Joanne Tod

With the diversity of art media continually stretching boundaries, how is it that we continue to laud painting as the vehicle that will transcend the mundane? Why do we allow it to be the arbiter of the collective psyche and reap the benefits of a sanctioned art form? Over the past decade, Joanne Tod’s paintings have been taken as the barometer of Toronto art practice, so often characterized by ironic detachment and moral didacticism. Yet, while many artists have worked to escape the hierarchy that privileges painting, Tod’s survey exhibition intentionally feeds the mill.

Adopting the tradition of social realism, these works are inhabited by a multiracial mixture of people, placed in situations that highlight their positions of class, their inequality and privilege, mixing together women and men, society debutantes and corporate leaders. Tod’s subjects rouse an immediate identification from the viewer, just as a well-placed documentary photograph can make an unforgettable impact. Tod’s aim is to create jarring effects by shifting the media stereotypes seen in television and advertising. In a painting entitled Research and Development, 1986, a group of black men drink beer in a tavern after work, while an inset image shows white male corporate directors in a pose reminiscent of those in photo portraits in annual reports. Throughout her career, Tod has attempted to disrupt patriarchal representations, yet, as is the case in Research and Development, subjects are seldom clearly articulated. Rather, as curator Bruce Grenville notes, these works represent a collision of issues, including colonialism, fascism, Modernism, and history painting. It is difficult for this strategy to avoid didacticism. In My Father, Bob and I, 1983, she places herself in the role of a young Asian child with parents that resemble Hollywood movie stars. By swapping roles or illustrating obvious injustices, Tod establishes her relationship with the history of art, yet her method of pastiche sidesteps the engagement of a new representational language.

Borrowing a publicity still from the movie Annie Get Your Gun, 1950, for the painting No Compensation, 1990, Tod breaks the surface tension of the painting by rotating the quarter panel that depicts the character of the heroine. Over the imaged surface, a Frank Stella–like grid disrupts the planar surface and acknowledges its photographic source. Similarly, Tod has combined the illustration of Chinese wood carvings in Purple Heart, 1989, a work that followed the killings in Tiananmen Square, with chevronlike strips à la Kenneth Noland. By working with painting, Tod is attempting to combine formalist aspirations with a political agenda. Here the difficulty of disrupting established gender, race, and class stereotypes with images that do more than simply appease the conscience of armchair liberals comes to the fore. Tod deliberately invites this scrutiny and, indeed, her works continue to cause us to examine our own prejudices.

Linda Genereux