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Issue 131

The Days of Living Chroma
by Erin Alexa Freedman and Lili Huston-Heterich

To paraphrase Tim Jocelyn’s opening sentence of his 1983 piece for the premiere issue of C Magazine, in which he reflects on the exhibition staged by Toronto collective ChromaZone, of which he and I were both members: We knew Chromaliving would be memorable but we didn’t realize how memorable until we saw the decades pass, our extravaganza in the Colonnade continuing to make cyclical, spectral reappearances, haunting the collective memories of our friends and associates in the Toronto art world.

Thirty years later, Erin Freedman and Lili Huston-Herterich approached me, Rae Johnson and Oliver Girling about the possibility of mounting Chroma Lives, an exhibition that would revisit the original Chromaliving show and its aesthetic arc while illuminating crucial differences between the two shows’ respective decades. Chroma Lives mutated as a concept frequently over the months it took to develop – at one point it would have been a twinned mega-exhibition in the soon-to-be-vacant Honest Ed’s discount department store. Its owner, David Mirvish, generously met with Erin and Lili but the space had been promised out before its final demolition. Quel dommage!

Freedman and Huston-Herterich’s Chroma Lives eventually became a condensed display of artworks ensconced in one of the showrooms for the posh Yorkville Plaza condominiums currently in development, creating a skewed symmetry between the venues of the two exhibitions. Chromaliving was created in the depths of a recession that had decimated the carriage trade along Bloor Street. Creeds, a swank competitor of Holt Renfrew, had closed, as had the “junior miss” department store, Harridge’s, in the space that would host our show. Most of the stores in the complex were empty and I don’t think the owners could have imagined that one day Cartier and Prada would grace their edifice. Because of the recession of the early ’80s, space was expansive rather than expensive. Relatively poor artists could afford relatively large spaces for studios in this era and the 10,000 square feet that we installed in was reflective of the economic conditions of the time. Erin and Lili mounted Chroma Lives in a real estate boom, when condos are popping up like mushrooms, scores of artists are losing their studios in the overheated market and Torontonians are living in ever-smaller spaces. Squeezing an exhibition with a large vision into a confined space seemed appropriate in the marking of current conditions and inhabiting an operational condo showroom on Avenue Road seemed as unexpected and subversive as our appropriating a gigantic retail space on Bloor Street in 1983. Both sites evoked the multi-faceted ironies of their socio-economic contexts.

Similarly, it seemed right that the only artist from the original show in this reimagined mutant of an exhibition was Tim himself, with 35 young artists in various stages of emergence. Tim would have been excited to be in their company and I think he would have felt deeply connected to almost all of their work. When Erin and Lili first described their intentions, one possibility they cited was to rhyme Will Munro’s work, life and career with Tim’s and that interested me greatly. Beyond the connections between the two sweet, charming men – the foundation of textiles in their works, their intuitive and deeply ingrained understanding of the semiotics of apparel, their overt sociability that made them catalysts of their generations – it gave me a revelation about the crucial role that queer artists had played in Toronto as hosts/hostesses, impresarios, catalysts and nurturers of new and often misunderstood talent. Besides Tim and Will, I’m also thinking of David Buchan, Andrew Harwood, Keith Cole, Allyson Mitchell, Kim Fullerton, and General Idea – almost all of whom have or did have distinctly social practices that were relational long before Bourriaud came along to coin the term.

Chromaliving created such a stir in Toronto that autumn of 1983 that there seemed to be immediate aftereffects. Esther Shipman, who had attended the Ontario College of Art with a number of the artists who participated in the exhibition, was inspired to leave a career in retail and become an architecture and design curator, initiating VIRTU, an annual exhibition of the best of Canadian design that ran from 1985 to 2000. Loris Calzolari, a designer in our show who had studied with Ettore Sottsass in Milan, mounted an international exhibition at Queen’s Quay Terminal called Phoenix (1984), citing the DIY spirit of Chromaliving as his inspiration. The accompanying book that he published with curator Christina Ritchie remains a collector’s item and an important record of design during the Memphis era.

Beyond these confirmed examples, I believe there were numerous less tangible influences of Chromaliving. Greenbergian modernism was invested in maintaining the gap between life and art. Robert Rauschenberg famously spoke of working in the gap between the two, which he believed to be the locus of adventure and creativity in artmaking. ChromaZone wanted it all: to work on both sides of the gap and in the space between them. This was characterized as being punk and anarchistic by some, and lacking rigour and intellect by others. ChromaZone had already made a declaration for all the unclaimed, outré territories, and Chromaliving was a further granting of permission to ourselves to defy categories, let loose, and indulge in affect, transgression and fun.

In Toronto, there were three megashows initiated by artist collectives in the early ’80s: YYZ Monumenta (1982), Chromaliving (1983) and The New City of Sculpture (1984), a collaboration between Mercer Union and YYZ. In several accounts of the ’80s in the immediate aftermath of that decade, Chromaliving went unmentioned. Perhaps because it was so unclassifiable as an event and exhibition, I was quite prepared for it to evaporate into the ether of the past. Sybil Goldstein, however, was not so prepared for it to go gently into that mist and doggedly archived it as best she could for the CCCA Canadian Art database.

I still encounter strangers who tell me how mind-blowing Chromaliving was to them at the time, and how it made them re-envision the possibilities of public art. Vera Frenkel once recounted to me that when she worked with the Artangel Trust in London to mount This is Your Messiah Speaking on the Piccadilly Circus Spectacolor Board in 1990–91, founder Roger Took told her that seeing Chromaliving is what gave him the impetus to create Artangel, which continues to produce the most extraordinary public artworks in Britain and internationally. Tim, one of the dearest loves of my life, would be gratified to know that all the blood, sweat and tears that we put into Chromaliving was well worth it because it lives on in so many unexpected ways.

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