from the 60s and 70s, and added a soundtrack to the mix. As the project evolved, he realized most of his choices had an element of masquerade, or were comprised of women in the midst of nervous breakdown, killing themselves or someone else. In something a little closer to artspeak, the work is about the creation of melodrama, social control and the appropriation of popular culture.

For those who only know Labruce’s work as a film maker, the idea of an installation may seem like a new direction for the artist. However, Women in Revolt is actually tied to some of his previous work. In the past few years Labruce has been involved in similar photo shoot/installations in Los Angeles at “arts ‘n’ culture” celebration, Platinum Oasis, and also at Peres Projects, a gallery currently representing Labruce’s work. If the idea of a man making work using images of hysterical women seems suspect, step right up to the interrogation line. Labruce himself is the first to ask if the installation is just offering “an excuse to be misogynist like so many other homosexual men.” Ambiguously, he does not offer anything resembling an answer.

From the disturbing to the sexy, or perhaps disturbingly sexual, even the TAAFI parties are about ideas. One of the art fair highlights includes a party called Boner, a cabaret style event featuring a gay pile drive-a-thon. Get out your gear and prepare to be pummelled by event organizers and artists Scott McEwan and John Caffery. Through an ever evolving process, McEwan has managed to turn his interest in wrestling into a fetish, a lifestyle, and an art. Aside from the obvious sexual overtones, his interests also lie in exploring the masculinity, movement and spectacle of wrestling in his paintings. His work can be seen on the TAAFI catalogue cover. McEwan’s psychedelic paintings are a visual freak out of pilfered images from old magazines and personal internet liaisons.

If after visiting TAAFI, whooping it up at the parties, and rooting through all the installations, performances and videos, the art world still seems boring it might just mean the cynicism monster has swallowed you whole. Though the experience of an art fair can be taxing, and at times less than ideal, the TAAFI collective have the very best of intentions; to provide a venue for provocative, engaging art that is accessible to everyone.