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After blanketing Toronto with psychedelic murals, street-art duo Clandestinos is moving inside – CBC.ca

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Artist duo Clandestinos (Shalak Attack, a young woman with dark hair wearing a black tank top and colourful pattered leggings, and Bruno Smoky, a young man wearing a tie-dyed shirt, camo pans, brown hat and mirrored shades) pose in front of their Toronto mural "Reflections" with daughter, Violeta, a small child in a yellow T-shirt and pale leggings. The little girl is held in her dad's arms. The family stands in front of a three-storey mural depicting a vibrant landscape inspired by nature. Details of a deer and birds of prey are visible.
Artist duo Clandestinos (Shalak Attack and Bruno Smoky) pose in front of their Toronto mural “Reflections” with daughter, Violeta. (Clandestinos)

Over the last decade, Toronto streets have become more colourful — more psychedelic, even — thanks to Clandestinos, a creative duo (and couple) known separately as Shalak Attack and Bruno Smoky. The underpass titans at King Street and Sumach Avenue? They had a hand in that. The kaleidoscopic patio mural at Richmond and John — 45,000 square feet of floor-to-sky rainbow vibes? That’s them too, as is The Awakening mural on Lawrence (the longest of its kind in Canada), the owl-inspired transformation of Wilson Station — plus dozens of other vibrant interventions throughout the city. 

But for the first time in their long partnership, Clandestinos is holding their own gallery exhibition in Toronto, the place they’ve called home since 2013. The show, Sembrando (or “sowing” in English), is on through June 26 at Underscore Projects on Dundas Street West, and it’s a showcase of Clandestinos’ “indoor” art, so to speak: works on canvas, textile sculptures, even an embroidered CBC Arts logo (previously seen here) — an eclectic body of work that ranges from the earliest days of their collaboration to the present. 

Both artists have Latinx roots, a fact that strongly inspires their work: Shalak’s a Chilean-Canadian from Montreal; Bruno originally hails from São Paulo. And if there’s another common theme driving them — beyond their signature neon palette — it’s a love of nature and a reverence for the interconnectedness of all living things. 

I reached the artists by phone earlier this week to chat about their journey so far and the way they’ve changed the look of the city.

Six people take a selfie inside a white-walled gallery, surrounded by colourful canvases and sculptures.
Clandestinos (centre, with their young daughter), snap a group photo at Toronto’s Underscore Projects. An exhibition of the duo’s artwork will appear at the gallery to June 26. (Ramon Vasconcelos/Underscore Projects)

CBC Arts: Most of the work in the exhibition is from the last year or so, but you also have some things from back at the beginning of your time together. Could you take me back to those days? When did you first start working together? How did you meet? 

Bruno Smoky: Well, we first met in Rio de Janeiro. It was in 2010, right at the beginning of the year. 

Shalak already had a little history with Brazil, so she decided to visit there. We met right under the arch in Lapa through a mutual friend, who was also a painter. The next day I invited her to be part of something that I was creating there.

Oh my gosh, by day two you were already working together? 

Bruno: Yeah, literally!

What was it about working together? What clicked?  

Shalak Attack: We kind of loved each other’s style. Part of the huge passion that drew us together was our love for art and our love for street art and murals and graffiti. That really brought us together and forged our path forever — into what we’re doing today. 

What can you tell me about how you actually work together? Who does what when you’re collaborating on a mural project?

Shalak: It’s interesting because we both started before we met each other, so we had our strengths. 

Colours and big faces is more what I am drawn to do, and Bruno does a lot of the storytelling: the details and the landscapes. We switch back and forth, but I think from the beginning those were our strengths. And then we started growing together and we tried to make it look as if it was just one person, so it’s very cohesive. 

Bruno: When we work together, it’s almost like a symbiosis between the two of us. 

It’s not easy to work together — plus having our life behind the scenes. You know, we are also a couple. It was a huge process putting all this together and learning how to respect each other’s space. At this point I feel like we are very comfortable working with each other.

Shalak: And I’m pretty sure we haven’t reached the end of that process. Like, I’m really excited to see what happens in five more years and 10 more years — how our collaboration will be and how much further we can take it. Our artistic voices too, because we like to keep our individuality. I think that part of being an artist, you want to shine. We’re shining but in the same light. We are really trying to work to shine together. 

Detail of The Awakening, a mural found on Toronto's Lawrence Ave. It was completed by Essencia Art Collective (Shalak Attack, Bruno Smoky and Fiya Bruxa) in 2016. Photo of a pedestrian underpass walkway on a cloudy day. The wall is painted in vibrant colours, depicting a woman and fox in profile, looking to a dark starry mountain sky. To their right, crooked houses on tall stilts made of trees emerge from curly waves of water.
Detail of The Awakening, a mural found on Toronto’s Lawrence Ave. It was completed by Essencia Art Collective (Shalak Attack, Bruno Smoky and Fiya Bruxa) in 2016. (Clandestinos)

You met in Brazil back in 2010, but you’ve been in Toronto for ages. When did you move to the city? 

