Category Archives: Canadian photography

Big in Japan, David Trautrimas

It’s hard to believe that the last time I saw David Trautrimas was nearly 6 years ago. I visited his Toronto studio last week, which is nestled in a small upstairs apartment on a tree-lined street not too far from the Wychwood Barns. At that time, I couldn’t help but notice the white splashes of hair book-ending his familiar face. Silently, I noted these superficial markers of age as confirmation of the long intermission between my visits. My perception of this interval evolved after we began our discussion of the developments within his practice and his career.

During my first visit, I characterized the artist as young, emergent and on the brink of an exciting career. He had just completed his first museum show at MOCCA, and was embarking upon a public project for Redpath Sugar. His career was budding. The protracted time between my two documentations conveniently archives Trautrimas’ transition into his mid-career phase.  It’s interesting to compare how long six years appears in terms of an artist’s collection of grey hairs, versus how abbreviated it seems in terms of the progression of an artistic career.

From "One Empire Wide," referencing the iconic "Sam the Recordman" signage.

Sam’s, from “One Empire Wide,” referencing the iconic “Sam the Recordman” signage.

Prior to his most recent images, the last body of work I remember seeing was from his One Empire Wide series. Within this first sculptural series, Trautrimas created miniature ice-fishing huts. Like the actual structures, which northern Canadians often create from reclaimed material, Trautrimas’ inventions refer to debris created by defunct articles in Canadian history. Sam the Record Man, the Avro Arrow, Northern Telecom and other  examples of archetypal expired Canadiana have become  themes recycled to comprise each maquette.

"The Bloedel," from "One Empire Wide," references a Canadian forestry company purchased by a US company.

“The Bloedel,” from “One Empire Wide,” references a Canadian forestry company purchased by a US company.

The portability of these wee architectural imitations facilitated the artist’s participation in a cross-cultural art exchange in Japan, led by Toronto artist Daisuke Tayeka. The Field-Trip Project turned 70 traditional Japanese school-children’s knapsacks, (originally collected to be used as relief supplies after the Fukushima disaster) into a mobile art exhibition which circulated the art of Japanese and Canadian artists into remote Japanese communities.

"The Dollar Bill," from "One Empire Wide," references the Canadian dollar bill, which was replaced by "the loonie" in 1987.

“The Dollar Bill,” from “One Empire Wide,” references the Canadian dollar bill, which was replaced by “the loonie” in 1987.

Life, after-lives, the perception of the passing of time, these motifs dotted our recent exchange in much the same way as they have embellished Trautrimas’ work over the past few years. Always a part of his work, a deeper focus on dissolution has emerged circumstantially and unintentionally, but not inconsequentially.  In April of 2013, a week after his return from Japan, the artist suffered a life changing bicycle accident; a hit and run which left him unable to practice his art for a full year. During that same year, he lost a close family member to their struggle with cancer. In April 2014, he decided to visit Detroit to rehabilitate his creative practice. After being accepted at an artist residency at Popp’s Packing  in the Hamtramck district of Detroit, he spent a month wandering streets which breath constant metaphors of death, reincarnation, destruction and renewal. He describes these aimless peregrinations as sojourns to “the thin place,” likening his profound sensation of time-elapse to walking within the gap between this world and the next.

Flinched and Seized

Flinched and Seized

Like so many contemporary artists, the candid entropy of the streets of Detroit has left Trautrimas smitten.  Along with the now  apocryphal (and possibly obligatory) recounting of real-estate opportunities the city has to offer, Trautrimas’ eyes seemed to gloss over with a sort of lovelorn idealism as he recounted the “ad-hoc” socialism at the backbone of the Detroit art community. Similarly, his anecdote about watching firefighters socialize as they stood idly watching an abandoned house burn illustrated the kind of legendary mythology Detroit increasingly embodies. Apparently, the grim magic of this place soothed his desperate need for a fresh creative start. Out of the studio, the wealth of subject matter he gleaned from his city walks left him with hundreds of images from which he created his most recent body of work.

Piles and Ether

Piles and Ether

Interestingly, despite the fact that all of his source material is shot on location, he decision to shoot only on overcast days enabled him to achieve a kind of studio-uniformity that comes with artificially diffused light.  The result is a series of seamlessly joined images forming impossibly degraded structures. This series, Eidolon Point was recently shown at Trautrimas’ second exhibition in Japan, this time a solo show at the Canadian Embassy which commenced March 18 and continued until May  5, 2015.

