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Jenna Powell

On MKUltra, LSD, and Generational Trauma: The Upcoming Performances of Sarah Anne Johnson

For the last ten years, Sarah Anne Johnson has been making work in response to an unusual and deeply traumatic event in her family’s history. In 1956, nobody in the family suspected that Johnson’s grandmother, Velma Orlikow, was part of a secret medical study funded by the CIA. When she checked into Allan Memorial Hospital in Montréal, with what now would be diagnosed as post-partum depression, she unknowingly became a test subject in a subproject of MKUltra. The insidious medical study headed by Dr. Ewen Cameron at McGill subjected patients to electric shock therapy, sleep deprivation, heavy sedation, and large doses of LSD. The clandestine American agency hoped that the psychedelic drug could be used to psychologically control and extract information from individuals of national security interest at the height of the Cold War.

The psychological damage to the family was permanent and cyclical. “What happened to my grandmother,” Johnson explains, “is this horrible thing that never resolved. It got passed to my mom and to me; in my memory what the doctor did is a continual thing that’s still going on.” In a multidisciplinary body of work, Johnson reflects on this trauma by roleplaying as both her grandmother and the doctor. In the installation Hospital Hallway, which will be shown at Arsenal Contemporary New York in fall of 2018, Johnson performs the desperate acts of a medical patient. Wearing a mask of her grandmother’s face, her intense choreographed dance struggles against the walls of a custom-built octagonal hallway, her body following a loop without exit.

The Cave, which will be shown at Julie Saul Gallery in New York, is a frozen, icy room at the heart of the imaginary house Johnson built for her grandmother. What should be the kitchen, or the warmest room of the house, has been damaged by the psychological effects of MKUltra. Inside The Cave, Johnson is dressed in a doctor’s uniform, performing a circular dance with a languid, nude doll whose head periodically rolls back. “He’s in the lead. The doctor is in control and she’s vulnerable,” Johnson notes, “he’s just dancing around at her expense.” It is a slow, depressing waltz without music that digs itself under the skin. As onlookers, our detached view makes us complicit in the torture before us, like those scientific gazes that witness and carefully chart a woman’s suffering from behind glass.

Sarah Anne Johnson’s upcoming exhibitions include “Rosy Fingered Dawn” at Julie Saul Gallery in New York, which opens May 5th, 2018; a group show at the MET Breuer in September 2018; and parallel presentations of The Cave and Hospital Hallway at Julie Saul.

Written by Anna Kovler

Sarah Anne Johnson. Velma Orlikow. 2008. 20 x 26 in. Graphite on Inkjet.


Sarah Anne Johnson. Hospital Hallway, displayed with monitors between live performances. Upcoming installation and performances at Arsenal Contemporary New York, fall 2018.


Sarah Anne Johnson. Performing Hospital Hallway. 2015.


Sarah Anne Johnson. Stills from The Cave, 2018. To be performed at Julie Saul Gallery New York, September 2018.


A Future We Do Not Yet Know: In The Studio With An Te Liu

by Anna Kovler

In a defunct, light-filled car garage, An Te Liu is wrapping up production of his new bronze sculptures in preparation for the Armory Show in New York. Casts, molds, and waxes lie on the floor amid dozens of slender plinths casting their shadows on the white concrete floor. Working in a renovated mechanic’s shop, with its original brick walls and garage doors, perfectly suits Liu’s fascination with the aesthetic of ruins and the inevitability of change.

His forms hover between identifiable objects and strange, mysterious artifacts. A small sculpture vaguely recalls a skull, while another references a partial body in motion. Next to those, a blackened disco ball hangs from the ceiling. Another bronze looks like a piece of petrified Styrofoam, and two works resemble orphaned car parts. Whether organic or technological, all things decay; the solids and metals with which we build our worlds perhaps are just ways of buying time. Like a science fiction novel, Liu’s sculptures propose what our objects might look like if unearthed thousands of years from now, their surfaces tarnished as if from fire, or polished like pebbles in the sea.

I’ll Be Your Mirror (2018) reminds me of something, but I can’t quite tell what. Like thunderbolts, two rust colored bronze pieces emerge from the plinth, connected in the middle by something resembling a stick. “I’ve been looking at driftwood,” Liu explains, “how something just erodes away after millions of years.” The shape of the sculpture comes from the taillights of the new Honda Fit, a modest but sporty hatchback. As though fossilized or petrified, the taillights have fused together with the driftwood at centre. A picture comes to mind of a forest floor on which the roots of a powerful tree have subsumed or punctured the Honda, forcing its tendrils into the car’s plastic and glass.