Shalak: It was 2013? Yeah. I was living in Montreal when I went to Brazil in 2010 — when I met Bruno. 

Why Toronto? Montreal has a pretty robust street art community, right? Why was Toronto the place to go? 

Bruno: We went to Montreal, actually. We were trying to see which city was the most hospitable for us. Montreal — it’s a very small city compared to where we were for three years, São Paulo, which is like the world’s mecca of street art. It’s massive, right? We had a vision that artists should have a backyard big enough to shine, you know. In Montreal, it was like in every corner there was an artist — a group of people almost fighting to find a spot to paint. So every little job, it was like at least three or four artists were competing. We realized that in Toronto there were a lot of more opportunities, so I think we decided to just come here and try our luck. 

When you mention opportunities, are you just talking about just space, like available walls? What was the opportunity that you saw here? 

Bruno: Oh, I think it’s more like a general sense. Yeah. There’s a lot more space to paint here in Toronto, but it’s not just space. 

Shalak: It was also the opportunity for jobs and support from the city.

Bruno: StART — I don’t know if you’re familiar with that program — but they were just starting.

Aerial photograph of a subway station entrance decorated with a mural of an owl's face at the centre of a compass-esque star.
Daily Migration, a mural project at Toronto’s Wilson Station, is led by Shalak Attack in partnership with STEPS Public Art. (Clandestinos)

Shalak: After we started living here, we started finding opportunities. 

In my experience, Montreal is super supportive and there’s a great, amazing community of artists there that support each other. But we wanted to have a fresh start. 

At this point, how many murals have you done in Toronto? Do you have a sense of numbers? 

Shalak: We have lost count. People ask us and I just…. like, we have no idea. In Toronto, for sure there’s over 50.

Bruno: I would say more. Like, 60 murals — plus the ones that have been covered, which is not many, thank God. 

How do you typically get a project off the ground? The murals you’ve done around Toronto, are they mostly private commissions, or city projects through programs like StART? 

Bruno: We do a lot of freestyles, which is just finding a wall and talking to the owner and getting permission to paint just for fun. And then there’s work with the city and also private commissions.

Photo of a vibrant wall mural depicting a female figure with glowing multicoloured skin and a body comprised of skyscrapers. Wh wears a flower in her hair and a blue bird of prey flies above her outstretched green hand. The backdrop is pattered and purple and marked by a mandala motif in shades of red and orange.
Regent Park Community Mural by Clandestinos. Developed between 2014-15, the project was created through a community outreach program with Toronto Community Housing, The Daniels Corporation and Artscape. (Clandestinos)

Shalak: There are also projects that get sponsored by the city or government grants. 

We work a lot with organizations and communities as well. We do a lot of outreach — consultations and workshops with youth and communities — and that’s also been a huge part of our mural creation and process that we’ve built as Clandestinos. 

Each project is super unique and depends on who participates and how we engage with them. We help translate their stories and identities into a visual language.

I think one of the biggest things about community murals is that the community needs to feel proud, so it has to tell a story, but it also has to be beautiful and significant because it’s going to be a long-lasting project that’s going to have visual impact and create identity for the community as well. 

Just speaking from personal experience, I always encounter your murals when I’m moving around downtown. Sometimes it sort of seems like Toronto’s becoming one enormous Clandestinos painting. Does it feel like you’re changing the look of the city? Is that something you consider when you’re working on a project?

Shalak: That responsibility — yeah, we don’t take it lightly. I think it’s part of our passion. It’s part of why we do it. 

Our process, it’s almost like taking back space — our own spaces. 

For myself — a woman, the daughter of immigrants — what kind of spaces in public did I feel connected to? Not many growing up. So how could my voice be important within society? Doing graffiti and doing street art is like reclaiming these spaces for ourselves. Working with the community, it’s like reclaiming spaces for other people. 

Bruno: We always take the time to do something that section of the city needs in terms of images. It’s not just flowers everywhere. 

Is that the throughline in your work? What’s the story you’re telling through your murals?

Bruno: I feel like we try to represent ourselves and our roots. We’re always bringing, you know, a little bit of that Latin vibe. 

We go from paying homage to Mother Earth and the First Nations from where we are from.

Shalak: And the First Nations of Canada, as well. 

Bruno: We love to represent animals in every work that we do because we believe that we are equal. 

