Community of Images

Community of Images is a weighty book of 400 pages from Toronto publisher YYZBOOKS and coeditors Janice Gurney and Julian Jason Haladyn. The book, published in late 2022, is subtitled Strategies of Appropriation in Canadian Art, 1977–1990. We note the designation of this book in the title as a survey of Canadian Art.

Community features a polyphonic arrangement of voices and images that identifies the text with current practices of “multiplicity” and collaborative procedures in art. Most importantly, Community presents an “artist’s intervention” into the eld of art writing and publishing, consisting primarily of writings by practising artists. Most of the 30 or so authors are artists whose own works make up the proposed field of study, and are drawn from a specific locale and moment, that of Queen Street West, in Toronto of the ’80s. The editors point out that the community being referred to is a “community of images” rather than simply a number of living artists affiliated by a shared interest. Many of these writings are in the mode of artist statements, with expressions of traditional affiliation occurring in the book.

“Appropriation Art” is the name that was given in the late 1970s to an art movement emerging in New York City. Community of Images proposes a division of this origin story into two streams, one being an initiating New York version and another that emerged a couple of years later in Toronto. With the emergence of electronic media in the ’70s, the image’s claim to specificity of place/ time eroded, leaving it simultaneously intermittent and everywhere. This more deictic understanding of what images are differs from that of the exhibition “Pictures,” where curator Douglas Crimp spoke of images as “ambiguous ambiences.” The book sets out an argument that the Toronto version of “appropriation” differed in critical ways from what was happening in New York, where “Pictures” was mounted at the artist-run centre known as Artists Space in 1977. Much of the Community book is dedicated to asserting this difference and to arguing that the Toronto version’s more rigorous attention to historicity made the difference “critical.” There is the emphasis on aesthetic autonomy and stylistic innovation by the New York artists versus the claims to historicity for Toronto art. This is taken up by the editors to propose why this greater rigour might be the case and in what it consisted. The arguments presented herein also contextualize “appropriation art” in relation to the larger questions of postmodernism such as those of identity, origin, boundaries and place that arise with the editors’ pursuit of an “independent” Canadian identity and national culture.

Much of the art discussed here could be described as “conceptualist painting,” and I would mark this description as an important one for the structure of this book, as it refers to a practice fundamentally in division with itself, neither entirely style (conceptualist) nor entirely medium (beaux arts/painting). What this in-between practice pursues instead is “the image” in circulation, a commitment to “the linguistic turn” that so radically reshaped art of the ’70s. This is one of the principal threads throughout the book. Paradoxically, a second thread is the reliance on concepts such as “national culture.” A third implicit thread set out is that of a tension between plurality and afliation. This friction between community and plurality is a dynamic of our time and is explicated in the essays from art historians Haladyn and Mark Cheetham.

The title Community of Images suggests making a connection with an essay from 2013 by Harvard art historian David Joselit titled “After Art” (David Joselit, After Art, Princeton, 2013). Joselit’s position is that an image is a “visual byte” that exists within conditions of circulation. His essay claims that currently there are two dominant positions making up the field of contemporary art, one being the free market world of large collections and dealers, the other being what he calls “image fundamentalism” wherein visual artifacts belong exclusively to a specific site of origin. Joselit’s perspective offers some potential insights into our current situation with regard to Community. Because the book’s orientation proposes a Canadian nationalism that would rest on the possibility of local specificity, in contradistinction from Joselit’s globalized “non-place,” it seems that the book’s aesthetic orientation is “fundamentalist.” Joselit derives this perspective from a sacred text, Walter Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Most of the texts included in Community tend to chronicle the rule of that time, “critical” postmodernism, as explicated in Mark Cheetham’s contribution. Where Community runs close to being “fundamentalist,” it risks contradicting the era’s postmodernist underpinnings of “appropriation.”

Community necessarily recalls the prevailing rhetoric of the time, which was often the anti-humanist and anti-aesthetic formulation of critical postmodernism. This seems inevitable, considering the story being told here is art of the ’80s. However, we may now wonder what the reader of this very different century can do with this revisit. Cheetham, writing from the more distanced perspective of art historian, proposes his own shift to what he calls an “eco art” orientation.

One of the impacts of the book is its implicit redefinition of “authenticity” regarding “responsibility,” and this follows from an understanding of creativity modelled on practices of affiliation, solidarity and belonging rather than that of innovation with its heroic individualism and progress.

For a non-Toronto reader, the subtitle, Strategies of Appropriation in Canadian Art, sustains the Ontario/Toronto fixation with its representation of itself as “Canada.” That most current art of the period in question was “globalized” and involved “appropriation” suggests a more cosmopolitan approach to representation is needed.

Most compelling are the more personal writings in the chapter titled “On Being Appropriated.” This chapter presents a particular approach to that of collaboration, and in this case, it is the fact of the work being carried out as “painting” by painters, which is intriguing, considering how “appropriation art” belongs to photography and issues of reproducibility, whereas painting implies “touch,” which brings us back around to the terrain of humanism and of community happening by way of responsibility.

But finally, Community of Images is probably the only art book of its kind in Canada, presenting as it does a succinct perspective on a distinctive moment. ❚

Community of Images was published by YYZBOOKS, Toronto, 2022.

Stephen Horne is an art writer from Canada who lives in France.