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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Hideous Public Art (7)

The Toronto Transit Commission recently outlined plans to rebuild the subway platforms under Union Station. The renovations will "create more space for waiting passengers, wider stairwells and a seamless connection to the Queens Quay streetcar loop". That's fine, I suppose - the current station is horribly inadequate for the massive crowds of commuters that use it every day to access one of Toronto's busiest public transit hubs. However, here's the part that raises my eyebrows:

The redesign of the subway deck, to be completed by 2014, also calls for a much sleeker look and the introduction of public art.

Gaaacckkk!!! Please Commissioner Giambrone, spare us the "public art" so harried passengers on their way to their cubicles don't have to stare numbly at some artistic eyesore chosen by a suitably diverse TTC committee. Has nobody learned anything from the TTC's previous forays into the art world?

Exhibit A in this lesson is the Queen Street station, located at Yonge and Queen at the south end of the massive Eaton Centre. The walls of the subway platform are graced on both sides with murals by artist John Boyle. According to this biography, Boyle is

a figurative painter and strong Canadian nationalist [who] chooses both Canadian heroes such as Tom Thomson, William Lyon McKenzie, Marshall McLuhan, as well as ordinary Canadians and incorporates them in a background which holds reference to his own life in London, St. Catherine's [sic], Owen Sound, Europe and Japan. Strong colour, richly patterned areas, figures spaced randomly throughout the painting emphasize the direct response of the artist to his world.

Boyle's opus in the Queen Station, called Our Nell , "celebrates the history and architecture around Queen Station. [His] painted mural appears on the platforms on either side, starring Nellie McClung, New City Hall and the Eaton Centre."

Celebrates is one word for it - desecrates is another. The mural contains grotesquely distorted images of famous landmarks near the station like the Eaton Centre

the former Simpson's department store (now the downtown branch of The Bay)

and Toronto City Hall

as well as historical figures like William Lyon Mackenzie, whose house is nearby,

and the eponymous "Nell" (Nellie McClung) who, as far as I know, never lived in Toronto. She looks like she has the same disease that afflicted John Merrick, the "Elephant Man".

The whole spectacle has to be seen in its entirety to be believed:

It's hard to describe the effect this artwork has on an unsuspecting passenger disembarking to head upstairs to the street. Its subterranean setting and fluorescent lighting give it an extra layer of ghastliness. One is reminded of that weird period in the 14th century when artists reacted to the horrors of the Black Death by including images of decomposing corpses in their paintings. Having spent a few minutes in a cramped subway car in a dark underground tunnel, stepping onto the platform and gazing at the pictures of misshapen buildings and mutated human figures is like being in the lair of the Morlocks before fleeing in terror to the land of the Eloi on the surface. The radioactive orange face of Mackenzie and "Nell" with her deathly pallor and twisted leer look like some sick decomposing memento mori reminding you that life is short and death and rot are the fate of us all. Just step off the platform in front of that oncoming train and get it over with now - join us, it won't hurt a bit.

One wonders why Mr. Boyle was commissioned to produce this work that has been assaulting the eyes of Toronto commuters since the seventies. His technique is graceless and childish, like a preschool fingerpainting project. He has apparently deliberately forsaken such artistic techniques as proportion and perspective but without embracing abstract expressionism - the result just looks amateurish. The colours are hideous - nasty oranges and chemical greens complete the look of a petri dish culture - exactly what one wants to be reminded of in a stuffy underground tunnel shared with hundreds of sweaty coughing commuters.

I'm sure Boyle has his fans, and they are free to collect his work for their own private enjoyment. However, the grandees at the TTC once decided that "Our Nell" should be on public display in perpetuity in one of Toronto's busiest subway stations where no one has a choice whether to look at it or not. Please - if anyone has any influence with the TTC brain trust that is planning the renovation of the Union Station subway platform - try to convince them to leave the public art out of it so we don't have to stare at another "Our Nell" for decades.


Paul Canniff said...

The depiction of William Lyon Mackenzie resembles more a Warhol portrait of Richard Wagner.

EMG said...

On first reading I mistook the description of Boyle as "a figurative painter" to mean that he wasn't an actual painter ... But which still works as I read it again.