Canadian Art magazine doesn’t always get a good review among members of the Canadian art community – with criticisms for being too commercial, for operating more as a business than a responsive art journal, and for bolstering its own ego. This is a distinct and purposeful strategy that places it on par with many other glossy art and culture publications and it shouldn’t necessarily incite negative reaction. In presenting itself as a commercial venture full of gallery, artist, and university studio programme advertisements, it's constructing an image of the large lucrative network of the Canadian art market (or reflecting it?). I think what's easy to criticize about Canadian Art’s strategy is that is seems somehow un-Canadian to submit to commercialization and skimming (if not informative) content. An attempting to place the Canadian art business on the same tier as the American art business should be a welcomed advance, although a successful comparison is still debatable.
When browsing through Artforum or Art in America, you can tell they are more like business platforms than critical journals (although Art Forum has its moments). This mixture, however, is a crucial and valuable component for these internationally circulating magazines. Canadian Art has been making a stand as a trend predictor, supporting the formation of a network of cultural-funders, art-makers and curators – it’s an obvious move by the magazine to establish itself as more important than previously assumed – no one asked for a top ten list of Canadian artists to watch or for a list of who’s who in the Toronto curatorial circuit, but Canadian Art took up the responsibility for making these decisions, establishing a hierarchy with high glossy fashion-esque spreads to boot. So why does it feel so awkward? Maybe because the self-congratulatory and self-aggrandizing message of these sorts of articles indeed appear as expressions of a palpably un-Canadian sentiment. Canadian cultural identity seems to have a lot to do with laying claims on any individual - dancer, artists, actor playwright etc. - who has ever spent any time living or working in Canada through which to build a significant cultural identity. Listening to CBC radio on any sort of regular basis, you notice that any one who's interviewed is readily identified by his/her Canadian connection (however small). Sometimes it seems like we're bashfully grasping at any degree of association through which to build up our country's cultural credentials.
Paul Butler’s work entitled Toronto Now Suite (2008), in Sitting Pretty: The Enduring Role of Portraiture in Contemporary Art (5 Nov – 5 Dec 2009) at Redbull 381 Projects, is not pointing to the potentially ‘un-Canadian’ aspects of Canadian Art magazine, but it surely comments on the awkward creation of the magazine's recent spreads such as “Ten to Watch’ (Fall 2009) and the ‘Spotlight: Toronto Now’ (Winter 2007). The 'Toronto Now' article was composed as a presentation of different categories of art and culture contributors that were subsequently gathered together for group photos in such categories as “Partners, Friends, Travellers,” “The Directors,” “Sources” and “To Watch” – which seems like a precursor to the larger section in Fall 2009 that lists another group of young artists to pay attention to, if you care to be savvy. Butler’s project includes the pages of the Canadian Art 'Toronto Now' photo shoot excised from its original binding with each figure blocked out by tiny mosaic pieces of black archival tape – precisely and completely. Also, the descriptive text listing the who’s-who were cut out, leaving empty rectangular spaces.
With the erasure of information and identity, essayist Julia Lum in the accompanying exhibition essay notes that Butler’s “work invites viewers to imaginatively insert other bodies into the scene, running parallel to Butler’s call to arms for more artist-run initiatives in the wake of the recent economic crisis: ‘We have an exciting opportunity as artists, to reclaim control and reinvent our art world.’” This is absolutely true, as I’m sure there were water cooler discussions here and there about who should have been included and who shouldn’t have been. What interests me about Butler’s work is the obvious identification of a constructed scene existing in the Toronto community. This is not only a ‘call to arms’ for artists to take charge of the scene, but also a call for support by anyone who perceives a need for the identification, definition and hierarchization of that scene within the structure of artist, dealer, critic that we see played out in places like Artforum. A gesture that bolsters the Toronto art scene as being comparable with other international cities is tantamount to what this work is addressing.
Through negating the hierarchy, Butler also points to its current construction through the format of an art magazine with aspirations for international clout - one that operates as a corporation to a certain extent through huge fundraisers (29 Sept blog post), a foundation, considerable donations and corporate sponsorships. As an artist who has contributed writing to this magazine and who is also exhibiting at Redbull (yes, a gallery and the brand name energy drink), for Butler to be criticizing the construction of a polished art scene adds another level to the work. I do not want to insinuate hypocriticracy, because that's useless. I'm instead pointing to the conscious participation by all of us: writers, artists, dealers, young professionals, non-profit administrators; we're all caught in a hierarchical art scene which Canadian Art magazine is perhaps only attempting to make shamelessly explicit.