Rocketing the distillery art universe

No knowledge of art? No money in your wallet? No problem. The gallery universe of the Distillery District is a free, fun, and friendly exploration for the art novice or the seasoned connoisseur. With at least 15 galleries to choose from all within a walkable 13 acre space, the new hot spot for Toronto gallery hopping awaits your arrival.

Browse about in the Sandra Ainsley Gallery, the first gallery on your right beyond the main Mill Street entrance, on any given weekend and you’re likely to overhear “please don’t touch” from one of the gallery attendants. Truth is, adults and children alike want to touch the Beetlejuice-like sculptures (energy bottles) of Hawaiian Lee Miltier, the spinnable crystal orb lightshows of Kansas-native John Kuhn, or the post-Saturday night fast-food consumer aesthetic of Pittsburgh-based Matthew Eskuche. The early 1960s Beatles would not look out of place performing in this cavernous maze of an art dwelling.

Walking south, turn right at Distillery Lane and take a flight of fancy into the one-room contemporary international art world of Gibsone Jessop. This is one gallery where you will find no Canadian artists. The gallery sees itself as a bridge to North America, especially for new Chinese talent via their curatorial office in Chongching.

Check out the current exhibit of three contemporary Chinese artists Burigude Zhang, Xioa Guo Hui and Yang Yongsheng each working different mediums. “A lot of people will gravitate toward things that will uplift them,” says associate director Ruth Lin referring to the global recession. The polite staff believe in “total transparency,” so they are happy to discuss any aspect of art.

Fresh and classic blasts of colour, light and texture from talented Quebec artists and passionate director Joanne Thompson welcome all visitors to the popular Thompson Landry Gallery. The rustic, wood paneled space hosts a wide spectrum of Quebec art from the intimate paintings of 23-year-old self-taught artist Laurence Nerbonne to the explosive abstract canvasses of Jean-Pierre LaFrance, who used to drive around his mentor AY Jackson of the Group of Seven in his final years. Bear River by Jackson is currently on display.

The photography on stainless steel of Nicolas Ruel seeks l’instant decisif across five continents, while the portraits of inspirational figures by André Monet are a historical patch-work of magazines, newspapers, maps and paint. Ask Joanne about the Canadian imprint on his Barack Obama portrait. Or ask her any question about the art. “That’s our job. We just love to talk about art,” she says. “I’m a big talker. I yatter on.” Her infectious laugh is a work of art in itself.

Take a breather in the Canadian artist-centred Monte Clark Gallery, where the Alison Yip exhibit You and Me and the Sea sends calming green ocean waves, renewing your spirit for the next gripping gallery space. Author of Jpod, Generation X and icon of Canadiana, Douglas Coupland held his exhibit Penguins here, juxtaposing over-sized and jumbled text onto classic Penguins Books covers.

Meta Gallery, a stone’s throw down the lane, is a cool, charismatic and conscious mirror of its art. Within minutes of stepping inside, I found myself euphemizing the almost word whoa for the more natural sounding two-word holy expletive. Sometimes words just don’t do the art justice. This is very much the case in this young gallery that opened in September 2008. Transcendent animal gurus and spiritualistic human vibrations co-mingle in the work of Cleveland artist Cathie Black.

Inquire about past exhibits, or the name of Bostonian artist Paul Laffoley and you may be treated to a behind the scenes tour. Laffoley, kicked out of the Harvard graduate school of design for his bold and controversial ideas, produced a 4.75 sq. m painting that looks like the outer space marriage of your high school art and physics class, except on a grander scale. Solitron is his interpretation of how to harness perpetual energy. Warning: it may bend your mind.

Meta always brings their featured artists to the gallery for openings –Laffoley lectured for three hours- because their stories add another dimension to the art. “We want to promote consciousness in art. We’re not really interested in bringing in artists just because they’re well known. We want to have art that moves people and inspires them to be excited about art,” says gallery attendant Meiko Kanamoto.

“It’s getting better and better and that’s a great thing,” says Joanne Thompson. “We just had two more galleries open (Julie M and Meta galleries). I’m really happy. The more galleries the better it is for everybody because it’s becoming the place where you can park for half a day, have a coffee, walk into the galleries, more so than Queen Street West and definitely more so than Yorkville now. People are saying: ‘I’m so disappointed by Yorkville, I want to come down to the Distillery.’”

Well, that’s five galleries, which only leaves 10. While “you can’t do the EX (CNE) in a day,” you can do the distillery art exhibits in one, two or three. During Nuit Blanche most, if not all of the galleries opened their doors to the public, helping create the need for a new Toronto buzz word- gallery hopping. Ask around about private art tours. Try Thompson Landry or Engine Gallery first. Staff at several of the different galleries mentions a collective plan for an art walk this summer, so put an ear to the ground and keep an eye on the Distillery galleries. Or just come down tomorrow.

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About Chris LePan

Writer/ Editor
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