Liu’s references are as diverse as his inspirations. He has been recently looking at the tortured figures in Francis Bacon’s paintings with their shifting planes, deformed expressions, and otherworldly features. The influence of Futurist sculptors like Brancusi and Boccioni is also strongly felt. But unlike the Futurists, whose unwavering embrace of technological innovation spurred an imagining of new futures, Liu’s sculptures carry a heavy awareness of our civilization’s decline, its wreckage and foreclosure. Standing before his corroded disco ball or relics of taillights, one feels a bit like one of the travelers in a Romantic or Neoclassical landscape painting, stumbling upon the ruins of a coliseum, temple, or castle. Feelings of awe and melancholy arise in equal measure, calling forth a future we do not yet know, or one that has already passed.

An Te Liu will be exhibiting at the 2018 Armory Show in Booth #P16 of the Presents section from March 8 – 11. Upcoming exhibitions include “Nothing Stable Under Heaven” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from March 3 – September 16, 2018, “The House Imaginary” at the San Jose Museum of Art from April 20- August 9, 2018, “bust/boom” at the New Gallery in Calgary from May – June 2018, an exhibition at Marso Gallery in Mexico City and a solo exhibition at Division Gallery in Toronto which opens September 6, 2018.

An Te Liu’s Toronto studio, 2018.


An Te Liu, The Party’s Over, 2017. Bronze, 12 inches diameter. Ed 3 of 4.


An Te Liu in his Toronto studio, 2018.


An Te Liu, Halcyon Drift (Bubba), 2018. Bronze, 17 3/8 x 18 x 13 ½ in. Ed 1 of 3.


An Te Liu in his Toronto studio, 2018.


An Te Liu, Nonorganic Life, 2017. Bronze, 12 x 5 x 6 in, Ed 4 of 5.

The Spaces We Inhabit: In the Studio with John Monteith

by Anna Kovler

My first question upon entering John Monteith’s studio was: which part of your body gets hurt from making these? My hand, and especially my thumb, he replied, from pressing into the pencil for so long.

Dozens of intricate drawings on drafting film line the walls of Monteith’s studio, colorful, precise compositions drawn with such razor-sharp accuracy and expanses of evenly colored shapes as to require vast amounts of concentration. It can be a refuge to get lost in the task of making abstract forms: there is joy in drawing a perfect line, a thin arc in yellow, or hatching in a pale blue square. This is especially true when something in the drawing can surprise us, when something is revealed during the act of making a mark.

Working with found imagery and a personal archive of photographic references, Monteith abstracts from images of interiors, urban spaces, models and architectural propositions to first create a grey scale composition on one side of a sheet of translucent drafting film. He then flips the sheet over, and responds to the first side in colored pencil. The resulting drawing becomes a hybrid of the front and back, a third drawing in which a single shape can shift in value, darkening and lightening in response to the backside of the film. In every drawing there is a hint at something below the surface, something not immediately seen.

Monteith uses techniques of layering and methods of abstraction to discuss subjectivities, shifting contextual perspectives, things hidden, revealed, interpreted, and reinterpreted in the urban landscape. A single house occupied by various owners over a number of years, a detail of a Le Corbusier apartment complex as experienced through a myriad of different eyes, a street or neighborhood as it changes and shifts over hundreds of years are all subjects of interest.

In a separate but related body of work, Monteith weaves drawings into his photographs. Traveling to diverse countries including Germany, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba, he photographs modernist and socialist modernist architecture. To achieve a softness that at first glance appears as a slight blur, these images are constructed of one hundred layers, shots of the same location with only miniscule changes in the camera’s position. Monteith then creates a drawing in response to each location, which is photographed and inserted as a layer into the digital photographic file. In the end we are left with something between a drawing and a photograph, a complex, dazzling layering of fact and fiction.

What draws Monteith to abstraction in relation to cities, buildings, and architecture is the possibility of infinite perspectives, of relationships between people and the built environment that are experimental, provisional, and ever changing. In his drawings and photographs I see a queerness defined not only through difference, but also through radical openness buttressed with dedication, responsiveness, and a true interest in the way we look at architecture, and by extension at one another.

