An Arbitrary Fit
by Jenifer Paparao
In art criticism there is an over-arching need to neatly package art work: identifying movements, noting trends, linking works by style and medium, fitting work into a tight thematic, identifying common a common politics and contextualizing arts in terms of place and time. There is a practicality to slotting works and artists into categories. It offers an in - a place to start - and provides a directed dialogue. It controls interpretation, prevents jumbled readings and presents a tidy framework to refer back to and draw from. At its best, it allows for diverse interpretations of similar issues. But what all this sorting and slotting does most of all is identify (and often force) commonalities.
Counter-intuitively, Persona Volare is collectively mounting an exhibition that does not readily allow for this type of categorization. While certain works share a similar aesthetic or address similar concerns, there is no common entry point to sum up the exhibition as a whole. Beyond the obvious links (they are all Toronto-based artists with contemporary practices and they are all exhibiting together as Persona Volare), one is hard pressed to find a comprehensive connection between all the works. The artists come from divergent backgrounds, use a multitude of media, and are mixed generationally. Although they may hold similar political views, they have not come together under one vision or to speak for a common cause. One thing that could link them however, is that each member has a history (whether long or short) of exhibiting in non-gallery spaces. But does this concern for place inform us about why they have come together?
The exhibition will be held in a space on the third floor of a building on the corner of College Street and Palmerston Avenue. The building, which houses diverse operations such as language schools, career training for new immigrants and a support system for women in need, is located in what Tourism Toronto calls "one of the hottest spots for Toronto night life, dominated by a late-twenties crowd." This area of College Street is a bastion fro those who want to spend money on food and drink. Newer, sleeker, more expensive bars and restaurants continue to replace the 'social clubs" (coffee shops and billiard halls) that are predominantly filled with local Portuguese, and some remaining Italian, men. It is the definition of gentrification.
But what does this have to do with Persona Volare? Not much really. The third-floor space they rented for the month of November just happens to be in a building that is located in the centre of this activity. Rent, time and landlord permitting, a version of this exhibition would have doubtlessly happened elsewhere. Although place seems to be the most overt and easiest link to identify within this exhibition, the members of Persona Volare have not come to this temporary site, in order to address the politics of the area or to reveal a hidden history about the building. It just happens to be one of the few spaces currently available.
Not that they dismiss space as an essential element. Many of Persona Volare's members have infiltrated sites for a variety of political reason and continue to create site-specific works that address the particularities of its location. Yet, they currently occupy this space without a cohesive political goal. It would be too simple to say that they use the space like a neutral container, but the walls are white and its empty of its previous contents. Other than the sullied carpet and some difficulty with lighting, this space easily mimics the white-walls of most commercial and institutional galleries. The "white-cubed" nature of the space leads to the conclusion that they are not collectively using this space to stand in opposition to the conventions of traditional exhibition spaces.
I actuality, the space even hinders our need to neatly package the exhibition as a whole. Structurally, the site impedes the formation of a comprehensive reading. The third-floor space provides twelve rooms to perfectly match the twelve members of Persona Volare. Beyond divvying up the separate rooms, the spatial considerations concerning the placement of work is nominal. The physical relation between the works is boiled down to who gets which room. The egalitarian nature of the space allows a video and sound installation to sit by a cursing claw footed bathtub, or, a free copy centre to occupy the space next to a room full of digitally constructed photo-based works. Consequently, the way in which they have negotiated the site further frustrates our quest to situate this exhibition under a general theme or to draw cohesive links between the artists, their work and why they have come together.
In fact, the members of Persona Volare are relieving us of this obligation to draw neat ties. Even though we can make surface links between them, they do not pretend to offer a cohesive reason for coming together. They do not align their practices under a complex rubric of themes or claim to have joined forces to make an overt political statement. They are not exhibiting in non-gallery space to expound anti-institutional sentiments or to question conventional exhibition practices. Instead, they free themselves from the confines of the tightly packaged exhibition, avoiding themes that can oversimplify and block other more layered readings of the individual works.
The members of Persona Volare have collectively come together, but they are not a collective. They are more like an arbitrary mix that, in coming together, have created an energy. Persona Volare are not offering any neat readings in which to place this exhibition, but they do give us a show where different tastes and ideas coalesce. Divergent works, such as a makeshift printing device, light soaked text, found object sculptures, expressly sexual paintings and a coffee mug throwing area, come together in a collision of energy that is refreshing. In walking through this exhibition we are not distracted by questions of theme: how does this work relate to the next or why is this piece included in this exhibition? So we can stop looking for justifiable evidence fro why these artists have brought these works together and in so doing, we can turn our attentions to the idiosyncrasies of each work.
Jenifer Papararo, October 2000