North America’s fourth-largest city (behind Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles), Toronto naturally serves as Canada’s center for finance, sports, gastronomy and culture. It also hosts a thriving art scene, especially right now. Diverse international artists are flocking to the city to make their Canadian premieres, ranging from a Brooklyn Pop art favorite to a Kenyan-British ceramic superstar.
Here are Toronto’s must-see contemporary art exhibits this season:
One of North America’s largest museums, the AGO is a powerhouse that recently unveiled two excellent exhibitions spotlighting zeitgeist works.
Brooklyn-based KAWS, née Brian Donnelly, began his career as a street artist but the Manhattan School of Visual Arts alum (with a BFA in illustration) has grown to become a Pop artist in the vein of Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. His Canadian premiere, “KAWS: Family” (through March 31, 2024), demonstrates what future art exhibits could look like. During our Friday afternoon visit, the popular show was crowded with the under-30 set flitting among the 70-plus works, including an augmented reality installation, shooting photos and videos.
You also will feel the urge to break out your phone and capture his recurring cast of cartoonish characters. KAWS borrows pop culture figures but gives them a sinister spin with skull-and-crossbones-shaped heads and “X” eyes. While KAWS wants you to focus on the idea of family here, the exhibit takes on another resonance in a post-pandemic, turmoil-riddled world. In the larger-than-life bronze sculpture GONE, a gray Mickey Mouse-like Companion holds a limp cotton-candy-hued Elmo in his arms. Then, in the sculpture SEPARATED, Companion sits on the ground weeping into his white-gloved hands. KAWS’ most cheerful character, Chum, a red Michelin Man, stands with slumped shoulders and face downcast in WHAT PARTY.
As a new generation of museumgoers takes photos of KAWS’ sculptures, “Building Icons: Arnold Newman’s Magazine World, 1938-2000” (through January 21, 2024) offers a career survey of a celebrated photographer who greatly influenced how we take pictures today. Miami native Newman began making 49-cent studio portraits in Philadelphia and eventually became a master portraitist whose work appeared in popular magazines of his day, including Life, Harper’s Bazaar, Look and more. The AGO’s more than 4,000-piece Newman collection is one of the largest in the world — 200 of the gelatin silver prints are on display for “Building Icons.”
Newman wasn’t a passive observer but carefully constructed his scenes to capture something essential about his subjects. He snapped famed French chef Paul Bocuse with his face buried in a head of cabbage, painter Georgia O’Keeffe in the desert with her profile fronting a blank canvas on an easel topped with a ram skull, and Canadian Pacific Railway president Norris Roy Crump sitting in an office chair in the middle of a train track that trails off into the mountains.
The exhibit also includes a section dedicated to portraits of his lifelong friend, the composer/conductor Igor Stravinsky. One of Newman’s most well-known works is a shot dominated by a black piano with Stravinsky in the corner.
To see Newman’s process, check out the Picasso photos, which show the photographer’s behind-the-scenes work zeroing in on the right frame and cropping the image of the legendary surrealist. This and the exhibit as a whole make you appreciate an art form that’s dying in these AI-generated times.
From the outside, the small gem of a museum — one of a few in the world to focus on ceramics — catches your eye with its modernist exterior featuring a cantilevered cube and an oversized black-and-silver-striped ceramic head sculpture from Jun Kaneko watching over it. Inside, you’ll find more than 5,000 pieces from the ancient Americas, Europe, Japan and China, along with contemporary works, mainly from Canadian artists.
The reason to visit now is the standout new exhibit “Magdalene Odundo: A Dialogue with Objects” (through April 21, 2024), the Canadian debut of one of the ceramics world’s biggest stars and the largest exhibition of her work in North America. The collection of Kenyan-born, U.K.-based Odundo’s unglazed, handmade pieces (she doesn’t use a pottery wheel) spans from her early career in 1984 to today, including five new works. Her work fuses the traditional and the contemporary, deeply rooted in her Kenyan heritage while drawing influences from global ceramic traditions. Known for her distinctive hand-built and unglazed ceramics, Odundo gives her pieces an organic and tactile quality. The shapes of her vessels often echo the curves and contours of the female form, with round bellies, elegant necks and subtle indentations reminiscent of belly buttons or nipples. This celebration of the feminine is further accented by the careful, elegant finish of each piece.
The display setup mimics her vessels — two thick, black circular tables showcase her curvaceous pumpkin- and black-colored pieces encased in glass. You’re enveloped by her work when you enter each circle. The show’s perimeter includes contextual works that influenced Odundo, including a 20th-century ceremonial mask from Mali and a rotund teapot from German-American sculptor Ruth Duckworth.
Occupying an enviable waterfront site, this power-plant-turned-art-gallery resides in a red-brick building and smokestack. It launched the first Toronto solo exhibits (through January 7, 2024) for three international artists.
Paris artist Abdelkader Benchamma marks his solo Canadian debut with “Solastalgia: Archaeologies of Loss.” Inspired by science and alchemy, the draftsman works primarily in black ink to create flowing murals resembling Earth cross-sections. The two-story murals comprising as above, so below almost conjure a cave-like tunnel made of his mesmerizing inky strata. Benchamma’s layered site-specific works examining the terrestrial and the celestial invite repeat viewings.
The highlight of “Time of Change” from Anna Boghiguian, a Cairo-born artist with Armenian roots who lives in Canada, is The Chess Game. Life-sized historical figure cutouts — including singer/dancer/French spy Josephine Baker; former Canadian prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lester B. Pearson; Austrian SS doctor Aribert Heim, aka Dr. Death; and revolutionary Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which started World War I — square off on a chessboard in a seemingly never-ending game of good versus evil.
New York-based Aria Dean’s first solo Canadian show, “Abattoir, U.S.A.!,” examines the architecture of death using an abattoir, or slaughterhouse — fittingly, Toronto was nicknamed “Hogtown” for its vast stockyards in the late 1800s. Enter the room through swinging doors with porthole windows and the heavy chemical odor of the industrial rubber mat flooring fills your nostrils. Then a video, made using 3D video game software, leads you through an empty slaughterhouse with blood-slicked floors as tense music plays.
Where to Stay
Tucked away in gallery-studded Yorkville, The Hazelton Hotel isn’t just a beautiful Yabu Pushelberg-designed Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star hotel — it carries an extensive art collection featuring many Canadian artists. Upon entering the building, you’ll find Canadian sculptor Bruno Billio’s shiny chrome stacked suitcase towers. Then German artist Stefan Gunnesch’s collage, which uses a photo of a bust that looks like it’s from ancient Greece, greets you in the lobby.
To see more from the Gardiner, Park Hyatt Toronto displays a rotating selection of the museum’s ceramics (like Canadian artist Gregory Payce’s More Buildings About Song and Food) in Joni Restaurant. The Yorkville hotel also boasts its own nine-piece permanent contemporary collection, including indigenous artist Nadia Myre’s Where Beavers, Deers, Elks, and Such Beasts Keep, a hand-woven tapestry of more than 12,000 beads that hangs at Joni.