Me and My Head

Me and My Head

In an almost ironic departure from his Detroit inspired architectural deterioration, Trautrimas’ current project is a public work for the ICE condo development in downtown Toronto on York Street footing the Gardiner Expressway. Occupancy of these brand new buildings is expected early this summer. For his proposal, Trautrimas conceived a series of permanent benches which offer the weary pedestrian a guardrail backrest to lean on. In another design for the same set of developments, the artist has used the patterning from a tire tread as a decorative enclosure for some unsightly plumbing. The work, which pays homage to the changing demographic of the area, will be unveiled some time during the late summer or early fall.

Concept drawing for ICE condo guard-rail park-bench.

Concept drawing for ICE condo guard-rail park-bench.

Concept drawing for tire-tread inspired landscape fence at ICE condos, Toronto.

Concept drawing for tire-tread inspired landscape fence at ICE condos, Toronto.

Header image Geometry of Loss, from the Eidolon Point series.


A first peek at Contact

Sterling enjoyed her first press conference this week. Missing the remarks, I’d venture to say that her personal highlight of the Contact Media Preview was playing tag with MOCCA head of operations Brett Despotovich. She was also particularly entranced by Tundrunning, a looping video by Canadian artist Dominique Rey, which features the artist running through the snow and falling, clad in an absurd fluorescent green costume typical of those created for the series.

Dominique Rey

The figures in the works are all covered in layers of stuffed nylon stockings, sometimes hanging testicularly with filled water balloons or mounds of plush white cellulite. Similar in some ways to Cindy Sherman’s explorations of feminine persona, all of the photos document Rey in various uninhibited attempts to uncover “the other within.” In a short conversation, Rey described how analysis of her previous works unearthed a preoccupation with women on the outskirts of society. Rey has photographed the entire virgin/whore gamut- pretty literally- from documenting a disappearing order of nuns to living with exotic dancers.

Through the pieces on show this May at MOCCA, Rey embarked on the “futile” attempt to uncover the other within herself. Armed with a tickle-trunk of props, the artist travels to remote locations- mostly in her native Manitoba- and frees herself in bizarre posture play.

I was also lucky enough to have a chat with the gentle and engaging young Meryl McMaster. (You can also see some of her work on permanent display in Liberty Village in the foyer of the Mildred’s Temple Kitchen/Goodlife Fitness building) Her photos also feature herself in a variety of identities. The works were inspired by the “solo” portions of two Outward Bound trips she took in her mid-teens. During these adventures, participants are given the knowledge and tools to survive by themselves for three days in the wilderness. Half First-Nations herself, McMaster easily drew the connections between these sometimes boring, sometimes terrifying and ultimately expansive moments to the vision quests routinely embarked upon by native youth.

Wind Play, Meryl McMaster, 2012, courtesy of Katzman Contemporary

Wind Play, Meryl McMaster, 2012, courtesy of Katzman Contemporary

Each of the works in her series are inspired by a diverse interplay of a remembering of personal emotions and the attempt to delve into her cultural history. In Wind Play, McMaster conjures the excited youthful expansiveness of her Outward Bound vision quest into an enchanted personification of a playful beast that easily evokes sasquatches’ own first ecstasy trip. The artist created the costume by sewing together 5000 long balloons (the kind used for making balloon animals).

Contact officially kicks off tonight with an opening party at MOCCA. Tomorrow, join Material Self photographers Namsa Leuba, Dominique Rey and David Favrod for a talk at the gallery at 11:30am. Also, come to the gallery for a tour by curators Bonnie Rubenstein and David Liss on Wednesday, May 14 at 6pm.


Namsa Leuba, Statuette Ndoki, Saleou Guinea, from the series Ya Kala Ben, 2011 courtesy of the artist


Header Image: Dominique Rey, After the Shower, 2011

Contact is coming!

The website for the ScotiaBank Contact Photography Festival is up and running, so check it out if you haven’t already picked up one of the glossy manuals that are circulate the city at this time of year. The festival, which is the largest of it’s kind in the world, turns Toronto into a hub of the photographed image bringing the works of world-class photographers to the galleries and streets of our evermore cosmopolitan city.

I’m looking forward to hopefully chatting with Canada’s preeminent photographer Stan Douglas (fingers crossed) as well as emerging artist and new mother Elaine Chan-Dow.

Stan Douglas, MacLeod

Stan Douglas at Ryerson Image Centre

The festival kicks off on May 2, 2014 at MOCCA. Take a look at the website for full details of artist talks and exhibition details and peruse some of the photos below for some exhibitions that are not to be missed. Also keep your eyes peeled for billboards along Dundas Street West, Spadina and Front street NE corner, Queens Park Subway Station, Metro Hall, and Pearson Intl. Airport, among other public locations.