Doing graffiti and doing street art is like reclaiming these spaces for ourselves. Working with the community, it’s like reclaiming spaces for other people.– Shalak Attack, artist

What are some Toronto murals that you’re particularly proud of?

Shalak: RendezViews from last year. I think it came at a special time. People were just starting to come out. Even for us to be working with other artists — and seeing people in real life — it was a very powerful project, and I think the people around there were very touched. It touched us so much, too. It was like a celebration, coming out with all these colours and the storytelling. 

It was also unique for us, too, because we’ve done floor murals in the past, but nothing at that scale. 

It was [curated by] Collective Arts Brewing. They said, “You know what, this is carte blanche for you. We trust you 100 per cent, and do what you feel would be your passion project.” It was like a dream project because we got to do what we wanted to the full extent. 

It’s portraying where we are within ourselves and how we interpreted the idea of coming out from the pandemic. That was the theme. 

Aerial photograph of "Reflections," a mural project by Clandestinos that can be found at the corner of Richmond and John in Toronto. Located at an outdoor patio, the ground is painted in a rainbow-hued pattern. A three-storey wall is splashed with more mural work, depicting large faces and animals, also in a bright rainbow palette.
Aerial view of “Reflections,” Clandestinos’ mural at Toronto’s RendezViews. (Clandestinos)

Your daughter is featured in it, right? She’s one of the portraits? 

Bruno: Yes! That’s right. And the title is Reflections

We actually added three more faces to that project. The first one, right after we finished, was Selva.

The Ballroom also hired us this year, so right where Violeta faces — our little daughter  — there’s a continuation of that wall on Richmond. 

Shalak: And this year we also created a space within RendezViews. So if you go inside now, within the space, you’ll see all these different wooden blocks that weren’t there, like the barriers and the ceiling and stuff. 

I made a piece dedicated to Mother Earth and my experience as a mother. So it’s like a wooden tree with her baby and they’re in this magical universe. 

Photo of a colourful mural of an anthropomorphic mother tree reclining and holding her tree child.
Detail of Shalak Attack’s newest addition to the mural at Toronto’s Rendezviews. (@clandestinosart/Instagram)

What have you got on the go? Are there any new projects that you’re developing at the moment? 

Bruno: We’re going to be painting a big wall right at the back of the gallery, Underscore Projects, next weekend. So we’re going to be there from Friday to Sunday. 

Shalak: It’s a three-storey mural, which will be really great, and it goes with the whole theme of Sembrando — Sembrando is the name of the exhibit which means sowing in English. And also, we’re going to be doing workshops, family-friendly workshops, for the last weekend of the exhibit. And then we have different mural projects all over Ontario coming up this summer. 

Photo of a mural on a downtown Toronto building. Image is of a frowning surrealistic owl whose head resembles mountain peaks.
Clandestinos mural on Toronto’s Dundas Street West. (Clandestinos)

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Sembrando, an exhibition by Clandestinos, is at Underscore Projects in Toronto to June 26. www.underscoreprojects.ca

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Modern Art and the Esteem Machine – The New Yorker

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Modern Art and the Esteem Machine

Picasso was a joke. Then he was a god. How did his art finally take off in America?

June 27, 2022

Picasso's guitar collage placed in a shopping cart.
Making a market for Picasso and Matisse took decades—and many mediators.Illustration by Matt Chase

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Hugh Eakin’s new book, “Picasso’s War: How Modern Art Came to America” (Crown), isn’t really about Picasso, or about war, or about art. Its subject is the creation of a market for a certain product, modern art.

One (mostly) good thing about the digital revolution, which is otherwise sucking us all into a plutocratic dystopia, is that the Internet has reduced the barriers to cultural production enormously. Many types of cultural goods are now much easier to make and much cheaper to distribute. You don’t need an investor to capitalize your production costs or a distributor to get your stuff before the public. You just need a laptop and a camera (and maybe an inspiration). And, no matter how small you are, you always open worldwide.

It’s true that when your product goes online it will be competing with a zillion similar products—and products that do have investors and distributors, such as streaming services, are much more likely to attract audiences and become profitable. But the Internet makes your work accessible to anyone who wants to see it or read it or listen to it or buy a copy of it, because barriers to cultural consumption are also much lower. Goods are far easier to access and to acquire.

Back when all of life was offline, back when to buy a record you had to go to a record store, back when there were record stores, the infrastructure required for cultural goods to get from creation to consumption had many more moving parts. These parts are the principals of Eakin’s story. His focus isn’t on the big-name modern artists, like Picasso and Matisse, who are offstage for much of the book. It’s on figures most people have never heard of: dealers, gallery owners, collectors, curators, and critics—the components of what sociologists call the art world.

