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The Tall Poppy Interview – Julia Dault, Art Critic

julia.gifToronto native Julia Dault grew up in Toronto’s art world, her dad is Gary Michael Dault, the long-time critic at the Globe and Mail. And despite Julia’s best efforts to rebel against art criticism she found herself drawn back into the family business. For a little more than a year she’s been busy penning the weekly “At the Galleries” column found Thursdays in the National Post.
Somebody’s been paying attention because Dault was nominated for an Untitled Art Award alongside such art criticism veterans as RM Vaughan, Philip Monk and her own dad. Torontoist chatted with her about growing up steeped in art, why people should see more art and what she’d put on her new iPod.
Growing up did your parents ever push you into the arts?
No, but I was brought up around art. We used to have these insane dinner parties when I was a kid. We’d call them “the waifs,” for Christmas dinner there were artists who wouldn’t have family in town so we’d invite them over, give them all turkey. I wouldn’t call that pushing.
It’s quite nice that my dad and I are both writing about art. Our conversations are great, we talk about artists, I mean, we don’t exchange notes or anything considering he writes for the Globe and I write for the Post, but it makes for great dinner conversation.


When did you start writing?
I guess I started writing at the McGill Daily. I went to McGill thinking about doing an English Lit degree. I was not going to go into Art History because I was raised in it and that was my form of rebellion to not pursue it. I got there and I took a bunch of courses, and floundered around and I hated it so I left. Moved to Vancouver, bought a VW van with a boyfriend at the time and drove to Mexico. Ended up driving back to Montreal and though, I liked art history though. I ended up going into Art History and loved it.
In the meantime I was the culture editor at the McGill Daily and I started doing art writing there and great shows were coming through Montreal. Then I moved here and got the internship at Saturday Night.
Are you two competitive?
When I first started writing it was a little strange, for the both of us. People in the community were interested in the fact that I was sort of following in his footsteps, pursuing art writing as well. We’re more supportive of each other but it took a lot of getting used to.
Did you get advantages from people because of who your father was?
Well, I was raised in the Toronto arts community, so I know everyone. I know all the dealers, I know all the major artists. I guess that makes me comfortable. But I also get more criticism, people look at my last name and think “he’s a great writer, let’s see what she can do,” versus if I was an unknown, or my name was an unknown. So it’s both good and bad.
So you’re both nominated for an Untitled Art Award for art writing, how do you feel? You’re like the youngest person on that list.
Well, it’s my first time nominated. Jessica Wyman, the other woman on the list, I googled her because I wondered who she was. I never really saw her byline anywhere but it’s nice to be nominated.
Actually my dad told me I was nominated because he received the notice before I did. We were both laughing that we were in the same category. He always tell this story about Picasso’s father, how at one point took a brush and handed it to his son and said “go ahead.” He always makes this joke about how it’s time to pass the torch. But he still really enjoys writing.
Who do you think is going to win?
I think either my dad or Philip Monk. [Monk] does a lot more academic work, he’s the new curator at the AGYU (Art Gallery of York University).
Contemporary art gets this bad rap as being obscure, difficult and sometime even indulgent. What are your thoughts about this?
Well there is a culture of insecurity around art viewing. People never trust their own reactions to what they see. Even people reading my pieces, they’ll think I think that was well written but I don’t really understand art.
People judge art mostly, I hate to generalize like this, in two ways. There’s use value. Other than making my walls look good, why would I go see an installation of cardboard monks for example, it’s not for anything. Then there’s this judging based on whether you could do it. Guido Molinari, a great painter who recently died, did these big minimalist colour paintings, like a stripe of white and a stripe of black. Someone who’s not familiar with his work or the movement in Canada would say “Oh, I could do that.” It’s a funny way to approach art because that’s not how should judge it. I mean you could do a lot of things, but you’re not. And you have to understand the context that the art was made in. 2005_2_14molinari.jpg
In the Post, because my writing has a more general audience than a catalogue, I try to talk about the art and give context. I don’t know if I succeed all the time, but I try to make art more accessible all the time. So they say, “wait, my gut is telling me this is really good, I should trust that.” Try to get them to learn more about why they’re attracted to a work or a sculpture.
But art viewing is something you get better at the more you do it. I wish that people went to galleries more. You do get a lot of pleasure from it. Have you ever read Mercia Eliade, he talks about moving from a public to a private space and the threshold between the two. You know that sensation you get when you walk into a church, even if you’re not religious, you get that feeling. I get that feeling when I walk into a gallery. Because you’re crossing a threshold into a space that’s unique. Viewing art, is different than anything you’re going to do at home, it’s a different perception, a slower pace. I just wished people pursued that more.

How’s the scene changed lately?

I grew up in it but that’s difficult to say. Bigger trends are dictating that there’s more video more installation. But there’s a big emphasis on painting the past year, a huge great new wave. I consider it a kind of backlash against overly technical art, digital art, computer manipulated stuff. There’s an attraction to more tactile pursuits.

Which artists are exciting you right now in Toronto?

Luke Painter is great, John Scott who teaches here at OCAD, Kim Dorland is a really strong painter who’s getting stronger, I’ve watched him over the past year.
Paul Butler, is on my list. He does these photo-montages, takes these photos and then puts masking tape or duct tape and then he’ll re-photograph the piece. You just want to go up and touch these pieces. 2005_2_14butler.jpg
There’s also a video collective, 640 x 480. They did this great show at Zsa Zsa, they took this film of a dead man being pecked at by vultures. I think it was an old NFB film which they’d re-edited. Then they got this huge machine, this embroidery machine and they programmed to read the frames of the video so each frame was embroidered by this machine and the entire gallery was filled with these embroidered pieces getting made and each frame was different.
So which artists, dead or alive, would you have at a dinner party?
How big is my dining room? De Kooning, Lartigue, Julia-Margaret Cameron, who I’m named after, Stieglitz. I could answer this all day. How much tape do you have?

It’s a long tape. Who else did you want to invite?

I need to go further back. Titian would be nice. I’d have to invite Basquiat.
You mentioned to me that you were going to buy an iPod later this afternoon. So what’s going to be on your iPod?
A little AC Newman, Donovan, I just got into yesterday. Pedro the Lion, Feist, Broken Social Scene. Have you listened to the American Mavericks music series the ones on NPR hosted by Suzanne Vega. I’m going to download all the docs, the hour long segments so when I walk to work I can listen to them. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do. Some Robert Johnson, I’m getting into the blues. Le Tigre, you know the usual.
I think there must be this template of 200 artists that everyone in the arts listens to.
Oh? Well, I need something in there that makes me seem a little less ‘template’ then.

Julia Dault’s column, “At the Galleries” appears Thursdays in the National Post. The Untitled Art Awards take place Wed. Feb. 16, 7:00 at Steam Whistle Brewing Company. Tickets are $15.

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