Vulnerability, Suffering, and Strength

Originally published on Torontoist on April 3, 2014.

“The greatest art always returns you to the vulnerabilities of the human situation.” – Francis Bacon

“In the human figure one can express more completely one’s feelings about the world than in any other way.” – Henry Moore

These quotations, which welcome visitors to “Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty,” immediately establish the exhibition’s tone and focus. Each artist’s distortions of the human figure, shaped by their wartime experiences, capture the vulnerability of our mortal forms.

While the AGO has showcased Moore’s sculptures for the past 40 years, this exhibit marks the first major Canadian presentation of Bacon’s glass-encased works. “My painting is not violent,” Bacon once noted. “It’s life itself that’s violent.” His work is the stuff of nightmares—spines threaten to escape bodies; toothy mouths appear on appendages; popes become screaming figures with blurred faces reminiscent of the face-melting climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Based on a show originally presented at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the exhibit pairs works from each artist to highlight similar themes and subject matter (there is, for example, a section devoted to crucifixion). According to the exhibit’s introduction, these pairings “create a dialogue showing their shared awareness of human suffering and mortality that is a testament to human strength and resilience.” The show emphasizes the impact the Second World War, especially the London Blitz, had on their art—Bacon was a civil defence volunteer, and Moore a government artist. Wartime photographs by Bill Brandt (who functions almost as a third featured artist) ground the art, especially Moore’s haunting sketches of people sheltering in the London Underground.

At yesterday’s media preview, Oxford emeritus fellow Dr. Francis Warner suggested that Bacon and Moore are two sides of the same coin: although they did not influence one another—and Moore’s work is more passive than Bacon’s—behind the distorted, violent surfaces, Warner finds a “never give up” humanistic spirit in their works that reflects Britain’s wartime striving for victory.

Exhibiting Lawren Harris

Originally published on Torontoist on June 29, 2016.

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Lawren Harris, North Shore, Lake Superior, 1926. Oil on canvas. 102.2 x 127.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada. Purchased 1930. © 2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Lawren Harris has long drawn attention to the Art Gallery of Ontario. While The Idea of North exhibition that opens this weekend may claim as much interest for Steve Martin’s curatorial role as the works themselves, back in 1948 the gallery (then known as the Art Gallery of Toronto) deemed Harris worthy of being the first living artist to be honoured with a career-spanning retrospective.

The gallery looked for a recognized artist whose work influenced the development of Canadian fine art. The exhibition program described how Harris fit these criteria:

“In shaping the course of Canadian art by his goodwill and enthusiasm he has encouraged and given practical assistance to many other artists. He does not believe that artists should lead obscure and humble lives, but rather it is a reproach to a country to show no concern for its artists. With Dr. [Frederick] Banting, he believed ‘that no country can afford to neglect its creative minds.’

“He made a valiant effort to impress on the government the need of cultural centres in Canada. He paints, he plans, writes, broadcasts, and lectures. He is always the happy warrior who strives in a worthy cause.”

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Cover of the guide to the 1948 exhibition of Lawren Harris’s work.

The works presented covered Harris’s entire career to that point, including key works displayed in The Idea of North like North Shore, Lake Superior. Unlike the current show (apart from samples such as one that almost foreshadows the design of Toronto City Hall), the 1948 exhibition included the abstract style he favoured from the mid-1930s onward. Harris’s reason for painting abstractions was that they offered “more imaginative scope in this way of seeing and painting and a more exacting discipline,” and as a vehicle for expressing ideas which wouldn’t work in representative forms.” Harris refused to title his abstract works, as names were “likely to interfere with the onlooker’s direct response.”

The exhibition’s opening on October 15, 1948 was preceded by an honorary dinner at the Arts and Letters Club for Harris, who came to Toronto from his then-base in Vancouver. Surviving members of the Group of Seven, including A.Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, and Frederick Varley, attended. “There was a comradely gaiety,” observed Globe and Mail fine arts correspondent Pearl McCarthy, “and we were all such good-natured human beings in that bond of art!” Jackson toasted Harris, followed by reminiscences from Lismer.