The art world isn’t a fixed entity. It’s continually being reconstituted as new artistic styles emerge. Twentieth-century fine art, in Europe and the United States, passed through a series of formally innovative stages, from Cubism and Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism and Pop art, and each time art entered a new stage and acquired a new look the art world had to adjust.

At the most basic level, the art world exists to answer the question Is it art? When Cubist paintings were first produced, around 1907, they did not look like art to many people, even people who were interested in and appreciated fine-art painting. The same thing was true of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings (around 1950) and Andy Warhol’s soup cans (1962).

But you don’t know it’s art by looking at it. You know it’s art because galleries want to show it, dealers want to sell it, collectors want to buy it, museums want to exhibit it, and critics can explain it. When the parts are in synch, you have a market. The artist produces, and the various audiences—from billionaire collectors to casual museumgoers and college students buying van Gogh posters—consume. The art world is what gets the image from the studio to the dorm room.

The general American public, in the period when modern art emerged, around the time of the First World War, had no interest in it. Wealthy Americans, the sort of people who could afford to buy art for their homes, had no taste for it. Even the art establishment was hostile. In 1913, a Matisse show at the Art Institute of Chicago instigated a near-riot. Copies of three Matisse paintings were burned and there was a mock trial, in which Matisse was convicted of, among other things, artistic murder. The demonstrators were art students.

In Eakin’s account, the creation of a Picasso market in the United States—“Picasso” standing for modern art generally—took almost thirty years, from the first American Picasso show, at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery 291, in 1911 (eighty-three works, one sale), to “Picasso: Forty Years of His Art” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in 1939 (more than three hundred and sixty works). The MoMA show, as Eakin puts it, “electrified the city.”

High-end department stores like Bonwit Teller and Bergdorf Goodman began selling Picasso-themed clothing. A national tour followed, and from then on, Eakin concludes, “the story of modern art—the collectors who acquired it, the scholars who studied it, the museums that showed it, and the ordinary people who waited in long lines to see it—would be written in America.”

Modern art had many middlemen and women in the United States—Albert C. Barnes, Walter and Louise Arensberg, Katherine S. Dreier, Galka Scheyer, Solomon R. Guggenheim, Hilla von Rebay, Hans Hofmann, Meyer Schapiro, Clement Greenberg. Eakin has chosen to center his story on just two of these people: John Quinn, a collector and an all-around cultural impresario, who died, of liver cancer, in 1924; and Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the first director of MoMA, which opened in 1929. Using these figures gives his book a certain symmetry: Quinn tried and failed to do what Barr finally succeeded in doing, which was to get Americans to accept and appreciate modern art.

Quinn was a successful Wall Street lawyer who spent much of his money in support of contemporary art and literature. He was not only an art collector. He was the principal American adviser and promoter of modern writers like William Butler Yeats, Joseph Conrad, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. He bought their manuscripts as a way of supporting them, and he helped make their work known in the United States. He negotiated Eliot’s American book contracts at a time when Eliot was barely a coterie writer. He brought Yeats to the United States for a national tour. He arranged for the first American production of J. M. Synge’s “Playboy of the Western World.” He acted as a talent scout for the publisher Alfred A. Knopf.

Culture industries need to adapt continually to changes in the legal, financial, and political environment—tax laws, depreciation rules, government regulations, quotas and tariffs, the availability of capital, and geopolitical developments, like wars. In what was possibly his most significant achievement as a supporter of modern art, Quinn single-handedly got Congress to rewrite a 1909 tax law that imposed a tariff on imported art less than fifty years old while exempting “historic art.”

Eliminating the modern-art tariff made it much more feasible for American galleries to exhibit and sell contemporary European painting. Most of the works in Stieglitz’s Picasso show at 291, for example, were drawings, because they were assessed at a lower value than paintings. It was too expensive to bring paintings over from Europe.

Quinn wasn’t just collecting for himself. He was on a mission. As Eakin puts it, he wanted “to bring American civilization to the forefront of the modern world.” He thus operated as, in effect, a one-man art world. He subsidized New York art galleries, often buying many of the works they showed. He was a key figure behind the 1913 Armory Show, where the public could see more than thirteen hundred works of modern art, and where Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” became a succès de scandale.

When modern art was attacked for undermining American values—the Times called the Armory Show “part of the general movement, discernible all over the world, to disrupt and degrade, if not to destroy, not only art, but literature and society, too”—Quinn worked the press, giving interviews to New York papers in which he labelled unsigned attacks like that one “Ku Klux criticism.” Over time, he built up a huge collection of modern European painting and sculpture, which he stored in his ninth-floor apartment on Central Park West.

