Toronto Is For Everybody: Luis Jacob’s Habitat at Gallery TPW

By Anna Kovler

It could easily be said that Toronto is out of control. With the world’s fastest growing housing bubble, and the most high-rises under construction in North America, we find ourselves in a city where urban change is not just constant – it is happening at warp speed. The changing face of Toronto has interested Luis Jacob for a long time.  I once asked Luis if, as an artist, he wouldn’t rather live in Berlin, or New York, or LA – some place where his steady, reputable art career might “win the lottery.”  His answer was an emphatic “no.” He had witnessed Toronto’s fertile and badass art, music and queer scenes unfold in the 80s and 90s, and he wasn’t about to trade a good thing for a siren’s call. He seemed proud of what Toronto had accomplished and committed to seeing it through occasionally awkward and un-cool phases.

One of the first times I met Luis he was wearing a full body pigeon suit, handing out pamphlets near an underpass by the Gardiner Expressway.  His friendly disposition and amusing costume drew people in to discuss what he really wanted to talk about: condos for the birds. The organization Streets To Homes had blocked the project the city had commissioned Jacob and his collaborator Amos Latteier to create, because it would draw attention to their activities of relocating homeless people from the same underpass. In response, the duo realized the project as a series of performances, talks, a website, and audio tour discussing the issues surrounding what had happened. This was back in 2006, around the outset of Toronto’s lakefront construction boom, when none of us even fathomed what Liberty Village or the Canary District would look like.  These “instant neighborhoods,” dubbed for their accelerated construction, are ecologically barren, culturally vacant, and ugly in the way polished can be.  For all that Toronto has become, Luis is still here, living and researching and re-making its history.

“Habitat,” Jacob’s current exhibition at Gallery TPW, comes on the heels of the exhibition he curated at the Art Museum last fall which explored how eighty-six artists visualize Toronto. Years of research, and Jacob’s true interest in the city, inject layers of meanings and associations into his projects.  Sightlines (2017) is a collection of postcards depicting Toronto’s skyline starting in 1904 and ending in the present day. Displayed in chronological order in a band around the room, the postcards tell the story of the city’s waterfront development.  We start at the turn of the last century with a city that is barely recognizable, resembling a quaint European coastal town.  Then the landmarks start popping up – the Royal York in 1927, the Dominion Centre in 1964, the CN Tower in 1973, the SkyDome in 1989, Brookfield Place in 1990. Finally, we witness dozens of new condos dotting and skirting the cityscape, the architectural scions of a wave of commercial investment.  What interests Jacob is showing that there never was a blank slate on which our city was built; this constructed environment and this land have housed other things, a fact that society is prone to forget in the heat of redevelopment.

In the adjacent room are two separate bodies of work, communicating series atop one another like the changing sides of a city street.  Each series is hung in a band around the gallery.  At eye level is Album XIV (2016-17), Jacob’s latest Album, a series of collages that consists of a few laminated photographs placed side-by-side. Found in books and magazines, the chosen images coalesce around several key themes.  The act of framing, representation, blank canvases, architectural models, and local artists reappear in the large selection. The effect of the work is a mesmerizing experience in which you create unique associations between the photographs, recognizing a Toronto artist here or a familiar ad from a magazine there. The city is encountered here, as perhaps it always is, in a series of modulating connections.

Hanging just above the band of collages is Public Domain (2017), a series of signs painted by former Honest Ed’s sign painter Wayne Reuben.  Just as the legendary store was closing, Jacob approached Reuben who, despite having announced he was going into retirement, agreed to paint this one final job – a collection of found and appropriated quotes.  A lyric from Joni’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and a quote by Margaret Atwood are joined by the content of the current sign on the El Mocambo, which acknowledges the club’s missing iconic palm tree as they renovate.  Like with the collages below them, these quotes have often clear relations, yet it is also up to the viewer to form their own web of relations and meanings, to notice some new thread in the sprawl of images and words.

This exhibition, like all of Jacob’s work, actively engages the viewer and reveals that we are constantly and actively making meaning together as a whole community. Drawing on his personal memory and our collective memory of Toronto, he prompts us to look carefully at our city and at each other, a gaze which has long been voraciously interested in our city and the living creatures that use it.

 Luis Jacob, Album XIV, 2016-17 and Public Domain, 2017.

Luis Jacob, Album XIV, 2016-17 and Public Domain, 2017.

 Luis Jacob, post card from Sightlines, 2017.

Luis Jacob, post card from Sightlines, 2017.

Luis Jacob, collages from Album XIV, 2016-17.

Luis Jacob, collages from Album XIV, 2016-17.

Luis Jacob, selection from Public Domain, 2017.

Luis Jacob, selection from Public Domain, 2017.