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Globe and Mail, October 16, 1948.

After dinner, the dignitaries headed to the gallery to view the five rooms dedicated to Harris’s work. The exhibit began with sketches Harris did for Harper’s magazine in 1909, which the artist insisted were among the world’s worst illustrations. It then moved into his depictions of The Ward neighbourhood, in which the Telegram saw “authentic charm and dignity, a secret sort of beauty in the literal early canvasses of old Toronto street scenes.”

Following through the rest of the exhibition, McCarthy noticed that Harris “always had a kind of spiritual resplendency which has transcended little questions of good taste and theoretic niceties.” The Telegram compared his 1920s landscapes to Chinese painters who sought “to distill the essence of landscape rather than to record it literally.” Literary critic Northrop Frye felt that Harris was “the type of painter who grows through states of metamorphosis, breaking his life into periods of experiment: the type represented by Turner and Picasso. This is the revolutionary type, and Harris is Canada’s only revolutionary artist.”

Harris rejected claims that contemporary Canadian art was experiencing a slump, feeling that the overall work had grown better, especially among Les Automatistes in Montreal. He believed the experience of the Group of Seven could not be duplicated, “for nothing originates in terms of the time, the place, and the people, in conjunction with values in art from the world generally.”

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 The Telegram, October 16, 1948.

The exhibition ran for a month. The gallery has presented several major Harris shows since then, including a focus his pre-1930 work in 1978 and a retrospective of his later pieces in 1985. For The Idea of North, the AGO is expanding the exhibition shown in Boston and Los Angeles by adding archival photos and contextual content related to Harris’s depictions of The Ward, as well as a series of contemporary commissions based on themes related to the show.

Additional material from Lawren Harris Paintings 1910-1948 (Toronto: Art Gallery of Toronto, 1948); the October 16, 1948 and January 1, 1949 editions of the Globe and Mail; the January 14, 1978 edition of the Toronto Star; and the October 16, 1948 edition of the Telegram.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Memory Lane

Originally published on Torontoist on September 2, 2015, based on an article originally published by The Grid on March 12, 2013.

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Toronto Life, November 1969.

During the 1960s, the block of Markham Street south of Bloor transformed from a quiet residential road into a row of art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants. What started as a plan to build a parking lot for Honest Ed’s became Mirvish Village. While 594 Markham initially housed galleries after its residents departed, the building found its fame when “Captain” George Henderson opened his Memory Lane comic book and movie memorabilia store in 1967.

Born in Montreal, Henderson devoured comic books and movies during a childhood spent bouncing among foster homes. He also wrote poetry, a skill that wasn’t appreciated during his 12-year army stint. After his discharge, he wrote soft-core porn novels for $750 apiece. “I could rewrite the same book three times, one heterosexual, one homosexual, and one lesbian,” he later told the Globe and Mail.

Tiring of the porn trade, Henderson returned to his childhood loves when he opened the Viking Bookshop on Queen Street West near Simcoe Street in spring 1966. Dubbed “the campiest store in town” by the Star’s Robert Fulford, the Viking was the first in Canada to specialize in comic books. He claimed the largest stock of Golden Age comics (those published up to 1949) in Canada, with a weekly turnover of 5,000 comics from that era.

Henderson renamed the store Memory Lane when it moved to Markham Street because “it was the worst cliché you could think of.” The store became a place for comic fans, movie buffs, and nostalgic types to connect. Rising interest in comics spurred by the Adam West Batman TV show attracted plenty of media attention, even if it wasn’t always respectful—during one TV appearance, a laugh track played whenever he opened his mouth. He also dealt with occasional hecklers—once, when a passerby bellowed, “what a weird store!” Henderson replied, “Yes sir, and I think there’s a place in Toronto for a weird store like this.”

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Advertorial by Mary Walpole about Memory Lane, Globe and Mail, April 16, 1970.