The apartment was a rental. Quinn was rich, but he wasn’t J. P. Morgan rich. Morgan spent something like sixty million dollars on art, most of which he donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of which he was the chairman. Quinn didn’t have that kind of money. On the other hand, Morgan was buying Old Masters (he was the force behind the 1909 tax law exempting “historic art” which Quinn got rewritten), while Quinn was buying work that almost no one else wanted. From the point of view of the American art world, the incredible collection he amassed, containing works by, among others, Brâncuși, Braque, Duchamp, Gris, Matisse, Picasso, Rousseau, Seurat, van Gogh, and Villon, was close to worthless when he died. No American dealer could sell it, and no American museum wanted to hang it.

Knowing this, Quinn directed, in his will, that his collection be sold at auction, with the proceeds to go to his sister and his niece, who were his only heirs. (Quinn never married, but he had relationships with a number of notable women; at the time of his death, his partner was Jeanne Robert Foster, the daughter of a lumberjack, an astonishingly beautiful and gifted woman who was closely involved in his search for new art.) Since Americans didn’t want it, much of Quinn’s collection of European art thus ended up going back to Europe.

Conveniently for Eakin’s narrative arc, Alfred Barr, then a young art-history professor at Wellesley, was able to see some of Quinn’s collection before it was dispersed, which allows Eakin to propose that one of Barr’s aspirations when he accepted the directorship of MoMA three years later was to reassemble the Quinn collection and bring it back to America. This was impossible, of course. The pieces were now in too many hands. But MoMA became, in effect, Quinn’s museum, and Quinn’s canon (plus photography and a few artists, like Klee and Kandinsky, whose work Quinn did not collect) became Barr’s canon.

And it is still MoMA’s canon. If you walk through the fifth floor of MoMA today, where art that is owned by the museum and that was made between 1880 and 1940 is displayed, you will be looking at the very works whose art-world adventures are the subject of Eakin’s book.

Probably hundreds of people pass by those works every day, and none of them seem scandalized, even by Picasso’s eight-foot-high “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” painted in 1907—five naked women in a brothel, cubistically rendered, two with faces like African masks, aggressively confronting the viewer. (You need to stand very close to the canvas to get the proper effect, though almost no one does.) The shock of the new has worn off. This was probably not the kind of public acceptance that Quinn and Barr had in mind. But, as Gertrude Stein once said, “You can be a museum or you can be modern, but you cannot be both.”

There is a Paris side to Eakin’s story, too. Again, the focus is mainly on two figures: the gallerists Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Paul Rosenberg. (A third operator, a kind of freelance dealer and ladies’ man named Henri-Pierre Roché, who referred to his penis as “mon God,” and who scouted deals for Quinn, has a colorful part in the story.)

Modern Art and the Esteem Machine

Cartoon by Will McPhail

Of the circumstances that culture industries are obliged to adapt to, none played a more powerful role in the first half of the twentieth century than geopolitics. Kahnweiler did not sell his artists’ work in France, even though his gallery was in Paris. His collectors were in Germany and Russia, countries where modern art was created and understood. But the First World War and the Russian Revolution shut those markets down. As a German national, Kahnweiler even suffered the seizure of his collection by the French government.

A decade later, the rise to power of Stalin and then Hitler made conditions much worse. The governments of both leaders made modern art a political target. (The Nazis referred to modern art as Kunstbolschewismus—Bolshevik art—even though it was equally anathema in the Soviet Union.) Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union did not just censor modern artists and writers. They imprisoned them and they killed them. After 1933, the year Hitler was made Chancellor of Germany, the United States suddenly became attractive as a place where modern art could safely be shown. Hitler and Stalin provided the tailwind for Quinn and Barr’s mission to modernize American taste.

Kahnweiler and Rosenberg are keys to Eakin’s story because both men represented Picasso, and Eakin thinks that Quinn and Barr were determined to make Picasso the face of modern art in America. He says that Barr regarded “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” in particular, as a painting that could define MoMA’s entire collection.

But Barr had a hard time persuading his board of trustees to actually buy art, as opposed to borrowing it for exhibitions. The museum mounted highly successful retrospectives of Matisse in 1931 (thirty-six thousand visitors) and van Gogh in 1935 (a blockbuster, and really the exhibition that established a public for modern art in the United States), but the trustees declined to purchase a single work by Matisse, and they passed on van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” an image that would one day grace countless coffee mugs.

MoMA’s efforts to acquire “Les Demoiselles” is a good example of the twists and turns in the road from artist to public. When Picasso finished the painting, he let some people see it in his studio in Paris, where it acquired what Eakin calls a “cultlike status.” But the work was rarely exhibited publicly. Picasso liked to hold on to his best pieces, and he kept “Les Demoiselles” rolled up for years. In 1924, he sold it to Jacques Doucet, a fashion designer. (Doucet’s wife refused to allow him to hang it in their living room. The new was still a shock to her.) Doucet paid twenty-four thousand francs—about twelve hundred dollars at the time.

