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Terence Dick
Welcome to your gallery at The Margin of Eras Gallery
November 28, 2017

Local arts patron and long-time rich guy Jim Fleck was on CBC morning radio this week answering questions about his donation of Andy Warhol’s first Campbell Soup screenprint series to the AGO. He spoke in the straightforward manner of someone who is more accustomed to buying art than theorizing about it, which made the interview somewhat dry. The one interesting comment was his description of the work as “accessible.” He called it the kind of thing that might draw a viewer into more demanding art. That got my attention because I don’t usually think of Warhol as accessible given his radical upending of the artistic process through mechanical means, his challenges to the notion of authorship, and his use of commercial images. All of which, you’d think, would make him unlikely to appeal to neophyte gallery visitors looking for art that meets their expectations of what art should be like. On further reflection, Fleck’s response made sense because Warhol’s genius was to take all those consumer products that are familiar and available to us, and reframe them within the context of high art (while at the same time cheekily reframing everything else in the gallery within the context of commerce). Which is just to say, “It’s not the art that’s inaccessible; it’s the gallery.”

Sel Ghebrehiwot, Melancholy, 2017, video

A new venue for visual art in the west west end of the city explicitly addresses accessibility in its mandate. According to its website, The Margin of Eras Gallery is a space dedicated to exhibiting work by “artists who experience social, cultural, and economic marginalization, and systemic barriers.” The first part of their inclusively titled introductory exhibition Welcome to your gallery opened this week and the broad range of works on display makes it clear that diversity of media is as important as diversity of identity. From hand-painted denim jackets and jewellery made of recycled electronics to activist illustrations and poster stencils to paintings and video, the exhibition challenges conventional notions of what constitutes art while it also highlights those forms of art-making that are more likely to engage an audience rather than exclude it. Warhol is again instructive here because he understood consumption and valued it. Consumer good were not beneath him and neither were popular forms of expression.

Street art is democratic in its use of public space as well as its emphasis on legibility, so it’s not surprising to see Queso’s stencils and Raquel Da Silva’s graffiti-inspired paintings appeal to that tradition. Sel Ghebrehiwot’s Melancholy draws on pop music and fashion videos to capture the experience of urban alienation and the feeling of not belonging. Pop art, political cartoons, public murals, and documentary drawings can also be found and while each artist has unique concerns, the unifying factor isn’t style or theme, so much as a background that precludes them from easy access to the means of exhibition.

Shaughn Martel, Untitled, 2017, 3D pen

Perhaps these challenges in simply getting into the gallery have an impact on the type of art that gets made. The downside to accessibility in art is when that concern shifts from artist to artwork. What happens all too often is that the unknown is sacrificed for the familiar. Of all the works at Margin of Eras, only Shaughn Martel’s strange black sculpture made with 3D pen and Ghebrehiwot’s surreal video feel out of the ordinary. The art world has celebrated the unexpected since the start of the avant-gardes, but this exhibition has little truck with that attitude. Could it be that privileging a certain level of difficulty is another form of exclusion? Probably.

Which brings us back to Warhol. It might be a stretch to call him a marginalized figure, but he definitely worked from the periphery and hacked away at the barricades of fine art while finding inspiration in common, consumable, and popular material. He thumbed his nose at establishment restrictions and somehow became the most important artist of the last half of the 20th Century. Too bad Fleck didn’t decide to make his donation to a space that shared his interest in access.

Welcome to your gallery continues until December 2.
The Margins of Eras Gallery:
The gallery is partially accessible.

Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow his quickie reviews and art news announcements on Twitter @TerenceDick.



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