It is the 2nd of October, around midnight, windy and cold — and I can’t wait to get outside. Once again, Nuit Blanche has arrived to bring contemporary art — an exclusive club on the other 364 days of the year — to the masses. Even though my memory of last year’s event is a blurred mix of waiting in the washroom line at Tim Horton’s, drinking gross alcoholic beverages straight from the bottle, and trying to avoid drowning in the constant stream of people, I can’t help but get excited for another round. I mean, the premise of the whole thing would make Andy Warhol wet his pants: bringing art to the street, making it accessible to the masses, making contemporary art relevant to more than contemporary artists.
But oh, this vision seems to belong to a land of utopia. My agenda for this year’s Nuit Blanche was a blurred vision of waiting in the washroom line at the Eaton Centre, drinking hot chocolate from Second Cup, and being really annoyed by all the drunk people (because I wasn’t one). And the art? I saw an old Volkswagen bus that had designs cut into its exterior and a light inside, throwing cool patterns onto the surrounding buildings. It looked like an oversized Ikea lamp that helps babies fall asleep, and even though it was an aesthetic piece it made me wonder whether spending millions of dollars to exhibit something I might as easily see at a Swedish furniture store accomplishes what Nuit Blanche annually sets out to do. While the basic idea of the event is admirable and surely in the spirit of postmodern thought, its execution is not living up to expectations or self-set standards.
So, why wait one whole year for Nuit Blanche when we have art on our streets and public spaces all year round? I set out to discover those hidden (or not-so-hidden) gems, to make up my very own art discovery route without line-ups, without drunks, and hopefully with something that truly speaks to me. Just like Nuit Blanche is divided into different “zones,” on my quest for public art I soon noticed that certain neighbourhoods exhibited conglomerations of pieces.
Kensington is most likely the first place anyone would think of for public art. Not only is the neighbourhood itself something of an art piece (with its beautifully coloured and painted townhouses; the sure presence of some street musicians; and the charming and sometimes puzzling collection of people that wander along Augusta Avenue), but street art pieces are the characteristic feature of the neighbourhood’s appearance.If you keep your eyes open, Augusta Avenue becomes a gallery sidewalk. The Alphonse Mucha-reminiscent mural painted on the side of a house on the corner of Oxford Street is an example of ambitious street art that creates meaning through the public space it is set in. Set to a lush background of burgundy red, the piece shows a woman surrounded by flowers, with subtle references to Asian iconography. In the context of its location, in the midst of Kensington, as an oversized image lurking over its visitors and inhabitants, it embodies ideas the area has come to represent. It appears that street art at its best is more than a piece of art put in a public space; there needs to be a symbiotic relationship between the locality and the piece.
Maybe that is the reason why the exhibited art at Nuit Blanche remains in the background: the absence of such a symbiosis fails to create accessibility. As I walk along I see a man finishing up a photo collage on the back side of a building at the corner of Nassau and Augusta. The piece is a group shot of punkish-looking men and women, with various details in close-up layered over the original, creating an image of a fragmented whole. We start talking and he tells me that the people in the collage are all locals, more or less known in the neighbourhood. “The pictures were shot in Toronto, then processed in Vancouver and exhibited in a gallery there,” he tells me. “Then the piece was featured in Canadian Art Magazine and now I’m back in Toronto putting it up on the street.” Evidently, street art can make it into the public consciousness, as other artists, such as the famed Banksy, have shown in recent years.
With its abundance of galleries, and as the place-to-be for creativity-craving hipsters, Queen Street is a creative outpouring. One artist that I have often spotted is Tyler Eli Hallett, who draws paintings on the sidewalk between Beverly and Spadina. Does Hallett adopt this unusual exhibition style out of necessity or is the street an integral part to the art piece? “It’s a necessity until I can find some work,” says Hallett. “I usually don’t mind the cold once I’m in the zone, but winter is starting to be a real pain. I think what I really need is some huge canvases, and a patron who could keep me going until I produce some real work. I kind of think that this sidewalk thing is just practice. This way is definitely good at cultivating patience and humility.”Although imagining his painting on a canvas would not take away from the message of the work, it is something else that ties the notion of his work tightly to the street: his audience. “Mostly I draw my inspiration from religious or spiritual iconography,” he explains. “I love to feel the connection between God through my work. It’s like my way of meditating. I love to make children wonder about something that isn’t found in video games.” By exhibiting his art in a public space, he exposes his ideas to audiences that would otherwise miss out on the experience, and evokes thoughts that are missing in today’s mainstream culture. Hallett has been painting on the sidewalk for a little under a decade, and when asked why he chose this path he muses: “I love to paint. It’s almost like I can’t help it, and I don’t feel right unless I’m painting. I’m a slave to beauty.” Considering the Canadian winter, this dedication is impressive, and exemplifies the passion necessary to be a street artist.
Further west at Augusta is a hidden alleyway (right behind Second Cup) that is filled with well-crafted graffiti. Now graffiti is, as Kensington artist Andrew Owen explains, “Not considered art by many artists.” I understand his reasoning: poorly skilled graffiti “artists” have unfortunately branded the public consciousness with hideous tags that scar the cityscape. This perception, however, is unfair to those artists who take their craft seriously and produce powerful tags with their spray cans and creativity. I have always found that graffiti is the visual answer to hip-hop, in that it is very direct and generally concerned with deconstructing the social status quo. There is one piece, very simple but immediate and still of social relevance, that shows a native man dressed in a simple t-shirt and the caption “I am Canadian.” However, Graffiti Alley, as this alleyway is commonly called, is a graphic explosion of vibrant colours and different styles. It’s as diverse as its artists, and individual pieces are concerned with the outside, as well as the inside, world.
The Distillery District
Yes, the east end features art as well. The Distillery District, which makes you feel like you’ve jumped back in time, is home to several art galleries, art dealers, and weekly artisan markets. It also features several public art pieces along its cobblestone pavements. But here the street art is of a different nature: the pieces are commissioned, and the artists’ names, along with the title of the art work, are engraved on a plate, insinuating a more institutional approach to art. “Institutional street art” may seem like an oxymoron, but it fits within the context of the Distillery District.
Art for sale is the prominent characteristic of this neighbourhood, and commissioning artists to exhibit their work to complement the public space is not only sensible, but also goes along the lines of the earlier-mentioned symbiosis between locality and art piece. The idea the Distillery District inherently promotes by hosting art galleries and dealers is that art, though a creative outlet, is a commodity that deserves its price and also gives credit to the artist. Thus, a change of neighbourhood and audience evokes a different view of the complexity of street art. Especially interesting is the piece entitled “Passerelle et Portance” by Claude Millette. This is a set of stairs that goes up and down, but has a gap in the middle and is closed off on both ends. To me it seems to comment on the inevitability of life: we try to get ahead, ascend on the social ladder, but at some point we come to a halt, possibly discover we have reached a dead end, and go back down, only to start climbing again. This constant self-evaluation is a concern that everyone, especially artists, has to face, and, in this respect the piece accurately visualizes the worries of those who inhabit the Distillery District.