Barr knew where the painting had gone, and in 1935 he tried to persuade Doucet’s wife, who was now a widow, to lend it to MoMA for a show on Cubism. She refused. But a year later she sold the work to a Paris dealer, Germain Seligmann, for a hundred and fifty thousand francs—about six thousand dollars. Imagining that he could get a good price for it in New York, Seligmann had the painting shipped to his gallery there, and that was how Barr found out that it was back on the market.

When he approached the MoMA board, however, the members balked at Seligmann’s asking price of thirty thousand dollars. Barr exerted what pressure he could, including having art-world allies testify to the work’s historical significance, but to no avail. In the end, he found a provision in a bequest to MoMA that permitted the sale of one of the works in the donor’s collection in order to purchase another. He picked a Degas horse-racing scene and offered it to Seligmann in exchange for “Les Demoiselles,” a transaction that did not require board approval.

Seligmann and Barr agreed that the Degas was worth eighteen thousand dollars. Seligmann had reduced his ask on the Picasso to twenty-eight thousand, and he now said that he would “donate” the remaining ten thousand—an act of generosity that was the financial equivalent of an air kiss, since no cash changed hands. As Eakin points out, the deal still left Seligmann with a three-hundred-per-cent profit.

And so, for the cost of a run-of-the-mill Degas, and almost thirty years after it was painted, Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” a work as apotheosized in the history of modern painting as “The Waste Land” is in the history of modern poetry, was finally available for public viewing. In 1941, the museum did acquire “The Starry Night,” also through an exchange. Today, the paintings hang within a few yards of each other on the fifth floor.

The story in “Picasso’s War” is well told, with an impressive level of biographical detail. As a picture of interwar transatlantic cultural exchange, it necessarily (because of the Quinn-Barr hook) leaves out a lot, notably Bauhaus and Dada, both of which had an impact on American art-making and American taste. But, as an account of the means by which Picasso and the styles of painting with which he was associated achieved cultural prestige in the United States, it’s an admirable and enjoyable book.

Does it matter that Eakin doesn’t have much to say about the art that his protagonists are scheming to promote? A little. Artists and writers do not operate in some otherworldly zone. They want recognition. They want sales. Like everyone else in the art world, they are responsive to the social, political, and financial environment, and this affects their artistic choices. Still, what mattered most to the artists Eakin is writing about was the work of their peers and the art of the past which they emulated or reacted against, and that is a subject on which many books have been written.

Eakin also leaves unanswered (and unasked) an obvious question: Why did Americans’ tastes change between 1911 and 1939? It couldn’t just be because Alfred Barr found the means to acquire Picassos for his museum. What turned modern art from a matter for connoisseurs and academics into, to put it crudely, a middlebrow phenomenon?

The transition must have involved significant social changes. For modern literature, the work of writers like Eliot, Stein, and Joyce took a chronologically parallel route to acceptance and, ultimately, canonization. You could not even legally bring a copy of Joyce’s “Ulysses” into the United States until 1934, twelve years after it had been published in Paris. But at some point Americans who aspired to cultural literacy started to feel that it was important to read “Ulysses” and “The Waste Land,” and to know how to look at a Picasso and a Kandinsky. These were works that an educated and worldly person needed to have some familiarity with. What made people think this?

Quinn and Barr never met, and that was probably for the best, since they were very different personalities. Barr was a brilliant museum director who had an essentially academic approach to modern art. Quinn was a businessman. His edges were much rougher. His letters to the writers and artists whose work he advocated for reflect his complete (and completely pro-bono) absorption in their legal and financial affairs. And he seems to have been genuinely appreciative of their work.

But he was also a ranter and a bigot. Obliged to acknowledge this, Eakin quotes one letter in which Quinn refers to Rosenberg as “a cheap little Jew,” and another, to Ezra Pound, in which he complains about the “million Jews, who are mere walking appetites” in New York City. This may underplay the bigotry. There was a lot worse to pick from. In 1919, for instance, when Quinn was trying to get Eliot’s poems published in the United States, he grew frustrated with the publishers Albert Boni and Horace Liveright, who were Jewish. “It is a dirty piece of Jew impertinence,” he complained in a letter to Eliot, “calculated impertinence at that, for that is the way that type of Jew thinks he can impress his personality. . . . Feeling as I do about this matter, of course I have the keenest possible feelings regarding Jew pogroms in Poland. . . . It also occurs to me that I might be willing to even agree to make a modest contribution and take a modest part in a pogrom here. There might be a couple of additional pogroms in the outlying districts, one in the Bronx and one in Brooklyn.” We don’t encounter this Quinn in Eakin’s book. Nevertheless, three years later, Boni and Liveright published “The Waste Land,” in a deal negotiated by Quinn. Business first.