The “weird store” was a focal point for one of Toronto’s first major conventions, the Triple Fan Fair. Centred around Markham Street during Canada Day weekend in 1968, the gathering included art displays, a Tarzan exhibit, a panel discussion featuring Stan Lee, a comic-book swap, and silent films presented by a young Reg Hartt. Anticipating future convention costume contests, the fair offered a masked ball filled with comic characters, silent movie stars, and monsters.

The store cultivated many fans via its mini publishing empire, known as the “Vast Whizzbang Organization.” Captain George’s Whizzbang was an attractive fanzine that purveyed, according to Star media critic Nathan Cohen, “affectionate, informed nostalgia.” Its content included capsule reviews of current books, columns on comics and radio, and essays on sci-fi illustrators and movies past and present. Henderson’s reprints of classic comic strips ran into trouble when he was fined $4,000 after King Features received an injunction over copyright violations.

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CBC news story on Memory Lane, May 29, 1970. CBC Archives.

Yet these reprints reflected Henderson’s interest in promoting comics as a valid art form. Following an exhibition of his most valuable comics at Hart House in November 1966, Henderson talked of establishing a permanent comic art museum. His vision was briefly realized in 1971, when the Whizzbang Gallery opened a few doors south of Memory Lane. “We’re not out to appeal to the man on the street,” he told the Globe and Mail. “We’re only interested in people who care about our popular culture.” During its opening, one guest confided to Henderson that “this is the first party I’ve ever been at where the other guests didn’t think I was some kind of nut for liking comic books.”

By the 1980s, Henderson wearied of the comic-book market. He noticed that, as the years passed, kids’ enthusiasm changed from the stories inside the comics to their financial worth. Most of his income came from movie memorabilia, especially posters and lobby cards. The sheer volume Henderson carried led the Globe and Mail to call Memory Lane “a branch of the Smithsonian that the Smithsonian doesn’t know about.” The store occasionally experienced runs on particular items, such as Ronald Reagan material during his 1980 presidential run.

Henderson passed away in 1992. Henderson’s legacy of treating comics seriously lingered on in Mirvish Village via The Beguiling.

Additional material from the June 15, 1966, November 28, 1966, February 17, 1968, October 2, 1971, and April 4, 1982 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the July 23, 1966, June 29, 1968, and April 28, 1969 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

ts 66-07-23 viking books profile Toronto Star, July 23, 1966. Click on image for larger version.

Of the other stores mentioned in this article, Ryerson Press’s home at 299 Queen West would become home to the CHUM/CITY media empire. ts 68-06-29 triple fan fair

Toronto Star, June 29, 1968. Click on image for larger version.

Don’t fret about what’s happening to our heroes on the covers chosen for this profile of the Triple Fan Fair: Ben Grimm turned back into the Thing in the next issue of Fantastic Four, while Spidey found escape less than impossible.

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Toronto Star, April 28, 1969.

A few words about Captain George’s Whizzbang from legendary Toronto Star critic Nathan Cohen.

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Globe and Mail, October 2, 1971. Click on image for larger version.

An article on the launch of the Whizzbang Gallery, accompanied by Carmine Infantino’s rendition of the Flash.

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Globe and Mail, April 24, 1982. Click on image for larger version.

An early 1980s profile of Henderson.

Picturing the Americas at the AGO

Originally published on Torontoist on June 17, 2015.

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Wall dedicated to the Toronto Purchase.

The press kit for “Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic” is filled with numbers. In the 118 works on display, created by 85 artists and collected from 51 institutions in 11 countries, sharp-eyed viewers will note 116 birds and 105 horses lurking within the frames.

