The card read: “Art’s only claim is for art. Art is the definition of art.”
Typed on simple paper and arranged in a glass display case alongside photographs and handwritten notes, the quote by Ad Reinhardt commanded my attention. The statement by the New York Abstract painter seemed a perfect expression of my thoughts regarding the Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery’s newest exhibit TRAFFIC: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965-1980.
Curated by individuals across Canada and continuing its successful nation-wide tour, TRAFFIC’s mission is to expose Canadians to the “development, influence and diversity of conceptual art in works produced across the country,” a rich history often glossed over in exhibitions in favour of an emphasis on the American conceptual art scene.
But before we begin our review, you might ask: What is conceptual art? If Reinhardt wrote that “art is the definition of art,” I asked myself, as I left the vernissage, how I could describe conceptual art to readers unfamiliar with the term. Whether or not Reinhardt’s statement is to be taken at face value, mine certainly is: conceptual art is just that—art with a concept, driven by an idea, taking many forms, encompassing many techniques and media.
TRAFFIC corroborates my statement: it showcases photo manipulation, images of clay experimentation, creation or alteration of objects, and working with the found poem. The diversity of media, artists, and perspectives particular to the Montreal scene of the ‘60s and ’70s is something Montreal curator Michèle Thériault was eager to showcase as she led me across the exhibit.
“For TRAFFIC, a number of curators came together across Canada to look into the different ways which conceptual art was taking place in their locations,” Thériault said.
Pieces from the exhibit testify to the Montreal-specific nature of the collection, and speak to Montreal’s history as an artistically vibrant and politically-fraught city as much as they do to its architecture and style.
One of my favourite pieces, Françoise Sullivan’s series of photographs Walk between the Musée d’art contemporain and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts invites readers to explore the streets of downtown Montreal in the 1970s as Sullivan charts her walk to the then primarily anglophone-supported Museum of Fine Arts to the more commonly francophone-frequented
Musée d’art contemporain.
Like the rest of TRAFFIC, Sullivan’s pieces draw inspiration from Montreal’s political, social and arts-oriented history without being specifically about either one. Although conceptual art in Montreal took place alongside the Quiet Revolution, conceptual art most importantly manifested itself as a creation of artist-run spaces, galleries and workshops, which Thériault credits with giving artists more space, both literal and figurative, in which to be creative.
“Here they’re pouring clay onto the floor,” she says, showing me one of the pictures in the exhibit demonstrating the textures, cracks and shapes created by the drying of the clay on the floor of a small studio apartment. “You can’t do that in a museum.”
TRAFFIC is interesting for several reasons: its art is innovative and its concepts are clever, its space is beautifully arranged and a delight to explore, and it is a testament to a kind of Montreal history which is too seldom explored by even native Montrealers interested in the arts.
According to Thériault, such an interest is long overdue. “It occurred to a number of people, in the face of this ignorance of Canadian conceptual activities and of what happened here in the ’60s, that [this art] needed to be documented and shown.”
TRAFFIC runs at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery until Feb. 25. The gallery is open Tuesday to Friday from noon to 6 p.m. and Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free.