In Homage, large-scale photographs by Toronto-based artist Jon Sasaki depict glowing bacterial landscapes. Shown in microscopic detail, these bloomed bacterial cultures derive from swabs of the palettes and easels used by members of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. Sasaki’s images affirm a playful reverence toward the Group’s legacy while reframing the genre of landscape painting through the lens of photography.
Each generation walks in the footsteps of the past while also finding ways to describe the world anew. That condition, which the American literary critic Harold Bloom so deftly named the “anxiety of influence,” has found elegant expression in Sasaki’s work for some time, as the artist explores that circumstance of coming after, and the perpetual task of the artist to displace the revered forefathers in the making of a new voice.
Known for his conceptual practice across many media, Sasaki first trained as a painter, and was well aware of the example of his legendary Canadian precursors, the Group of Seven. While his painting practice soon gave way to an embrace of the newer media of video, performance, and photography, Sasaki has remained imaginatively engaged with these historic artists. In his video work Jack Pine, 8’ Camera Crane (2010), and his photographic series An Unused Panel from (Fred) Varley’s Studio Left in Stormy Weather (2016–17) (in which he documented one of Varley’s blank canvases as it was left outdoors to endure the elements), Sasaki negotiates his place in Canadian art history, bringing wit and wisdom to his explorations of our material culture.
Sasaki has wrangled with his American forebears too, including minimalist artist Richard Serra in Hand Catching Fireworks (2012), a reprise to the senior artist’s Hand Catching Lead (1968); and of Robert Rauschenberg, in Sasaki’s 2017 “rubbings” of drawings by artists Dan Flavin, Josef Albers, and Sol LeWitt, made in response to the American Pop artist’s landmark conceptual work Erased de Kooning (1953).
In Homage, however, Sasaki investigates cultures closer to home. The exhibition presents the full suite of his large-format, high-resolution photographs documenting bacterial cultures and fungus swabbed from archival objects in the holdings of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection—the paintbrushes, palettes, and paint boxes once used by the original members of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. The resulting eerily beautiful, landscape-like images express Sasaki’s wry solidarity with the ghosts of Canadian art past. But rather than the majestic landscapes identified with the legacies of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, Sasaki presents a new sublime, one that highlights the quotidian nature of what lies beneath. The artifacts from which the microscopic organisms were gathered are exhibited in dialogue with the photographs, presenting a poignant entanglement of past and present-day artists in the story of Canadian art.
Curated by Sarah Milroy