ART

Eloquent ambiguity

Joanne Tod’s paintings provoke thought

PAMELA YOUNG July 22 1991
ART

Eloquent ambiguity

Joanne Tod’s paintings provoke thought

PAMELA YOUNG July 22 1991

Eloquent ambiguity

ART

Joanne Tod’s paintings provoke thought

When Joanne Tod was a student at the Ontario College of Art in the early 1970s, painting was a decidedly unfashionable activity. Making art with a video camera, or by arranging rocks on a gallery floor—that was fashionable. And for those who felt compelled to paint, there was always abstract art. But in her large canvases, which often addressed thorny social issues, Tod persisted in depicting subjects realistically. Since the 1970s, such figurative painting has made a comeback—and Tod, now 38, is one of its most celebrated Canadian practitioners. A major exhibition of her work opened recently at Toronto’s Power Plant gallery, where it will be on view until Aug. 25. It then travels to Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery (Sept. 20 to Nov. 3), the co-organizer of the show with the Power Plant, and to the Winnipeg Art Gallery (Nov. 29 to Feb. 16). The artist says that she does not regret having been out of step in art school. “It was a good experience because it put me in a position to be contrary,” said Tod. “I find it really interesting to put myself in opposition to other things.” What is clear from the show, which features 20 large paintings from the past decade, is that Tod’s work simmers with opposition to sexism, racism and absolutist thinking. Those topics have led many other artists into the mire of diatribe. But Tod has confronted such issues with engaging originality and, on occasion,

mordant humor. Institutions including the National Gallery of Canada and the Vancouver Art Gallery have acquired her work. And now she is starting to gain recognition abroad: in the fall, some of her paintings, which currently sell for between $15,000 and $35,000 each, will be part of a group show at the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery in Paris. Said Mendel curator Bruce Grenville, who put together the current show: “Anyone can be a flash in the pan, but Joanne has been producing very strong, articulate work for 10 years.” A vibrant, affable woman who rode her bicycle to a recent interview with Maclean ’s, Tod recalled that she began drawing and painting

during her childhood. Raised in Mississauga, Ont., she was the only child of computer technician Andrew Tod and his homemaker wife, Georgina Tod. After graduating from the Ontario College of Art in 1974, Tod worked as an assistant in a private gallery for a number of years. But since 1982, she has been able to devote herself to painting full time. The artist now lives in downtown Toronto with Bob Becker, a musician with the award-winning percussion group Nexus.

While Tod’s work has become more complex and less direct over the past decade, one constant has been her use of photographs as the basis for her paintings. Self Portrait, a 1982 canvas that is perhaps her bestknown work, is derived from a 1940s advertisement showing an elegant, formally gowned woman posing on a flight of steps beneath a night sky. Calling the glamorous figure a self-portrait appears to be a simple act of fantasizing—except for one thing. In yellow letters printed over the figure’s dress are the words “ 'neath my arm is the color of Russell’s Subaru.” That prosaic stray thought— it refers to the shade of a friend’s car—stomps across the dreamy vision, challenging its outdated conception of ideal womanhood without entirely cancelling out the image’s nostalgically romantic allure.

In 1983, Tod turned that painting into a picture within a picture with Self Portrait as Prostitute. In the latter work, the earlier painting hangs on the wall of a tasteful dining room. Clearly, the original work has become a commodity, something to be consumed along with dinner. Tod now says that at that point in her career, she worried whether the need to sell paintings would cause her to compromise her work. But since then, she adds, she has learned from feminism that “it’s in my best interest to have the financial autonomy that selling paintings makes possible. I haven’t had to take jobs that would take away from my painting time. As a result, I think my product has improved.”

By the mid-1980s, Tod was dealing with race-related questions in her work. The 1984 canvas A Diamond. Is Forever shows a welldressed elderly couple evidently posing for the camera in their own upper-class home—the woman’s hand rests on a table in a proprietary fashion. The picture would be a typical society portrait, except that the couple is black. And that unexpected element forces viewers to confront their preconceptions about who belongs where in society.

For several years, Tod has been combining disparate, often perplexing images in her work, which on the whole has become more oblique. Tod says that Purple Heart, a massive (10 feet by 15 feet) 1989 composition, was inspired by the massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square two years ago. In the painting, a pair of intricately carved Chinese panels frame a close-up of two traditionally decorated Chinese vases. Incongruously, a vertical row of chevrons painted in a flat, abstract style bridges a gap between the two vases. And diagonal smears of magenta paint deface the side panels.

Like much of Tod’s work, the painting is a highly personal response to a larger event. Said Tod, with reference to the smears: “Something that struck me was a news report about students throwing cans of paint at the official portraits of Mao.” She added that among her own early works had been a series of idealized Mao portraits. The smears also recall the work of American abstract painter Morris Louis, while the chevrons allude to a shape repeatedly used by another, Kenneth Noland. “In referring to those painters, I was referring back to my own education, and to when I made those Mao paintings with all this hope and idealism,” said the artist. She noted that the combination of the chevrons and the smears in Purple Heart also suggested a spinal column and a rib cage: “It anthropomorphizes the image and puts it back to the real thing that happened there— mass killing.”

While it was Tod’s contempt for a repressive political regime that inspired Purple Heart, she opposes absolutism in all of its lesser guises as well. In particular, she balks at the kind of art that screams out its message without allowing any room for dissent or ambiguity. “I have gone through a really vehement political phase,” she said, “but I never felt I was trying to be didactic in the sense of saying, ‘This is how I feel and this is what is right and this is what you should feel, too.’ ” Combining passionate commitment and a questioning intelligence, Joanne Tod has a knack for probing unsettling issues.

PAMELA YOUNG