Scheduled to coincide with the Pan American and Parapan American Games, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s latest major exhibition spotlights painted interpretations of the landscapes of the Americas, covering a timeline from the dawn of the United States in the late 18th century through the Second World War. These pieces show, according to the AGO’s Associate Curator of Canadian Art Georgiana Uhlyarik, how the artists were “trying to understand how the environment shapes them, how they find themselves in this new place, and how ultimately they end up shaping the environment and understanding that they have to find a new way of belonging to this place.” Or, as Uruguayan artist Pedro Figari put it in 1924, “until we have shaken off the stupor that befogs us, we will not be able to perceive the beauties of our own earth and sky, nor the poetry of our own traditions, nor the greatness of our mission…[to] create the work of America.”

The exhibition’s 13 themes touch on topics ranging from landscape-painting techniques developed to capture landscapes unknown to those of European origin, to the depiction of railways as part of the environment. There’s an underlying narrative about how these works were used for deceptive or exploitative purposes, such as romanticizing the land to promote immigration or depicting the wealth of natural resources ready for investors to capitalize on.

That sense of exploitation carries over into the last, Toronto-centric portion of the exhibition: a wall dedicated to the Toronto Purchase, the treaty where the Mississaugas signed over much of the land the city currently sits on. There are no paintings of landscapes accompanying the deal, just cold hard maps and signatures. The Toronto Purchase can stand in for the many treaties (or outright land grabs) made with indigenous cultures by colonial officials across the Americas over the period covered by the exhibition.

Of the artists represented, the most familiar will be those from North America. Canadians on display include Emily Carr, Cornelius Krieghoff, Paul Kane, and members of the Group of Seven, while from south of the border come pieces by Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O’Keefe, and Grant Wood. Works from Latin America provide some of the exhibition’s most revelatory works, from José María Velasco’s depiction of indigenous Mexicans walking in front of ruins in Oaxaca, to Brazilian Tarsila do Amaral’s playful postcard-style depiction of monkeys in a tree.

Following its Toronto engagement, the exhibition will continue to follow major sporting events in the Americas. After a stop at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, these works will be displayed at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo on the eve of Brazil’s hosting of the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Vintage Toronto Ads: The Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art

Originally published on Torontoist on December 12, 2014.

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Left: Globe and Mail, March 27, 1965. Right: Globe and Mail, March 20, 1965.

The Toronto Star dubbed it “the biggest shot in the arm” the Canadian art world had ever experienced. Four hundred paintings, worth over $100,000, were purchased by Hollywood horror icon Vincent Price in August 1963 to be sold as part of the retail art collection he curated for Sears, Roebuck and Company.

Sears vice-president of merchandising George Struthers approached Price in the early 1960s as part of the department store chain’s attempt to boost sales through celebrity advisors (its sporting goods committee included baseball great Ted Williams and mountaineer Edmund Hilary). Price, whose lifelong passion for fine art expressed itself through books, media appearances, and lecture tours, was assigned to purchase works from around the world. Besides rising talents, artists represented included the established (Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Andrew Wyeth) and the historical (Albrecht Durer, Francisco Goya, Rembrandt).

Launched in Denver in October 1962, the collection allowed Sears customers to buy the paintings and sculptures for as little as $5 down and $5 per month. The works were sold via catalogue and touring exhibitions at stores across the United States. Though not profitable, the collection provided Sears with prestige and publicity. Rivals such as Macy’s launched their own art programs, but they lacked the cachet associated with Price.

The program appealed to Price’s populist philosophies about fine art, a realm he believed most people found as terrifying as his film roles:

I’ve been a collector all my life and never having been a very rich one or interested in terribly expensive paintings for myself, I’ve learned to buy extremely well. I think 90 percent of the people I know around the country are scared to go into a gallery. They seem to be awed by it, which is nonsense of course, but that’s the attitude we’ve had in America for decades.

In June 1963, Simpsons-Sears invited Price to bring his collection to Canada, with the caveat that he include homegrown artists. Price hired Toronto gallery owner Arnold Mazelow to select appropriate works. Mazelow took two weeks to assemble a list of 600 pieces, which Price then narrowed down to 400. Though historical works were chosen, many were produced by contemporary artists such as A.J. Casson, William Kurelek, Jean-Paul Riopelle, and Harold Town. Simpsons-Sears planned to display half of the works at three stores during the fall of 1963, and the remainder were added to the 20 roadshows touring the United States.