Is the art world, as we’ve known it, still intact? Obviously, the market is functioning. Art gets displayed, reviewed, bought, and sold. For a while, it seemed that painting and sculpture might be less susceptible than other cultural goods to the effects of digitization. Unlike a song or a book or a video, a painting is unique. A Pollock is worth millions; a copy of a Pollock is worth the cost of the materials required to produce it plus whatever permission fee was charged for the reproduction by the rightsholders.

It was therefore possible to feel that the monetary value of a painting correlated with its art-world value. Pollocks were worth a lot of money because museums displayed them, critics argued about them, art historians assigned Pollock an important place in the story of modern art, and so on. The art world could continue to perform its gatekeeping function in much the way it had in Alfred Barr’s time.

But the Internet does not suffer exemptions. Nothing may go undigitized. Today, many collectors do not buy physical works of art. They buy art works (among lots of other stuff) in the form of N.F.T.s, which are purely digital products. They don’t need the physical work, because they’re not assembling collections; they’re speculating.

It’s not that people have never bought art on speculation (although, historically, you’d be better off in a stock-market-index fund). It’s that the art world has started to come apart. Curation and criticism are increasingly detached from the rest of the mechanism. The market today is driven by dealers and collectors, neither group appearing to care whether museums and reviewers have validated the work they are buying and selling.

Certainly, art critics may feel that they’re becoming irrelevant. In an article on recent sales at auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, in which very new paintings by very new artists attracted seven-figure bids, the Times art critic Jason Farago concluded that “the time between a new work’s creation, digital dissemination, purchase and resale has become so compressed that the old legitimation mechanism simply cannot function.” He worried that this might be “part of a larger and, in the end, hazardous cultural reversal in which numerical measurement, measured in dollars or in likes, are the only records of quality or importance.” Welcome to the desert of the virtual.

And are paintings still unique? Advances in 3-D printing may soon make it possible to produce a copy of “The Starry Night” that is indistinguishable from the canvas Vincent van Gogh painted. Your dorm room can look exactly like the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art. You may want to think about installing a gift shop. ♦

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Welcome to Drag: The performance art celebrating gender fluidity – Queen's Journal

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I walked into Crew’s and Tango’s, a queer bar in Toronto, and my senses were flooded with light, glitter, wafts of vodka cranberries, and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” blaring on the speakers as a drag queen performed. 

Ivory Towers, a drag queen fashioned with caution tape as a bodysuit that matched their vibrant yellow hair, led an entranced crowd through the last stanzas of the song. Their stage presence was as powerful as their black thigh-high stilettos. 

When Helena Poison joined the stage in an incredible pair of ass-less chaps with rainbow fringe going down the pant leg, the two engaged in banter with the crowd members, all of whom hung onto their every word. 

Drag performers like Towers and Posion have had to create a space for themselves in an outwardly heteronormative and patriarchal society. 

The first renditions of drag culture trace themselves back to Shakespearean times when male performers cross-dressed to portray female characters. They travelled through the United States during the prohibition era where speakeasies provided solace for gay men to express themselves and explore their gender identity. 

Rowena Whey, a leader within the vibrant Kingston drag community and a practicing drag queen of six years, told The Journal what the culture means to her. 

“Drag is an art form where we perform gender, that takes a lot of forms,” Whey said. 

While she adopts a female presenting gender for her performances, Whey stressed that drag comes in varieties; there are drag kings and non-binary performers as well. 

“Drag is an all-encompassing art form,” she said. “Not only is it makeup, fashion, body contouring—it’s also dancing and singing and acting and comedy.”

Her first encounter with drag was in Edmonton at the Evolution Wonder Lounge where she was mesmerized and intrigued by a performer who would later be her partner. 

“I didn’t really know drag existed until I moved to Edmonton,” Whey said. “I started doing drag for Halloween one year, but if I was going to do it, I was going to do it right.” 

Whey spent time watching makeup tutorials and making her own clothes for her drag persona. 

“When it came time to go out, I was in drag for 15 hours. If I could do that I could do it as a career,” she said. 

Whey talked about the lengthy process of getting ready for a show, from venue hunting to styling to makeup to hair. The work that goes into drag is all-encompassing. 

“They like to say that when you’re doing drag makeup, there’s this like wow moment where you actually feel like your transformation is complete,” she said. 

“For me, that doesn’t really happen until after my entire face—lips, lashes, like everything—is on, but my wig doesn’t have to be on, which I always find strange.”  

