New Landscapes

Below is an essay I wrote earlier this year for Andrea Kastner’s solo exhibition, Conspicuous Collapse, at Hamilton Artists’ Inc.


Mountainous heaps of trash, vast spaces of disarray and neglect, remnants of the many things invariably left behind by many people. Andrea Kastner paints them with reverence. In this exhibition of twelve paintings, we are asked to consider what we’ve all tried to put behind us: garbage.

Kastner’s paintings, romantic and dramatic, portray the ubiquitous scenes of our urban world that are often, if not always, rejected by art. And though they may seem like dystopic scenes of consumerism’s ruins, and though it may seem novel for an artist to elevate this refuse as a subject of her paintings, Kastner’s work is, in many ways, a continuation of traditional landscape painting. When asked to conjure a landscape scene, you might imagine a vast depth of glowing greenery with a moody sky hanging above; autumn trees arching over a gently moving brook; imposing mountains towering in some great distance. But landscape as we know it and live it looks nothing of the sort, and hasn’t for generations.

French activist Henri Lefebvre was one of the first thinkers to theorize upon “the urban.” Prescient in distinguishing the urban not as a space characterized by dense populations, towering architecture and fast-paced living, Lefebvre conceptualized the urban as “the society that results from industrialization, which is a process of domination that absorbs agricultural production.” Within this model, even the picturesque, rural lives that seem an escape from city bustle are in fact implicated in the same social and political economies that are driven by capitalist desire. It does not seem too absurd, then, to characterize the work of Andrea Kastner as a new type of landscape painting — where it is not the pastoral made holy, but the urban sediment; the discarded objects and materials of every person’s past, made perfect and beautiful in its representation.

KeepsakeAndrea Kastner, Keepsake, 2014, Oil on Canvas, 42″ x 42″

With her paintings, Kastner attempts to recreate the world that exists amongst the things we wish to no longer exist. Her process is often collage based: most of the composite images are taken from photographs she captures herself during long walks throughout the city. “I take walks sometimes just to look for new things,” Kastner says. “Alleyways, construction sites, landfills, the house across the street and their magnificent pile of hoarded junk” (see “Traveler”). These images are then photocopied at various sizes and pieced together until each component is scaled to create a realistic yet otherworldly composition. In addition to her personal photographs, Kastner occasionally uses pictures from other peoples’ collections and archives. “Keepsake,” for example, combines a picture of a burning building found in the Kamloops Archives, along with a photograph Kastner took at a recycling facility.

The Inventory of DreamsAndrea Kastner, The Inventory of Dreams, 2014, Oil on Canvas, 60″ x 84″

Beautiful LosersAndrea Kastner, Beautiful Losers, 2014, Oil on Canvas, 30″ x 40″

Kastner refers to her collages for composition, and then paints from the original colour photos. “I am relatively faithful to the images, because I think details really matter,” she says, “but I take some liberties with tone and colour.” Her palette, indeed, is constrained yet dynamic. We see the greyness of preposterously massive piles of trash, butted up against banal architecture (see “The Inventory of Dreams”), yet sharp yellows and reds burst out of “Beautiful Losers.” Using these compositions of waste as a lens into our unconscious minds, Kastner wonders what is revealed about us when we look at all we’ve left behind in an act of forgetting.

woodlandsAndrea Kastner, Woodlands, 2014, Oil on Canvas, 38″ x 48″

theonethatgotawayAndrea Kastner, The One That Got Away, 2013, Oil on Canvas, 38″ x 48″

Though she doesn’t talk about her paintings as landscapes, Kastner is nonetheless aware of how her works relate to more traditional representations of the natural world. And yet, is what Kastner paints really anything other than nature? It seems high time in the history of the cosmos that we understand human activity — and all its requisite construction, deconstruction and waste — as very much a part of nature. It seems Kastner is already on board with such a conception, which she cleverly reveals in the titles of her works. Without seeing it, you might think “Woodlands,” for example, was a view onto an idyllic forest. Instead, it features a scene where a dense fog hangs over a pile of wooden pallets, mountains of wood pulp receding in the background. The wistfully-titled “The One That Got Away” shows a construction site where all but the façade of a heritage building has been demolished. Through this play on words, Kastner shifts the perspective of this discarded waste: it is not simply stuff, set to be erased forever. Instead, it is revealing of our selves, our (past) desires, and the world we’ve created as natural beings.



Courtesy the artist.

Mined (Departures)


I’ve been out of the loop with art news this week but the few stories that did catch my eye were all about leaving in some form of another.

It’s Charlie Hill’s last week at the National Gallery of Canada, where he has been the curator of Canadian art since 1980. Katerina Atanassova has been named as Hill’s successor.

This year, like last, a number of projects that were installed for Scotiabank Nuit Blanche remain on view throughout the holiday weekend. How do they fare in the light of day? It’s nice to see a post-Blanche review; so seldom is the event critically reflected upon after sunrise. (One of my favourite in-depth considerations of large-scale art festivals such as Nuit Blanche is PUBLIC Journal‘s Civic Spectacle issue).

MOCCA’s ten-year lease is within ten months of ending; its future is uncertain.


Open Mind by Yoan Capote. Image by Jack Landau.


Toronto City Hall

The importance of place and identity must be on my mind a whole lot, because I kept getting drawn to news about cities, design, and memorial.

Paul Hiebert pretends to ask what the point of city logos is in general, but actually asks whether the City of Toronto logo (“a signal of dignified, centralized leadership”) ought to be updated considering the dubious leadership and bad behaviour of mayor Rob Ford. Yes, the City of Toronto logo is bad, but that’s because it highlights mediocre architecture and bureaucracy rather than the vibrant people and neighbourhoods that actually contribute to the city’s identity. Rob Ford has little to do with why the logo sucks.

At least Toronto is not alone in having a dreadful logo. Here are eleven more Canadian municipalities that could use an update.

In related news, the City of Mississauga has unveiled a new visual identity, meant to highlight its youth (40 years young!), diversity and growth. I’m a little bored by the corporate blue (which is just one possible colour way), but the architectural and geometric properties of the icon are a refreshing change from its existing logo — yet another example of a municipal logo celebrating its city hall. If you’re interested in reading more about this rebranding strategy, the complete brand report is available to peruse online(PDF).

Finally, a bit of architecture/art fun: Famous artworks transformed into buildings by Federico Babina. I wouldn’t mind living inside a Malevich-inspired building.

P.S.: For those of you who may not have heard the news yet, I’m moving back to Toronto in a couple of weeks. While I will surely miss the great city of Montreal, I can’t wait to be home.


Toronto City Hall, 1984 by josullivan.59. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

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