Michael Awad, The Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, 2014

Michael Awad, The Entire City Project, ROM

Rob Hornstra, Mikhail Karabelnikov, Sochi, Russia, 2009

Rob Hornstra at Contact Gallery

Fausta Facciponte, The Opening, 2013

Fausta Facciponte at The Art Gallery of Mississauga


Varial Cédric Houin, Marbet, 2011

Varial Cedric Houin at Arsenal Toronto

Gordon Parks, Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956

Gordon Parks at Nicholas Metivier Gallery

Header Image: Max Dean at Harbourfront Centre

Ian Willms: The Path of Least Resistance

I caught up with Ian Willms at his current show, The Road to Nowhere, at Toronto’s Contact Gallery. The gallery is among one of our city’s growing number of permanent festival spin-off spaces (think Tiff Bell light-box or the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema), with an aim to showcase excellence in photography throughout the year.  It’s unsurprising that Willm’s work would end up there, as he was the recipient of the Contact’s 2013 portfolio award, among numerous other distinctions.

Mennonite girls in their home in the Mennonite village of Kichkass.

The Road to Nowhere features a series of 25 black and white photos documenting the artist’s pilgrimage to Europe to follow in the painful footsteps of his Mennonite ancestors pushed into Siberia from the Netherlands several centuries ago.  The project officially began on Willm’s first relatively short-lived trip to Amsterdam in March 2012. Unwilling to go into detail, the ruminative young photographer mentioned that this leg of the project culminated in a week of solitary tea-drinking at a friend’s apartment in Vancouver.

Novosibirsk region, Russia: The overgrown cementary of the Siberian village of Neudachino, which translates from Russian into "no luck."

Novosibirsk region, Russia: The overgrown cementary of the Siberian village of Neudachino, which translates from Russian into “no luck.”

Talking to Willms is an educative encounter. One gets the feeling that if he had not pursued photography he might be “happily” dedicating his life to the plight of some uber-humanitarian NGO. While he mentions that it is serendipity that brought him to photography in the first place (he won his first camera in a photography contest using a disposable camera) and serendipity that allows the medium to function, it is the emotional background of his subject matter that draws his photos to the depths more profound than chance.


Willms explained to me in enough detail the history of the Anabaptists- the spiritual group that eventually became the Mennonites. Formed in the Netherlands in the 1500s their key beliefs included a strong dedication to the separation between church and state combined with a fierce adherence to pacifism.  Riding the rails on the Trans-Siberian Railway and using some uplifting text courtesy of Ayn Rand as fuel for his meditations on persecution, Willms used his Leica M (chosen in part due to the thematic connection of the Leica Freedom Train) to document haltingly bleak landscapes where mostly only the memory of persecution still exists. It’s notable that the presence of the figure, especially the face, in these works is rare. In retracing the steps of this journey to a new home, the hopeful part of Willms dispiriting reverie was to find an intact Mennonite village at the end of the line. It’s nonexistence, due to mostly to cultural assimilation inflicted by the Soviets, underlines his motif of cultural extinction.  With the people largely erased from the images, it is often the captions provided in the gallery booklet which mark the images with the crucial dose of human misery. Aware of the potent connection between the text and imagery in this series, Willms plans to continue the project by returning to Amsterdam in the winter to take more photos until he has enough to warrant turning the project into a book.

Bashkir region, Russia: Regina a distant relative of Ian's plays in the countryside near the village of Davlekavnovo.

Bashkir region, Russia: Regina a distant relative of Ian’s plays in the countryside near the village of Davlekavnovo.

For Willms, this project signifies a life-long desire to connect to his roots. Finding his grand-father’s house and subsequently discovering long-lost relatives is the kind of personification that likely keeps a project like this from disintegrating into the abstract.  In his other current series, As long as the Sun Shines, which seeks to draw the connection between Canada’s current mining of the Alberta Oil Sands and the colonial abuses suffered by our Indigenous peoples, the lack of personal history is likely offset by the perpetual misery of our First Nations Peoples.

Future plans include a South American motorcycle tour with his father and an editorial trip to Haiti the day after our gallery meeting. Both will likely focus on his talent of highlighting the melancholic beauty of human suffering. The Road to Nowhere is at Contact Gallery until March 7. Ian Willms will be at the gallery on February 15 to discuss the work.