Marriott’s witty show suggests artists are the best critics

ART by Gregory Beatty


John Marriott: Sympathy For The Institution
Dunlop Gallery
Until Nov. 15

If you’ve got a solid background in visual art you’ll get more than a few chuckles from this exhibition of photographs, sculptures and collages by Toronto artist John Marriott. And if you don’t, don’t fret — just read the accompanying text panels and you’ll be in on the joke too.

An art history background is handy because Sympathy For The Institution has lots of references to Modernism.

Arguably the most reviled art movement in history — at least by the general public — Modernism reigned supreme from 1940-65. It was the culmination of a century-long drift by artists, in response to the growing presence of mechanically produced photographs and film imagery, away from the physical depiction of reality. Instead, they explored formal properties of art such as colour, scale, size, shape and texture.

As practiced by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman1, Mark Rothko and, locally, the Regina Five, Modernism (with a huge assist from New York critic Clement Greenberg) was serious business with all sorts of academic underpinnings that many people found impenetrable and alienating. But if you can let go of your natural compulsion to make literal sense of a Modernist painting or sculpture and just appreciate it on a visceral level, the artists did produce some sublimely beautiful work.

Nonetheless, the period isn’t bulletproof from criticism. Many of Modernism’s brightest stars were toxic, macho misanthropes and that quality was definitely reflected in some of their work.

It’s that facet of Modernism that Marriott takes aim at here although he takes a poke or three at pop culture too. That’s obvious from the first two works you see through the display window when you approach the brightly-coloured gallery.

Titled selfie (male) and selfie (female), they’re two shiny bronze busts. There’s a long history of artists producing bronze sculptures. Usually only rich and powerful people were immortalized in bronze. Today, any dumbass with a smartphone can share a photo of themselves with the world in about as much time as it takes to say “quack”2.

Marriott doubles down on his critique of our exhibitionistic/voyeuristic society by using emoticons in place of the busts’ facial features. Emoticons, or emoji, are characters you add to e-mails to communicate emotional nuance and lessen the likelihood of your message being misread by the recipient. They stand in for the facial expressions we typically rely on for context when having a flesh-and-blood conversation with someone.

In Synthesis, Marriott presents three photographs arranged in a triptych. In the first, a person is shown ripping a photo of Buckminster Fuller’s famous geodesic dome from an architecture book. In the second, the hands crush the page into a ball. In the final image, the ball sits as a re-creation of Fuller’s dome.

It neatly deflates the whole idea of iconic architecture (and the “starchitects” who design the buildings) as irrefutable symbols of progress, prosperity and cultural sophistication.

Fuller built his geodesic dome to serve as the U.S. pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. The fair was held as part of a Canada-wide celebration of our centennial, and had the theme “Man And His World”. Exclusive language aside, the Expo celebrated human ingenuity and all the wondrous advances we’d made over the millennia in our quest to exert dominion over the Earth.

It’s not that we haven’t progressed from that point but we’re a long way from realizing the utopia envisioned by Expo 67’s organizers and visitors. Some of that’s on us. While the 1960s were the heyday of counterculture, our march towards nirvana has become a slog thanks to the bad right-wing ideas we’ve adopted over the last 35 years. And some of the seeds of our current struggles were arguably planted during the Modernist era.

To begin with, the social climate back then was still relatively naïve and unenlightened. An Expo title “Man And His World” is proof of that. We’ve learned a lot about gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and other marginalized identities since then, and that’s brought much-needed nuance to our understanding of the human condition.

Throw in a growing environmental crisis that has its roots in the consumer lifestyle championed in the Modernist era, and the massively complex challenge of nations and individuals trying to interact with each other on a global scale, and it’s no wonder we’re experiencing headwinds.

Stocks And Awe

Marriott’s White Diffuser captures that sense. It consists of a series of concentric white squares that, from a distance, recall the minimalist paintings of artists such as Kazmir Malevich, Joseph Albers and, locally, Regina Five member Ron Bloore. When you approach the painting, though, you see that the centre portion is actually a sideways installed “diffuser’ used in HVAC systems to heat, cool and ventilate buildings. It’s not flashy or spiritually enriching in any way — it’s just part of the nitty-gritty of life in our modern world.

Other works, such as Corrections (Dow Jones Crash Shivs and Shanks), carry more bite. The installation consists of laser-cut stainless steel “graphs” of the five most recent stock market crashes. The peaks and valleys, and the billions of dollars of paper wealth they represent, are sobering. Marriott adds to the sense of dread by attaching knife handles to each to dramatize the impact unregulated, greed-fueled markets have on real people.

Overall, a solid show.


  1. Barnett Newman is best known in Canada for Voice Of Fire. The National Gallery bought the 17-foot-tall, blue and red painting for $1.8 million in 1989 and the whole country lost its mind, outraged at both the Newman’s work and the supposed “my kid could do that” quality of modernist art in general. Looking back at the controversy, one would have to be crazy to say the National Gallery didn’t get their money’s worth in publicity and promotion. The painting is currently estimated to be worth over $40 million.
  2. Duckface joke.