Toronto

“Chromaliving”

The Harridge’s Women’s-Wear Store

It seemed like revenge and a return of the repressed all at once when the abandoned Harridge’s department store, formerly home of the classic pump and little black dress, was taken over by more than 150 artists swarming up from the warrens of Queen Street West. They brought with them all the makings of a Home Show at the edge of history: chairs and chesterfields, furniture, lamps, ashtrays, tables, screens, portable boudoirs, paintings and scruffy sculptures for the fallout shelter, entire bathrooms and even confessionals, fantasy rec rooms to suit every taste in rec, wearable metaphors (including a wooden bikini, alta moda fashions whipped up from furriers’ throwaways, and General Idea’s venetian blind frocks), and many gala hats going light years beyond Carmen Miranda.

And these artists brought much stuff for an on-site renovation of the emporium’s Cold War interior: the large murals and ceiling paintings—postgraffiti exercises in elaborate emblem-making, for the most part—were among the most handsome things in this exuberant, playful outpouring from the studios.

But if it came as a jubilant party to kick off Toronto’s fall season—mobs came on opening night to take in fashion shows and performances, and just boogie—and despite its formatting as a department store burlesque (complete with mail order catalogue), Chromaliving turned out to be rather more than either bash or burlesque. The handiwork and largely the personal expression of painter Andy Fabo and textile artist Tim Jocelyn, it was an existential fiction about the times, prospects, and recent pasts of Toronto artists—a display of props for the masque of life here.

“Chromaliving” featured the kind of ephemerality, blurring of genres, and smudging of boundaries between art and utility usually thought expressive of decadence. In this instance, however, the acrimonious antifuturity of contemporary decadence was itself the object of some distanced comment: Modernist art and “good design” were occasionally hauled up for ridicule, but were more often affectionately helped down from the attic, dressed up, and given honorable places in this historicist masquerade.

At the same time, the show was a criticism of the recent flirtation by a number of Toronto artists with a return to “pure” media, especially easel painting. The huge “YYZ Monumenta” group show, mounted in the fall of 1982 to showcase new work by many of the same Toronto artists, was almost primly painterly. The general tone of “Chromaliving” was more quizzical; the display called into question the drift back toward old-fashioned studio practice, and came as a reminder of the genially fictive, artificial, and theatrical qualities which have characterized much of Toronto’s most interesting recent art.

John Bentley Mays