When asked to name who her biggest inspiration has been, Whey said Elton John.

“I love that he is an out and proud queer man, he’s not afraid to be flamboyant. He’s theatrical and out of this world and over the top. I always felt that really deep down.”

Catch Rowena live at the Grad Club and Daft Brewery on the first Wednesday of every month and the last Thursday of every month, respectively. 

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'Be a good heart in the art world:' Ally McIntyre talks community and emotion – The Gateway Online

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This is the second article in a four-part series about Edmonton’s 2022 LGAAA Emerging Artist Award recipients.

With bold and assertive paintings, Ally McIntyre explores the effect of art on viewers and the meaning of art to the artist themselves.

McIntyre is a painter who specializes in acrylic mediums and spray paint. Her art communicates a story, which may not be obvious during the process — even to McIntyre.

“I tend to tell these stories using different reference imagery and mark making, but I really find the meaning later on in life,” she said. “I’ll come back and go, ‘okay, that’s what that was about.’”

“[My art is] sort of like a personal diary entry with what’s going on in my life, or what I’m thinking about.”

This intuitive process has led McIntyre to draw inspiration from around her, whether that’s other artists, music, films, or other parts of her life. Though she admits that she’s “a bit of a procrastinator,” working around deadlines, the urge to create still comes naturally. McIntyre even added that the process can sometimes be something she doesn’t enjoy, but responding to that emotion also results in painting.

A painting from Ally McIntyre of a wolf. There are red and black markings on the painting.A painting from Ally McIntyre of a wolf. There are red and black markings on the painting.
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“It usually just bubbles up inside until a point where I need to get something out.”

Spray paint is a medium that McIntyre has used for years, even though the method is non-conventional when it comes to painting. She has used spray paint since she was an undergraduate student at the University of Alberta, recalling that she was inspired by Sickboy. Sickboy is a British artist who is notable for their graffiti work. Once she began to experiment with spray paint, McIntyre noticed that the medium gave a “grittiness that straight acrylic paint didn’t do” and the medium’s been under her belt since.

McIntyre’s art has travelled around the world — both in gallery exhibits and private collections. Her latest exhibit, titled Dog Day Circus, was shown in the Saatchi Gallery in London. Dog Day Circus documented McIntyre’s work from her undergraduate days at the U of A until 2017.

“They curated [Dog Day Circus] really nicely to tell the story,” she said. “There’s a lot of dichotomies happening because it was over such a [large] expanse of time in my life.”

“Every year something new is going on in everybody’s life. There’ll be different eras, represented in the show that were maybe a little more dark or a little more hopeful, or certain palettes.”

Living in London was a big change for McIntyre, who mentioned the diversity in arts offered in the city compared to Edmonton. As of right now, she’s moved back to Edmonton after feeling “homesick for the landscape back home,” something that is sometimes communicated through her work.

Part of having her work around the world has led McIntyre to appreciate different types of acknowledgement. She mentioned that it was “a really good feeling” and she was “overjoyed” to be recognized by the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Art Awards (LGAAA) Emerging Artist Award. However, this acknowledgement also comes from having pieces in private collections.

“It’s a surreal experience to have your art out there in various people’s homes or these institutions,” she said. “It’s another form of acknowledgement, [and] that just feels good.”

“There’s a lot of care that goes into the making of the works. To know that someone cares enough to invest in that is a real … good feeling all around.”

Five pieces from Ally McIntyre sit in a gallery roomFive pieces from Ally McIntyre sit in a gallery room
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With so many varying emotions around her work, McIntyre still feels that the connection between artist and viewer is a personal one, even if it isn’t always positive.

“I always say [visitors] can leave hating the work and that’s better than feeling nothing towards it or numb towards it,” McIntyre said. “I think it’s important for us to be challenged visually, and to suspend our own beliefs of what we see in the world.”

McIntyre is currently preparing for her next exhibition, which will be in Korea. She is also working on thank-you paintings that she is preparing for Roy Mills and Maria Whiteman, who teach in the U of A fine arts department and helped her with her LGAAA award application.

Finally, McIntyre said that having a supportive community is crucial to an artist’s journey and career and encouraged mentors and peers to provide advice, even when an artist’s work isn’t something they enjoy.

“I think having a community or having mentors that you can rely on as an artist, for me has made … a huge difference in my career,” McIntyre said. “Without those relationships and people to back you and support you, especially when times get difficult, it would be hard to continue. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support that I’ve received.”

“Leave the place nicer than you found it. I think no matter where you go, even if you don’t like somebody’s art, you still gotta find that ability to encourage them if they seek help or advice. Just be a good heart in the art world.”

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