Art history grad students curate gallery show on suburbia

York University’s graduate program in art history has embarked on a mentoring partnership with the Varley Art Gallery, one of York Region’s leading cultural institutions in Unionville in the Town of Markham, and their first exhibit is now open.

Cul-de-sac, an exhibition that engages perceptions of suburbia’s imagined and existing utopias, dystopias and urban planning catastrophes, is the two institutions’ joint first initiative. Curated and A house half builtorganized by members of York’s Art History Graduate Student Association (AHGSA), the show is on view at Varley Art Gallery until August 28.

Right: Isabelle Hayeur, Ellen, photo work, 2005

The term “cul-de-sac” commonly refers to a dead-end street and has become a symbol of suburban planning. From the outset, but especially during the post-Second World War economic expansion, suburbia promised development, progress and a balanced life of mobility, work, family and leisure. However, with growing concerns around urban sprawl the housing crisis, oil wars and global warming, suburbia’s very existence is now being questioned.

Organizers, artists and guests at the Cul de sac launchLeft: Organizers, artists and guests at the Cul de sac launch. Front row, from left, Ernestine Tahedl, Anik Glaude, Markham Councillor Don Hamilton, Brian Barnes, Fiona Wright, Maria Coates, Barbara Sellers-Young, Karie Liao, Francine Périnet. Back row, from left, Richard Hill, Robin Lambert, Brette Gabel

Cul-de-sac offers a timely exploration of the meaning of suburbia within the context of the contemporary mega-city of Toronto. Through artistic representations of personal experience, urban planning and business development, it invites viewers to consider the notion of the suburbs as geographic, architectural and fictional spaces in relation to the communities that embody them.

 Cul-de-sac co-curators, York University art history MA student, from left, Maria Coates, Fiona Wright and Karie LiaoThe exhibition includes works by emerging and established Canadian artists such as Alex Morrison, Isabelle Hayeur, Laurie Kang, Brette Gabel and Robin Lambert, as well as international artists such as Jordi Colomer.

Right: Cul-de-sac co-curators, York University art history MA student, from left, Maria Coates, Fiona Wright and Karie Liao

The show was guest-curated by three MA students in art history: Maria Coates, Karie Liao and Fiona Wright. It is accompanied by a catalogue produced by their classmates Amanda Brason, Emma Conner,  Ekaterina Kotikova, Dory Smith and Amy Wallace, which features writings by AHGSA members and University of Toronto Professor Meghan Sutherland, who was the keynote speaker at AHGSA’s 10th annual symposium, Revisiting Suburbia, held at York in April. Maxine Procter and Saelan Twerdy chaired the organizational committee for the symposium, while the photographs from the exhibition opening accompanying the article were taken by Tali Spivak.

The graduate students undertook the curatorial and publication project in addition to their regular program requirements, working closely with Varley Gallery director Francine Périnet and curator Anik Glaude.

“We hope Cul-de-sac is just the first in a series of collaborations between York University and the Varley,” said Glaude. “Our gallery is proud to position itself as a training and mentorship site, where students can develop their own creative curatorial potential under the guidance of established museum professionals. Curators trained within the classroom have an essential need for hands-on and on-site work experience. Hosting guest curators complements and expands our in-house programming and allows us to present exhibitions, covering a multitude of artistic periods and genres, which we may not be able to show otherwise.”

People sitting on couches in the Cul-de-sac exhbition at the Varley Art GalleryLeft: The Cul-de-sac exhbition at the Varley Art Gallery

“I applaud the Varley for their undertaking to support future generations of Canadian curators,” said Anna Hudson, director of York’s Graduate Program in Art History & Visual Culture. “Their commitment to education and to serving their community in York Region – including students at Canada’s most diverse university – is both generous and significant. I share Francine Périnet’s concern for engaged and embodied knowledge that transcends difference while welcoming debate. Our goal is to create a rich and mutually rewarding opportunity to teach and learn outside the walls of the University.”

Barbara Sellers-Young, dean of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, attended the exhibition’s June 26 opening event, which took the form of a block party in the Varley Gallery courtyard.

Cul de Sac strengthens the growing institutional relationship between the Faculty of Fine Arts and the Varley Gallery, and deepens our connections with Markham and York Region,” said Sellers-Young. “Last season, our dance students performed at the Varley’s Françoise Sullivan exhibition, presenting that great Canadian artist’s choreography amid her paintings, and Markham Theatre facilitated a guest lecture in our Music Department by Hungarian piano prodigy Adam György. There’s great synergy at work here, with many exciting possibilities. I’m looking forward to seeing what direction our future collaborations will take.”

The Varley Art Gallery is located at 216 Main St. in Unionville. For hours and admission information, visit the Varley website.