“Thank you for letting me in on the genius of Canada,” Price wrote to Mazelow, whom he instructed to line up another $100,000’s worth of art within six months.

Price appeared at the CNE Coliseum in April 1965 to promote an exhibition at the National Home Show. Of the 1,000 pieces displayed, the priciest was an 1861 Cornelius Krieghoff painting of the Caughnawaga tribe ($7,850).

Globe and Mail art critic Kay Kritzwiser described the show’s set-up:

Visitors to the collection tread through an exciting maze of panels and blocks holding the sculptures. No attempt has been made to present the work in schools or by country. At the entry, a Riopelle hangs in harmony with a Toronto street scene by Albert Francks. Inside the entrance the Krieghoff shares the same panel with a Harold Town, his “Radar Detecting Fall,” priced $975.

Because of the Catholic pattern of the panels, the collection represents a voyage of discovery. This is deliberate. Only by prowling from panel to panel will viewers come upon a little gem of an etching by Whistler, or discover the original Albrecht Durer, “The Agony in the Garden.”

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Toronto Star, September 23, 1963.

When Struthers died in 1966, his replacement, former Simpsons-Sears CEO James W. Button, demanded stronger profit margins. The touring exhibitions gave way to plans for permanent galleries in selected cities, starting with Sears’s base in Chicago. “I became a middleman for the arts,” Price later lamented. “And it just fell apart in the greed of modern business.”

One of the final hurrahs for Canadians associated with the collection was a Harold Town exhibition held in Chicago in January 1967. Opening-night patrons were unimpressed by the Ontario red wine that was served—Price requested bourbon after a sip, while the Star’s Robert Fulford remarked that people responded to the plonk “with a kind of horrified fascination.” Town received better notices. “I think he’s a great draftsman,” Price noted. “And it’s always visible in all his work, even in his most abstract things—there’s always this marvellous taste, which I think only great draftsman have.”

Although Price remained a spokesperson for Sears through the early 1970s, the collection faded away. Price later criticized management’s belief that they could sell work schlockier than his campiest movies: “It ended up very unhappily. Actually, I’ve found that most art things end up unhappily because people are dealing with a product that shouldn’t be merchandised.”

Besides helping local artists earn money, Price had an impact on the Golden Horseshoe arts scene in at least one other way: he appeared in the CanCon kids classic The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.

Additional material from Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography by Victoria Price (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000); Simpsons-Sears: The First Twenty-Five Years (Toronto: Simpsons-Sears, 1979); the April 2, 1965 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the September 23, 1963, and January 28, 1967, editions of the Toronto Star.

The AGO Expands Its Horizons With New First Nations Exhibit

Originally published on Torontoist on July 23, 2014.

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Patrick DesJarlait, Maple Sugar Time, 1946. Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Toronto has increasingly strived to honour the region’s First Nations—whether by acknowledging the historical presence of the Mississaugas of the New Credit on current City land or commemorating pre-European communities and trade routes. Now the Art Gallery of Ontario is following suit, staging an exhibition that highlights Anishinaabe artists from the Great Lakes region and making a greater effort to include indigenous art in its Canadian galleries.

“Before and After the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes” is a collaborative effort of the AGO and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, in New York City, where the exhibition recently wrapped up after a one-year run. The displays are organized by themes relating to Anishinaabe concepts of place and spirituality, and how they interact with the outside world. One of the most intriguing themes is “cottager colonialism,” which suggests that the colonization of indigenous land continues by way of vacationing tourists. Political statements are scattered throughout the exhibition, from Nadia Myre’s bead-covered pages of the Indian Act to the use of historical indigenous status documents in Robert Houle’s “Premises” series. Floral beaded bags and leggings, meanwhile, provide inspiration for the contemporary paintings of Christi Belcourt, an Ontario Arts Council Aboriginal Arts Award recipient.

