The centrepiece of Luis Jacob’s exhibition Habitat is Album XIV, the newest iteration in a series begun almost two decades ago. Each of Jacob’s unique Album works consists of hundreds of images physically cut out from various books and magazines, which are then arranged in small groupings within laminated sheets, and juxtaposed as an extended sequence. None of the Albums include captions identifying individual images or their respective points of origin. This reliance on uncited material invites viewers to “read” the Album from a diversity of perspectives, through varying kinds of image literacy, intuitive associations, and lived experiences. The viewing process shifts between moments of conscious recognition of the familiar, and moments of non-recognition that serve as unconscious triggers to create correspondences between images. More than a sense that meaning is simply subjective, here potential gaps in understanding create the conditions for spectatorship that is newly opened—even vulnerable—to the force of photographs.

Album XIV weaves an associative narrative between recurring motifs. Pointing to the construction of space across many axes of reference, the work features images of city planning and development; images culled from abstract constructivist and minimalist art; self-reflective images of looking; scenarios where cameras and mannequins stand in for the viewer’s body; and references to mirroring and portraiture that consider methods of self-representation. Images of work by various Toronto artists, as well as particular moments in the city’s urban development, begin to ground the work within a specificity of place and history.

Bracketing the Album are two works that further develop this sense of place-making. Arranged as a frieze-like storyboard, Sightlines emerges from the artist’s extensive archive of postcards chronicling a century of urban development in Toronto. As postcards, these images were originally created to project an idealized, even fictional, sense of “here” for a dispersed audience located elsewhere. With the passage of time, as the postcards are increasingly viewed as historical material, these images become documents both of a place in its evolution and of particular ways-of-seeing rooted in local landmarks.

Public Domain is a series of signage hand-painted by Wayne Reuben that was commissioned by Jacob for this exhibition. Reuben is the sign painter responsible for the quintessential retail aesthetic of Honest Ed’s, the Toronto discount emporium that closed its doors in 2016 after 70 years of business, prompted by a massive condominium development. Exuberantly phrased slogans are painted in this recently defunct vernacular: “Views from the 6ix—A dish with one spoon!”; “Joni sings, ‘They paved paradise, put up a parking lot’”; “World-class city, No mean city— Don’t miss it, get hold of this space!!” Such utterances allude to the complexity of Toronto’s history and its present moment of accelerated change.

Toronto is Jacob’s chosen ecosystem and a recurring theme in much of his work as an artist, curator, and writer. Habitat does more than chronicle the visual history of Toronto; it queries the city’s culture in connection with its economic life and its forms of self-identity. As a whole, the exhibition exemplifies Jacob’s practice as a renegade semiotician—an artist whose reordering of individual images exerts conscious and unconscious pressure on the ways that viewers assign, experience, and reconfigure meaning.