John Monteith’s solo exhibition Resonances opens on April 5, 2018 at Division Gallery Toronto. His upcoming international solo exhibitions include Kindred Spirits at the Taipei Contemporary Art Centre, Taiwan in October, In Retrospect, as part of Beijing22, a five-year curatorial initiative hosted by I Project Space, Beijing, China where he will be in residency in November and December, and an edition launching in May with Unique Multiples, Madrid, Spain.


John Monteith in his Toronto studio, 2018.


John Monteith, Southbank 5, Wax and Pigment Pencil on
Drafting Film, 2017, 24″ x 18″.


John Monteith, Southbank 6, Wax and Pigment Pencil on
Drafting Film, 2017, 24″ x 18″.


John Monteith, Platz 12, Archival Giclée photographs on Hahnemühle Fine Art Photo Matte Paper, 2017, 42″ x 28″.

John Monteith, Platz 1, Archival Giclée photographs on Hahnemühle Fine Art Photo Matte Paper, 2017, 42″ x 28″.

Materials (re)invented: Not Too High, Not That Low at Division Toronto

by Anna Kovler

To say that a woman has “come undone” is to say she has lost her composure or self-control. In the group show Not Too High, Not That Low at Division Gallery Toronto, seven woman artists, with works that showcase their precise and deliberate handling of materials in innovative ways, exhibit anything but a loss of composure.

Eleanor King’s (She’s come) Undone (2018) crowns the exhibition with the word undone painted crisply across several wood panels and un-stretched canvas adhered to the wall. Incorporating the raw material into the finished work, the panels stand on the same cans of household paint that were used to paint the entire composition. Dried green and blue paint runs loosely down the sides of the cans in messy drips that contrast with the hard-edged, straight lines of the spelled-out word. In a single work, King brings together opposing elements: chance and control, support and artwork, raw material and finished work. This playful awareness of the physicality and history of art materials is echoed in many works in the exhibition.

Both Angela Teng and Tammi Campbell turn paint into a sculptural material, pushing the paint far beyond its normal mode of application. Teng creates yarn out of paint by squeezing it out of a tube before crocheting it into abstract compositions. Her work marries the quaint and domestic women’s craft of crocheting with the historically male-dominated sphere of hard-edge abstraction. In a similar process, Campbell turns paint into what looks like bubble wrap and tape, producing the uncanny illusion that the minimal compositions hanging on the gallery walls have not yet been unwrapped.

A paper tapestry by Myriam Dion also alludes to craft and traditional women’s work. She uses an X-Acto knife to cut thousands of tiny teardrop holes from newspaper pages, turning contemporary news into decorative motifs. In the centre of this large, intricate work, a unicorn lies dead on a red blanket below The New York Times logo, raising the question of whether this is a found image or a fictional scenario invented by the artist. A testament to Dion’s laborious and precise process, the tapestry references craft while relying on newspapers. There is the inevitable suggestion here that the news is also crafted, a fiction woven together like rugs and tapestries.

Hanging in a row, eight canvases from Wanda Koop’s Still (2017) series feature cascading colors resembling a sky at sunrise or sunset, with the canvases loosely representing the spaces between urban skyscrapers. Koop highlights the vertical edges of each painting, showing only a poetic sliver of the monumental buildings. As the eye bounces between centre and edge, trying to distinguish between foreground and background, we recognize the artist’s coy self-awareness as she manipulates our expectations and the optical possibilities of paint.

Like Cinderella’s lost slipper, Brittany Shepherd’s stray gloves lay on the gallery floor. Made of hardened polyurethane, the gloves can pass as belonging equally to a cleaning woman or to a glamorous woman. Whomever they belong to, they have been thrown off and left behind, along with the expectations attached to those identities. Bea Fremderman’s apple and pear sculptures recall either Sleeping Beauty’s poisoned apple or Eve’s original sin. Bites taken out of the fruits reveal their inside to be Styrofoam, enriching the biblical and fairytale allusions with contemporary questions of plastic waste and over-consumption.

Unafraid of evoking traditional crafts or well-worn narratives, the seven artists in this exhibition invert, challenge, and master the materials they chose and the histories told by those materials. The distinctions between craft and art, and between women’s and men’s work, may seem outdated now, and yet the work here shows them to still be in need of reconsideration, rebuttal, and celebration.

