‘I Am Here’ blends professional art with the artifacts of ordinary lives in a big, bright multi-sensory feast


Perhaps it was the glorious warm weather or the acid neon pink on the walls. Or maybe the echoing sounds of Whitney Houston dancing with somebody, but the Art Gallery of Ontario’s new exhibition, “I Am Here: Home Movies and Everyday Masterpieces,” feels like a much needed ray of sunshine after an isolating winter.

It’s not just that the multi-sensory show is big, bright and visually impressive, spanning eras and disciplines with a checklist of marquee names, but “I Am Here” acknowledges an age-old desire to have our everyday experiences witnessed through art, whether it be filtered through a painting of a familiar highway or a melancholic photo of a hospital curtain.

The exhibition, which takes up the gallery’s fifth floor, features hundreds of works divided into themes that examine our relationships to home, food, family, travel, dancing and music, and how those intersect with the art world.

David Hockney, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Joanne Tod and Denyse Thomasos are among the many represented professional artists. Their works are threaded with personal artifacts from non-artists, examining the various ways that personal media, from Super-8 cameras to TikTok, have created a democratic outlet to document our own lives and presence in the world.

“I Am Here” began as a germ of an idea from Jim Shedden, the AGO’s publications manager. Although Shedden has discovered the joy of Marie Kondo’s “let it go” philosophy in his own life, he embraces a more maximalist approach to curating. As co-curator of the 2017 exhibition “Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters,” Shedden added more than 1,600 comics from the Beguiling comic shop and more than 2,000 books from the AGO’s Grange House library to the filmmaker’s already robust collection of horror memorabilia.

For this show, we get a glimpse into Shedden’s personal zine collection and his love for the work of Toronto artist Fiona Smyth, whose large black-and-white mural showcases the exhibition’s ethos, incorporating many of the themes and artworks into a single joyous illustration in her expressive drawing style.

Pieter Brueghel, the younger,

To ground the show in the day-to-day, Shedden brought in California archivist Rick Prelinger, founder of the Prelinger Archives, a massive trove of more than 17,000 home movies. Prelinger’s philosophy that there is societal value in preserving these mini time capsules connected with Shedden’s ideas around personal collecting and how we immortalize our memories.

“I like to collaborate and I like mash-ups,” said Shedden. “I proposed right away that I would do something with Rick.”

“Jim and I talked and talked and sometimes clashed,” said Prelinger, who compares the show to a rich dinner, but without the feeling that you’ve had too much to eat. “I went through the entire collection of tens of thousands of home movies and made a set of 2,500 to work with, which became my little universe.”

Prelinger’s honed selection of videos activates areas throughout the show. In the “Dance to the Music” section, there is a looped series of 48 videos that capture the joy of shaking your booty, from the Charleston to breakdancing. The videos play against a recorded mixtape soundtrack by Glynnis Grant-Henderson, which will rotate throughout the show’s run. A box filled with Grant-Henderson’s physical tapes marked with her handwriting is a reminder for those of a certain age of the effort it takes to balance perfect tunes with precision timing. It’s a nostalgic ode to the aural love letter (accompanied by a Spotify soundtrack).

Annie Pootoogook,

In the same way that the exhibition is a mash-up, so are the people behind it. Shedden’s AGO co-curator Alexa Greist might seem an unusual partner, given her expertise in Italian Renaissance works on paper, but she enthusiastically embraced the challenge. Although much of the prep happened by distance because of COVID-19 restrictions, the two curators pored through the AGO’s vaults, pulling every single painting screen in the permanent collection to make their final selections as the show’s themes began to form.

“What an invaluable opportunity in the life of a curator to get to do that,” said Greist.

Ironically, Shedden had selected one of the oldest works in the show, Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s 16th-century oil painting “Country Wedding,” before Greist came on board. Early in the process, the co-curators realized they also needed a more contemporary perspective by pulling social media into the mix.

“During the pandemic, we suddenly became more willing to look at it in a more earnest open way,” said Greist. While some pieces do address the obvious negatives, such as an excerpt from social media pioneer Tavi Gevinson’s essay on Instagram and self-representation, the curators also embraced the importance of connecting online and its power to bring people together.

Sarah Anne Johnson,

If there is an artist whose presence is felt throughout, it has to be iconic New York neoexpressionist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. His graffiti-infused work appears under several themes, which points to the timelessness of his work and, as Shedden notes, the artist’s “obsession with the everyday.”

Take the visual buffet of the “Food” section, for instance. Basquiat’s drawings of TV dinners and Chinese-American food menus become a bridge to the late beloved Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook’s drawing that depicts a child joyfully licking a plate clean. Mary Pratt’s hyperrealistic paintings of domestic scenes glow in sensual light. Winnipeg artist Sarah Anne Johnson’s photo-documentation of Weston Bakery reminds that those grocery-store buns and birthday cakes are actually produced by workers on an assembly line. And then there’s Toronto art director Gilbert Li’s mouth-watering grid of Instagram food shots (#yummy), a reminder of how much we love to document our dinners.

“There were so many ideas, said Greist. “We could do the show all over again, with completely different artists.”

“I Am Here: Home Movies and Everyday Masterpieces” is at the Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas St. W., until Aug. 14. See ago.ca for information.

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Sue Carter is the deputy editor of Inuit Arts Quarterly and a freelance contributor based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @flinnflonSHARE:

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