“Citysite Sculpture”

Visual Arts Ontario

Tne Citysite Sculpture project in the center of Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market area consists of one large-scale work each by the Canadian artist Melvin Charney and the American sculptors Robert Stackhouse and Nancy Holt. Funded by the Canadian federal, provincial, and municipal governments and aided by corporate donations of materials and manpower, the project was coordinated by Visual Arts Ontario, the largest artists’ association in Canada, which not only serves as a resource center for members but during its eight-year existence has become a progressive force for public-art education through the initiation of programs and activities such as this. An important aspect of the project was the on-site installation, during which the public had the opportunity not only to meet and talk to the artists but to observe the works in process over the four-week period allotted to the construction of each. The selection of artists, too, was made with the aim of acquainting the public with as broad as possible a sampling of current trends in this kind of work.

Charney, an architect/artist who lives and teaches in Montreal, offered the most visually complex and conceptually grand piece with A Toronto Construction. He selected an empty lot between two existing buildings on a street across from a major landmark; the 19th-century structure that once stood on the lot, as well as other older houses in the surrounding area, provided a formal theme for the work, an arrangement of plywood facades suggesting a building. Setback six feet into the lot and measuring approximately 24 feet high, 36 feet wide, and 60 feet deep, the structure impresses as a mythical space and a structure of the mind. While inspired by 19th-century Canadian secular architecture, the forms, made of two-by-four-foot panels organized into tall facades, are highly fanciful and evocative creations which bring to mind stage flats. Walking from wing to wing, so to speak, over the gravel that Charney has brought to the spot, is a theatrical experience. While the eye focuses on the physical forms and perceptually registers shadows and patterns formed by the complex, framed under-supports of the facades, the mind turns to the conceptual connections between real and simulated architecture; one responds freely and associationally with a heightened awareness of openness and enclosure, interior and exterior, as well as with childlike perceptions invoked by this “archetypal” structure. At the same time, the scale and general look of A Toronto Construction accord so well with the surrounding site that it can appear to be a natural and not imposed part of the street scene.

Stackhouse’s piece, Toronto Passages, is located a lot away from Charney’s on the same street. Shaped like a ship, keel up, this blue-green construction in painted wood is at once a light and airy, but also a sturdy and earthbound, creation. Its 40-foot-long base encourages the viewer to walk through its ribs and to stand on the deck constructed inside, looking at the surrounding environment through the changed perspective of its curving slats. The stark, show-it-all structure is an appealing example of honest, no-nonsense construction in which the idea and the form are inextricably linked in visual metaphor.

Nancy Holt selected a site across the street from the other works, in St. James Park. In Catch Basin she has offered an intriguing face-off involving art, industry, and nature. Situated on a decline, the work is a circular cement basin provided with a steel drain. Two clay channels run into the basin, which is framed by steel posts suspending two steel rings. When it rains this structure serves as a catch basin, and the artist’s aim. according to the accompanying description, is to “focus our attention on normally hidden structural and functional elements such as electrical, plumbing, and drainage systems” in the environment. Still, the method is emphatically visual and sculptural. Holt’s creation is an enigmatic and confrontational object which also suggests a magical artifact. Like the other pieces in Citysite Sculpture it offers both informative and provocative viewing.

Ronny H. Cohen