Not Too High Not That Low is on view at Division Toronto from January 23 – March 3, 2018.



By Anna Kovler

In one of the few remaining light industrial neighborhoods in Toronto, a massive studio building houses Towards, an emerging independent art gallery. “Vacancies” is the seventh show at the gallery, a three-person exhibition featuring ceramic sculptures by Sameer Farooq, etchings on glass by Joshua Vettivelu, and a sculptural installation by Abbas Akhavan.

Placed on white shelves running down a long wall in the gallery are Sameer Farooq’s pale copies and imprints of museum packaging materials. What are generally considered practical, unprecious materials that support the “valuable” artwork – plastic wrap, tissue paper, and air-filled tubes – transform into the artwork through the artist’s intervention. Farooq creates traces of these objects by casting them in porcelain or using paper clay, which he folds almost like a skin over wads of museum wrapping tissue. Displayed unpreciously as an inventory of things, the white copies sit, numbered and patched in places, like wounded ghosts or death masks resting on a scientist’s shelf.

Displayed on the floor beside Farooq’s pale sculptures is Abbas Akhavan’s after Untitled, a white 2-ply tissue paper the size of a queen-sized blanket. The installation is Akhavan’s homage to Felix Gonzales-Torres’ haunting photograph of an empty bed. And yet the oversized Kleenex, thin and vulnerable on the floor, cannot keep anyone warm, but could perhaps catch the tears of many people in a moment of overflowing collective grief. Both Farooq’s inventory of undocumented objects and Akhavan’s large tissue evoke meditation on recent global conflicts, the refugee crisis, and flow of undocumented, hidden people across the world’s borders, and the allowance to cry for these unfathomably sad events, to mourn.

Upon a tall plinth are Joshua Vettivelu’s drawings of gay white supremacists, etched onto glass. Arranged in a circle, the glass rectangles show men engaging in a variety of activities, some erotic, others violent. Appearing shirtless and muscular, the men play out archetypes of “strong” masculinity, a performance the artist subverts by placing the men onto glass, a see-through and fragile material. Vettivelu’s disturbing yet poetic sculpture allows us to see right through displays of racist aggressive masculinity, as nothing more than a reaction caused by these men’s deep vulnerability.

A sense of thoughtful sadness pervades the exhibition. Taken together, the works evoke the different kinds of ghosts that haunt us, the ghosts of both loved ones and those whom we denounce, of institutions and their blind spots, of the sacred and of the mundane.

“Vacancies” is on view at Towards gallery at 87 Wade Ave. Suite B1 in Toronto from December 7 – January 6, 2018.

Lovable Hustlers: The Paintings of Michael Harrington

Lovable Hustlers: The Paintings of Michael Harrington

by Anna Kovler

The social interactions depicted in Michael Harrington’s paintings are mysterious. Men in plush interiors make business deals over cocktails. Women with sharp red nails and dandies in brightly colored suits mingle in mod-style living rooms. These characters and the settings they occupy seethe with an almost sleazy, comical air proper to outdated fashions and hapless hustlers. The Elvis side burns, colorful synthetic suits, aviator sunglasses, handlebar moustaches, and flowery wallpaper paint a nostalgic picture of era at once fabulous and overwrought.

In Jungle Trio and Friends (2017), three men in matching tiger print jackets are joined by two brightly suited men and two bodyguards. Sporting Elvis hairstyles in what looks like a green room or corner of a nightclub, the men stand discussing some undisclosed order of business. One grins jovially as he clasps his hands together, his fingers adorned with large gold rings. Maybe he just closed a deal. Or maybe this is just a way of passing time.

Past styles have a way of making people look funny. Harrington’s vintage scenarios elicit both a chuckle and desire for a time now long out of reach. Even if the styles in these works have an historical accuracy, the artist has made up most of the compositions and characters, constructing a new reality. Harrington paints loosely, with a single daub forming a mouth or moustache, imbuing his scenes with a fuzziness akin to the way memories or dreams are experienced. Looking at his hustlers, their ornate outfits blurring with the décor of their scene, it becomes apparent that the colors of memories, dreams, and paintings are always either brighter or darker than waking life.

Michael Harrington’s new paintings are on view at Katharine Mulherin in Toronto from November 24- December 24, 2017.