Amateur films get professional treatment at the Art Gallery of Ontario

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Prelinger Archives, Bobbing for Apples, 1951, film still.Prelinger Archives

  • I AM HERE: Home movies and everyday masterpieces
  • Place: Art Gallery of Ontario
  • Artists: David Hockney, Claes Oldenburg, Annie Pootoogook, Arthur Jafa, Jack Chambers and Mary Pratt
  • Conservatives: Jim Shedden, Alexa Greist and Rick Prelinger
  • To open: April 13 – August 14

Critic’s Choice


On the one-year anniversary of the lockdown, the shuttered Art Gallery of Ontario was trying to stay in touch with its audience, so it invited the public to submit its pandemic art digitally. About 3,000 people from Canada and around the world sent in samples; today, the gallery brings them all together in a new exhibition on the amateur and everyday image, entitled I AM HERE: Home movies and everyday masterpieces. The full 3,000 images can be projected in a five-hour digital display, but the gallery has also selected 100 to reproduce as vinyl posters which are displayed on a wall in the exhibition. That is to say, the curators have made a professional choice of their art coming from the crowd.

This innovative and engaging exhibition is about this tension, about how we make distinctions and definitions in a world saturated with images, how artists represent everyday life or how ordinary people represent themselves. It’s a show that juxtaposes – to great effect – historic, renowned, professional art with the anonymous and amateur: home movies, family photo albums, that cool Instagram feed.

This high-profile exhibition was curated by AGO Publishing Director Jim Shedden and Prints and Drawings Curator Alexa Greist, as well as Rick Prelinger, an American archivist and filmmaker who collects films. ephemera,” including home movies, commercials, and industrial shorts. Prelinger’s collection includes more than 18,000 home movies, small clips from 20th century films showing people dancing, showing pets or celebrating parties. They were the inspiration for a project that places these brief but extensive documents of human existence alongside their great artistic antecedents and their many contemporary equivalents.

Prelinger Archives, Boy Twirling Hula Hoop, 1958, film still.Prelinger Archives

These include quirky pairs from the AGO’s permanent collection and a few strategic loans – a section on city life features an oversized horizontal view of a Los Angeles street scene by British artist David Hockney, this master of the aestheticization of the banal. A section on family includes the first amateur film in history: in 1895, Louis Lumière filmed his brother and sister-in-law feeding their baby breakfast. In a prototypical performance, the baby tries to offer his cookie to the camera held by his uncle.

Provocative and revealing combinations abound. The section titled Food Glorious Food includes home movies showing construction workers with their lunch buckets, a pie-eating contest and two kids with giant lollipops, while Toronto graphic designer Gilbert Li brings recent footage from his feed Instagram, where he posts his lunch. . These small-screen works sit alongside two hyper-realistic paintings, depictions of fish dinners created in the 1970s by Mary Pratt, the Newfoundland artist revered for her luminescent renderings of kitchen still lifes.

Mary Pratt, Cod Filets on Cardboard Cartons, 1975, oil on panel.AGO Photograph by Carlo Catenazzi/Art Gallery of Ontario

The show ends with a viewing room for Prelinger’s Panorama, a reel of home movies showing a stream of miniature drama as a tourist photographs a bear, a group of deaf people throw a party and a man tries to loosen a champagne cork. Prelinger’s collection is largely American, but the AGO has crept into various Canadian references, pairing scenes of road trips in the United States with a slideshow of social media posts from Weber’s burger restaurant, this eternal stop on the road to the Ontario countryside. And the family section includes a wide array of found photo albums — baby photos, vacation photos, wedding photographs — from a collection donated to the AGO by Toronto artist Max Dean.

Unknown, Girls Highland Dancing Album, 1947-1952, gift of Max Dean.Art Gallery of Ontario

Unknown, Toronto Album, 1900-1910s, gift of Max Dean.Art Gallery of Ontario

Yet Prelinger’s family films, dating from the 1920s to the 1980s, encapsulate a particular American sensibility. Reflecting their respective places in the world, American culture is performative while Canadian culture is observational; a whole other sight could be made of the difference.

One of the most impressive vantage points here is the monumental landscape of Jack Chambers 401 To London, not displayed at the AGO for a decade. With the long gray road winding away to the skyline, this wonderful painting freezes the vast summer sky and verdant landscape of southern Ontario in a moment of intense viewing. Whatever an Instagram post can achieve is what an artist can do, make the viewer see it.

Jack Chambers, 401 Towards London No. 1, 1968-69, oil on plywood.Art Gallery of Ontario

Another theme that comes up repeatedly is that of collectibles, memories, ephemera and analogue too. Dean’s photo albums are paired with Everything in my father’s wallet/Everything in my wallet, a 2005 memorial project by Toronto artist Sara Angelucci that photographs the contents of her late father’s wallet and compares it to the cards and notes he himself has. The show also includes We buy white albums, the collection of Beatles white album covers assembled by American artist Rutherford Chang, each copy defaced or stained in a different way. And, in one of their cleverest borrowings, the curators retrieved a single cardboard box from the Andy Warhol Museum archives and unpacked the contents of the time capsule: posters, posters, brochures, all hoarded at the end of the 1960s by pop artist pack rat. .

Warhol, visionary as ever, predicted not only the cult of fame (another subject of this show), but also the sheer volume of material with which technological reproduction would eventually overwhelm us. Today, who has time to sort the photos on their iPhone?

Faced with the immensity of his own collection, filled with so many images of the remarkable and the mundane, Prelinger quoted the German playwright Bertolt Brecht at the opening of I AM HERE this week: “There are times when you have to choose between being human and good taste. In the middle of this show, it looks like you can actually do both.

I AM HERE continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto until August 14.

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