John Armstrong

Location Location Location
Robert Birch Gallery, Toronto

The idea that a gallery — home to artists of some international reputation — might be rooted in the neighbourly discourse of a specific geographic location may seem quaintly anachronistic at the beginning of the 21st century. The Where of the Robert Birch Gallery has been persistently inextricable from its How and What. This gallery has been very much grounded in the neighbourhoods that it has occupied.

In a 1992 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, curator Ihor Holubizky surveyed thirty-six years of exhibitions at Toronto's Isaacs Gallery, which had closed its doors that year. Holubizky titled his show, “Small Villages: The Isaacs Gallery in Toronto,” referring to the circles of artists that come to be associated with a specific gallery and the word-of-mouth traditions that support such groupings. As I reflected on the Robert Birch Gallery’s decade-long history, I found myself reminded of Holubizky’s proposition and intrigued by parallels between these two gallerists from two eras of Toronto’s art history. Like Isaacs, Birch has the perspicacity and luck to have chosen artists whose work has excited increasing interest over the years. Like Isaacs, Birch is always ready to openly debate the exhibitions on view with gallery visitors. And on a behind-the-scenes note, both the Isaacs Gallery and the Robert Birch Gallery relied on a framing business to subsidize exhibitions of contemporary art.

In fact, when Birch opened his gallery on the Danforth in the fall of 1989, the framing business was not simply a way of subsidizing the exhibitions, it was a means of developing an audience. Birch had looked for a neighbourhood that lacked framing shops and that was inhabited by educated locals who might be amenable to the presence of contemporary art. The theory was people could come in to buy framing and eventually they would also buy art.

As a painting student in the ‘80s Birch maintained his own studio practice while also working as a framer in a downtown U-Frame-It franchise. I remember a number of his works from that time, but one in particular sticks out in my mind: a painting he made as a student in response to a stock art-school assignment to invest a still-life motif with a personal, experiential aspect while acknowledging the considerable history of the genre. In a restricted and purposefully dreary palette, Birch depicted several plain white china plates displayed on a shallow ledge in a manner reminiscent of a J. B. S. Chardin still life. The plates were obviously from the college cafeteria: crockery, degree zero — and this at the height of the neo-expressionist fanfare in which Julian Schnabel's collages of broken plates figured prominently. Birch applied still life's template of domestic display to the institutional circumstances in which he found himself, and rather than assaying a modish reiteration of art-world currency, he (with some measure of impish delight) painted an understated, even subtly caustic picture of his immediate surroundings.

I have come to see the development of Birch’s gallery as a continuum of his intentions and sensibilities — to be quietly and disruptively who he is, where he is. Robert Birch’s Toronto gallery— the current eponymous version and its predecessor, Birganart — has focused on Toronto artists working in painting, installation and photography. While no representing artists at many career stages, the gallery began as an important venue for artists who were starting to exhibiti in the early ‘90s.

For the first five years, Birch’s gallery was off the beaten contemporary art circuit and his dedication to emerging artists made widespread recognition slow to come. The artists he showed were a diverse and largely untried group that he knew from his student days (either from school or the framing shop). Their work, at times, incited quite pointed animosity from the Greek Canadian and increasingly crunchy-granola middle-class community surrounding the Danforth. These initial exhibitions established a pattern of community response that Birch would encourage over the next ten years.

Birch's inaugural exhibition was a solo show of Greg Angus's drawings and encaustic-on-plywood paintings. Sexualized, homoerotic figures as well as posters for Toronto's annual Sex and Violence Animation Film Festival were abundantly cited in the montaged artworks. Shortly after, Peter Smith's stridently political artwork combined tracts about figures such as the South African student leader Steven Biko with imposing (even dangerous) mobiles of the solar system. (During the show, one viewer’s stroll into a mobile left her with a nasty and potentially litigable goose egg.) In another early exhibition, Barb Webb filled the front window with a large drawing depicting angels, framed by purple velour curtains. The angels, realized in a cheery, mock-Rococo palette of pinks, ochres and gold leaf, were pictured in free fall, busily fellating one another — much to the horror of many passersby.

In 1990 and for several years following, Birch visited the myriad artists' studios opened to the public in Toronto's then-annual "Round Up" exhibitions — a sprawling, collectively organized tour of open studios and temporary exhibition spaces. Through these studio visits, Birch began to establish relationships with artists who were eventually added to the gallery's burgeoning stable. Less stridently confrontational than his earlier choices, these artists all worked with a high degree of ambiguity and nuance, emphasizing a sort of poetic dislocation. Euan MacDonald's first exhibition with Birch in 1991 comprised large canvases depicting fanciful, slightly cryptic images of, for example, island bird sanctuaries or balloon-cheeked personifications of the four winds. These quizzical images, painted as muted yellow and gray stains, had a fugitive, accidental quality when isolated on MacDonald's shopworn raw canvas grounds.

