Last year, York Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art Dan Adler, with Lesley Johnstone, curator and head of exhibitions and education at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC), co-curated a ground-breaking exhibition at on Canadian artist Liz Magor, one of Canada’s most important and influential living sculptors. The show, Habitude, ran from June 22 to September 5, 2016, and featured 75 pieces created from 1975 to 2016. It was the largest exhibition of this artist’s work to date.
The show, as well as the accompanying book − edited by Adler, Johnstone and others, offers a thoughtful and comprehensive exploration of Magor’s sculpture and installation work, produced over four decades, underscoring the tremendous range of her work.
Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba (1948), Liz Magor is a prolific sculptor who has influenced many generations of artists, having taught at Emily Carr University of Art and Design for years. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Exhibition is highly provocative, collaborative
Habitude is special in many ways, not only in sheer scale. First, it is highly collaborative. Both the exhibition and book represent an international joint venture co-organized by Adler and Johnstone, alongside European peers at the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Zurich and the Kunstverein in Hamburg – destinations to which the exhibition will travel in 2017.
In fact, this is the first major exhibition of Magor’s work to hit European shores. “One of my roles as a curator, educator, scholar and critic is to bring Magor’s practice to the larger world,” Adler says.
“One of my roles as a curator, educator, scholar and critic is to bring Magor’s practice to the larger world.” – Dan Adler
Secondly, Habitude was curated in an original and thought-provoking way. It’s not a conventional, chronological retrospective that moves from early to middle to later work. Instead, the exhibition mixes and matches work from various time periods in Magor’s lengthy career.
“Wanting to do something different, we have really provocative mixtures of different kinds of work,” Adler explains. “Often, I think the visitor to the exhibition is struck by the fact that this is all by the same artist because the subject matter and the materials shift so dramatically,” he adds.
“How can we value material reality?”
As a result of this kind of inspired curatorship, Habitude offers a new and evocative perspective on Magor’s work.
“I’m a treasure hunter of trash, really…” the artist writes about one piece in the Habitude show, although this idea applies to much of her work. In her sculpture, she often repurposes items that were destined for the trash − damaged clothing, blankets and mittens beyond repair, cardboard boxes that have been reused one too many times.
But in reassembling these unwanted and unvalued items with conceptual and procedural rigour, Magor imbues new value in the resulting deeply introspective pieces that speak to both inner and shared history.
“York fosters scholarship, particularly in the visual arts.” – Dan Adler
Adler believes that Magor makes us think of all kinds of objects with reference to how they operate in society. “She wants us to look that these objects in ways that are analogous to the predicaments of people, or how they might struggle with desires, with compulsive and addictive behaviours and with the ideas of value, relevance and worth,” he suggests. The artist effectively asks, “How can we value material reality?”
To Adler, the exhibition is a strong argument for the importance of art that has a material presence in the world. “Magor’s work is more important than ever because the world we live in, with its focus on the online or virtual experience, is increasingly immaterial,” he explains.
Magor creates deeply introspective pieces
With pieces in the show titled Violator and Still Alive, the exhibition explores ideas of memory, history, shelter and survival. The visual language that this artist speaks is multi-layered and rich in narrative, easily shifting from social identity to psychological commentary.
When discussing Being This, 2012, which features thrift-store garments tucked into 22 cubbyhole-like boxes evenly distributed across the gallery’s broad white wall, the artist describes the gaudy and overly decorated clothes as “anxious.”
In fact, she created this piece to neutralize the showy voices of these discarded items. “That drive to appear, and appear as significant, again it’s a never-ending drive. It causes a lot of pain or anxiety; it’s difficult to accomplish it,” she writes in the accompanying text.
Book features many voices, multilayered content
The 2016 book – the largest publication on this artist – was highly collaborative. In consultation with Lesley Johnstone, Liz Magor and peers at the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst and the Kunstverein, Adler decided to offer a mixture of scholarly essays as well as the perspectives of artists.
“We invited artists to write a short text about one particular work that they felt is important,” he explains. “We liked the idea of having different voices. That kind of multilayered content was really important to us,” he adds.
Magor was artist-in-residence at York
As this show circulates in Zurich and Hamburg, Adler emphasizes, once more, the value of mobilizing and giving visual arts practices a wider audience – traits fostered at York University’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design. “This exhibition is a perfect example of that,” he says. “York fosters scholarship, particularly in the visual arts.”
Interestingly, Magor was an artist-in-residence in York’s sculpture studio about 15 years ago, during which time her work was featured in several exhibitions at the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU).
While at York, Magor produced Keep, 2000, commissioned by AGYU. It is now part of the permanent collection on campus, installed in the courtyard of Central Square.
To read about Habitude, visit http://www.macm.org/en/expositions/liz-magor/ and http://www.macm.org/lizmagor/. To find the Liz Magor book, visit http://www.abcartbookscanada.com/MAC.html To read more about Dan Adler, visit http://www.yorku.ca/dadler/
By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, firstname.lastname@example.org