For AGO curator Andrew Hunter, “Before and After the Horizon” serves as a “bold catalyst for rethinking parts of our permanent collection space.” The gallery is focused on acquiring and commissioning more First Nations art, contextualizing that art with displays of First Nations artifacts, and labelling Anishinaabe works throughout the institution with a thunderbird symbol. Hunter says these moves will encourage “thinking about how a certain history is represented, how certain communities are present within an institution whose history is largely a Western European model.”

Regular visitors can see the effects of these changes in the Canadian galleries. In the 19th-century salon room, a display of bandolier bags and a Chester Brown drawing of Louis Riel are nods to First Nations history. Norval Morrisseau’s six-piece Man Changing into Thunderbird has moved from a hallway to a prominent space across from Group of Seven works. Another Morrisseau work, the colourful Psychic Space, may be the first to catch your eye when walking into “Before and After the Horizon”—or perhaps it will be Michael Belmore’s Shorelines, a map of North America hammered out in copper, a metal sacred to the Anishinaabe.

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Robert Houle, Parfleche for Norval Morrisseau, 1999. National Museum of the American Indian. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario

The Toronto incarnation of “Before and After the Horizon” features artists active in the city. Among them is photographer Keesic Douglas, who contributed his work Lifestyles, a quartet of photos depicting a contemporary urban First Nations couple living in a hipsterish apartment filled with stereotypical cultural artifacts. Interested in concepts of indigenous identity and representation, Douglas used historical paintings for reference when composing the shots.

Douglas was on hand for yesterday’s press preview, as was Bonnie Devine, who contributed two works to the exhibition. Inspired by the Canadian Shield landscape where she grew up as part of the Serpent River First Nation near Blind River, Devine’s contributions mix photos of rocks with “letters” drawing on the era of the Robinson Treaties of 1850, documents that turned her ancestors’ land over to the British.

Devine also contributed a piece installed in a regular gallery—one of several First Nations works that will continue to be displayed after the exhibition closes. For this piece, she took a wall map of Upper and Lower Canada, and transformed it into Battle for the Woodlands, where the Great Lakes are represented by animals, the St. Lawrence River runs red, and treaty boundaries are outlined. Accompanying the map is Treaty Robe for Tecumseh, a tribute to the War of 1812 hero.

Meanwhile, in the Walker Court, Robert Houle’s Seven Grandfathers transforms the roundels that encircle the space into ceremonial drums. This installation will provide the backdrop for the exhibition’s official public opening on July 30.

The Gardiner Museum Has a Big Head

Originally published on Torontoist on September 18, 2013.

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The Gardiner Museum has developed a big head. A very big head.

It’s so big, it has to sit outside the entrance. Visitors are welcomed by a zebra-striped noggin of glazed ceramic and galvanized steel, created by artist Jun Kaneko in 2002. The untitled piece, unveiled by Kaneko last night, marks the first permanent Canadian installation of the Omaha, Nebraska-based artist’s work.

The piece’s placement feels like a smart move for the Gardiner, in that it brings its collection closer to the sidewalk along Queen’s Park. Illuminated at dusk by the lights on the museum’s grounds, the head makes an impression. It may also become a magnet for goofy tourist photos. We imagine school kids on trips to the Royal Ontario Museum running across the street to snap group shots.

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Following the unveiling, Kaneko narrated a dryly humorous slideshow of the half-century career he’s enjoyed since moving from Japan to the United States in 1963. He outlined the challenges he has faced over the year—challenges that range from discovering the fragility of ceramic art to tackling his first opera set design. His works have been shown in public transit stations in Boston and Detroit. Chicago’s Millennium Park is currently hosting a showcase of his giant ceramic tanukis (Japanese raccoon dogs). Toronto’s Kaneko head follows similar works, crafted from ceramic or bronze, shown in New York City and Philadelphia.

The installation of the head also serves as a prelude to the Gardiner’s 30th-anniversary celebrations next year. Plans for 2014 include a lecture series and renovations to the second-floor porcelain galleries.