In an exhibit spanning four decades, newest works reveal the social inequity behind ‘the Great Resignation’
TORONTO — Opening June 25 at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Death and Furniture is acclaimed Canadian artist Ken Lum’s first AGO solo exhibition. This focused, career-spanning exhibition showcases the artist’s newest pandemic-inspired works, alongside selected works from his internationally celebrated, 40-year practice. The recipient of the 2019 Gershon Iskowitz Prize at the AGO, Lum’s wry, always insightful image and text works, sculptures and installations use everyday objects to probe the tensions between what is and what can be, and to expose and challenge social distinctions of race, class and gender.
Curated by Xiaoyu Weng, Carol and Morton Rapp Curator, Modern & Contemporary Art, AGO, Death and Furniture takes as its starting point Lum’s newest body of work, Time. And Again. (2021). The pandemic surfaced a collective exasperation with labour and stress, inspiring many people to reconsider their work lives. But amidst this so-called ‘Great Resignation,’ Lum asks, what about those who cannot afford to change anything, those for whom work and income has always been precarious and whose feelings of being trapped are very real?
“Few Canadian artists are as revered internationally as Ken Lum. Tackling difficult topics with humour, his art and perspective opens doors through which we can face challenging issues and uncomfortable emotions,” says Weng. “Lum’s new works resonate globally – encouraging us to critically examine the shared hardships and social reality of this pandemic. His work calls for engaged reflections on the circularity of time and the assumptions we continue to make - about our neighbours, ourselves, the afterlife and even, our sofas.”
If death and furniture are, as some realist philosophers would have us believe, the only two certainties in life, both are on display throughout this exhibition. Death has formed an important recurrent theme in Lum’s art practice, and his Furniture Sculptures (1978-present) are among his best-known works. This exhibition, which debuted in Saskatoon at the Remai Modern in January of this year, is but one of Lum’s many current projects. Monument Lab, a public art working group led by Lum, has been present in Toronto working with local artist Quentin VerCetty on a series of public activations. A solo exhibition of his work is expected to open in New York City later this Spring at Magenta Plains.
On Wednesday, September 21, AGO welcomes Ken Lum and Kunstinstituut Melly (Rotterdam, the Netherlands) Director Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy for an in-person conversation moderated by AGO Carol and Morton Rapp Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, Xiaoyu Weng. Formerly known as Witte de With, in January 2021, the museum formally changed its name to Kunstinstituut Melly, following a period of public consultation, inspired by an artwork made by Lum. More details about this free talk to be announced at ago.ca/events in the coming weeks.
Ken Lum: Death and Furniture is free for AGO Members, Annual Passholders and visitors aged 25 and under. Same day tickets can now be booked in person and online. For more details on how to book your tickets or to become a Member or Annual Passholder, visit ago.ca.
ABOUT THE EXHIBITION:
In addition to Lum’s newest series Time. And Again. (2021) Death and Furniture features Four French Deaths in Western Canada (2002) alongside selections from Lum’s Necrology series (2017 to present), two works from his renowned Furniture Sculptures series (1978 to present) and selections from Photo-Mirror (1997). This exhibit is located in the Philip B. Lind Gallery on Level 1 of the AGO.
Lum’s Necrology series blurs the lines between fact and fiction, exploring how text might be “a substitute for an actual picture, which could restore a degree of our imagining process.” In florid 19th century font and design, each of the five monumentally-sized posters describes a possible life lived, a mash-up of real sources. These composites, more expressive than illustrative, encourage us to consider how identify is formed.
Unique to the AGO’s presentation is a series of large-scale text works, entitled Four French Deaths in Western Canada (2002). Done in oil on wood panel and featuring French language text, each work presents an obituary of a real 20th century person—a home maker, bus driver, handyman, devoted friend—all of whom were born in France and died in Western Canada.
Lum’s desire to engage audiences in reflection is exemplified in a selection of his Photo-Mirrors, on loan from the MacKenzie Art Gallery and Remai Modern. Of varying size and shape, each work in the series (1997) features a domestic mirror with a found photographic print tucked into its frame. Recalling a time before digital photography, when mirrors were often used as display vehicles for precious images, each work is titled after the photos attached to it—French Maid, sunset, Log Cabin. These artworks are activated only once the viewer looks at themselves in the mirror, and in seeing their reflection, becomes a part of the work.
Lum’s furniture installations transform commercial sofas into minimalist sculptures. Whether by turning them upright as in Untitled Furniture Sculpture (1980s/2022) or pushing them together as with Trough (1986/2022), he removes their traditional, utilitarian function and transforms them into artworks. As a young man growing up in Vancouver’s Chinatown with his working-class, immigrant family, Lum would collect flyers for rental furniture and see the images of overstuffed sofas as symbols of luxury and status, and class distinctions.