In her debut exhibition at the gallery, Sheila Lawson showed paintings on metal foregrounding figures from portrait groupings found in her family's photo albums: a young, stiffly posed woman possibly from the 1920s, a mother and daughter from the 1950s. The tiny, historical personages were painted in an oil grisaille on scratched copper plates or on the weathered metal blades of a wind mill: both of these supports invoke antique photographic sources distance from the present day. Lawson casts her carefully rendered figures adrift in a maelstrom of reflection and sooty metal. In 1993, Stacey Lancaster presented chilly steel frames holding moirés of wire mesh into which were stitched (in artificial gut cord) partially obscured views of humanity as interpreted by 20th-century technology, such as Neil Armstrong's footprints on the surface of the moon or x-rays of a child's skeleton. As with MacDonald and Lawson, Lancaster develops a bracketed nostalgia around half-remembered experiences, whether they be diagrammatic illustrations, family genealogy, or scientific imaging. The mediated and slightly tattered nature of the work of these three artists was given further poignancy by the dusty renovations that Birch's gallery space frequently underwent.

By the mid ‘90s, the gallery had established a growing reputation within the downtown art community as a venue to watch; however, its impact outside a coterie of artists and young local collectors was limited. In an effort to change all this, Birch employed varied tactics. In 1993, in one typically nuanced gesture, he began to set his ads for C magazine in increasingly darker type on a black ground. When told by a C employee that his 90% grey type on black would be illegible, he replied that he had conceived it as a metaphor for the difficulty he was having in getting C to review the gallery's exhibitions. In a more direct (if similarly ironic) approach, Birch sent off a map with transit tokens and directions to the art critics of Toronto newspapers. Kate Taylor, then arts reporter for the Globe and Mail, responded with several exhibition reviews in which she reflected on Birch's decision to locate east of the Don River and challenged him to move to a more central location.

In 1995, maintaining the Danforth framing business as a venue for emerging artists, Birch, along with his established stable, did move west. By 1996, after several moves — to Morrow Avenue, back to the Danforth, to Queen Street East — and as many rounds of renovations, Birch had closed the Danforth location and settled in his present King Street East location — not a traditionally arty neighbourhood but still west of the Don River. He has added a number of mid-career artists to his gallery mix, such as Lorène Bourgeois, Micah Lexier, Howard Simkins, Richard Storms and Janet Werner. And in the late ‘90s, many of the artists Birch first exhibited have gone on to garner considerable acclaim: Euan MacDonald has had solo shows at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Oakville Galleries and San Francisco's Southern Exposure Gallery; following her widely reported installation on the pavement in front of the Economist Plaza, Sheila Lawson opened up a commercial gallery (Platform) in London, England; Stacey Lancaster has shown her projected videos at The Power Plant in Toronto and at White Columns in New York; the list goes on.

Although Birch now concentrates his efforts on his existing stable rather than searching for up-coming talent, he maintains the gallery’s tradition of providing a trying ground for young artists as well as a space for site-sensitive projects. In the first exhibition in the present location, guest artist Lyla Rye took discarded lath from the renovation of the gallery building and created a facsimile of the gallery's stripped-down walls. This past year, Michelle Jacques, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, mounted an exhibition of the work of emerging artists — a raw and inventive survey of new Toronto art that included, among much else, etchings by Anna Jane McIntyre depicting wobbly aerial views of family rituals, Clint Griffin's photographs of cars obsessively stapled to the wall, and, in the window, Kelly Richardson's flash-illuminated photographs of tile walls in Toronto transit stations.

If Birch's Danforth showcase windows repeatedly brought locals stomping into the gallery to register complaints or to demand explanations, in his Queen East and King East locations the responses have often been more subtle and sometimes anonymous. Bewildered or simply intrigued viewers gather in groups in front of the gallery without going inside. Artworks that provoke such responses vary from images of the stridently unpretty — in 1996 Toni Hafkenscheid presented a mural-scaled photograph of the artist's father's worn and stained dentures in the window of the Queen Street Gallery —  to absurdist pantomime — in 1998 Greg Hefford's very funny video of himself erratically playing air guitar to a ZZ Top song was displayed in the King Street window. Part of “Belligerante,” an exhibition curated by Euan MacDonald, Hefford's video had one group of bystanders debating whether or not they should come back later and break the window to express their disapproval. Birch's appearance on the scene (windows of the gallery's basement workroom windows provide a virtual microphone onto the street) dissuaded them from carrying out their plan.

As with any successful gallery, Birch has built a broad-based community of support around the nexus of artworks, artists and locations he has chosen. But if we look at his example, we may see at the local level a kind of paradigm for how a gallery responds, builds or even incites community reaction. Just west of Birch's gallery, in the newly refitted storefront premises of the Little York Books and Café, hangs a recent purchase from Birch's gallery: one of Richard Storms's handsome, gesturally configured map-of-Toronto paintings. In apparent contrast, Micah Lexier created a work in the front window titled A Minute of My Time (September 7, 1998 17:34 - 17:35) in which he spray-painted a precisely timed, meandering doodle on the front window's backdrop wall. Someone — street side — painted "Yuppies Out" across the window. Whether this graffiti was a direct response to the artwork or whether the artwork gave the anonymous editorialist permission to publicly comment on the progressive gentrification of the neighbourhood (of which art galleries are frequent harbingers) is unclear. In any case, both responses to the gallery show anything but complancency. Birch has activated, through calculation and happenstance, the street his gallery opens onto. Gallery dealers are in equal measure proselytizers and hawkers; in operating outside of the gallery circuits, Robert Birch makes this all the more palpable.

“Location Location Location.” C International Contemporary Art 63, September - November 1999