ABOUT KEN LUM
Ken Lum is a Canadian artist living in the Philadelphia area where he is the Chair of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. Lum has a long and distinguished exhibition record spanning four decades. His work is the subject of numerous solo exhibitions such as Ken Lum.Time. And Again. at Middelheim Museum, Antwerp, Belgium and Sculpture International Rotterdam at Kruisplein, the Netherlands (2021); What's old is old for a dog. at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco (2018); and Ken Lum. Coming Soon, Vienna Kunsthalle Karlsplatz Public Space (2015). Lum has also participated in major group exhibitions such as Lost in America, at Der Neue Berliner Kunstverein (2020); Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s at Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC (2018); and Photography in Canada: 1960-2000, National Gallery of Art, Ottawa (2017). He has participated in international biennales, including the Venice Biennale, the Sao Paolo Biennale, the Shanghai Biennale, the Carnegie International, the Moscow Biennial, the Istanbul Biennial, the Sydney Biennale, the Busan Biennale, the Liverpool Biennial, the Gwangju Biennale, the Moscow Biennial, and the Whitney Biennial, among others. His work was also part of Documenta 11. Since the mid-1990s, Lum has worked on several permanent public art commissions including for Vienna, the Engadines (Switzerland), Rotterdam, St. Louis, Leiden, Utrecht, Toronto and Vancouver. He has also realized temporary public art commissions in Stockholm, Istanbul, Torun (Poland), Innsbruck and Kansas City. His work can be found in the permanent collection of: Arco Foundation Collection, Madrid, Spain; Jumex Art Collection, Mexico City, Mexico; Musée d; Art Contemporain, Montreal; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Vienna Secession, Vienna, Austria; Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg, Manitoba and Kunstinstituut Melly (formerly known as Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art).
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This exhibition has been co-organized by the Remai Modern, Saskatoon and the Art Gallery of Ontario.
ABOUT THE GERSHON ISKOWITZ FOUNDATION
The Gershon Iskowitz Foundation is a private charitable foundation established in 1986 through the generosity of painter Gershon Iskowitz (1921–1988). Iskowitz recognized the importance of grants in the development of artists in Canada, in particular acknowledging that a grant from the Canada Council in 1967 gave him the freedom to create his distinctive style. Iskowitz’s works are in public and private collections across Canada and abroad. The Foundation’s principal activity is the designation of the Prize which is unique in that one can neither apply nor be nominated. A second distinct characteristic which many of the recipients have commented on is that the Prize is an excellent example of an artist supporting other artists. Iskowitz himself was actively involved in designating the Prize in its first years; after his death this responsibility passed to juries composed of trustees of the Foundation and invited artists and curators. The achievements of the first 20 years of the Foundation and the Prize are detailed in The Gershon Iskowitz Prize 1986–2006; the work of subsequent winners is included on the Foundation’s web site, www.iskowitzfoundation.ca
ABOUT THE GERSHON ISKOWITZ PRIZE AT THE AGO
At the 20-year mark of the Prize, the Foundation formed a collaborative partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario to raise awareness of the importance of the Prize and through it, the visual arts in Canada. The AGO is home to Iskowitz’s archives, which include early works on paper, sketchbooks and memorabilia, and it holds 29 paintings by Iskowitz spanning 1948 to 1987 in its collection. Beginning in 2006, in addition to a substantial financial award, the Prize has included a solo exhibition of the winner’s work at the Gallery. Among the 35 previous recipients of the Prize are Liz Magor, Betty Goodwin, General Idea, Stan Douglas, John Massey, Irene F. Whittome, Françoise Sullivan, Geoffrey Farmer, Brian Jungen, Michael Snow, Kim Adams, Rebecca Belmore and Ken Lum. The most recent exhibition of a prize winner at the AGO was of the work of 2018 recipient Shuvinai Ashoona, to be followed by Ken Lum: Death and Furniture. This past March, Faye HeavyShield was announced as the 2021 winner and an exhibition of her work will come in 2023.
ABOUT THE AGO
Located in Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario is one of the largest art museums in North America, attracting approximately one million visitors annually. The AGO Collection of more than 120,000 works of art ranges from cutting-edge contemporary art to significant works by Indigenous and Canadian artists and European masterpieces. The AGO presents wide-ranging exhibitions and programs, including solo exhibitions and acquisitions by diverse and underrepresented artists from around the world. In 2019, the AGO launched a bold new initiative designed to make the museum even more welcoming and accessible with the introduction of free admission for anyone 25 years and under and a $35 annual pass. Visit AGO.ca to learn more.
The AGO is funded in part by the Ontario Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries. Additional operating support is received from the City of Toronto, the Canada Council for the Arts and generous contributions from AGO Members, donors and private-sector partners.
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